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Preserving Places That Recall Divisive Times: A Survival Guide  

12-09-2015 17:35

The preservation of America’s historic sites, and the resulting visitation to them, has provided very public means to educate millions of Americans and foreigners about U.S. history. And in much the same way that the practice of scholarly history gradually expanded beyond the study of politics, economics, and wars to embrace “ordinary people and everyday lives,” historic preservation has broadened to include the structures and sites associated with the less positive, and often painful, episodes in the nation’s past. Recent additions to the list of National Historic Landmarks document the federal government’s denial of civil rights to various groups of U.S. citizens, as well as the struggle of those groups to end such practices. The Shelley house in St. Louis, for instance, documents one family’s fight in the landmark 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer for the right to live in the home of their choosing despite their race. Manzanar War Relocation Camp in California bears witness to the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

A desperate need exists to take on these difficult historical topics in the public arena, despite the fact that some people may want to avoid such divisive subjects. Refusing to acknowledge the built and natural environments associated with the negative aspects of U.S. history only adds to the nation’s ignorance of the past. And yet, for preservationists, answering the call to preserve controversial historic sites and teach the public about what occurred at those sites is: 1) never easy, 2) extremely stressful, 3) periodically regrettable, but 4) always worthwhile and educational in the end. Small wonder why so many sites remain “lost” to history!

I’ve been involved with two such projects as a public historian -- the creation of the Central High Museum, Inc., in conjunction with the Fortieth Anniversary Commemoration of the 1957 Desegregation Crisis at Central High School; and Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas, a multi-faceted project (in partnership with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles with major funding provided by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation) to educate Arkansans and Americans about the two War Relocation Authority camps that were located in Arkansas.

I’ve learned some important lessons from this work that I would like to share with historic preservation advocates, civic leaders, elected officials, and community members who are undertaking what may be difficult and controversial history projects.

Be prepared for the fact that projects dealing with the collective memory of a community, or using unconventional approaches to explore “known” historical topics, frequently may take years to get underway and may suffer many false starts.

It is easy to recognize the educational value of contentious history projects and the potential they bring for reconciliation in a community. The difficulty comes in the reality of dealing with such topics. Both projects that I was involved with at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock failed to see action for years after they were first proposed.

One simple reason for this rests with human nature: Visionary people do not always possess the necessary skills to plan and carry any preservation project (not just controversial ones) to fruition. Another reason people will back away from controversial topics is that, as in the case of Central High School, the actual event and its legacy still play a prominent and divisive role in the community. Lastly, the politicization or revision of a topic -- even one without a reputation as being controversial -- will scare away supporters who may deem the topic worthy but find the approach distasteful. The potential debate over an exhibition title from the Japanese American National Museum that documented the U.S. government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- “America’s Concentration Camps” -- was enough to warn at least two prospective partner institutions in Little Rock away from the project.

So the first lesson is: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

When getting started, think carefully about the right partner organizations or sponsors for potentially controversial projects.

State or local government –funded museums and cultural organizations frequently will shy away from topics involving mistreatment of certain groups because of the controversy and political fallout generated by racial issues. For instance, none of the state-run museums in Arkansas had ever addressed the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis.

Financial help may be available from agencies of the federal government such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the National Park Service, which don’t have to worry about the local political ramifications of funding controversial projects. Still, navigating the maze of writing grant proposals, finding funding matches, and documenting historic significance can be a challenge for local organizations, especially young ones. In addition, local nonprofits may not want to accept funding from the federal government for fear of losing interpretive control of “their” history.

The community planning group that originally worked on the Central High School Museum shuddered at the thought of receiving money from the state of Arkansas or the National Park Service because of such concerns -- but fundraising was not their responsibility. Two years later, however, the board of Central High Museum, Inc., was thrilled that Congress passed legislation making the museum and school a unit of the National Park Service. That’s because two years of operating as a private nonprofit (with annual fundraisers and a bookstore to provide revenue) had depleted virtually all of the funds raised for general operating support.

