Public history, history presented in museums, parks and at historical sites, is the sharp end of scholarship. We Americans know our history. We remember what our parents, grandparents, and teachers told us about the way things were. We have seen John Wayne die defending the Alamo, and die again building airstrips in the South Pacific. However, our historical memory is often at odds with historical fact. James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton’s 2009 book “Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory” is a collection of essays examining the causes and outcomes of some controversies that have resulted when memory and fact collide.
All the essays the Hortons chose for the book are readable and easy to follow. Given that a public historian’s job is to present complicated issues and events in a manner acceptable to experts and understandable to school children what else would you expect? In fact, he difference between “historical memory” and “historical fact” a distinction I have stumbled over in the past, is better explained here than in any historiography I have read. In addition to the opening theoretical articles there are several interesting case studies presented, the controversy on the new building for the Liberty Bell and its location on the site of the Presidents House, introducing the stories of bonded servants to tours at historical sites like Monticello and “My Old Kentucky Home” Park, and reinterpreting Richmond Virginia’s public space to encourage historical tourism in the new, New South, are interesting and, for me, somewhat surprising. Edward Linenthal wraps the book up by showing that our disconnect between our “historical memory” and our factual, documented history is not restricted to slavery or even to the United States by pointing out similar disconnects around the world.
If you have ever disagreed with something you read in a museum or on a monument you should enjoy this book.