The site of the President’s House in Philadelphia, occupied by George Washington and John Adams during their presidencies, is among the most challenging and controversial cases in public history interpretation in recent times. At the heart of the case is the challenge of interpreting the presence of slavery at a site in very close proximity to the Liberty Bell, a widely recognized symbol of freedom. The struggle over how the President’s House site would be commemorated unfolded after publication of Independence Hall in American Memory, but it extends many of the book’s themes. This case study is offered for the benefit of public historians and others who seek a deeper understanding of the process that led to creation of the outdoor exhibit “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation.” It draws primarily from the digital archive about the site created by the Independence Hall Association, a citizens’ group and advocate for marking the site of the President’s House.
1. Request and Response (2001)
The Independence Hall Association, a citizens’ group formed in the 1940s to advocate for creation of Independence National Historical Park, wrote the following letter to the park’s superintendent, Martha Aikens, on August 15, 2001. What were the group’s primary objectives? What can you discern about the group’s previous relationship with the park’s administration? If you were the superintendent receiving this letter, what choices would you have in replying? Which of those choices would be the best option?
- Document: Independence Hall Association to Martha Aikens, August 15, 2001 [link]
On October 11, 2001, Superintendent Aikens replied to the Independence Hall Association. What were her primary objectives? What can you discern about the park’s previous relationship with the Independence Hall Association? If you were a member of the Independence Hall Association receiving this reply, how would you respond?
- Document: Martha Aikens reply to the Independence Hall Association, October 11, 2001 [link]
Learn more about the Independence Hall Association.
Optional related document:
Read the General Management Plan for Independence National Historical Park (1997) (PDF – if this link does not work, search title and date in Google Books.)
Edward Lawler Jr., a member of the Independence Hall Association, published the results of his extensive research about the President’s House in January 2002 in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. What did Lawler seek to achieve in this article? How does the article address the presence of slavery in the President’s House during the Washington administration? What does the article suggest about the aftermath of the earlier exchange of correspondence between the Independence Hall Association and Martha Aikens?
- “The President’s House in Philadelphia: Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (January 2002). [PDF] [HTML] Article also accessible in JSTOR database.
3. Public Interest (2002)
The President’s House site, particularly its association with slavery, attracted increasing public interest during 2002. Additional interest groups formed to advocate marking the site. Who became involved and why? What role did historians play?
- News coverage, 2002 [link and scroll down to 2002]
Learn more about the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.
4. Response (2002-04)
In response to public interest, Independence National Historical Park organized a process for creating a preliminary design for the President’s House site. When presented at a public meeting at the African American Museum in Philadelphia on January 15, 2003, the preliminary design and the park personnel who presented it were met with sharp and vocal disapproval. Why was this the case? What choices did the park administration make and why? Were there other options? Note the title slide of three faces in the slides prepared for the meeting; what did they communicate to the audience?
Slides of process and preliminary designs presented at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, January 15, 2003 [link]
- News coverage of public meeting [link]
Interest in slavery in the President’s House forced revisions of the exhibits in the Liberty Bell Center, which opened in 2003.
- Read Gary Nash’s account of the controversy and its effects on the Liberty Bell exhibits in “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll: From Controversy to Collaboration,” The George Wright Forum Vol. 21, No. 1 (2004). [link to PDF]
As the project continued, what efforts were made to identify and include stakeholders? What points of agreement could be found, and what remained to be resolved?
- Questions for Discussion by Roundtable (2003) [link]
- Document: Roundtable Consensus (2004) [link]
- Document: Minority Report (2004) [link]
- News coverage of forum and decision to create a memorial to enslaved Africans [link]
Learn more about the Ad-Hoc Historians.
Read the National Park Service Director’s Order on Civic Engagement and Public Involvement (2003; renewed 2007).
5. Funding Sources and Shared Authority (2004-06)
At the dedication of the Liberty Bell Center in 2003, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street pledged $1.5 million in city funds for the President’s House project. By 2005, the city also assumed management of the project. What funding sources allowed the project to move forward? What stakeholders remained involved and how were their interests reflected in the selection of concept designs and a design-build team? What role did private consultants play in this phase of the project?
- News coverage of funding sources (2005) [link]
- Oversight Committee Appointed (2005) [link]
- Document: President’s House Project Request for Qualifications [link]
- Design Competition: The Semi-Finalists [link]
- Document: Finalist Team for President’s House Selected (press release) [link]
Learn more about The Roz Group.
Learn more about Kelly/Miaello Architects and Planners.
