Attractions as Public History?

Jessie Swigger’s “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village is an analysis of the history of Greenfield Village, a re-created historical village based on Henry Ford’s glorification of certain aspects of American history and the progress narrative. Swigger says the book “explores Greenfield Village’s long history, from Ford’s initial conception in 1919, to the period following his death in 1947, to its most recent moniker, ‘America’s Greatest History Attraction.’ The extensive history of the village illuminates the fascinating dialogue that occurs between audiences and those who build and administer representations of the past.” (Swigger 5) Swigger states that she chose to study the Village as opposed to studying both the Village and the Henry Ford Museum “because it better focuses the fascinating process by which the past is constructed.” (Swigger 11) Henry Ford was the man who declared history to be “bunk,” but “At Greenfield Village, many different constituents negotiated the meaning of the pasts on display and collectively determined which ones were bunk.” (Swigger 14)

What is most interesting about this work is Swigger’s careful attention to the ways in which the experience of Greenfield Village is shaped by the visitors themselves. Swigger notes “A consideration of Greenfield Village both in the context of and beyond Henry Ford demonstrates that its interpretation of the past evolved as a dialogue between a number of players including Ford, subsequent administrators, public historians, and visitors.” (emphasis mine. Swigger 6) In the third chapter, Swigger uses the notes left by guides between 1934 and 1946 in the Greenfield Village Journal to analyze the ways in which visitors to the Village took the accepted narrative of the site articulated by the guides and made it relatable to themselves. (Swigger 89) Swigger found that comments generally fell into two categories: visitors asserting their authority over the past by challenging its depiction at the Village, and visitors relating objects and buildings to their personal experiences. (Swigger 91) Visitors would suggest changes, challenge the authenticity of objects, and would express dismay when objects did not conform to their views of the past. When viewing the (supposed) chair Lincoln was sitting in at Ford’s Theatre, one visitor noted that she had “‘seen another chair in which Lincoln was sitting when shot.'” (Swigger 92) One black visitor who has visiting the slave huts told a guide her uncle had spent his life in one of the huts at Hermitage Plantation, the same plantation from which the huts were bought. (Swigger 93)

While visitors in the 1930s and 40s tended to assert their authority over the past or relate objects and buildings back to their own personal experiences, visitors to the Village in the 1970s tended to focus on issues of consumption. In the fifth chapter, rather than looking at notes left by guides, Swigger analyzes the results of visitor surveys that were collected between 1969 and 1979. Visitors’ comments tended to fall into one of seven categories: Ford, patriotism, nostalgia, appearance, overall value, education, and leisure. The majority of the comments fell into the overall value, education, and leisure categories. (Swigger 133) Visitors whose comments were put into the leisure category tended to discuss souvenirs, food quality, and comfort; these visitors wanted to experience both service and education. A smattering of visitor comments focused on the need for Greenfield Village to be more inclusive of a diverse past. Visitors who mentioned race or gender believed that the site should hire more African American guides, discuss the history of Native Americans, and took issue with the site’s interpretation of women’s roles. These two chapters of Swigger’s work are fascinating: they demonstrate the ways in which audiences at historical sites experience such spaces, and how they take the accepted interpretation of the site and manipulate it to more closely mirror their expectations, beliefs, and views of history.

With the trend towards the new social history in both the academy and in public history, Greenfield Village underwent a transformation. Guides began to discuss histories that were uncomfortable. For example, the version of Ford propagated at the site was more complete: rather than being a great man, the site emphasized that he was also an anti-Semite. The Village was rearranged in such a way that disrupted the narrative of the small-town landscape and self-made men Ford had championed in the previous decades. Firestone Farm was added, which uses living history to interpret the past. The African American Family Life and Culture program helped to tell a more complete version of the past and connect to nearby Detroit’s black residents. (Swigger 167) However, it is still questionable whether a site that is denoted a “history attraction” can be seen as a site of valuable public history, and in the last chapter it seems as if Swigger would err on the side of caution. She notes that “Under Hamp’s leadership, Greenfield Village moved in directions that would have resonated with Henry Ford.” (Swigger 170) Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum were renamed The Henry Ford, with the tagline “America’s Greatest History Attraction.” (Swigger 175) Hamp announced an improvement campaign, which included the opening of an IMAX theater and a new restaurant, A Taste of History. The Village also purchased the (alleged) bus that Rosa Parks was riding when she began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While attempting to show a more inclusive version of the past, Hamp also made changes that echo the idea that visitors are 1) customers, and 2) consumers.

We learned last week that Colonial Williamsburg is not public history. It is harder to tell with Greenfield Village. Because administrators made such strides to incorporate the new social history into their site, the Village does now tell a more comprehensive history than it did previously. However, the more recent changes at the site emphasize the Village as a place of consumption: visitors pay for admission and expect a certain narrative of the past to be told. Are any sites of public history actually doing public history? Obviously institutions such as the Smithsonian are successful at this, but they receive federal funding, and most museums do not charge an entrance fee. Will a place such as Greenfield Village ever successfully deploy public history? How can sites that are reliant upon external funding present themselves in ways other than being history attractions?

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