Monday, March 12, 2007

It's all about the Vanderbilts?

When administrators of public history agencies who are not public historians, although they may enjoy history, begin to meddle in the work of public historians the results can be disastrous. Much of what passes for public history today is "heritage tourism," or making cultural resources (read: historic buildings, usually mansions) "pay" for the community. It is not public history but the exploitation of public history for the economic betterment of the given community.

Many people like antiques, they go to the towns where they are found and spend money and look into local historic house museums, generally the houses of the past's rich and "well born" or robber barons of the 19th century. Consider, for example, the Vanderbilt Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina. It is interesting and not big, but colossal. But, beyond telling the visitor that the Vanderbilts had immense wealth, what does it tell us about the past? Nothing.

It's not like "everyone" in the past had such huge fortunes. And when you think of the ways Vanderbilt oppressed the working classes it becomes not a glorious mansion but a monument to repression. It's funny when you hear a tour guide say something like "So-and-so built this house in 1879" when in fact "So-and-so" never laid a brick or handled a trowel. Words have meanings.

In cases where a public history agency finds itself with new leadership there is the potential that this kind of heritage tourism may become a new direction, guided, of course by a new vision (a.k.a. hallucination) in which meetings will be held and plans made to revamp the resources to make them pay. I have no beef with the notion that heritage tourism can be a good thing, just that public historians should not have to change their methods and conclusions and products to fit the prefabricated goal. "Heritage Tourism" likewise provides avenues for academic departments to gain grants and perpetuate jobs within departments.

Any comments?