6. Archaeology (2007)
What did the excavation of the President’s House site during the summer of 2007 reveal about public interest and the power of place?
- Document: Kick-Off for President’s House Site Archaeological Dig (press release) [link]
- News Coverage: Dig Yields Some Unexpected Finds [link]
- News Coverage: Controversial Dig Re-Covered [link]
- “Public History at Sites of Protest: Citizenship on the President’s House Viewing Platform,” by Cheryl LaRoche, Cross Ties newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (Fall 2007) [link to PDF]
- News Coverage: New President’s House Plan to be Unveiled [link]
7. Construction and Interpretation (2008-10)
How and why did the President’s House site remain a matter of controversy even as construction began?
- News Coverage [link and scroll down to 2009-10]
- Document: President’s House Oversight Committee Meets to Resolve Design Controversy (press release) [link to PDF]
- Document: President’s House Exhibit Concepts Under Revision (press release) [link to PDF]
How did proposed interpretive panels and videos address the histories of the presidency and slavery?
- Document: Proposed Exhibit Plan [link]
- Panel Discussion of President’s House videos, “History as Cultural Work” (Swarthmore College, 2011):
8. Site Opening (2010)
Did the result fulfill the high expectations of the public, the City of Philadelphia, and Independence National Historical Park?
- News Coverage: President’s House Opens on Independence Mall [link]
- Press Kit, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation [link]
- Review by Inga Saffron in The Philadelphia Inquirer [link]
- Review by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times [link]
- President’s House website, Independence National Historical Park [link]
- President’s House website, Independence Hall Association [link]
- President’s House website, City of Philadelphia [link]
- Public responses [link – Archived page, slow to load]
The following video was produced by Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation at the time of the opening of the President’s House site. How do the individuals interviewed recall the project? What opportunities and conflicts were most important to them? How does the video deal with interest in the President’s House as both a site of slavery and the location of the executive branch of government in the 1790s?
What lessons does the President’s House case offer for public historians? How might these be applied to the practice of public history in the future?
“City about to turn over the President’s House,” by Stephan Salisbury, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2015.
[…] me to extend beyond the original content of the book. For example, it hosts a step-by-step case study of the President’s House site in Philadelphia, which after the book’s publication became a matter of controversy related […]
What lessons does the President’s House case offer for public historians? How might these be applied to the practice of public history in the future?
I think this topic is very interesting along with the role of public historians in general. Yes, the President’s House is very important in American history but it also involves slave culture. I think it is important to include both histories since they are both American history. Not all history needs to be repeated or glorified but I do think that it needs to be remembered to teach a lesson. This case is important because it is very relevant to social and public history issues in the present news. Public historians are dealing with the same choices in regards to confederate monuments.
As I just said, I don’t think we need this step much in the future – public historians can use this case study as an example today. There are a lot of opinions and view points in these cases and it is hard to please everyone. I think all histories need to be represented unbiasedly.
What lessons does the President’s House case offer for public historians? How might these be applied to the practice of public history in the future?
For public historians the President’s House case offers the technological maneuvering and alterations that are necessary to establish a historical site. When we often see these sites in person we do not think of the mass preparation that has taken place. This case shares to public historians the extensive work that has taken place behind closed doors.
What lessons does the President’s House case offer for public historians? How might these be applied to the practice of public history in the future?
There are a variety of lessons and aspects the President’s House Case can offer to Public Historians.
One of the first lessons is that Historical Truth needs to come out and should not be covered up. This will only complicate things for future generations when digging up the past. One can say however that History is oftern rediscoverd as time goes on and this must be takin into consideration. Included in covering history up or ignoring a certain aspect of it, is also not being swayed by pasts assumptions or beliefs which have been passed down through generations. In depth research and discovery must be a priorty.
Another lesson is that what one group may envision as the end result of a public history site or project may not be what another group envisions. There are different interpretations to history. Along with the interpretations, public historians still must be able to guide the groups involved in the project to accuracy and what is truth. While their may be different view points and those should be displayed and included, an overarching theme should be objectiveness in the material presented
Openness to the time frame of expected completion date must considered as the shape and scope of the project will most likely change when going through the discovery, planning, and implementaion process. Along with this, the amount of money projected for the project may change and different funding sources, even those not originally sought out, should be considered.
As the group of public historians allowed different community groups to be involved and have a say in the President’s House Case, so too should other public historians consider this in future projects.
As Louie Messiah said “History is working progressively for the betterment of society” and that key in public history sites and studies.
