Sunday, October 25, 2009


‘The Lowell Experiment’ is a pretty comprehensive history and analysis of the Lowell National Historic Park in the post-industrial Massachusetts town of Lowell. The site is unique in that it inherits the history and issues of the city and its economy from the early 19th century to the present. Given my interest in Geography and Urban Studies, the overarching issue of a post-industrial town struggling to find a way to redefine itself through a heritage site was particularly engaging.

Cathy Stanton gives a brief history of Lowell and public historians to sketch out the context with which the ‘Lowell Experiment’ plays out. Stanton’s background as an anthropologist results in a much different read than we’ve gotten so far. Stanton offers ‘counterreadings’ to many of the tours offered at the Lowell Historic site that really tackle issues of race, class and locality in a fairly exhaustive fashion. Where in previous readings there is some acknowledgement of the diversity problem within the public history field, Stanton really drags it into the light often using it as the central point of her analysis.

Although Stanton seems to hold the site in relatively high regard, she becomes more and more critical of the site and interpretations as the book goes on. She sees the coverage of the past as relatively progressive, but woefully lacking in providing a bridge between the Lowell of the 19th century and the Lowell of today. The presence of industry in the 20th and 21st century, globalization and the newer wave immigration to Lowell are covered awkwardly if at all in Stanton’s eyes.

Stanton places a lot of these failings at the feet of those responsible for crafting the historical narrative of Lowell. According to Stanton, the racial and economic homogeneity of the administrators and interpreters at the site and their own internal grappling with class, race and personal connection to Lowell create the chasm between the present day Lowell Historic Site and the larger community around it.

Although the text is rife with other issues including politics, how much heritage tourism can shoulder the burden of economic redevelopment of a town and inclusivity in managing the sites, Stanton’s ethnography of those at the helm of the Lowell Historic Site is where the most emphasis seems to be. The question of how much those at the site can be and should be agents of social change also is an issue Stanton raises. Solutions aren’t offered, but the text serves as an interesting point to start the discussion.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Emotional Comfort: The Sequel

Amy Tyson’s article “Crafting Emotional Comfort” was a good lead in to this weeks reading of “Slavery and Public History.” One of the questions I was left with after Tyson’s article on Connor Prairie’s simulation of the Underground Railroad was whether it could successfully create an experience that does the historical record justice. By extension, what are successful ways to confront one of the uglier pockets of the history of the United States in and how much does ‘comfort’ come into play?

‘Slavery and Public History’ explores the challenge of presenting slavery and race in a variety of different venues and contexts. Each chapter selects case studies where bureaucracies, interpreters, politicians, historians clash over public space, memorials and exhibits dealing with slavery and race. Where the roadblocks exist and what was objected to was sometimes surprising. A particular standout was the chapter on the “Back of the Big House” exhibit. While I’d expect an exhibit on controversial subject matter might get muddled in institutional bureaucracy, the objections of employees of L.O.C. threw me for a loop.

What wasn’t quite as surprising were the controversies at the Liberty Bell and at Monticello. I agree with Paul’s blog post that an inadequacy in handling slavery and race in schools could be a large factor creating the ‘intellectual blinders’ that John Vlach also alluded to. I also believe much of the difficulty and conflict stems from having to retrofit presentations in spaces sacred to most Americans. Both Monticello and the Liberty Bell are used by the public to boost and celebrate our national identity. It’s easy to see how introductions of new narratives that challenge the sanctity of those spaces and the history presented in classrooms could create potential unease with the public and subsequently interpreters and administrators.

Although solutions weren't presented in a larger context, the necessity for a diverse range of voices in the process and the danger of letting public comfort and popularity dictate presentation entirely were inherent in each chapter. The case studies in the book reinforce those points and are a great start for discussion by public historians. The issues tackled at each of the sites are a tough but necessary pill for people to swallow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

(Nothing But) Flowers

Our site visit assignment was the perfect excuse for me to get to Bartram’s Garden, one of my favorite historic sites in the Philadelphia region.

The Bartram family ran their business and lived on the site, passing it down from its founding in 1728 to 1851. At that time, railroad industrialist, Andrew Eastwick bought the property as a private park and estate, but with preservation of the site in mind. Upon Eastwick’s death, the caretaker of the property, Thomas Meehan led a successful effort to have the City of Philadelphia take over the management of the site, later to be joined by the John Bartram Association in 1893. The two entities maintain the site to this day.

Bartram's Garden circa 1928, Urban Archives

Given its surroundings, the fact that the pre-revolutionary botanic garden has endured is pretty remarkable. Aside from the estate and gardens themselves, one of the more interesting features of Bartram’s Garden for me personally is the space around it. Situated on the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philadelphia, the 102 acres of the original estate has shrunk to its current 45 acres, but has held its ground. Driving to Bartram’s Garden can be notoriously confusing for first-time visitors. You have to navigate through or around the post-industrial infrastructure along Lindbergh Boulevard, passing by an abandoned municipal incinerator, oil drums and any number of repurposed industrial sites. The signs for Bartram’s Garden can easily be missed the first time you go by, with the neighboring ‘Bartram’s Village’ housing project sometimes being the only clue that you’re on the right track.

Bartram’s Garden is hemmed in by CSX and SEPTA railroad tracks and is across the river from some of what I think is part of the Sunoco factory. For decades its two immediate neighbors on either given side were a cement factory and gypsum factory. Fortunately, Bartram’s Garden watched both come and go. Ironically in the 1990’s, the land that the cement factory was on was reclaimed by Bartram’s Garden and restored as a meadow that offers one of the most unique views of the Philadelphia skyline and a trail that leads down to the Schuylkill River. The ghostly, towering structures of the gypsum factory, a favorite of local urban explorers was knocked down within the last two years although I have yet to find anyone who knows what the plans are for the space. It will be interesting to see if that ever will become part of Bartram’s Garden or repurposed as a green space again.

Although Bartram’s Garden suffers a bit from its geographical isolation from Philadelphia’s downtown cultural institutions, the incongruity of the surrounding environment only accentuates the uniqueness and exoticness of Bartram’s Garden. The rich gardens and 18th century barns juxtaposition with the scarred post-industrial landscape around it offer a chance to reflect on everything that has occupied the space around it along with the future those spaces hold.

Although I didn’t get to formally explore it much in my review, it’s an interest piqued from my visit and one I’ll probably explore further.

Gypsum Factory in 2006