What’s History Worth?

Reading about the USS Olympia’s preservation history on the heels of Igor Kopytoff’s  work on commodification got me thinking, once again, about why history matters and what it is worth.

Appraising Artifacts

Conversations in the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking and in Studies in American Material Culture have both touched on the practice of appraising materials donated to an institution committed to their preservation. These appraisals are necessary because they allow the donor to quantify their gift when calculating their tax responsibility but they also seem self-defeating. If the aim of the gift is that it be preserved in perpetuity (and there is much debate about that unattainable aim) then the gifted material is assumed to never be available for purchase. It thus becomes priceless, decommodified, not for sale. Users of an archives might find informational or evidentiary value in a document or set of papers, but within the archival context they have no monetary value.

Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols. This process is largely the purview of people in power and serves to reify their position. Even seemingly neutral artifacts in a museum en masse support the status quo. Historic preservation is a singularization process. Individuals can put a lot of time and money into  preservation projects, the result of which is a singularization. Since 1966, however, if preservation is done in accordance with certain guidelines, that investment can earn reward in the form of tax credits.

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Omeka exhibit

This post is brought to you by my Digital History class and my determination to show my soft underbelly by putting early drafts of ideas on the internet. In class we’ve been tasked with assembling an Omeka-based exhibit, and I took the opportunity to think about my research paper from slightly different angles. My exhibit is essentially a collection of photos, old and new, of three of the villas in Fairmount Park, with brief histories of the sites and analysis of their preservation stories to this point. Check it out: http://tedmaust.omeka.net/exhibits/show/fairmounthouses/fairmounthouses

Research Notes: Chamounix Mansion (Hostelling International)

Having made my way through some of the pile of scholarship on Historic House Museums, I made a foray into Fairmount Park on Wednesday to visit the Chamounix (SHAM-ah-nee) Mansion, which has operated as a hostel since 1965. Abbe, the hostel’s steward, and Andrew, the manager, showed me around the place and then we had a really nice conversation about Philadelphia, historic buildings, Fairmount Park, gentrification, and the Church of the Divine.

Because I’m trying to learn some Google Map APIs, here’s a map of where Chamounix is located in Fairmount Park:

A photo from the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust (now the Fairmount Park Conservancy) after restoration work completed 2006-2008.

Built in 1803, the mansion has been a summer-home, a year-round residence, a concession stand, a boarding house, a raceway, residence for a park employee, and a condemned fire-damaged shell before it found its current purpose.

[Check out PhillyHistory.org’s collection of images that show the condition of the mansion in 1962*]

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Bringing Historic House Museums to Life

In the process of working on a paper for my US History survey class, today I visited the Powel House, located in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. Jennifer Davidson, the Site Manager, gave me a wonderful tour, including lots of sage wisdom about the front lines of public history in addition to the regular historical tour material. The Powel House has had a relatively narrow interpretive focus since it opened as a historic house museum in 1938, focusing primarily on the time period (1769-1798) in which Samuel Powel and Elizabel Willing Powel lived in the house and played host to famous friends such as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin (Samuel Powel was part of Franklin’s Junto), Benjamin Rush, and even the Marquis de Lafayette.

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Preservation and (Re)Development

Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia is likely on borrowed time. The historic district is perhaps the victim of being just one of many historic portions of the city and the ever-present appetite for condo towers. If these buildings, constructed a century ago, are knocked down next summer, they will join many casualties of urban development and redevelopment, alongside New York City’s fallen Penn Station and large swathes of urban America.

It was the demolition of that iconic station and countless neighborhoods over fifty years ago that first sparked the historic preservation movement into action. Fifty years ago this year, the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law, beginning a boom in historic-conscious redevelopment and preservation, but a half-century on, questions–such as those raised in the debate between Herbert J. Gans and Ada Louise Huxtable in the pages of the New York Times in 1975–remain about how best to use historic preservation or how to fight for sites such as Jewelers’ Row.

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley provides a concise history of “urban renewal” and historic preservation before presenting case studies of projects that used methods of preservation and public history to serve the needs of urban communities. Pairing preservation of buildings and beautification of neighborhoods with oral history and archaeology, Hurley sets out the aims, pitfalls, and, ultimately, rewards of combining urban development and public history.

Hurley concerns himself less with Gans and Huxtable’s question (“What should be preserved?”) or even the issue of representation (“Who should be preserving?”) than with methods for effective projects and shared authority (“How should things be preserved?”).

Many of Hurley’s grounding ethics–authority should be shared outside of academia, gentrification is tricky, racial tension shouldn’t be sugar-coated–are largely self-evident (I hope) to anyone who has sought out a degree in Public History, yet it is his very practical concerns that make his book a must-read. Reflecting on the collaboration with the Old North St. Louis Restoration group, Hurley summed up some of the project’s shortcomings thus: “Appeals to more abstract community-building and social reconciliation objectives, while not entirely falling on deaf ears, lacked an immediate and tangible payoff and thus failed to animate the involvement of those on the margins, struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis” (94). A straightforward, if hard to swallow truth. Yet Hurley and his collaborators learned from the lesson, including the goal of “build[ing] greater capacity among local residents and expand[ing] participation” into the heart of their next project.

 I have a hunch that this blend of pragmatism and optimism is a necessary disposition in public history operatives.


Some of this week’s readings:

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities

Max Page and Marla R. Miller, Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States 

Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

 Jon Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia, Condo Plan Worries Preservationists” in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/realestate/in-jewelers-row-in-philadelphia-condo-plan-worries-preservationists.html?_r=0

 “Preservation50: Commemorating 50 years of the National Historic Preservation Act”: Preservation50.org