Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"You as a Professor should stop bringing into the 21st century all this negativism"

What is the responsibility of a historian when visiting historic sites? Particularly if the historic interpretation at the site is found wanting?

Back in June I toured a historic house museum in the south. The interpretation there was so problematic that I wrote a letter to the director. I posted a modified version of it here, in which I removed any identifying information so as not embarrass the volunteers: Open Letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home. You should read that post if you have not already before you proceed.

Last month I received a reply--pretty blistering in parts, but with a lot of value in the way it illustrates the world view of at least some of the people who run historic sites, and the difficulty of getting them to improve the interpretation. I have removed specific references to the home and city, otherwise the letter is exactly as it was received.

Dear Mr. Cebula:
First of all, thank you for your historical
critic regarding the tour of the Munchausen
House...As you probably have learned that
many times history is abused and many times
told by so-called experts that reveal their
interpretations of what really took place 200 plus
years ago...It reminds me of the game many
years ago taught to me in the name of "gossip"..
By the time 10 people received a message told
to the first person, it changed and was
altered quite a bit by the time it hit the last 10th person...
Only the first person knows the truth.

The Declaration of Independence was written by
men of great strength and jeopardizing their
own families to sign was a signal of the type of
men that existed "then"....Can you deny that the
King would not have wanted to stop this document
if he could? The Crown for many centuries has
been guilty of intimidation, warnings and many
times murders that are masked as accidents..
If Benjamin Franklin said himself "'We must all
hang together, gentlemen, or else we shall most
assuredly hang separately." do these words sound
like a man who is not afraid of the consequences
in signing that beautiful document?  How can you say some of the signers
didn't suffer! We have a wonderful book in the
office "Signing Their Lives Away" put out by
Quirk books that would answer all your questions
in regards to their lives after signing...

The question about women being engaged and married at an early age is true in the South...
Because of a short life-span back then, it would
certainly have sped up the marriage process...
Both the wives of Baron Munchausen died in their
twenties..one with tuberculosis and the other during child birth....Of course not everyone died or
married young but the times were possibly more harsh on women than men and because
Ignorance and information
not given to that century made them more
vulnerable to fevers, infections and unsanitary
conditions for child bearing....

Yes, Baron Munchausen had slaves to manage his
2,500 acres in nearby town...
That, unfortunately was the law of the land with
Southerners and Northerners taking advantage...
Grant and Lee both had slaves.....
The House you visited had cooks and maids and a
carriage driver that were slaves to maintain the
property...If you go back to Africa and realize
that the black slaves that were rounded up , were rounded up by
their own kind...so blame should be shared by
everyone involved....my background is Greek and
I am proud that Greeks never allowed Greeks to
be given as slaves by their own....Now, I'm getting off the
subject at hand....The visitors that come to this
House want to be entertained by "sayings" from
the 18th century or "ghost stories"...You have to
understand the younger visitors know very little
about the Revolutionary War period, due to the
fact that the schools have gone downhill and do
not give this generation a good education ..The
younger students can barely start a sentence
without the word "like, like" and continue to
ramble with the worst English imaginable..

..We have a little difference of opinion in
regards to "Education" in the 1700s...We are
referring to our area, where it was
much more difficult to become educated as
apposed to a child in New England, where they
of course were established much earlier....Munchausen's
daughter "Princess Peach"
was sent to England boarding schools and came
back to our town where she decided in
to open a School for Girls in the
late 1780s... Her husband was stationed there
as a Doctor....

The Museum has for over 20 years given school
tours to 4th graders, gratis....Many times we
started telling the children about the slaves that
cooked and planted...The public schools that we
would give the history tour had a large percentage
of Black students, they seemed embarrassed to hear
that their forefathers were the slaves....many times
we would hear other students tease them about
being a slave...It was very disturbing to us that these children would feel less of a person if we
continued to banter about slavery....our "Mission
Statement" for this house is to preserve our
history, patriotic service and educational projects...Not to bring into the mix about a most
heinous practice that existed over two centuries ago...I feel that bringing up a hateful subject would
be cruel to the student, who would start hating
the messenger ..details of cruelty is a subject
most people with sensitivity do not want to hear about....So there you have it.
...
You as a Professor should stop bringing into the
21st century all this negativism...instead bring
the students out of the "Hate" mode so they
can live their lives with a more positive attitude...
and teach them about good things that people
do...the outreach of people that are in peril reach
out to America...not Russia or Greece or any
other country...make them proud that this
young land has given you and me a chance to
live a good life...that's all...Sorry for the delay in writing
back, but I was on vacation...

Sincerely,
Patricia Pangloss
Manager-BVM Museum

16 comments:

Katrina said...

Just: wow.

(are the spelling errors original?)

I certainly look forward to teaching "World History 101 (No Negativity: only the nice bits)"

Leslie said...

Good God.
I almost feel the need to apologize on behalf of my state.
I remembered your earlier post, wondered what kind of response you had gotten, feared it might not have been wholly satisfactory, but never in my wildest dreams . . .

Kevin Gooding said...

