This week’s readings all discuss tackling difficult histories, whether in historic preservation, museum exhibition, or some combination of the two. Ken Yellis asserts that the responsibility of museums like the Smithsonian Institution is to stand fast in their intellectual convictions and present complicated interpretations in their exhibitions to encourage public discourse rather than idle informational acceptance in his article, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World.” In Robert Weyeneth’s article “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” he tackles the architectural legacy of segregation in American history, as well as whether, and how, we should preserve these physical remnants of a significant and traumatic part of our past. Finally, Seth Bruggeman takes from both of these authors in assessing the Cruiser Olympia’s difficult history as a harbinger of American imperialism and its current status as both a preserved architectural form on the Delaware River, and an exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum.
In his article “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World,” Ken Yellis reflects on his 2009 article, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the history Wars,” and the subject on which it was written: telling difficult stories in museum exhibits that he public may react to in unanticipated ways. His previous article addressed the backlash towards the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombings over Hiroshima, backlash which so stunned the museum world that, in Yellis’s words, “Most of us seemed to have decided to avoid bar fights by staying out of bars.” In retrospect however, Yellis asserts that museums are better off attacked than ignored, for if they do not take risks and demonstrate their necessity, who will care? He argues that “the museum field needs to be clearer about what we think we are doing when we make an exhibit. If we were, we could embrace these fights as opportunities to spend our prestige on something worth buying: a firmer public understanding of our work and why it matters.”
Robert Weyeneth further embraces this attitude of tackling these difficult but important histories head-on in his article “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past.” The premise of his article is that segregation was not only a political, legal, and social institution, but also a spatial system whereby African Americans and Whites were kept separate. He identifies two primary way the races were separated spatially, isolation and partitioning. In the final section of his article, however, he asks whether any of the remaining examples of the architecture of racial segregation should be preserved due to their connection to this problematic but important period in our history. He argues that, while “no African American alive wishes to return to the era … many would like their children and grandchildren to understand it.” The main challenges we face, then, in considering preserving these spaces are those of disappearance, invisibility, and selectivity. Many of this period’s remnants are gone, those that remain can be difficult to recognize, and we as preservationists are prone to favor places that “articulate optimistic and ennobling narratives.” Ultimately, Weyeneth asserts that, despite how painful this history is, “Preserving the architecture of racial segregation in all its forms can be a way to facilitate public education, understanding about modern race relations, and social tolerance.”
The two previous articles reflect both on the responsibilities of preservationists and museum officials to challenge the public by presenting them with educational interpretations of difficult histories, and Seth Bruggeman seems to combine both of these in his article on the Cruiser Olympia which resides just beyond our classroom at the Independence Seaport. The Olympia, which itself has a complicated history as the “birthplace of modern American imperialism,” is both an architectural wonder as the world’s oldest floating steel warship and the last remnant of the United States’ first steel navy, and an exhibit to be explored by those who visit the Independence Seaport Museum during trips to Philadelphia. Bruggeman argues that by exposing the Olympia’s preservationist history, we can better understand modern nationalism and engage less privileged audiences. He ultimately concludes by saying that, whereas clinging to the Olympia’s story of American power failed to resonate for decades, determining how the ship’s story resonates with those who never benefited after World War II, who do not celebrate militant masculinity, or worship American military might, could very well provide the ship with a profitable future.
The bottom line in each of these articles, is that public historians have a responsibility to embrace difficult histories and present them to a public that can only benefit from their presentation or preservation. Whether it be the exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the preservation of a building constructed under segregationist policy, or the reinterpretation of the Cruiser Olympia, each of these stories, arguably now more than ever, needs to be heard, discussed, and learned from if we are to truly understand the fullness of our American history.
 Ken Yellis, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World, Artes Magazine (November 13, 2011), http://www.artesmagazine.com/?p=7046.
 Robert Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): p. 12.
 Ibid, p. 37.
 Ibid, p. 40.
 Ibid, p. 44.
 Seth Bruggeman, “’Save the Olympia!’: Veterans and the Preservation of Dewey’s Flagship in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia,” p. 1.
 Ibid, p. 34.