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The Preservation and Restoration of Conscience  

12-09-2015 17:35

Presented at the International Conference of National Trusts held in Washington, D.C., October 15-19, 2005.

I begin with this story—A man came upon a little bird, lying on its back with its feet in the air. “Little bird,” said the man, “what are doing?” “Can’t you see,” responded the little bird, “the sky is falling, and I’m trying to hold it up with my feet.” “That’s ridiculous,” the man shot back, “You can’t hold the sky up with your little feet.” The bird looked directly at the man and said, “I do what I can.”

Today, threatened by terrorist attacks, and traumatized by natural disasters, which in the United States were recently compounded by human error and neglect, we find ourselves wondering whether there is anything we can do.

Yet many would say that concern for historic sites is peripheral to the main business and urgent concerns of our times. And to them we say, never has our work been more necessary. But, having said that, we must also admit that no more than it can be business as usual in the halls of government, can it be business as usual in our field.

If our work is to be understood as central rather than peripheral, we must challenge the status quo.

Interviewed by the New York Times, Sierra Leon storyteller/ history keeper Kewulay Kamara asked rhetorically, “What is the use of telling a story if it doesn’t help people transcend?” Like Mr. Kamara, I believe history and its partner, historic preservation, have the power to help people transcend. I have seen it firsthand.

97 Orchard Street, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s tenement building, is the first homestead of urban, working-class and poor immigrant people to be preserved and interpreted in the United States. Inside this six-story Italianate-style apartment house, we interpret the lives of immigrants from more than 20 nations, who lived in the building between 1863 and 1935. Because we have insisted on asking not only what is the history we want to interpret but also what can this history do to improve the world, we have for many years taught English to new immigrants. These students tour the carefully re-created 325-square-feet apartments and “meet” the immigrant families who used these rooms as a base to launch their families on their American journeys. Afterward, these newcomers compare their own quests—for housing, for health care, for jobs, for schools, for a future in America—to those of immigrants of yore.

Upon learning that 19th century immigrants were routinely met at Ellis Island by charity workers, one young woman from Bangladesh rose and shouted indignantly, “No one was there at Kennedy Airport for us. No one.” With that the class erupted. They said they wanted to be there for the next wave of newcomers.

They said there should be an immigrant guide to New York City. It should, they explained, contain stories of immigrants past, for they had been inspired by those struggles and triumphs. And it should contain their own stories, for theirs is the contemporary experience. And it should contain answers to the questions immigrants have—and they knew exactly what those were; and it should feature annotated and vetted listings of places to turn for help and advice; and it should be written in many languages. We took their idea to the New York Times which had been thinking along the same lines, and together we published the first immigrant guide to New York City in English, Chinese, and Spanish. History, offered in a historic site, had provided the inspiration.

The fact is the public is looking to history and historic sites for inspiration. In 1998, prompted by the widely shared view that Americans did not care about history, the historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelan determined to find out why. The results of their survey, which carefully sampled Americans of every stripe, came as a complete surprise. Far from rejecting history, Americans seek it at every turn. Their answers to the survey questions caused the scholars to conclude, “Americans feel at home with the past; day to day, hour to hour, the past is present in their lives. Encountering the past, examining it, living and reliving it, they root themselves in families—biological or constructed—and root their families in the world.” “Americans,” the authors had to conclude, “want to make a difference, to take responsibility for themselves and others. And so, they assemble their experiences into … narratives that allow them to make sense of the past, set priorities, project what might happen next and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and continuity, they chart the course of their lives.”

And lest you assume that this passion for the past is limited to people privileged by income or race, I hasten to add that the survey revealed, “the narrative of the nation state is most alive to those who feel most alienated from it.” The authors learned, for instance, that their understanding of the past helped African Americans and members of the Sioux Indian tribe to “live in an oppressive society.”

It was true, the scholars discovered, that Americans have largely rejected the history taught in our high schools, which they consistently described as “dull” and “irrelevant.” This standardissue history, characterized by simplistic patriotic narratives, was, Americans complained, insulting to their ability as critical thinkers.

But since the public regards history as central to its well-being, it is determined to get it. Unable to get what they need in school, they turn elsewhere. More than one-third of the survey respondents had investigated the history of their family in the previous year; and two-fifths had worked on a hobby or collection related to the past. And, as it happens, they turn to historic sites and museums, which they regard as the most trustworthy sources of historical information. “They trusted history museums as much as they trusted their grandmothers,” reported Rosenzweig and Thelan. More than half the survey respondents had visited a museum or historic site during the previous year.

As preservationists, we have our marching orders. Now let us march.

