Tag Archives: public history

Preservation, interpretation, destinations, and denominations

Going back to the subject of Mormon historical tourism, here’s a pretty extensive list of LDS historic sites in the U.S.  Some are full-fledged, public history-type institutions, with the usual trappings: visitor centers, guided tours, restored buildings, exhibit areas, and so on.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this kind of extensive effort to preserve, restore, and interpret a chain of church-related historic sites all over the country is unique to Mormonism.  Just about all of the major American denominations have archives and historical societies.  But historic sites and museums operated under the aegis of a national church body are few and far between.  Some of these churches have episcopal structures that could theoretically oversee this sort of thing, and even de-centralized groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have cooperative programs to fund education and missions, but it seems that no religious group is nearly as active in preservation and interpretation program as the Mormons.

So why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints devoting so much more effort to running historic sites than other religious groups?  I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, there’s a steady supply of enthusiastic volunteers to keep the sites going.  As I noted in my review of the Illinois LDS sites, that church actually utilizes its missionaries to work at them.  This is critical, because interpreters are the foot soldiers of large historic sites.  With lots of young people and retired couples eager to serve eighteen-month or two-year stints as missionaries, and a church organization willing to post them at historic sites, the church has both the human resources and a framework in place to deploy them.  Of course, evangelicals are keen on winning converts, too.  The Southern Baptist Convention recruits, trains, and supports laypeople who serve on the domestic and international mission fields.  They don’t, however, employ them as historic site interpreters.  The fact that the LDS church does so says something about the importance of history to this religion.

Second, Mormonism’s origins are both domestic and comparatively recent.  That makes its most important historic locations more accessible to preservation.  There are plenty of significant places in the U.S. that would make for great Baptist or Methodist historic sites, but none that are as cherished to these denominations as Hill Cumorah or Carthage Jail are to Mormonism.  You’d probably have to go to Europe to find a Protestant equivalent, or maybe even the Middle East.  (Come to think of it, there actually is a living history site at Nazareth, but we’re getting waaayyyy beyond the scope of this blog with that one.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mormonism has embraced its own distinctiveness.  The church has a long history of suffering persecution, misunderstanding, and exile, and this lends itself to historic consciousness.  You’re more likely to hold onto your history if it’s a cornerstone of your identity.  As I said in a previous post, visitation to Historic Nauvoo is 80% Mormon.  This suggests that a lot of the people who go there want to be reminded of who they are and who they used to be, and why their deposit of faith is something significant.

Still, since the church deploys its missionaries to places like Historic Nauvoo, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not historic tourism is an effective means of proselytizing.  I don’t have any figures, so I don’t know the answer.  I can say from my own recent experience that if it doesn’t win converts, it does at least win interested observers.  I doubt I’ll ever become a Mormon, but since visiting Nauvoo and Carthage I’ve become fascinated with Mormonism’s origins as a subject of study—as an interesting historical phenomenon, in other words.  That’s generally how it goes with historic sites.  I can’t tell you how many Civil War buffs have told me that they owe their obsession to a battlefield visit.

But you can’t use your history to generate interest if you don’t have a platform for doing so.  All those church archives and historical societies operated by the bigger denominations are important enterprises, but it’s mostly researchers and history enthusiasts who will use them.  Heritage tourism reaches a broader audience, even if it’s the already-converted who need to know more about their own spiritual heritage.

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Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places.  Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.

When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds.  All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc.  You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic.  In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.

This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history.  In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information.  How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations?  How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?

The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem.  They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.

In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980’s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII.  This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War.  But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points.  Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election).  But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980’s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem.  The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition. 

The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach.  In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe. 

The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage.  An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy.  Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online.  I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself.  Just go see the movie.*

This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind.  It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.  It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.

Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them. 

The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication.  Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.

*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen.  Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.

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