Varieties of Heritage Interpretation

WashingtonMemorialChapelOver the last few days, I’ve joined tours of several historic sites around Philadelphia. It’s common for me to visit historic sites, of course, but these tours are different.

For once, I’m doing my best to act and perhaps think like a normal tourist. I’m seeking out the most mainstream experiences instead of trying to strike out alone. (“Tickets for the one o’clock trolley tour, please! And where’s your gift shop?”) Not coincidentally, I’m also visiting these sites in rapid succession, as if I were a vacationer and not a local resident. It’s been a lot of fun.

It has also tested one of my casual assumptions about these places.

I tend to think of historic sites as being caught between two incompatible purposes. On one hand, these sites exist as public holy spaces. This is the primary role they play for young children (or their parents, anyway). A museum or national park is supposed to teach young Americans what sort of people they are and should become. It transmits tradition.

This also often seems to be a historic site’s most obvious function for older Americans. When a man in a wheelchair tours the Gettysburg fields wearing a USS Yorktown cap, he is seeing his own war story being told, not somebody else’s. When a woman on the edge of retirement tours a house where an eighteenth-century woman worked, the chances are high that she is using the place as a way to sort through her own sense of what she has accomplished in her life so far.

This is how all holy sites work. The holy site is knot in time. It gathers the loose fabric of a visitor’s life and fastens it, at this one point, to the tapestry of a transcendent story.

On the other hand, historic sites are also meant to be sites of investigation, places that make stories tangible and abstractions specific. This means they are sites of demystification. Look at this piece of furniture, that bit of medical kit, or this place where an enslaved man labored. Try to fit yourself into this space. Is it what you imagined? How have the storytellers and sanctifiers misled you? How can you use this gap between representation and reality as a tool for clawing your way out of established narratives about your own life?

I think both of these functions are important parts of human encounters with history. But the second purpose is the one that most academic historians try to prioritize. As a graduate student, I tend to be pretty suspicious of most attempts at sanctifying history. And I tend to assume that, in practice, either the impulse to create sanctity or the impulse to investigate must override the other.

The first tendency was dominant, for example, in the patter of a park ranger at Independence Hall, who told his tourists twice that we were in the most historic building, in the most historic square mile, in the most historic city, in all of American history. When I heard it, I nearly laughed aloud. To my skeptical ears, the claim was essentially meaningless. The ranger might as well say we were in “the most political” spot in America, or “the most coercive”—especially since that’s pretty much the implication of what he was saying anyway.

Meanwhile, within easy walking distance of Independence Hall was a marvelous partial reconstruction of the president’s house, with interpretive exhibits highlighting the role of slaves like Oney Judge and Hercules in making this historic holy site happen.

Together, these two exhibitions turned Independence Mall into a weird paradox: a holy site that was also shot through with evil. The effect on visitors seemed … misleading. Someone there with me commented that the Founding Fathers “never should have done it”—they never should have compromised their principles to allow slavery. As much as I would like to agree, I think that’s wrong. It’s thinking of slavery as if it were a strange sediment in the elixir of American liberty and not part of the recipe.

I suspect that’s how a lot of people end up seeing Independence Hall. It’s a holy site that is inadequately sanctified.

When I was touring Valley Forge National Historical Park later, though, something struck me as odd.

WashingtonMemorialChapelchoirCertainly, there were heavy-handed moments of sanctity-talk. At the Valley Forge visitors’ center, for example, the introductory film sort of left the impression that the Valley Forge encampment was the reason the British army left Philadelphia in 1778. Several times, park guides told us that this was “the birthplace of the U.S. army.” And my visit to the park included a stop at Washington Memorial Chapel, a patriotic shrine that operates as a parish in the Episcopal Church. The building is festooned with the names of American warriors, and carved Revolutionary soldiers peek out from the woodwork of the choir. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a masterpiece of kitsch and a blatant exhibition of the all-too-common confusion between Christianity and American nationalism.

