2019 Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award: Ruth J. Abram

By Special Contributor posted 11-13-2019 14:52


Editor's Note: These remarks were presented by Ruth Abram, the 2019 Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award recipient, on October 11 at PastForward 2019 in Denver Colorado. The Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s highest national recognition. Named for one of the National Trust’s founding trustees, the award is made with the greatest care and only when there is indisputable evidence of superlative achievement in the preservation and interpretation of our historic, architectural and maritime heritage.


Chairman Whalen, members of the Board of Trustees, President Edmondson, Trust members, staff and friends, before I take my five minutes, I’d like to introduce three of my colleagues represented in the film. Kindly hold your applause until all are standing. Liz Silkes, Director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, helps hundreds of historic sites around the world to demonstrate the relevance of the history they explore. Mark Patterson and Sarah Barlow from Gwinett County GA have begun to uncover the multi-faceted history of the Promised Land Plantation established by Irish immigrant Thomas Maguire, my maternal great-great-great grandfather. They plan to interpret the Maguires, the men, women, and children they enslaved, and the Livseys, an African American family which bought the plantation house in 1920 and lived there until recently. Please welcome them.

My wonderful family has supported me through good times and bad. Please hold your applause and welcome my husband of 52 years, Herb Teitelbaum, our daughter, Anna Kaye; our son, Noah Teitelbaum, two of our grandchildren Jonah and Lilly Mae Teitelbaum, their other grandmother, and my friend since college, Lorna Rhodes.

Friends…Kewulay Kamara, History Keeper, Storyteller from Sierra Leon asked: "What’s the use of telling a story if it doesn’t help people transcend?”

In the south where I grew up, not one woman in my family’s wide circle of friends was what was then referred to as a “career woman.” It was clear that my fantasy to be a civil rights advocate like my father was just that — a dream.

And then one day, I stumbled upon the autobiography of Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House. Transfixed by the heroic story of this woman from a background much like mine, I reached up my hand to Jane Addams and let her lift me to a wider world. Such is the power of history, that it can offer role models that may not be otherwise available.

If you doubt the power of history, consider the lengths to which governments go to alter or deny it. Today in Guatemala, teachers are not allowed to speak about their 36-year long conflict that left over 200,000 dead and 40,000 disappeared. In Russia, Putin shut down the Gulag Museum, the first Stalinist Labor Camp converted to a historic site, because it told the truth about Russia’s repressive history and invited visitors to consider the shape and signs of encroaching totalitarianism. At home, the full measure of the brutality of slavery and its lasting impact throughout our nation are omitted from text books, while plantation tours continue to refer to enslaved people as servants…if at all.

In 1987, Nelson Mandela organized an unprecedented meeting of prominent Afrikaaners and top leaders of the ANC at the Slave House at Gorée Island in Senegal. The meeting at this world heritage site proved to be the turning point in the struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela later confided that the haunting site of the African slave trade served as one of the keys that unlocked the door to new communication, making his release and everything else possible. Such is the power of historic sites that when fully exploited, they can help unlock the doors to our future.

When historians David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig conducted the first national survey to uncover the reasons why Americans hated history, they found to their great surprise, that Americans loved history, just not the dry facts and dates which passes for it in all too many classrooms. Further, they discovered that “Americans trust historic sites and history museums as much as they trust their grandmothers.”

Ruth J. Abram accepting the 2019 Louise Du Pont Crowninshield Award in Denver, Colorado. Credit: David Keith Photography

It is a great waste not to make use of this inherent power of historic sites and history museums. But it is not enough simply to preserve and interpret history. Not if we want to unlock the full measure of its power; not if we want to serve the public well. For, as Thelen and Rosenzweig concluded, “Americans want history which actively assists them in making connections between the past and the present, a history, which can be used to answer pressing current-day questions.” They also discovered that an interest in history museums cut across lines of income, education and race.

Drawing on years of research, Martha McCoy and Patrick Scully of Everyday Democracy, which promotes public dialogue, concluded people participate in public life because they “want to be part of community, to have a voice, to connect with all kinds of people, and to make progress on the issues that are important to them.” Our sites are well positioned to help the public attain its quest for community with diverse people.

None of this will happen if the tours and programs at our historic sites do not move visitors to think and invite frank discussion. It only happens when visitors are so engaged by a story — even a complex one — they want and are able to share it afterwards.

To become storytelling sites, we offer the historic facts and context to script writers, poets, novelists, biographers, dramatists, and professional storytellers. We test the final drafts with visitors of all stripes, invited to mirror the diverse audience we need. We interview them in person asking, “What did you like and not like? What was unclear? What does it make you think about your own life and times? What more would you have wanted to know? What will you remember?”

Where does this approach leave architecture, décor and furnishings? Just as in award winning plays and movies, they serve as critical and tell-tale backdrops as they once did to the human stories which unfolded within their walls. That human story is not always flattering. So what? Just as we ourselves are flawed, so are our heroes and heroines. A tour which whitewashes the historic characters is less believable, less relatable to ourselves, and therefore less compelling.

What’s the role of technology? If the technology separates people and discourages visitors from talking to one another; if it substitutes for a chance to speak with museum representatives knowledgeable about this history, then that technology has no place.

I am deeply honored to receive this award for it suggests that one day, with the [National] Trust’s vital participation, all over this country and beyond, historic sites and museums will fully exploit the power of history, becoming important locations for honest dialogue on the issues raised by the history of our sites which is relevant to our lives today. In this way, my friends, we will respond to Kewulay Kamara’s challenge and help our visitors and our nation transcend. Thank you so much.