Traveling to Historic Sites and Museums – The Truth Meter

I, like so many of us, spent most of my childhood visiting historic places of interest during field trips in school. I grew up in San Diego so there were many cool places to tour right in my backyard. As I grew older, I visited the Missions, Balboa Park, Cabrillo National Monument, and many other places of historic significance to California. I was always so interested in everything I was taught at these wonderful sites.

Interestingly, although I was always fascinated by what I learned touring historic sites, I was never a good student of history.  I never even had what I would call a mediocre performance in history classes in high school, nor in my first attempt to attend college right after high school graduation.  History, as taught in the classroom, at that time, was just so painfully boring to me.  There was so much memorizing about Generals and Wars and Acts….oh, the nightmare of it all still haunts me.  I absolutely dreaded going to classes back then.  Well, with one exception. My junior year in high school, my teacher thought learning about history was best taught by watching tv shows or movies about those events.  At one point, we spent three weeks watching M*A*S*H episodes. That wasn’t too bad, but I truly learned nothing.  Regardless, I continued to find the history taught at historic sites to be different and I always enjoyed my visits.

So, I continued to tour such places, taking my young niece and nephew along, believing we were learning true and accurate history about my home state. I’m sure you have done the same and have believed the same, yes?  Additionally, because I moved all over the country during a twenty-one year career with Home Depot, I toured many incredible historic sites in Nashville, TN, Dallas, TX, Jackson, MS, Pensacola, FL, among other cities, believing the same, that I was learning truth about significant historic events.  I continued this path to gain “knowledge” by visiting these sites with great enthusiasm and interest.

So, imagine my surprise when I decided, twenty-four years after graduating from high school, that the time had come to get a college education and I wound up a history major. What?  Yes, a history major!  It wasn’t my original goal.  I was a film major, planning to make documentaries about rare, genetic diseases that most have never heard of that needed more people to understand they exist to drive research money via donations. But, life has a way of sneaking up on you and changing your direction.

The journey to a history degree was long and, truthfully, incredibly enjoyable.  I decided to take a class my first semester, at thirty eight years of age, just because it sounded interesting to me.  The Vietnam War.  I mean, I grew up during the Vietnam years and knew relatively nothing about the war, so I thought I might enjoy the class.  Fortunately, the class was taught by an incredible history professor, Dr. Linda Dudik. Professor Dudik is an amazing story teller, and I totally enjoyed her as a teacher and her class from the first story she told. She gripped my interest and never let go.  I learned so much from her that semester and, because of the way she sets up her class and lectures, I had an emotional connection to what I was learning, which is exactly what she intended. She wanted us to feel history, literally and figuratively.  The course was so well-planned by a professor skilled in telling/teaching history that I looked forward to class each week.   Because I enjoyed the Vietnam course so much, I took another class with Dr. Dudik, and then another, and another, and before I knew what hit me, I changed my major, at her urging, from film to history.  I have never regretted that decision. Not one single day.

So, here I was, attending college to find a new career and I chose a major that could lead me right back to the career I already had. I mean, what do you do with a history degree? I graduated from college in 2008 and immediately moved to the east coast to continue my learning.  I wanted to visit every place where the history I had just spent five years learning had actually taken place.  I embraced that goal with gusto and have enjoyed every site I have visited.  I had so many wonderful opportunities to “feel” history, as Dr. Dudik used to say.

But, sadly, I faced an unexpected dilemma.  My experiences at many sites proved to me that with gained knowledge comes the understanding that not all information presented at historic sites is as accurate, or truthful, in its presentation, as I had always believed.  What am I saying?  I am saying that I realized, rather quickly, that I needed to do more learning.  Learning about museums and historic sites and how history is presented.  I wanted to understand how history is preserved, how exhibits are chosen, and what methods were used in presenting those exhibits.  I wanted to understand how history presented in museums versus a historic site (plantation home, battlefield, etc.) are similar and/or different.  I began by doing what I had been taught to do: research and self teach.  I bought books. I read.  In the end, I gained so much more understanding than I ever anticipated might be learned.

