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Using Historic Sites to Interpret Racially Diverse Experience: Proposals Drawn from a National Study

Using Historic Sites to Interpret Racially Diverse Experience: Proposals Drawn from a National Study

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09/27/2010

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US/ICOMOS International SymposiumUsing Historic Sites to Interpret Racially Diverse Experience:Proposals Drawn from a National StudyNed Kaufman2005 US/ICOMOS
There is a gap between the reality of America’s history and the preserved record created bypreservationists. From the earliest times, the American experience has been one of many racesand ethnicities. Yet the historical picture created by preservation programs falls far short of thatlived experience. Therein lies the gap, or deficit, whose closing is the subject of this talk.There are many ways to measure the diversity gap. One is National Register listings. Out of about 77,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places about a year ago, onlyabout 1,300 are explicitly associated with African-American heritage, a mere 90 with Hispanic,and 67 with Asian American. Taken together, these amount to 3 percent of what is meant to be acomprehensive inventory of the nation’s heritage. Register staff argue with some justice that thenumbers are misleading: that the vast number of sites that are not listed as African, Asian, orHispanic American are not necessarily
white
sites. As a measure of the diversity deficit, then, theNational Register numbers are admittedly imperfect. In fact, every measure has its shortcomings.But taken together, they describe a substantial gap between the racial diversity and complexity of American experience and its portrayal by historic preservation.This is nothing new. The National Trust for Historic Preservation began to focus on closing thegap in the early 1990s. The National Park Service for some years has had a small but energeticoffice of cultural diversity, and it has launched valuable programs on the Underground Railroad,the Civil Rights movement, and other topics of central importance to America’s multi-racialhistory. Historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg have worked hard to present a realisticinterpretation of slavery. The problem is that, despite much discussion, the diversity gap remains.Actually, there are
two
gaps. The first separates the treatment of white or European from AfricanAmerican experience. There have been some efforts to close it. The second separates AfricanAmerican from Native American, Asian American, and Hispanic American or Latino. Theseareas have received almost no recognition. Both gaps must be closed, and neither can be closedat the expense of the other, for in the end, preservation’s success will be judged by the fidelity of the history it presents, and that is still very imperfect.A good part of the solution – though not all – lies in doing the obvious: recognizing more historicsites and telling more stories. But what I want to emphasize now is that the diversity deficit – ordeficits – are at heart an interpretation problem, even if the solutions sometimes lie in non-interpretive activities. This is most importantly true on the level of the
gestalt 
– the overallinterpretation presented by preservation – which is a composite of many sites. It is also true onthe level of individual sites. Take Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Resistance to the Spanish AmericanWar was organized and expressed in rallies and speeches there, and this is a story of greatimportance to many Filipino Americans. If Faneuil Hall fails to present this chapter in its history,
 
that is an interpretive problem that preservationists can fix. The Southwest presents a seeminglyvery different example. The existence of Spanish land grants there – and their subsequenthandling by American courts and politicians – are an important part of the heritage of manyMexican Americans. If there a dearth of historic sites and markers to record that story, that too isan interpretive problem that preservationists can fix.I mentioned the National Park Service’s Cultural Resources Diversity Program a few momentsago. In 2002, that office asked me to carry out a research project designed, first, to identify theheritage needs of communities outside the traditional preservation mainstream and, second, tosuggest ways to translate those needs into programs. The Cultural Heritage Needs Assessmentdid both. For me, it also became an opportunity to meet and talk with some fascinating people inalmost every region of the country – people whose experience and commitment to heritagepreservation were profound, yet who worked largely outside the regular professional and socialcircles of historic preservation.Before sharing some of the study’s results with you, let me say a little about its methodology,which was worked out in close consultation with the NPS and professional advisors from theLibrary of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. Since the goal was to learn how diversecommunities outside the preservation mainstream defined their heritage needs, I did not attemptto define historic preservation beforehand. Another important question, though, had to be quitetightly defined. To create a comprehensive survey of all of the groups outside the preservationmainstream would have been utterly impossible, given limited resources. So the study focusedspecifically on Mexican, Filipino, and African American issues. It used no questionnaires butrelied instead on in-depth interviews and discussion meetings.The results of the study were in some ways surprising. Both I and the study’s sponsors hadexpected to hear calls for non-traditional forms of historic preservation – for more folkloreprograms, for example. What we actually found was a strong unmet need for historic sites –thevery core of traditional preservation practice. This demand, however, was not entirely traditionalin nature. Respondents defined history somewhat differently from many white mainstreampreservationists, and as a result, their expectations of historic sites were also somewhat different.“History is important,” said respondent Alan Bergano, “because it is the foundation of a people.”Like Bergano, a trustee of the Filipino American National Historical Society, many respondentsfelt that they could not afford to take history for granted, because history shapes the options opento communities of color and their members. I suspect that, for many white preservationists,history is a kind of luxury good. But advocates like Bergano feel they can never rest from thelabor of discovering and telling history – and of fighting with the majority culture for itsrecognition.There are plenty of examples of how this kind of historical activism has improved theinterpretation of historic sites – and how
all
Americans have benefited. The history of slavery isone. Until recently, almost all plantation houses glossed over the history of slavery: now, at siteslike Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana, the slave quarters are a major focus of interest for bothwhite and black visitors and the interpretation is both thorough and nuanced. Slavery is, of course, an ugly subject, and as this example suggests, historical activism always runs the risk of appearing confrontational: one respondent indeed used the phrase “oppositional history” to
 