In other situations, groups welcome help and funding from state and local government agencies, but fail to recognize the requirements that come with that help. In the 1990s I successfully nominated the home of Civil Rights heroine Daisy Bates, mentor to the Little Rock Nine, for National Historic Landmark status. A local nonprofit dedicated to restoring and preserving the home then became more concerned with getting money they were eligible for from the National Park Service and the matching funds from a fundraiser to fix up the house than they were about any issues of interpretation or following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

The lesson here: Get the project started, and as the potential success of the project becomes evident, appropriate types of support will become apparent.

When dealing with entrenched “stakeholders” of a particular historic topic (especially if they participated in the event), realize that for all of their good intentions, they will be biased (if you’re lucky) and/or have a political agenda (if you’re unlucky).

Everyone can get emotional over controversial topics, especially when the historical event has to do with laws or policies that have deprived citizens of their rights as guar- anteed by the U.S. Constitution. Any organization taking up such a project must be prepared for its members not to agree on everything, or anything! The group must be prepared to practice patience and tolerance at all times, and having a neutral (or at least calm) discussion facilitator can be a wise addition to the group.

For instance, the community planning committee for the Central High School Museum frequently argued about whether “outsiders” could really understand what happened in Little Rock in 1957. Exactly who was considered an outsider varied from anyone not originally from Arkansas, to anyone not alive in 1957, to anyone not originally from the South who was not alive in 1957. I was able to make the case that if the planning committee didn’t think any outsider could understand the Central High crisis, they really shouldn’t be opening a museum.

When the Central High Museum, Inc., board asked me to become the historian and project manager for the museum I never suspected how many groups of stakeholders existed. They included supporters of now-deceased Governor Orval Faubus, white students who attended Central High in the fall of 1957 (split into factions that accepted desegregation because it was the law and those who were vehemently opposed to it because it tarnished their own high school experience), the nine black students who desegregated the school that same fall, Daisy Bates and the local and national NAACP, the Little Rock police, Arkansas National Guard members, and soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne unit. Each group’s perspective of the event varied considerably. In a situation like this, it is important to treat everyone with respect and to listen carefully to their story from the beginning.

When considering the opinions of various stakeholders, do not overlook what may be the most important group of all -- the general public. The staff at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution learned this lesson with the infamous Enola Gay exhibit. Drawing on new research from the federal government and the military, the exhibit team sought to revise the commonly accepted version of history that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was justified because it spared the lives of countless American soldiers assigned to the invasion of Japan. Historical documentation existed to support the new interpretation that dropping the bomb was not necessary because the Japanese were close to capitulating anyway. Unfortunately, the exhibit team failed to solicit feedback from the prospective audience -- which included World War II veterans and their families. Consequently, the exhibit team unknowingly created a hostile environment with the public, dooming the exhibit. And, the greater the number of people who have been affected by the event or topic under examination, such as all the Americans who lived through World War II, the quicker a project’s demise if you displease them.

Even terminology can stir emotions. With the Life Interrupted project, for example, disagreements arose over what to call the U.S. government’s actions toward Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II. The most historically accurate terms for the War Relocation Authority camps and those individuals who lived in them are “concentration camps” and “inmates” or “prisoners.” In fact, historian Roger Daniels has made a solid and compelling case for using these terms. Yet the majority of Americans use and recognize the terms “internment camps” and “internees.” Using others can both perplex and anger Americans not familiar with the story. My job as a public historian is to educate as many people as possible about this egregious chapter in our nation’s history -- not to scare them off. The compromise? In short speeches and interviews about the project, I use the familiar terminology, i.e., internment camps. In all written materials and longer speeches and interviews, however, I explain why the familiar terminology is historically incorrect and why the more accurate terminology is appropriate.

Lesson learned: Historians may be accurate but they write for an academic audience, not the general public.