Your line, stating that the Historical Truth needs to come out and should not be covered up is one the of the key things I learned from this project. Of course, public historians should take research into account when completing all projects, but from what we have learned from this case study, that is not always the case. There was so many instances where parties said that all of the research had been done, or even that there was no archeological findings at the site. That of course, was not entirely the case, which demonstrates just how active historians need to be in finding the truth within the projects they complete.
What was also prevalent in this case study was the immense influence social justice had on the outcome of the project. Through mediums such as newspapers, protests, and meetings, community leaders and activists had their voices heard, and what uncovered the truth in this project. I feel that, without the influence of such community leaders, the project may have never happened or would have looked significantly different than what it is today.
Couldn’t agree more with you, it is really interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes to get these sites started and how different entities have vastly different influences on these things. Not only does a tremendous amount of care need to go into creating a site that deals with this subject matter, but the idea of being active in continuing to research, learn and present is so interesting to me. Some may visit this site because they are interested in setting foot on the location of the first capital. Others will be drawn to the brutal history and glaring contradictions that exist within the site and our country’s history. Both draws need to be considered when creating a site like this, but ultimately the true story of the place should be what is highlighted, and it is vital to not have two separate strands going at once. The presence of the slaves is something that needs to be understood and not made possible to ignore.
One of the lessons for me, as a participant in some portions of this project, is that public historians have a vital role to play as the bridge between scholarship and public understanding of American history. Since the 1970s, historians had been writing of the interdependence of liberty and slavery in the early history of the United States. By the time of this project, some 30 years later, this should not have been such a surprise. It should have been easier for us to present an interpretation that included both slavery and the presidency as part of the same American story.
And yet, much of the news coverage and many of the debates surrounding the President’s House still framed the central challenge of the project as telling both the story of George Washington and the stories of his nine enslaved servants as if they were separate stories. And that division comes through in the interpretative design. It’s possible to walk through the structure and learn about exclusively Washington, and it’s possible to learn exclusively about early U.S. slavery. The connective tissue expressing the fundamental interdependency of these two narratives is sadly missing.
I think the study of the President’s House shows how the truth always comes to light. I feel like a clear mission should be agreed upon before the process begins (What story are we telling? What do we want our audience to know about this space? How does this better our understanding of this site and what happened here?). I agree with Jessica that interpretation is a major part of creating a public history site. History is all about interpretation and what historians choose to focus on. Some people may also have different viewpoints and ideas about a specific historical event or time period. This comes into play with the success of opening a site.
Artifacts are only going to keep changing. Artifacts found from hundreds of years ago are going to be extremely different from artifacts future generations will marvel at within the next hundred or so years. I feel like the President’s House case study also teaches us that keeping records is vital to future historians. There was so much confusion of the layout of the house and the changing layouts after the original demolition. It appears to everyone working on the outside that the qualified people don’t know what they’re doing or how to handle the information. Documentation is key in the public historian universe.
One of the most important lessons the Presidents House has to offer to public historians is that people react differently to history depending on their social and cultural background. A seemingly straightforward simple fact, image or idea can be disturbing or even offensive to certain people. This needs to be remembered so when history is presented to the public in the forms of exhibits, memorials, and monuments it can be shown in a way that gives an accurate portrayal while at the same time being sympathetic to the varying views of the guests that will visit the site.
When developing a site public historians should be active in both the communities that the site is representing and in the community that the site will be residing in throughout the process of planning and construction. Doing this will make public historians available to hear the thoughts and views of their site clientele and controversies such as the ones that were part of the President’s House development can be avoided.
Public historians should not only expect strong various viewpoints, as mentioned by Travers Turmelle, but they should also understand that it will take time to gather the full spectrum of opinions. This particular project lasted over ten years, mostly because the National Park Service dragged their feet in listening to their local audience. Interest primarily was focused in when the house was populated with real names and stories of those who inhabited the once standing building. One floor apart marked the world of differences between the underlining enslaved labor force to keep the household running and the Executive Power fractionizing with Native Americans. That dialogue between the floors, or rather lack thereof, is at the heart of the project. Due to the size of the project, the site compromised to have too much material to satisfy every groups’ desire. However, no one really achieved his desired end from the project other, because each of the 5 cultural values and 6 substantive themes competed for space and prominence in a limited layout. While the site’s existence is a strong testimony to Philadelphia for admitting the complexity of its founding, further dialogue could have permitted more grouping of these ideas to allow for a more cohesive experience for the visitor.
