Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Usable Past 

12-09-2015 17:35

Do you agree with historian Daniel Boorstein, who said: "Planning for the future wit-out a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers." And do you agree with Arthur Bestor, who said: "Deprive me of my historical consciousness, and in the most literal sense, I do not know who I am."

It is not surprising if you agree with these statements. After all, you are preservationists. But perhaps you will be surprised to learn that so do the majority of Americans. In 1998, reviewing the results of the first national survey of Americans` relationship to history, historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Theland concluded, "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… and… their families in the world. … Americans," the study found, "want to make a difference, to take responsibility for themselves and others. And so, they assemble their experiences into patterns that allow them to make sense of the past, set priorities, project what might happen next and try to shape the future. … [U]sing these narratives… they chart the course of their lives."

In other words, Americans regard the past as a usable tool. So do I. I didn`t always.

But starting in the 1970s, I had a series of experiences that altered my thinking. One occurred when I was organizing a National Women`s Agenda, a political platform designed to answer the age-old question: What do women want? Things had gone well. Leaders of a wide spectrum of women`s organizations had actively participated in the formation of the Agenda`s platform. But suddenly it was stuck. Casting about for a solution, I telephoned Professor Gerda Lerner, founder of the modern women`s history movement. Introducing myself, I explained my dilemma and asked if I could have a historical consultation. Silence… and finally, Dr. Lerner said,."No one has ever asked me, a historian, to help develop strategy for the present."

But a few days later, Lerner treated me to a personal lecture on the history of women`s organizing efforts. Learning that every successful national effort organized by women had been organized from the grassroots up, and knowing I had been organizing from the top down, I restructured the campaign. In 1975, on the steps of the U.S. Capital, women from more than l00 national organizations announced the formation of a "National Women`s Agenda."

History had supplied a strategy. Many times since, history has afforded me comfort, inspiration, perspective, and role models. I have come to view history as a powerful tool for the living.

Just as the public yearns for history, so does it yearn for truth. In Lying, philosopher Sissela Bok said, "[T]rust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse." If history holds a fundamental key to our present and future, and lying undermines the very fabric of a civil society, it follows that it is very important to get that history right.

But we aren`t doing that. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen documents a web of misinformation, omissions, and lies in some of the nation`s most popular and widely used history textbooks. No wonder then, as the Rozensweig/Thelan survey found, Americans have rejected history as it is taught in high school as "dull" and "irrelevant." They said this "standard issue history" with its "patriotic story of the American nation" was "insulting to their sense of themselves as critical thinkers."

But believing history essential to its well-being, the public is nevertheless determined to get it. Spurning school as an unreliable source, Americans 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 in large numbers, they turn to historic sites and museums, which they regard as "the most trustworthy sources of historical information." More than half the survey respondents had visited a museum or historic site during the previous year. "They trusted history museums," reported Rosensweig and Thelan, "as much as they trusted their grandmothers."

The American public trusts historic sites; but the terrible truth is that the history supplied in far too many historic sites is sorely lacking. Crisscrossing the country, visiting historic sites big and small, James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, was forced to conclude, "Guides almost always avoid negative or controversial facts, and most monuments, markers, and historic sites omit any blemishes that might taint the heroes they commemorate, making them larger and less interesting than life. …America has ended up with a landscape of denial."

According to the Rosenzweig/Thelan survey, Americans want history that actively assists them in making connections between the past and the present, a history that "can be used to answer pressing current-day questions." It is this very goal the Tenement Museum has set for itself.

The Tenement Museum: Presenting Untold History
In founding the Tenement Museum, I hoped to build on the fact that most Americans are descendants of people who came-willingly or not-from somewhere else. Americans share family histories containing the experience of dislocation, relocation, and reinvention. I was determined to introduce long-rooted Americans to their ancestors at the point of their first arrival, when they knew not the language, accent, or customs of their adopted land and before they were financially secure. I hoped that through this confrontation with revered ancestors, Americans could be moved to participate in a national conversation concerning similarly situated contemporary people. I further hoped that Americans might realize that new immigrants have more in common than not with the forebears they so admire. For those newly arrived, I hoped to offer the comfort that comes from the knowledge that as immigrants, they are part of a vital American tradition.

Most visitors take a guided tour of the Museum`s 19th century, five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. Twenty-five feet wide by 68 feet deep, the building, erected by a German-born tailor in 1863, was without indoor plumbing, ventilation, or light. Before its condemnation as a residence in 1935, an estimated 7,000 immigrants from more than 20 nations occupied its 320-square-foot apartments.

