Spring 2017 Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories

By Forum Online posted 07-12-2017 17:05


FJSpring17Cover.jpgThis issue of the Forum Journal, published in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, explores interpretation and preservation efforts at places associated with difficult histories. Using a variety of approaches, preservationists and social activists across the country call on the power of place and narrative to illuminate some of the most painful chapters of our nation’s past. This work is vital not only because such history is frequently underrepresented and thus not widely known but also because many of the lessons we stand to learn from these sites resonate deeply with contemporary events.

In this issue, we explore a range of efforts to bring difficult history to light:

  • Introduction: Reframing the Historical Narrative at Sites of Conscience by Ashley Nelson and Sarah Pharaon
  • The Stories We Collect: Promoting Housing as a Human Right at the National Public Housing Museum by Lisa Yun Lee
  • Angola Prison: Collecting and Interpreting the Afterlives of Slavery in a National Museum by Paul Gardullo
  • The Community Proposal to Save Shockoe Bottom by Robert Nieweg
  • Tule Lake: Learning from Places of Exception in a Climate of Fear by Cathlin Goulding
  • The Fight to Save Blair Mountain by Charles B. Keeney III
  • Turbulent Water: The Dakota Access Pipeline and Traditional Cultural Landscapes by Jon Eagle Sr.

California’s Tule Lake, a camp that held Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II, was recently declared a national historic monument and is still only partially accessible to visitors. But while interpretation efforts continue, ranger-led tours are already exploring some of the extant camp structures. Being there allows visitors to vividly imagine the confinement and isolation that prisoners experienced.

Similarly, when Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum opens in 2018, it will occupy the last remaining building of a once-extensive public housing complex. The museum will make use of this siting to present narratives about the diverse population of public housing residents in context to both counter stereotypes and call out public policy failures.

On the other hand, curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture have gathered artifacts from Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison in Washington, D.C. Angola is still operational today, which limits opportunities for interpretation at the site. But the history of the prison, which was originally a slave plantation, traces the evolution of slavery into mass incarceration—a manifestation of systemic racism still plaguing our nation today.

Meanwhile, many sites struggle for recognition as their difficult histories and valuable resources are paved over—sometimes quite literally. Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia, was a major hub of the nation’s slave trade, but decades without recognition or preservation have left many of its archaeological resources buried under the concrete of parking lots. Now preservationists and activists are backing a community plan for a memorial park that would acknowledge and interpret the site’s painful but important history.

In West Virginia, activists and preservationists are seeking access to the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody culmination of the West Virginia Mine Wars. The battlefield still holds extensive artifacts of the clash between unionized mineworkers and company forces, but efforts at collection and interpretation must contend with considerable resistance from the mining industry that controls much of the mountain.

And the sacred spaces and designated traditional cultural landscapes of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are still threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The legal battle that began in September 2016 continues today, with irreplaceable American cultural resources at stake.

The breadth of sites and institutions featured in this issue is a testament to the unique capacity of preservation to represent difficult histories, address painful pasts, and recognize the underrepresented stories that are a vital part of our nation’s heritage.

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