Make the project “doable” by getting help from the best sources possible.

The key to making any project successful, and especially a controversial one, is to obtain assistance wherever and whenever possible. Accumulating support from many organizations will increase the public profile of your project and show that more than one group is concerned about, and has a vested interest in, having your project succeed.

In seeking support, look beyond the traditional sources of money (especially local, state, or federal governmental assistance) and recognize that donations do not have to be money to have real value to your project. Donations of professional services and materials can make a big difference toward a successful outcome.

Those of you who are used to working in the nonprofit arena know that having a lawyer or accountant on the organization’s board of directors can cut down significantly on professional service fees. Having members who have experience in planning -- charting a course for an organization’s short and long-term goals -- is also essential for fairly new boards, especially if there is no professional staff. State humanities councils and local foundations frequently can be great sources of information, professional assistance, and preliminary funding for controversial projects.

Planning grants provide the opportunity to get organized and develop a course of action. They can also help you to gauge community interest in the project at that specific time by providing funding for consultants, facilitators, and space and resources to hold meetings with stakeholders. Even more important, positive results from planning grants will encourage other potential funders to make an investment in your organization’s activities. Every large project I’ve worked on greatly benefited from planning grants. Successful completion of the planning phase with a roadmap on how to proceed with the project leads to additional funding for implementation of various goals mentioned in the plan. Another lesson: Thinking big is great, but starting small is realistic.

One frequently overlooked but excellent resource for difficult projects is the local or nearby college or university -- especially if the institution has a program in museum studies, historic preservation, or public history. Working with faculty and students in an applicable scholarly field will give the project two very important qualities: an imprimatur of intellectual honesty coupled with academic freedom of speech. On the Central High Museum project my graduate students in a museum interpretation class completed almost all of the necessary research in both primary and secondary sources for me to write the exhibit script (with my graduate assistant, Laura Miller) for the introductory exhibit in the Visitor Center. In addition, numerous graduate assistants and graduate and undergraduate interns created interpretive programming and administrative policies, and even implemented the retail operation for the site. Such projects are the ideal: The organization gets professional help for free or at a deeply discounted rate and the students get the all-important hands-on experience.

Having academic administrators and faculty involved in the Central High Museum and in Life Interrupted, as well as outside scholars whenever possible, has provided a public forum for discussing controversial issues. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has hosted speakers, meetings, and workshops in which scholarly debate has thrived -- demonstrating to the public that civil discourse over emotional issues is possible. Such events also help the community understand the vast complexities of presenting such topics to the general public.

My last piece of advice for projects dealing with divisive events is this:

Do not attempt to sugarcoat your message. Recognize the controversy and face it head on; honesty is the best policy.

In 1996, just as the Central High Museum project was getting underway, some board members nominated Central High School to be on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. They believed the publicity generated by the list would help raise money for renovations desperately needed at the historic high school, which is still in use as a school. What the civic leaders did not factor into their decision was that the public perception outside of Arkansas of what happened at the school in 1957 could reflect badly on Little Rock almost 40 years later. When the list was announced in May 1996, instead of receiving donations for the school’s renovations, the museum board received quite a few letters damning the people of Arkansas for allowing the school to deteriorate, indicating that they must be ashamed of their history. This was a most ironic turn of events, given that the board was dedicated to showing the public that what happened at Central High School in 1957 was not a national disgrace but a monumental victory for the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law.

Our country’s history is not always pretty. Unfortunate events occur and people get hurt, and important lessons are learned. Ignoring our history is easy to do, until we pay the price of repeating it.

Life Interrupted will come to fruition September 23-26, 2004, in Little Rock with eight exhibit openings, a documentary premier, and a conference, “Camp Connections: A Conversation about Civil Rights and Social Justice.

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For more on Central High Museum see:

Publication Date: Spring 2004

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Author(s):Johanna Miller Lewis