Of the many individual “lessons” to perhaps be learned from this protracted and fractious process, the one that resonates with me is “make very, very sure you’ve at least acknowledged as many potential stakeholders as possible before embarking on something like this”. Could there possibly be a more divisive and uncomfortable topic in American History than the cognitive dissonance of a freedom loving country that has almost 300 hundred years of slavery in it’s history? The list of people who would care about any of the particular histories at play here is, as we have seen, legion. As onerous and protracted as a thorough process of allowing all stakeholders to present their views would have been, it might have saved most of the acrimonious back and forth. I do wonder what else Public Historian professionals could have done to help “show the way” once the ball got rolling. By the time the story grew legs, there were already at least two groups with their backs up. What could reasonably-minded history professionals have done that they didn’t at least attempt to do? What a mess, and yet, in the end, we are probably all a little wiser for having lived through, participated in or spectated this process.
I think that one of the most important lessons the President’s House has to offer public historians is the simple fact that it will be impossible to make everyone happy. The public historian must be prepared to face criticism at every turn. Moreover, the public historian should never become too attached to a particular vision. The highly politicized nature of public history projects demands flexibility and compromise. It may also mean that accuracy will be sacrificed on the altar of “collective memory.”
What strikes me most, in this whole endeavor, is the inability of effective public history to be undertaken in design by committee. The President’s House site is a confusing array of perspectives and narratives which does little to elucidate anything particularly effectively about presidents Washington or Adams, the nine people kept enslaved by Washington at the site, or the conflicts and ironies inherent to the early Republic’s struggles with slavery in a nation ostensibly founded under the “self-evident” principle that “all men are created equal.”
Instead, there’s the outline with a house, without any indication about what the shape and layout of the house has to tell us about the lives of the people who lived there. On the walls of the ghostly outline of a once-house, narratives are told of enslaved people who did or did not escape from bondage without any clear indication of why that story is essential to understanding the house, or, indeed, why the story must be told at the site of the house. To make matters worse, occasional blips of political narrative, little of which seems to coherently fit with rest of the site’s interpretive panels, sporadically appear between tales of Oney Judge and Hercules.
Ironically, given that compromise was at the heart of the American republican experiment’s success, compromise is what has largely plagued the President’s House site. Just as a jack of all trades is master of none, the lack of coherent direction to the President’s House interpretive plan is largely due to the political need of those who laid it out to tell every story. The interpretation is plagued by the pervasive imperative to make everyone happy; an impossible goal, considering that American history is often times far from being a happy story.
Ultimately, one is left with a question laden with yet more irony: Can the work of history, especially public history, be done in a democratic fashion? Can “We the People” determine what happened, what matters, and how to describe it?
What struck me about the President’s House case was the struggle of history and the struggle of democratically trying to portray a truth that identified with everyone’s truth. I thought the idea of seeing the President’s house and hearing it being called the President’s house made one think it would just entail information about George Washington but instead his history seemed to be symbolized by the walls of the house. And within the house was the history of his slaves and those who ran the house and delegates who passed through working with Washington. It made the visitors aware of a history they may or may not have known existed, along with adding a deeper depth into the home of Washington. It also gave his slaves a voice that would not have been heard otherwise. This highly politicized case shows that together public historians have to be able to work together not for their own agenda but to showcase a clear and precise history as well as all the characters involved.
This case is particularly useful for public historians to understand the obstacles that can be met with the need to tell what they deem to be the truth at historic sites. As exhibited with the President’s House case, public historians need to be ready for public and institutional backlash when they determine that truth needs to be added to the public’s understanding of a site. For the President’s House, even the National Park Service was unprepared for telling the truth about slavery at a location that symbolizes freedom in the United States. Obstacles regarding financing the construction, interpreting the site correctly, and claims of a lack of sources were some of the ways the NPS blocked the progress of the revealing truth regarding the site. On the other hand, public historians should also be aware of the enormous public support that can be raised surrounding the controversy of telling the truth. Various groups and organizations of not only professionals, but citizens who identified with the history of the President’s House made their presence known and advocated on behalf of the truth. Public historians’ understanding of the obstacles they may face, as well as the resources they have at their disposal in the public, can help them better gauge how telling the truth about a site will progress and be received by the public.