Amazing...and not in a good way. This passage is the one that really got under my skin:

"The public schools that we would give the history tour had a large percentage of Black students, they seemed embarrassed to hear that their forefathers were the slaves....many times we would hear other students tease them about
being a slave...It was very disturbing to us that these children would feel less of a person if we continued to banter about slavery....our "Mission
Statement" for this house is to preserve our history, patriotic service and educational projects...Not to bring into the mix about a most heinous practice that existed over two centuries ago...I feel that bringing up a hateful subject would be cruel to the student, who would start hating
the messenger ..details of cruelty is a subject most people with sensitivity do not want to hear about....So there you have it."

The fact that they witnessed children being teased about ancestors being slaves is proof that slavery is not just "a most heinous practice that existed over two centuries ago." No let's just pretend that since that pesky 13th Amendment was passed, voila, we don't have to deal with slavery anymore. So there you have it.

I get tired of good history/historians beling belittled as bad because they don't confirm somebody's teleological notions about the US. But then that's just my issue. :-)

Ahistoricality said...

This is going to drive me nuts: assuming you haven't altered the letter, I should be able to figure out whose house it was from the personal details..... But I'm not an Americanist. Anyone want to tell?

Larry Cebula said...

The only editing I did was to remove any identifiers such as the name of the museum, town, and state.

I visited the home with a group of teachers back in June and the next day read them a draft of my letter, just to make sure they did not put any misinformation in their lesson plans. I was back working with those same teachers two weeks ago and read a part of the response.

One of the teachers made a good point about black children being teased. "That is a failure of the teacher," she said, "my kids know they are not allowed to make fun of each other like that."

Joe Tynan said...

Other than to say that I'm speechless, I'm speechless.

Larry Cebula said...

Oh, and if anyone wants to email me for the identity of the house I will provide it, but I ask that you not post your guesses here. I do not want to shame anyone. My goal in posting this exchange of emails is only to show how public history sometimes works.

As mistaken as they are in matters of history, the volunteers keep the place open and preserved. Someday there will be a changing of the guard and new management will build on this preservation to do some more accurate history. And when they do they will owe thanks to the current staff, without whom the place would have fallen to ruin decades ago.

kshupe said...

As a former employee of a Colonial Dames house museum in the South I know the property but not the curator. I was fascinated by this response. The house where I worked had at one time very similar issues of interpretation but through the mighty work of the staff that was fortunately changed (although some guides still gave tours in the same old ways). I sent a link to the educator and former curator.

However, I am bothered by the besmirching of Baron Von Munchhausen (a misunderstood figure)

Leslie said...

Stopping by once again to say that I really appreciate the way you handled this, Larry, with sensitivity all the way around. As a historian working in a museum I have to admit I'm often acutely aware of any number of things that I'd like us to be doing better or changing faster--and of the possibility that a hypothetical colleague dropping in at any moment might encounter something that could lead them to write me a letter. (Not, I hasten to add, that it would be something quite as extreme as what you experienced here. But still . . ) Thanks for modeling such a respectful way of communicating when such things need to be said, and for understanding some of the pragmatic realities that exist on the front lines of public history.

Larry Cebula said...

Kevin, you give us hope. But I had no idea you were one of those Munchausen revisionists!

Leisa said...

Oh my!

Katrina said...

I included this piece in the October history carnival here http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/29434368

scouter573 said...

To paraphrase Katrina: Wow, just wow. Where does one even start? To think that a modern person would apologize for slavery, deny Greek slavery, and those in just the first paragraphs.

I think this letter shows the need for honest and constant debate in the teaching of history. Not the "who should win?" kind of debates, but attempts to understand the context and actions without the compulsion to defend the actions. Of course, my children are smartest and my wife is prettiest, so I confess some empathy to the respondent and his/her attempt to defend heroes but empathy does not give me the right to rewrite history to my convenience.

Sydney said...

She writes, "....my background is Greek and I am proud that Greeks never allowed Greeks to be given as slaves by their own...." Ha! She has never studied Greek History. The Spartans enslaved other Greeks to maintain their lifestyle. And, Alexander the Great enslaved the entire Greek city of Thebes.... However, the letter made me feel better about my future- If she can get a job so can I.

Emmanuel Dabney said...

This is hardly surprising. Unfortunately too many places offer this sort of narrative (not historical narrative). I am still unsure as to why people believe that slavery is justified because of anything U.S. Grant and R.E. Lee had to do with it. I also think it is interesting how many people will deny Lee had anything to do with slavery but then say "Well he owned them too!" Furthermore, I'm not sure what it has to do with most sites' history with the exception of some museums in Virginia in which Lee grew up or lived as an adult.

This challenge to interpreting slavery, many of you, may be aware of is tackled in James Oliver and Lois Horton's Slavery and Public History as well as Eichstedt and Small's Representations of Slavery.

Steve Fountain said...

Well done on the initial letter and the attempt to inject reality. This should be astounding, but unfortunately the only bit that is surprising is how lengthy (and thorough!)the response is in its wrongheadedness.