This week’s readings were about locating difficult histories, and what we as public historians need to do to tackle them properly. There are plenty of histories that could make people uncomfortable for one reason or another, but these readings challenged me to consider how I should work with them. How do I present a history that is not necessarily going to please the masses? How can I present things in a constructive way to make the public think and want to address it themselves?
The article “Creating Dissonance for the Visitor” by Jill Ogline Titus presents how the National Park Service dealt with controversial history while building the new Liberty Bell Center in 2004. In the Independence Mall of Philadelphia, adjacent to where the new Liberty Bell Center would stand was once the President’s House, the house wherein Presidents Washington and Adams resided until the nation’s capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800. What makes this site controversial in conjunction with this testament to American liberty and freedom is its history of slavery. Washington owned slaves in the President’s House during his tenure, and he furthermore would cycle them between this residence and Mount Vernon in Virginia to get around a Pennsylvania law negating slavery after living a certain period in the state. Titus asserted that part of what made this so controversial for Philadelphians was the symbolism of Independence Park and the Liberty Bell itself. Independence Park, and Philadelphia in general, are accustomed to a noble role in American history, namely that of the American Revolution and early Republic, and the Liberty Bell remains one of America’s strongest symbols of freedom.
Titus considered this juxtaposition between symbols of freedom and slavery almost appropriate in how it challenges perceptions of the past. She stated that, as a society of slaveholders, slave owners had the time to immerse in Enlightenment and Revolutionary thought. In other words, America paid for its freedom with slavery, and this is the American paradox. This paradox is what the new Liberty Bell Center needed to address if it were to truly help Americans question and learn from their history. Titus furthermore argued that only discussing slavery at Civil War historical sites allows for underestimation of how far reaching and entrenched slavery as an institution is in American History. She concluded her article with assurance that the National Park Service pledged to interpret this dissonance in American history but would need to put immense thought into how that would be done. For Titus, how the National Park Service presented this paradoxical history was tied greatly into listening to the constituents it would serve; particularly Philadelphia’s African-American community.
Cathy Stanton tackled a different, but no less complicated, history in discussing the National Park Service museums created in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of America’s most prominent and historical textile cities. The choices that the NPS had to make at Lowell were similar to those made for the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia; what do we include or leave out of this preservation effort? Who do we consult in those choices? And how do we present the more complicated issues in a constructive way that makes the public think and consider it for themselves? If slavery were the complex issue to present with the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, post-industrialism served the same purpose for Lowell, Massachusetts. After listening to multiple parties in the community, including unions whose participation in the process unfortunately fell through, the NPS ensured that the Boott Mill Exhibit touched, “on the ongoing shift from agrarian to industrial economies around the world, the opportunities for new industrial workers to make cash wages, but also the reality of worker exploitation in many places, and the increasing mobility of capital and its search for ever-cheaper labor.” These are difficult, and often politicized, issues, which complicate how one would present their history and modern-day relevance.
The political nature of these issues prompted Stanton to pose one last, thought provoking question: “Despite the many structural and personal reasons that militate against it, is it possible for public history to be a more active participant in public debates about the kinds of new places and conditions … that are being widely produced in the postindustrial climate? Is it realistic to ask the field to fulfill this function? Can we envision it ever doing so?” This, for me, is one of the most important questions to ask myself as a public historian. How do I, or should I, engage in more political or publicly debated historical topics? Stanton’s answer seems to be yes; we as public historians have an obligation to engage those topics. Her closing thought in The Lowell Experiment resonated with me, and it read as follows: “The public history I would hope to see in Lowell and places like it is one that could foster relationships with a wider, more encompassing set of people and thus a broader vision about what that world might become.”
Public Historians, like academics, have an obligation to tangle with those difficult histories, and present them to the American public in such a way that they can make better sense of their present within the larger context of their past.
 Jill Ogline Titus, ““Creating Dissonance for the Visitor:” The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy,” in The Public Historian, 26.3. (Summer, 2004): p. 51.
 Ibid, p. 53.
 Ibid, p. 55.
 Ibid, p. 57.
 Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City, (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006): p. 230.
 Ibid, p. 236.
 Ibid, p. 237.