Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peeling Paint and Other Historic Perceptions

Peeling paint is only one indication the public uses to gauge authenticity.
I ran into a friend's dad recently; knowing I am new to the area and that I like history, he asked if I had visited the local historic villages since I have been here. I told him I had been to one but not the other. "Ah," he said in all seriousness about the village I had not been to, "you should go because it is more authentic- the paint is actually peeling off the houses." Admittedly, I have not visited both, so I can't compare the two. Also (admittedly), I rarely enjoy historic house tours. "But don't you like history?" Yes. "And I thought you got a degree in cultural resources management?" Yes. "But isn't a historic house tour where history and interpretation seem to collide in the most obvious fashion?" Yes and no.

Historic house tours should provide excellent opportunities for interpretation, but countless times I have seen a potentially awesome tour turn into a furniture tour, complete with explanations about closet taxes and petticoat mirrors (don't get me started on petticoat mirrors). Not all historic house tours are bad. I have experienced some excellent tours (example: I went on a tour of the Eisenhower National Historic Site and over the course of the tour I learned about Eisenhower as a human, Eisenhower as a president and the nation under his presidency,  Eisenhower as a family man, and Mamie. Mamie rocks. By the end of the tour, I felt as if I had just stopped in for a visit to the Eisenhower family and was welcome back any time*).

Interpretation can make or break the perceived meaning of a historic site. Does it matter if paint is peeling or not? This editorial piece by the Huffington Post arguing against historic preservationists intrigued me. Maybe it is the tone of the article (it is the opposite of warm and inviting). Maybe it is the argument he makes (I am not a historic preservationist to the core and sometimes don't agree with some preservation efforts, too). But Mr. Leher's words, "Nothing truly historic happened in either place" probably broke my historian's heart the most. I disagree with that notion, but it does shed some light on what much of the public considers "historic." The paint does not appear to be actually peeling off those houses so they must not be truly historic.

I find the commentary especially intriguing when compared to an article the Huffington Post ran two months ago arguing for historic preservation. Preservation of historic sites doesn't always mean turning each site into a tourist destination (heaven help me if every historic preservation effort turned sites into historic houses complete with tours). But when done well, it involves community engagement and instilling a sense of ownership to that portion of history. Maybe the warehouse gets converted into apartment buildings, but the history of the place tangibly remains with that community. Using skill sets of interpreters to engage the public-at-large about these places can help historic preservation efforts move forward. The majority of the public won't read the bibliography of historic references created to support the preservation efforts, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in the stories associated with the place. Distill the information in a manner that will spark interest in the community to spur these efforts forward. It sounds like that is being done in many places.

What makes a place "truly historic"? Just like beauty, history reveals itself in the eyes of the beholder. How do historians reveal history to a broader audience? I don't expect simple answers because it is not a simple question.

*I did not get my NPS Passport stamp while at the Eisenhower NHS. If you know you are headed that way, let me know so I can tell you the date I want stamped. I will pay with a massive amount of gratitude.

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