I also found this case to be very enlightening in terms of the obstacles that must be hurdled in order to successfully create a historical site. Prior to reading this I had no experience with case studies regarding public history, and I was fascinated, but also shocked by all the time and effort that went into creating this site. On top of having to find funding, accurate information about the house and its residents, and enough support to even have the site created, they were faced with the issue of how to include the history of all of the houses residents. Ultimately, they were able to fund a memorial for the slaves who lived there to remember their contributions to the home, while also creating a wonderful exhibit that shows off the first home for the President of the United States. I was glad to see the slaves lives be remembered, and was happy that their memory was fought for, and not allowed to be left out of this site. I think the President’s House is a great addition to Independence Mall, and provides guests with a unique experience to see where some of the most important figures in our history made many of their most important decisions.
For me, the most valuable lessons from the President’s House case were the necessity of civic engagement, the media’s power, and the importance of coalition building. I find the case strikingly similar to that of the Enola Gay exhibit. In both situations, different groups of stakeholders had divergent positions on the interpretation of history–commemoration/celebration vs. (what I would call) complex and mature thought. In both cases, coalitions that were not staff of the site or members of the original interpretation team voiced vociferous opposition to the proposed plans. And in both cases, media attention helped to keep the controversy alive. The main difference between the two cases I see is that at the President’s House site, the public (i.e., African Americans in Philadelphia, academic historians, and to some extent, Lawler, the untrained historian who just had a passion for correcting the story of the house) wanted the more complex interpretation of the site while NPS (at first) and Independence Hall National Historic Park wanted to celebrate the legacy of liberty without the confusion of slavery.
Civic engagement might have saved years of headaches for NPS at the President’s House site, but I’m not sure. I think of Martha Aikens’ letter to the Independence Hall Association in 2001. The IHA didn’t bring up Washington’s enslaved people when they requested that the executive branch of government be recognized on the site, and had Aikens accepted their proposal and their funding, perhaps no one would have said anything at all. Once Gary Nash spoke to WHYY and wrote his op-ed in the Inquirer, though, there was ignoring the issue. Unlike in the case of the Enola Gay, Nash and supporters of the more complex view of history were able to push forward because they controlled the narrative by getting their story to the media first and because they made a plan of counterattack early. Academic historians did not sit on the sidelines and wait for the controversy to die down; they had learned from the Enola Gay fiasco and asserted the necessity to have themselves at the table.
I guess a more apropos lesson would be to know the public you are serving. True, the Liberty Bell is a tourist attraction, but it’s an attraction in a city that was (is?) 50 percent African American, had and still has an African American museum just one block away from the Liberty Bell Center site, and has an active African American cultural presence. Did no one think that in a city like that, ignoring African Americans’ contributions to the first First Families would be a problem?
The President’s House presented public historians with a unique opportunity to highlight the importance of the executive branch’s role in Philadelphia while also addressing the role that slavery played in early America. However, the public historians involved were not prepared for the public, academic, and professional reaction and backlash to the House plans. The President’s House works both as a cautionary tale for future historians and as an example of a site that can emphasize both the famous, well-known histories and the showcase histories that could have previously been glossed over.
The President’s House offered many different avenues of interpretation, but in the end the route that the committees took was a decent one. They managed to balance the important roles that Washington and Adams played without glorifying (or excusing, or ignoring) their slave-owning lifestyle. In addition, they gave the slaves of the house a voice and showcased their narratives to be just as important as the lives of the presidents. However, the path that lead to the final product was muddled with multiple groups with differing interpretations. Future historians should take caution in how influential public opinion can be on a project (and, in the case of the President’s House, be open and inclusionary about who has a say in the interpretation of a site). Public historians must not ignore the voices of surrounding communities who wish to have input about how a historic site should be presented, but they must also shoulder the responsibility of presenting the site accurately and fairly. It is a fine line for historians to walk and, as shown by the President’s House case study, is not always a clear-cut process.
I agree with Amy’s response. Walking a fine line is a part of the historical profession, regardless if it is in the field or in a classroom. We as future Public Historians must follow the example set by the Presidents House Committee. As we move into our respective careers, we must remember the importance of giving the public a voice as well as those whom a museum, park, historic house, or any other historical site is there to represent.
So very many lessons can be learned from this case study, especially those surrounding controversial topics in history and the varying perspectives adopted by individuals. The historians involved in this study can be learned from, as the controversies that resulted from the President’s House plans play a factor in this case study acting as a tale of caution. Public historians, and future historians, must know that their role in presenting history to a public is one of mediation, as well as authority – it is our job to be responsive to the opinion of the public, and to do our best in interpreting the history of a person, place, event, or object in the way it is meant to be interpreted. We are not to choose one history over another, though, simply because the former seems less likely to spark a fire of controversy; rather, we must learn the same things that the historians involved in the President’s House planning that, in many cases, we will have to balance two separate histories. It is our duty to figure out the most efficient ways to do this. The interpretation and presentation of history to the public is not always easy; rather, as is seen in the issues of the President’s House plans, it can be quite intense and complex. Our job will never be easy, but we must continue to try our best!
