Last year when I was preparing Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, it seemed that the obvious had been overlooked: race. Although we all advocated for the integration of African American history in interpretation in part to overcome racism, I wondered if instead we are inadvertently promoting the idea that races exist and we simply need to find ways to get along, just like dogs and cats in our homes. We never questioned or uncovered the assumptions about race that visitors may carry with them into museums and historic sites. Our bigger concern was that African American history was sufficiently significant to merit preservation and integration into the interpretation.
We know that races do not exist and it was a theory developed by scientists in the 18th and 19th century as a way to explain human differences. Race has long been disproven, but certainly race and racism continues, probably in the minds of many of our visitors. So if more of our visitors could understand that race is socially constructed and artificial, it may go a long way towards Continue reading
The big gray brooding mass of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Despite the winter weather, I’ve been traveling extensively this month around the country. In Philadelphia I finally had a chance to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, an enormous prison close the city’s art museums but otherwise oh so far away. When built in the early 19th century, it was the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but after it closed in 1971, it became a forgotten ruin. Today, a private non-profit organization preserves and manages this National Historic Landmark with an usual mission statement:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.
In a way, old prisons are historic houses so I’ve been intrigued by the way these popular tourist destinations are interpreted to the public. Eastern State is a significant contrast from Alcatraz Island, which Continue reading