describe it. This is a good description, as long as we recognize that the opposition is not so muchto other social groups as to stereotypes and social amnesia. Oppositional history, in short, ishistory opposed to forgetting; and another respondent, the Chinese American scholar John KuoWei Tchen, stressed that its goal is not conflict but rather reconciliation. There is a growingliterature on the subject of racial reconciliation: suffice it to say that all efforts at reconciliationmust begin with mutual recognition of the problem, and in historic preservation terms, thisrecognition can best be offered in the form of historic sites that tell the full story of Americanhistory, including the ugly episodes and the excluded groups. This is a great opportunity forhistoric preservation.Related to the concepts of oppositional history and reconciliation is another theme, eloquentlystated by Ralph Ellison as long ago as 1952. “I am an invisible man,” announced the black protagonist of his famous novel: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to seeme.” Respondents to this study expressed frustration and anger that their communities remainlargely invisible. Filipino American author and film maker Angel Velasco Shaw knows thatFilipino migrant laborers once toiled in the fields of California, yet traveling around the state, shesees no trace of them. Shaw would like to see their presence acknowledged and interpreted.Nicolás Kanellos, director of the University of Houston’s Project for the Recovery of theHispanic Literary Heritage, points to the Merced Theater in Los Angeles. The Merced was animportant Spanish-language theater in the 1850s, yet guides to the historic theater fail to mentionthat “They erased that history,” says Kanellos. He would like to see it restored.The theme of invisibility shaped what many respondents hope to gain from historic preservation,and specifically from historic sites. “It’s important to have visible artifacts,” explained Filipino-American poet and journalist Luis Francia: they “remind people that at a certain time, and at thisplace, there were people who lived here, achieved something, and contributed to society.”Such visible artifacts would go far to close the diversity deficit. But which artifacts, and whatsites? Many preservation professionals feel out of their depth identifying or interpreting sites of Filipino or Mexican American history. They would appreciate some practical guidelines to helpwith these basic tasks, and in that spirit, I want now to offer a rough and preliminary typology of the kinds of sites that Francia and other respondents have in mind. This is an interpretivetypology, in the sense that it focuses on the sites’ stories, rather than their physicalcharacteristics. It is a preliminary proposal, which I hope others will develop further. The namesare mine, but the sites are those proposed by respondents.First,
points of origin
: places associated with a group’s entry into the United States or its earlyexperiences here. For Bradford Grant, chair of the architecture department at HamptonUniversity, Jamestown, Virginia is such a place: “As one of the first sites where Africans wereenslaved and brought to this country,” he points out, “the place is as significant for AfricanAmericans as for European Americans.”Second,
routes of migration
. Inspired by Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, Filipino Americaneducator Joan May Cordova imagines a guidebook tracing the paths that have led Filipinomigrants to hospitals and military bases, to asparagus fields in California, salmon canneries inAlaska, universities and architects’ offices in New York …and so forth.

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