Although more citizens trace the beginning of their families` American experience to the urban rather than the rural environment, and most descend from working class immigrants, 97 Orchard Street is the first homestead of urban working class and poor immigrant people to be pre-served and interpreted in the United States. It should not be the last. Every city needs to tell this aspect of its history.

Inside, visitors "meet" families who actually lived in the building. They meet, for instance, Natalie Gumpertz, a German Jewish woman who, deserted by her husband in the midst of the 1873 Depression, turned to dressmaking to support her four young children. Natalie Gumpertz is the first single mother presented in a National Historic Site.

In the Baldizzi apartment, visitors find a Catholic family that immigrated illegally from Sicily only to be caught in the Great Depression. Thrown out of work, the parents (by then legal immigrants) had to depend on Home Relief. The family was evicted in 1935 when the landlord threw out all the tenants rather than comply with the newest building codes. The Baldizzis are the first illegal immigrants and the first welfare recipients ever presented in an American historic site.

Other apartments present families whose stories raise issues surrounding the nature of childhood, sweat-shops, public health, death, childbirth, and, of course, immigration.

Challenges of Interpretation
Many museum professionals have asked, "How do you get away with it?"-meaning, how has the Tenement Museum managed to take on so-called "sensitive" subjects without bringing down the wrath of God upon its head? There is, in our field, a miserable tendency to assume that, unlike ourselves, the public does not appreciate complex history and cannot bear the truth. In fact, the public is clamoring for both.

There have been some skirmishes surrounding interpretation at the Tenement Museum.

Some people, including scholars, were distressed when the Museum refused to corroborate their understanding of a tenement as a filthy, inhospitable slum. But memoirs of former residents as well as laboratory analysis of the tenement`s historic fabric made clear that while keeping persons and apartments clean was a battle, it was one which tenement dwellers refused to concede. "My mother," explained Josephine Baldizzi, who brought us her mother`s scouring powder, "was fastidious. She loved to shine her pots; they called her `shine-em- up-Sadie.` " Furthermore, lovely decorative touches-including layers of patterned wallpaper, faux paint finishes, and even a gold leafed chair rail-attest to aesthetic sensibilities.

Some people were distressed by our reluctance to cast our tenement`s landlords as villains. But our research revealed that the landlords were themselves immigrants. Our first landlord, Lucas Glockner, a German-born tailor, lived with several generations of his family in the building. When the death of her husband in 1918 left Fannie Rogarshevsky, who spoke no English, high and dry, it was her landlord who saved the day by hiring her as the building`s janitor and furnishing her with a rent-free apartment.

We have stood our ground against those who insisted that we tell a story irrespective of the evidence at hand. We stood on the facts, and we could not be moved. Sometimes, however, we have gotten the facts wrong. A prime example involves an inventory written in pencil on a door jamb in one of the tenement apartments. The inventory lists 100 shirts, 43 pants, 100 shirts, etc. Upon seeing the inventory, a garment union representative surmised, "No one tailor could produce that volume; this must have been a sweat-shop." After a full year of sharing this assumption with visitors, we were thrown off balance when a child pointed to an entry at the bottom of the list: "It says 22 shoes. Do tailors make shoes?" We had assumed wrong. Today, we tell visitors the story of how we got it wrong.

For reasons I have never understood, many historic sites are reluctant to share their "mistakes" with the public. Yet, if there is anything the public needs and deserves to know, it is that history is a continual process of discovery and correction.

By insisting on calling and interpreting the facts as we see them, historic sites avoid becoming part of the problem of the erosion of trust, so damaging to the maintenance of a civil society. "Those," said Sissela Bok, "who learn they have been lied to in an important matter… are resentful, disappointed, and suspicious. They see that they were manipulated, that the deceit made them unable to make choices for themselves according to the most adequate information available."

In 1964, 78 percent of the respondents to a Gallup poll said they could "trust [the government in] Washington to do what is right all or most of the time." By l994, the figure had plummeted to 19 percent. It is unconscionable for historic sites, perhaps the last of our public institutions to enjoy some modicum of confidence, to contribute to the decline in the people`s trust.

But still more is at stake. "Conscience," says French Archbishop Olivier de Berranger, "is formed by memory; and no society can live in peace with itself on the basis of a false or repressed past any more than an individual can." As keepers of the public memory, historic sites are pivotal in the formation of conscience. We cannot afford to play fast and loose with the facts.