The Need for Authentic Sites that Tell Authentic Stories

As the raging winds and waters of Katrina subside, Americans are peering into the foundations of our society and we are disturbed. We see a nation unprepared for disaster —whether natural or manmade. We see a nation unable to measure up when measured against its ability and its will to care for the least able among it. We see a nation where the divide between the haves and have-nots has widened since last we dared look. We see that where we stand on that divide is literally a matter of life or death. We see these things and we rail—against our leaders, against our nongovernmental rescue organizations, against ourselves.

It’s time to stop charging and to instead take charge. Historic preservationists have a role to play. Our job is to see to it that our nations are crisscrossed with networks of historic sites that tell all our people’s stories and tell them in ways that help people transcend.

In this network of places, the stories of people associated with the sites—and how they faced challenges of their day— would be given priority over the provenance of the furnishings, because the people need those stories in order to wrest meaning from these sites for their own lives. The stories must reflect the complexities and inconsistencies of the human condition and include the coward along with the brave; the greedy along with the generous; the traitor along with the patriot; the famous along with the unknown; the people who dared to speak truth to power along with the people who cowered before tyranny.

Standing at the site of the former Nazi transit camp outside Paris, French Archbishop Olivier de Berrenger declared, “Conscience is formed by memory, and no society can live in peace with itself any more than an individual can, on the basis of a false or repressed past.” Historic preservationists must accept responsibility for forming conscience by including all of a society’s important memories and then truthfully interpreting them in all their messiness.

Some weeks ago, I asked the international human rights advocate Aryeh Neier how he understood the linkage between historic sites and the ongoing struggle for democracy. He reminded me that nations which have been unable to demonstrate that they have publicly confronted past abuses have actually found themselves denied access to positions in places of international authority. For instance, Japan’s bid to enter the UN Security Council has been thwarted by its refusal to address atrocities committed at Nanjing. And Turkey’s application to the European Union was tarnished by its refusal to address the Armenian genocide. In each case, a nation’s current human rights record was judged by how well it confronted its human rights abuses in the past. The existence or lack of historic sites related to that record is an excellent indication as to whether or not a nation has confronted its past.

My friend Patricia Veldez understands the link. Former executive director of El Salvadore’s Truth Commission, Patricia is a founding member of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience. Members of that coalition are pledged to “assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our sites and related contemporary issues.” Founding members include the Workhouse in England and the Slave House of Senegal. Patricia Valdez now directs a coalition of human rights organizations in Argentina. These human rights activists have concluded that only by marking and interpreting former sites of torture can Argentina hope to establish a lasting culture of democracy.

Justice Albie Sachs also understands the importance of historic sites in democracybuilding. In selecting a site for South Africa’s new Constitution Court, Justice Sachs and his colleagues determined to build their court adjacent to the most notorious political prison in Johannesburg. Today, a tour of the court begins with a tour of the prison. The openness, transparency, and democratic spirit of the proceedings of the court stand in direct and bold contrast to the prison’s high and impenetrable walls, its dark torture rooms, its posted directives to prison cooks to give whites one portion of meal, coloreds less, and blacks almost nothing at all. Justice Sachs and his col- leagues on the court felt that by reminding the public of the abuses of the apartheid government, it would underscore the preciousness and fragility of the new democratic sprit and call the citizens to stay vigilant in its defense.

Connecting Past and Present at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Back to America, and to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Tenement Museum. From its founding 17 years ago, the museum took as its mission “to promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.” The mission made clear the museum’s intention to use history to address social goals. After painstakingly researching the stories of individual immigrant’s families and faithfully reproducing the environments in which they lived, we opened to the public. They surged in. They loved it. They commiserated with Natalie Gumpertz, the German Jewish woman whose husband disappeared in the Depression of 1873. They rooted for the Sicilian Catholic Baldizzi Family, winking at their illegal entry into the United States and expressing relief that President Roosevelt’s federal welfare program gave them a safety net when they were thrown out of work after the 1929 stock market crash. And that is what we had hoped—that by bringing poor and workingclass people to life, Americans would see the connection between their forebears, contemporary immigrants, and other similarly situated people today.

But soon it became clear that it wasn’t enough to tell the story. All too often, once out on the streets, we’d hear our visitors say something like, “The people who lived in that tenement were good immigrants. Today, those people are just coming for the welfare. They don’t care about working or learning the language. They don’t want to be Americans.”

How could we challenge this perspective, a perspective our hands-on experience with hundreds of immigrants made us aware was flawed?

We decided to invite our public to join us after their tours for what we call “Kitchen Conversations.” Sitting around the table with a trained dialogue facilitator, visitors begin by describing their reaction to their tours, then discuss their personal relationship to the issue of immigration, and then move onto a contemporary issue.

I recently sat in on such a dialogue. One woman told the group, “I came to the museum by walking through Chinatown. I couldn’t even buy a tomato because those people don’t know English. And they never will—the way they shut themselves off in a Chinese-speaking area of town.”

