Records, Historic Sites, and Public Memory
Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
Archivists are becoming fascinated with how they and their repositories connect (or don’t connect) to local communities. Bruggeman’s study of the supposed birthplace of our first president is also an analysis of how historians relate to the making of historical meaning, in this case examining the debate over the relevance and accuracy of the birthplace of Washington. Bruggeman states that he has written a history “part social, part cultural, and several parts intellectual” (p. 9). Much of this study concerns the battle over a reconstruction of the birthplace house which seems to have been built in the wrong place and in a manner looking nothing like the original house seemed to be, but which nonetheless became the center of both Washington’s boyhood interpretation and a contest between local residents, historians, and site staff. There have been other complicating factors, ones that have plagued other historic sites as well, such as how to interpret slavery and race at sites that have taken on iconic and even religious overtones as well as the battles and tensions between historical and museum professionals with the activities of well-intentioned amateurs and community activists.
Bruggeman’s book is an excellent case study of historic site interpretation and collective memory, part of a growing scholarly literature that those interested in archives ought to be familiar (but which very few of the latter seem to be well-versed in). Such studies, and Bruggeman’s is no exception, often offering commentary on the value and use of records and record generating technologies. Here are some examples. In trying to understand how late 19th century Americans were relating to the increasing number of historic sites and parks, Bruggeman writes: “No turn-of-the-century technology brought American object fetishism into relief more so than the easy-use personal camera. The practice of taking postmortem photographs of departed loved ones – common during the turn of the nineteenth century – was perhaps the most striking permutation of the same phenomenon responsible for the Washington reliquary rings of a century prior and the grand pilgrimages of centuries long past” (p. 57). Later on, in describing some of the debates between the private citizen Memorial Association and the National Park Service, Bruggeman how certain of the Memorial Association’s records, upon their transfer to the National Park Service were discovered to be missing (either the result of careless management or purposeful destruction).Bruggeman, when considering the running of the Washington birthplace site by the more professional and bureaucratic Park Service also notes that the latter’s records “grow increasingly impersonal” in comparison of what is reflected in the records of the Memorial Association (p. 177). The donation, in 1996, of the records of another citizen group, the Wakefield Memorial Association, to the National Park Service is seen as the final stage of private groups administering the historic site.