A Continuing Story
Nor can we ignore the present and our sites` relationship to it.

Learning that immigrants in our neighborhood were waiting three years for seats in free English classes, the Tenement Museum decided to offer its own. For the last four years, immigrants have learned English at the Museum by reading from the diaries, letters, and memoirs of earlier immigrants. "I not only learned English," said a graduate, "I learned I was not alone." The graduation requirement-that students must conduct a tour of our tenement … in English-will soon result in a cadre of guides who bring not only their own immigrant stories to the task, but who can also deliver the tour to people who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Creole, and more.

During a segment of the English classes, students learned that 19th-century immigrants were often met at Ellis Island by charity workers who provided employment or housing advice. "No one was there for us at Kennedy Airport!" exclaimed a participant. With that, the idea for the first Immigrant Guide to New York City was conceived. Right before our eyes, the history of immigration had empowered new immigrants with an expanded sense of possibility. "Let it," said the students, "contain stories of immigrants past that have inspired us; and let it include our stories, for we are the present; and let it supply answers to commonly asked questions." And so, by the year`s end, the guide will be published in several languages and distributed free of charge to thousands of new arrivals.

Opening New Dialogues
The success of a Museum-sponsored dialogue on immigration, involving immigrants and migrants from many backgrounds, led staff to wonder whether a diverse community could be united through the process of preserving and interpreting a historic site. At that moment, we were approached by the largely African-American congregation of St. Augustine`s Episcopal Church who asked the Museum to assist in preserving and interpreting the 175- year-old Slave Gallery, the only one known to exist in a New York City church. Last February more than 100 community groups joined to launch the Slave Gallery Project. Latino and Chinese leaders embraced the slave gallery as a symbol of their own struggles. The Episcopal Bishop sent an emissary with a formal apology for the Church`s involvement in slavery. The healing had begun.

Distressed by comments from children suggesting they could measure one another`s worth by tallying up the cost of their outfits, and equally disturbed by teachers` oblivion to the poverty experienced by some of the children in their charge, the Museum staff teamed up with private and public schools, and with Lyndhurst, a National Trust site, to develop the nation`s first curriculum to address class.

Many children visiting the Museum live today in conditions similar to those portrayed at 97 Orchard Street. How could history help? In 1901 and 1910, proud of its new housing legislation, New York City sent uniformed Tenement Housing Inspectors across the city to note and report code violations. This year, working with the city housing department, we will deputize the children as Tenement Housing Inspectors. Trained at the Museum to recognize violations, and using checklists supplied to housing inspectors in l901 and l9l0, children will rate the conditions in their own homes and send reports of violations to the appropriate agencies. We are using history to teach citizenship and advocacy skills.

Promoting Humanitarian Values
In December 1999, the Tenement Museum organized a conference of the directors of the Workhouse (England), the Gulag Museum (Russia), the Slave House (Senegal), District Six Museum (South Africa), the Project To Remember (Argentina), the Liberation War Museum (Bangladesh), Terezin (Czech Republic), and the National Park Service (sites included the Women`s Rights Historic District, Manzanar, and the Underground Railroad). At the end of the week, the group had formed the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience and issued this statement: "We hold in common the belief that it is the obligation of historic sites to assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our sites and its contemporary implications We view stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting humanitarian and democratic values as a primary function." A project now underway will link these sites to international human rights organizations working on related issues.

Members of the coalition are using history in unique ways. The Workhouse is planning a presentation of a contemporary "bed sit" or shelter beside its l9th-century re-creation. The Gulag Museum works with Memorial, Russia`s leading human rights group, to host conferences on human rights violations and to document past abuses. The District Six Museum served as the site for South Africa`s Land Reclamation Court and sponsors a children`s shelter.

A new role for historic sites is emerging. We are working toward the day when historic sites offer not only deep and nuanced presentations of history, but also respond to the public`s demand for assistance in drawing connections between that history and its contemporary implications. We are conceiving of historic sites as places of engagement in which visitors motivated to participate in finding solutions to enduring social, economic, and political issues will be helped to do so. We hope to make explicit that which has heretofore been implicit: Our sites are important not because of the stories they tell (though of course we are devoted to those stories) but rather because implicit in the stories are lessons so powerful that if fully understood they could improve our lives. Such is the power of history.

Publication Date: Winter 2001


Author(s):Ruth J. Abram