Contested Public Spaces

This week’s readings focused on public space, memorials, and nationhood. Owen Dwyer and Derek Alderman’s Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory has an interesting premise: the authors examine the politics of producing civil rights memorials and the ways in which the Civil Rights Movement is presented in public space. They are looking at what histories of the Civil Rights Movement are remembered, what histories are forgotten, and why. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book are the authors’ delineations of the two narratives of the Civil Rights Movement told in public spaces. The first is the ‘won cause,’ which is told in contrast to the Lost Cause. In this narrative, the Civil Rights Movement is a story of sweeping cultural and political triumph, and the Movement is condensed into a well-defined era in pursuit of a single goal: integration across the South. Leaders of the Movement are portrayed as heroes who orchestrated a regional movement and worked to overcome violence and political negligence. This is the narrative most frequently presented at civil rights memorials. This narrative typically excludes the contributions of women, Movement workers, and youth, and the preoccupation with leaders does not effectively or accurately portray the grassroots activism that shaped the Movement. The second narrative is ‘one goal, many movements.’ This narrative moves away from highlighting great leaders and pivotal moments, and instead focuses on grassroots activists. The ‘one goal, many movement’ narrative emphasizes that the Civil Rights Movement was an everyday activity that involved ordinary people, and examines social networks within black communities, the role of workers and labor unions in resisting racism, and the differences of race and gender among African Americans. Rather than focusing on commemorating legislative or judicial campaigns, this narrative highlights the work of local organizations. Another section of their work that was interesting was Dwyer and Alderman’s examination of civil rights museums. The authors briefly analyze the King National Historic Site in Atlanta, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. I would have preferred to have a more in-depth analysis of each of these sites. This was a work that should have been much longer and deeper in its analysis, or even broken up into subsequent books and/or articles. Despite its flaws, it did bring to mind many other works we’ve read, including Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves as well as Monument Wars, Andrea Burns’s From Storefront to Monument, Karen Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters (one of the final sections discusses the reworking of Confederate commemoration that has taken place in the past few decades), and, of course, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. 

Daniel Walkowitz and Lisa Knauer’s edited collection Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation examines sites of public history in thirteen different countries. The essays within the collection highlight the various ways in which public history sites define the nation in relation to its past and its present, and how these sites interrogate or complicate notions of empire, citizenship, race, and the nation-state. Ruth Phillips and Mark Phillip’s “Contesting Time, Place, and Nation in the First Peoples’ Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization” examines how that museum integrates and foregrounds Native history. I would need more information to adequately answer whether or not this is a decolonizing site of history as Amy Lonetree defines it in Decolonizing Museums, but after reading this essay I would tend to say the museum doesn’t “speak the hard truths” of colonialism. There was a task force that worked with Native representatives following two major controversies within museums, which led to the creation of guidelines that outlined new models of collaboration and respectful partnership between Native and non-Native people. One section of the First Peoples’ Hall, “Arrival of the Strangers,” does focus on the changes that have been forced on Aboriginal people in the course of five centuries of contact with white settlers. However, from this brief essay, it does not seem as if the Canadian Museum of Civilization does enough to address the history of white colonization of Native people and Native spaces. Durba Ghosh’s “Exhibiting Asia in Britain: Commerce, Consumption, and Globalization,” examines the ways in which British institutions have portrayed their formerly imperialistic ties with Asia. Ghosh looks specifically at the “Trading Places” exhibit at the British Library, which focused on Asia before the 1840s and emphasized the East India Company and trade, rather than conquest or military coercion. Britain’s connection with Asia was told using contemporary themes of globalization, such as capital, consumption, and commerce. Ghosh notes that visitors were encouraged to “consume the exhibit,” mirroring the ways in which eighteenth and nineteenth century Britons consumed goods and products made in Asia. Ghosh argues that the exhibit does not elucidate its idea of trading places well–rather, it widens the gulf between consumers and producers–and contributes to ‘imperialist nostalgia’ where colonizers recreate representations of societies they colonized. Daniel Walkowitz’s “Ellis Island Redux: The Imperial Turn and the Race of Ethnicity” is a report of the author’s second visit to Ellis Island following the events of September eleventh. It was surprising to discover how poorly Ellis Island interrogates the history of immigration in America. Immigrants–those that were healthy and willing to assimilate–are described as parts of a workforce. The experiences of Asian immigrants and African Americans are ignored, and the history of capitalism is not examined to any great extent. The history of the employees who worked at Ellis Island as part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is ignored (a stark contrast to our reading of Pustz’s Voices from the Back Stairs), and there is no significant discussion of race or empire. Ultimately, the edited collection was successful in demonstrating how much work public history sites across the globe have to do to successfully complicate the dominant narratives of the nation-state, race, and empire.

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