More strikingly, an official park interpreter serving in costume as a colonial soldier told us, with a mocking look over his shoulder, that “if nothing else, the American Revolution made us an exceptional nation.” Then he looked around and said, “Oops. Did I just say the word exceptional?” Several people in the crowd chuckled knowingly. We were in a holy place of a holy nation.

But other interpreters who led our group at various points took a much different approach. They went out of their way to debunk familiar stories about Valley Forge. There was no battle here, they reminded us several times. The soldiers were neither starving nor, for the most part, extraordinarily cold. The aristocratic General Washington stacked his men in cramped log cabins and then spent the winter complaining about how miserable he was in a stone farmhouse where he was attended by a dozen slaves. “General” von Steuben was a Prussian army captain whose career in Europe had hit a dead end.

One interpretive reenactor, addressing an audience that included small children, even raised the subject of camp prostitution without being asked about it.

I found the overall effect shocking. In fact, it was downright weird. I seemed to be experiencing two Valley Forges (Valleys Forge?)—one firmly planted in sacred time, one in mundane time—without seeing either overwhelm or silence the other. Instead, they coexisted—barely acknowledging that they were in disagreement—in the same space.

Strangest of all, I found this charming.


Photos: Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; taken by the author.

13 responses

  1. A lovely piece, thanks for writing. Though I think the guide who made the “Oops. Did I just say the word exceptional?” comment was repeating a very popular Tea Party talking point, not (just) marking the location as existing in sacred space. Rather complicates the claim that he was marking it as a holy place, a tradition separate from interpretation, I think – at least if we take “the holy site is knot in time” idea to mean a site not explicitly or self-consciously engaged in contemporary partisanship (as that would rather muddy the transcendent, no?).

    • I think you’re right; the guide was invoking a specific contemporary political discussion. (A very specific contemporary discussion; it’s pretty much Newt Gingrich’s personal brand at the moment.)

      But from a conservative perspective, I think, it’s a mistake to see conservative politics as violating the sacredness of the place. To a large degree, conservatives think of themselves as defending a transcendent order. For many of them, to pontificate on American exceptionalism at an American historic site isn’t to impose a extrinsic political interpretation on sacred ground; it’s actually to defend the ground’s sanctity.

  2. I’d be curious to know if you were able to gauge the reactions of your fellow “tourists” during the latter Valley Forge tour that challenged many of the myths and even brought up uncomfortable topics and, if so, what they were.

    • Great question. I’m really not sure. In my own little group, I don’t think the tour changed our thinking much. For everyone else in the tour, I have just vague impressions based on the questions they asked the guides. If I continue this project more seriously in the future, I’m going to try to find a way to collect reactions a bit more.

      Overall, I didn’t get any sense that the tour did much to challenge the general sense of patriotic awe a lot of older tourists already have when they arrive. But the slight cognitive dissonance I got may have dampened it some; the people seemed pretty low-key to me. They didn’t ask very many questions. I noticed that most of the questions they did ask were very practical questions—where did they get water? how many civilians were in the camp?—but I think that’s fairly common at military history sites. I was pleased to hear a couple of questions (from women) about women in the camp.

      So it’s possible that there was something interesting going on in the audience, but I can’t say so with confidence.

  3. Great post! I’ve never thought of historic sites with this lens (pair of lenses?) before, but upon first blush, it almost seems to me like both impulses (to enshrine and to investigate/explain) are counterintuitively reliant on one another.

  4. I seemed to be experiencing two Valley Forges (Valleys Forge?)—one firmly planted in sacred time, one in mundane time—without seeing either overwhelm or silence the other

    I wonder whether the history of “historical sites” and “heritage interpretation” is diachronic, synchronic, or both? Thanks for the post.

  5. Very interesting. In Canada, we do not teach the sacredness of our history. Sometimes this is a pity as we fail to appreciate what has gone on to make us the country we are. An important war of1812 battlefield was getting readied for the 200th ann. yesterday, and someone asked if the event was a flea market!,, at my site it is more and more about providing an engaging experience for young children, ie play activities that I did as a child at home. It is also about the photo opp, the costumed stranger with their children. … My rant for the evening

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