The facilitator asked if anyone else had had the same experience that day, and another person had. Then she asked if anyone had family members who never learned English. Two hands shot up. “My grandmother only spoke Italian,” reported one. “Mine only spoke Yiddish,” admitted another. “Where did they work?” asked our facilitator. “In places where people spoke their language,” both replied. “Did their children learn English?” She asked. “Oh, yes, of course,” was the response.

Turning to the rest of the group, the facilitator asked if anyone could imagine why the immigrants congregating in Chinatown and the grandparents of the visitors who had spoken might have elected to live and work in foreignlanguage enclaves. “They needed to be able to get down to business right away,” reasoned one visitor. “You know, to shop and to negotiate and to work in their own language. Their children were going to learn English in school, but the parents needed to support the family.” Suddenly it became clear that it was possible to view the Chinese settlement not as a slap in the face to America but rather as a strategy employed not only by these immigrants but by earlier waves as well.

The delighted response of visitors over this experience has convinced us to add “Kitchen Conversations” after increasing numbers of tours, hoping to make it an integral part of the visitor experience.

Today, the Tenement Museum is on the verge of mounting an all-out campaign to obtain landmark designation for an area of the Lower East Side. If successful, this will be the first landmark district in the U.S. to commemorate the urban, immigrant, working-class, and poor experience. But, because we reside in an area that continues as an immigrant portal and where affordable housing is increasingly scarce, we decided to couple our campaign with a simultaneous effort to offer low-interest loans to any landlords who agreed to rehabilitate their buildings’ interior flats and make them available at affordable rents. We believe that any plan to preserve our area’s architectural heritage simply had to include a plan to preserve the neighborhood’s traditional role as a home for immigrants and other low- and moderate-income families.

Preservation and the Molding of Conscience

As historic preservationists, as keepers of the public memory, as molders of conscience, preservationists must be sure that our collection of sites tells all of our nation’s stories and tells them in such a way as to support the people in their desire to make sense of their situation, to decide on their positions, and to engage in finding solutions. And further, we must explore what other problems existing in our community might be addressed through our preservation efforts. The great 20thcentury librarian John Cotton Dana advised, “Learn what aid the community needs and fit the museum to those needs.”

We are all aware that, as of this moment, the historic preservation movement has not yet realized these goals. But it can. It can do it by starting with the properties we have—properties by and large associated with the rich and the famous.

But we need not despair or be ashamed. The properties we now possess can be turned to the task of forming conscience. Woodrow Wilson dreamed of a League of Nations. What better place to lay out the rationale behind that dream and to debate whether and to what extent it has been realized than his home in Washington, D.C. Similarly, from his mansion overlooking the Hudson River, the robber baron Jay Gould crushed the striking railroad workers who rose up against him. Today, as organized labor finds itself on shaky ground, what better time and place than Lyndhurst for the public to discuss issues surrounding the rights of workers?

The great plantation houses owned by the National Trust provide a perfect opportunity to discuss race in America. How did the members of the master’s family understand slavery? How did they justify it? How did the enslaved Africans see their situation? And what about us? Today? What is the impact of the legacies of the perspectives of those free and enslaved people in our communities? How did it, for instance, influence the turn of events following Katrina?

Actually, President Bush saw the connection. Standing in New Orleans, Mr. Bush said, “All of us saw…there is… some deep, persistent poverty in this region…And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. Let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequalities.” Whether or not the Bush administration finds the political or moral capital to respond to the president’s challenge, we can.

I feel very proud that the National Trust has announced a significant recovery effort in the flood- and wind-battered towns of Louisiana and Mississippi. But ours will be a failed effort in terms of the future of preservation if we focus only on whether a property is architecturally significant. We must also ask and answer the question: How can we interpret this property in such a way as to help people recover—not only their architecture and their landscapes, but also their sense of themselves as builders of a new and more just economy, as creators of a better society in which, along with bricks and mortar and decorative elements, fundamental democratic values are preserved and advanced?

“This task,” say Robert Janes and Gerald Conaty, editors of Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility, “must begin with idealism, which means thinking about the ways things could be rather than simply accepting the way things are.”

When you are confronted by people with a long list of reasons as to why what I am suggesting cannot be done, invite them to consider the comforting words of the futurist Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, who said, “There is nothing lacking. Nothing more is needed than what we already have. We require no remarkable, undiscovered technologies. We do not need heroic, larger than life leadership. The only requirement is that we, as individuals, choose a revitalizing future and then work in community with others to bring it to fruition.”

My friends and my colleagues in preservation, our active participation is needed to help our societies transcend. It has never been more urgent to follow the example of the little bird, and do what we can.

Publication Date: Spring 2006


Author(s):Ruth J. Abram

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