Here are the books I read for my learning:

Book List: Preparation for visiting historic sites and museums

  1. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on The Uses of History by Gordon S. Wood
  2. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life by Roy Rosenzweig  & David Helen
  3.  The South in the History of the Nation: Vol. One: Through Reconstruction A Reader by William A. Link and Marjorie Spruill  Wheeler
  4.  Plantations and Outdoor Museums in America’s Historic South by Gerald and Patricia Gutek
  5.  Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums by Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small

Additionally, I took three grad level courses at NCSU and learned more about the history of the south from brilliant professors who lived in the south their entire lives. This does not, in any way, discount the knowledge of the professors I learned from as an undergrad, as they were brilliant, but to listen to Southern history taught by an enlightened Southerner was very different. The opportunity to take classes from these professors added to my passion and desire to get into as many historic sites as possible and truly learn from them.  I wanted to experience everything possible to grow my learning and understanding. I should state that my interest and passion is Black history.

After touring close to three dozen plantations in Virginia, Delaware, North and South Carolina, in addition to dozens of battlefields, museums, presidential libraries, small historic sites, such as coal mines, bridges, National Parks, etc., I decided to write a quick blog about truth telling and history.

cropped-broadstreetcharleston.jpg

There are so many sites to explore in a location like Charleston, SC., for example.  I, literally, could have spent a month exploring everything available and I still would have missed some wonderful history.  For those seeking a true history lesson while they vacation, the narrowing down of what to visit can become overwhelming.  I mean, Charleston’s history dates back as far as the middle of the 1600s and you have to make tough choices when the history spans so many years and so many square miles.

When I plan historic vacations for clients, I ask them how they navigate amusement parks.  If they tell me they visit all of the big rides first, then I understand how they tour large areas. They run back and forth across the park, with no set plan, missing so much along the way.  I ask them how many attractions they didn’t get to see, but wanted to, because they ran out of time? They always have a number, and always regret the manner in which they tackled their visit. It is the same with heading to a destination where exploring is the goal. There is so much to see and do, but only so much time to do it.

To help me narrow things down, I have a dedicated practice of studying about the sites I may want to visit before I really plan the details of any trip for three reasons:

(1) In a location like Charleston, there are so many places to explore that it would be impossible for you to see everything in the time you allot for your trip. So, I always research the history ahead of time, beyond the travel guides. I want to make it clear, however, I always start with travel guides.  My favorite guides are DK EyeWitness Travel Guides because they give you so many choices and a very brief idea of what historic significance each site offers. They are broken down by area and always provide you a walking tour map.  I am able to make a long list of where I might want to visit and then, after doing more historical research about each place, I narrow it down to a reasonable number of sites.  It is important to remember to always note the amount of time the site suggests you dedicate to touring so you do not have to leave the site before you have explored everything offered.  You can read as deeply as you deem necessary about the places you truly think you’d like to explore and determine if you, indeed, want to visit those  locations.

(2) I call the Historic Society and ask them for a list of sites they recommend. I had read a book a long time ago about the slave trade in New Orleans. I wanted to discover any of that history still available. I called the Historic Society and not only got a list of incredible opportunities to grow my learning, but I also was told about the Whitney Plantation that is located about an hour outside of New Orleans. I now follow that site on FB and I am hoping to make a special visit there in 2020. What I was able to do with the knowledge that the History Society gave me was add to my list of places I might want to visit. It also gave me choices that were not listed in my travel guides. I want to make the most of every trip and why go and find out after your visit that Space Mountain existed but you didn’t know until you got home.

(3) Those of us who travel and make exploring history part of our vacations do so in order to further our learning about the history being explored.  If the purpose of your exploration is to grow your knowledge of US history, then you have to do some work so that you can determine the legitimacy of the information being presented to you.  This is at the heart of this blog. How do we know if what we are learning is truth or if it is a rewriting of history in order to ensure the reputation of the city or person being discussed. So, do some reading before you go so you can truly learn and then, empowered by your own knowledge, you can visit these sites and enjoy them, regardless of the stories being shared by tour guides.

So, I want to share some examples with you so you can see what I am trying to get across here. The following are actual experiences I have had while visiting historic sites.

Southern history, my main area of historical focus, is so beautifully preserved, or is it?

