The other night, a rather good friend who covers history and related issues for a local newspaper and I were discussing the many recent changes at Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the place with which I am most closely associated, comparing and contrasting the challenges that its new leadership faces with historic sites in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere.  You might respond to that with a rather trenchant, “Huh?”  After all, CW is the largest living history site on the planet, while the Hudson Valley is littered with dozens, if not hundreds, of small Dutch colonial stone houses, many of which are open for a few months out of every year as county executives and others talk a great deal about boosting heritage tourism (which, for me, remains the single largest untapped economic opportunity in upstate New York) without actually doing anything about it.  So where is the context for the comparison?

Well, as my Contracts professor in law school always said, “follow the money.”  So many of these places, for lack of proper funding and spending priorities, either exist in anonymity, cared for and about by a relative handful of mostly well-meaning locals, or are facing substantial financial problems created by an identity crisis caused by questionable decision-making (A cigar bar at CW’s Chowning’s Tavern? Tut, tut.).  The question about them to which most people can relate, however, is “So what?”  Put another way, as a measure of the meaning of place, my friend and I asked each other “Do these sites matter?” and then started listing one site after another to evaluate what the loss would be, to a community or to posterity, if Historic Site A or Historic House B shut its doors forever?  As Frank Vagnone has explored better than any public historian out there, are there some sites just not worth saving; that really don’t, in a sense, matter?

There are plenty of examples of this.  The one that most readily comes to my mind is the boyhood home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in Alexandria, Virginia.  I recall visiting it when it was a museum but don’t remember much else beyond the generic information that most historic houses inflict on guests.  One certainly gained very little insight into what was important to know about the early life of one of the most significant figures in American history in the house where he grew up.  But, boy, did I learn about closets being taxed (Not true. Anywhere. Ever).  Failing as a museum, it was returned to being a private home, which it remains today in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America, Old Town Alexandria.  So, what was lost in that transition, when it shut its doors to the public?  In my view, almost nothing, as it wasn’t serving much of a purpose in providing an anodyne interpretation of questionable accuracy about Antebellum life, peppered with the names of Lee and his family.  But one can still get that from the historic marker on the street in front of the building, rather than spend an admission fee to go inside.  Compare that with a terrific museum almost around the corner in Alexandria, at Gadsby’s Tavern, which does a splendid job of reflecting the cultural experience of the Early Republic, with lectures, dances, and tours that run pretty much year round, which keeps the place alive (my favorite tour there was actually given by a collection of elementary and secondary school children–short on facts but long on charm).  The folks running Gadsby’s certainly understand, when it comes to public history, that creating an authentic experience, which is what most guests are looking for these days, is as important as attention to accuracy.  Maybe even more so, in some cases.

But that brings me back to my friend and I and our talk about CW and local sites in New York, places such as the Kiersted House in Saugerties and the Senate House in Kingston.  What would we — speaking broadly as a historian of Early America — lose if such places went the way of the Robert E. Lee house?  As for CW, the loss would be tremendous, of course.  And that’s not just because more than 2,000 jobs would be gone and the economic disappearance of 600,000 visitors a year could cripple a community.  Or that the survival of irreplaceable artisanal tradecrafts would be at stake, as important as those are.  It’s because CW has the potential to teach us so much about what it has meant to be an American, for better and worse–or, more accurately, what other people wanted being an American to mean, both in terms of Thomas Jefferson’s state-building construction efforts of the 1700s and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s hyper-patriotic nation-building reconstruction project of the 1900s.  Telling that story right, as CW once did, has a tremendously powerful potential for doing good in our modern civic life.  Getting it wrong, on the other hand, can do tremendous damage.  But it is, as my friends across the pond say, early days for the new CEO, Mitchell Reiss, so we will see whether he can right the ship.  I do not envy him as he attempts to keep in the air all the balls he has just been thrown only, knowing the place as I do, to be tossed a new one just about every day.  Again to borrow a British phrase, there’s still all to play for in Williamsburg.

But what of Hudson Valley sites?  On one side of the river, Dutchess County is chock full of can’t-miss places, where interesting stories are told quite well and something of an absence would be felt if they closed.  My particular favorites are the newly reinterpreted Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage, and the Gilded Age, Downton Abbey-fueled enthusiasm of the interpreters at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.  The other side of the river has not been quite so fortunate in its management of historic resources.  Orange County has tremendous sites, such as Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh and the New Windsor Cantonment, that can make us reconsider just how close the United States came to dying in its infancy, and by American–not British–hands, and the ways in which the memory of that period was (re)shaped by those who came after (Make no mistake, at these places you can learn how George Washington was every bit as important to the founding of America as the history books say he was.  In short, no Washington, no United States.  It’s just that simple, and that’s coming from the guy who constantly preaches that history is never simple.).  Those are matters of critical historical analysis that would be lost, to the clear detriment of our collective historical memory, if closed.

In Ulster County, there is probably only one historic site that rises to the level of registering more than a blink of the national eye if it shut down, which is the Senate House in Kingston.  Although open for only a few months each year as it is, and even then interpreted in a way that I can only say seems like a missed opportunity, it might be the most important historic site, in terms of the sweep of Early American history, between New York City and Albany, and that includes places like West Point.  That’s because, like at Williamsburg, only there can the story be told of the transformation of a colony into a state, and of (some) subjects into citizens, and why that makes a difference.  In 1777, Kingston went from being the capital of British New York, where the provincial convention last met, and the new constitution was written and first read (aloud, in the center of town), to the capital of an independent government — hence, the Senate House, where met the upper chamber of the legislature created by the first New York constitution.  There can be told the important story of the process of establishing independence, of letting go of the British (and Dutch) past, through the lives and experiences of the people who made it happen, and those whom opposed it, of the people whom embraced it and those whom feared it.  Those are the sorts of questions that could be put to guests–and not just New Yorkers–to make up their own minds about and wonder, a historian like me might hope, what all the fuss was about and, more to the point, was all the sacrifice worth it?  After all, Kingston was more or less burned to the ground by the British later in 1777, although the extent to which the considerable damage caused can be wholly attributed to the patriots’ enemies is debatable.  The “Burning of Kingston” still puts a nice bookend on that particular chapter in our nation’s history.  And think–only 13 places in America can claim that mantle, so Kingston should not lose its chance.

Of course, reasonable people will and should differ about these things.  After all, this post just represents my humble, even though informed, opinion.  But the broader point that I hope people ask whenever they drive by or walk into one of the legions of historic sites in America, or are asked to become a trustee or a volunteer or a donor, is threefold: 1) What line to the story of our nation’s history does this place contribute? 2) Is it actually being told there? 3) What would be lost if it disappeared? In other words, ask the big historical question, one that I encourage students to engage: “So what?”  Your answer will be the real measure of whether a historic site matters.

2 thoughts on “History Matters?: Musings on the Big “So What?” of Public History

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I’m a big fan of asking “so what?” particularly in historic sites. As an emerging museum professional and Canadian, I would humbly suggest you don’t go deep enough in that line of questioning. Historic sites should be relevant beyond national history (so what if George Washington and therefore the United States didn’t exist? Some other nation probably would.) Is it relevant to your global, international audience? Global humanity and its future? Throwing that challenge out there.

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