Another view of the ruinsSo, to the points 1 and 3 above:

It is very important to remember that the history you see when visiting museums, and what you learn on tours at historic sites, is always scripted. The script is meant to direct your learning to the message the historic location wants you to hear and the picture they want to paint for you of the site.  The manner in which the retelling of history is communicated is 100% for the preservation of a specific point of view about the location.

An example would be, as I discussed in the intro to my previous blog, Experiences of Enslaved Men, Women and Children, how a Virginia plantation I visited several months ago, rich in American history, uses the term “servant” as opposed to “slave” or the more current term, “enslaved.”  This is an attempt to portray history in the point of view of the site, and not necessarily with 100% accuracy based on historic scholarship.  Basically, this is what that particular historic site wants you to take away with you when you leave about the people who lived the history being told. What do I mean?

The switching of the term servant for slavery is done in order to deflect us, the visitors, from the reality and harshness of slavery that existed on the plantation.  Keep it light and not too heavy in content is the goal. All of this is an effort so not to degrade the reputation of the person whose life we are learning about, and in this case the person was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The historic site uses less inflammatory terms in order to disassociate the famous plantation owner, the enslaver, from the painful scar that persists today as a very dark mark on our national history.  But, with that being said, if you listen closely and look around at what is available for view, but is not discussed in the scripted part of the tour, you will learn more of the history the site leaves to your own interpretation. I always suggest that you look at everything offered and think critically about what you’ve heard and are viewing.

For example, in the basement of this same historic site there is a painting depicting slavery on this plantation. It was a painting depicting beautiful slave homes, nice clean streets going from one place to another, all of the enslaved dressed in lovely clothing from the period, and slave families walking hand-in-hand as if on a Sunday stroll. If you have read The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by Historian John W. Blassingame or Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South by Historian Albert J. Raboteau, you would see that the enslaved did not ever enjoy life as depicted in this painting. This work of art is placed where tourists will see it, specifically, to give an unspoken impression of slavery on that plantation – which would be an untruth.

None of this implies that all museums and historic sites do not present history truthfully, because that would be a false statement on my part. Most museums and historic sites make every effort to present history as truthfully as they are “allowed.”  I say allowed because those who sponsor exhibits and sites get a lot of say in what history, and how truthful that history, is presented.

I look forward to telling you about many historic sites, and one plantation in particular, where the truth is the name of the game. I learned so much from one site and they even gave us a booklist at the end of the tour so we could continue our learning after we returned home. I loved that because they were encouraging us to learn just how honest they were presenting their history.

I find traveling to historic cities and sites to be enhanced greatly when I have some knowledge before I arrive. I do, however, struggle with knowing the history being presented and find myself biting my tongue during some of the presentations. I struggle because I can see how the story is being told for the benefit of the audience and not for the truth of history. I watch as tourists take in what they are being presented as gospel and I wish I could share truth with them, or at least highlight information that would bring perspective to the scripted presentation, so they get a more true picture of history.

An example is again, the servant vs. the slave example. The tour guide talks about how there is a “whistle walk” that extends from the kitchen, which is a building some distance away from the main home, to the dining room in the main house. The “servants” (enslaved) were required to whistle while they walked the food from the kitchen to the dining room so that those waiting would know the food was arriving and the house servants could greet the travelers and then serve the food to the guests awaiting dinner.  That is a lovely story, but if you do your homework, you would know that the enslaved were required to whistle while they walked because if the enslaved were whistling, the enslaver would know they were not eating. The whistle walk was common on plantations where the kitchen was a distance from the main home. A charming story of efficiency, or an example of the control the enslaver had over the enslaved, even to the point of ensuring that not a morsel of food was eaten without permission. The tourist who has no way to know, would accept the story as charming.

I am going to post some great vacation destination blogs and talk about these wonderful plantation historic sites to give you an idea of what is really out there and available for viewing. I am not suggesting you should not visit them. On the contrary. I want you to visit them as an informed tourist.  The same plantation where the enslaved are not discussed truthfully, there is a beautiful home, a wonderful history, including a visit from President Lincoln during the Civil War, the spot where Taps was written and first played is located there, and the most amazing grounds and gardens for walking and exploring.  Every American should visit this plantation.

You will want to visit each of the plantations I will share with you. Research, make a list, read, and learn before you travel and enjoy your visits to historic sites more than ever.

Travel well….


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