I love your point: “We are not to choose one history over another, … we will have to balance two separate histories.” Certainly it can be difficult to interpret multiple histories and present them in a coherent and efficient manner, but that should not deter historians from attempting to do so, at the very least. Two separate histories would not exist if these two separate things did not occur simultaneously; they co-existed before, and as historians we should find a way to make their interpretations co-exist as well, as they are both history. Of course, as you note, we need to be open and responsive to our audiences, but I think you’re right that we can’t let the potential for controversy make us choose one history to present over another — what type of precedent would we be creating, or what type of pattern would we be feeding into, if we did so?
Nothing teaches better than reality!
From this case study, I am taking away a stronger appreciation for the difficulties faced by curators. Yet, I am still surprised that the original stakeholders did not consider the importance of slavery on the site of the President’s House. I am curious as to the why. From a project management standpoint, I see the benefit of seeking the unexpected issues because extra work now will save work in the long term. In fairness, I have never faced such a myriad of issues: funding, politics, special interest groups, etc. However, I will certainly consider them now. Understanding an audience or constituency is critical. The historian must become versatile in all of these fields to be better prepared.
As to the final result, I am still torn about my position. What’s better? To compromise to the point of distraction on competing interpretations or to hold true to a single interpretation if it delivers a more coherent message? At what point must there be compromise? Each case requires an open mind. In any case, I am taking practical tools and lessons from this case.
Hey TJ, I agree with you on your point of how the stakeholders did not see the importance of slavery at the President’s House. It is interesting because once the information of slavery was brought up it caused many groups to get involved. Which leads me to think, why was there not more collaborative effort involving more African American groups in the early stages of this case. I enjoy how prepared Lawler was with all of the research he had done ahead of time. However, what I have learned from this case study is that when it comes to the public history field they have a tougher job in certain circumstances because they have so many people they need to appease. In this case, the curators had the stakeholders, the funders, among other groups. In my mind, there is a battle taking place between to what extent does compromise and the truth happily meet. To that point is that always possible.
9. This case shows how if preservation and the research that goes into preservation are not done historical places and the stories they tell could be literally and figuratively buried. This case also shows how public criticism and continuous research can change developments that would pave over history.
One of the underappreciated lessons stemming from the President’s House case is the necessity for funding. Issues arose throughout the project’s history, from the Independence Hall Association’s earliest requests to controversial interpretations of the sight that sparked community anger. This resulted in a long process of design, interpretation, redesign, reinterpretation, archaeological excavation and construction that required extensive funding. The city pledged $1.5 million in the fall of 2003 to continue designing the memorial after the public’s backlash toward the National Park Service’s original design. City funding alone was not enough. Completion required the infusion of $3.6 million in federal funding, as announced by Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Robert Brady. This created a shared authority over the project, as local and federal officials held a monetary stake in the project’s successful completion. The local community held an equivalent level of authority, as their responses and actions toward the design process and final site helped determine the project’s success. This case offers a variety of valuable lessons about civic engagement and the interpretation of controversial American history, but without funding, none of this could have occurred. A foundational requirement that all public historians must grapple with is the acquisition and use of funding from a variety of sources.
The issue of funding is something we public historians have to deal with and confront all the time, and the President’s House is a particular fraught example as the budget ballooned overtime. But I think what you said about authority over the project lying mostly with those who have the most money is an apt point. It’s unclear how in the future something like this can be avoided, but it is an illuminating point that one can think about as they look at other historic sites and ask oneself how funding may have impacted the execution of the project.
Thank you for illuminating this important aspect of public history, one that I feel can be overlooked – especially when the audience, such as myself, is not familiar with the field of public history. The “necessary evil” of funding is of course relevant to almost all fields. Myself, looking more towards a career in academic history, should be concerned with this as well, especially when it comes to publishing books, etc. I almost wish there was more information on grant writing, etc. in this case study. Understanding the monetary stakeholders in projects is vital to appraising the perspective of the final outcome. For example, I noticed that the question of corporate stakeholders played a role in Martha Aiken’s initial decline of the Independence Hall Association’s request. She had stated that the project was already in motion and greenlit by corporate partners. There are no excuses for obscuring history (like another initial excuse for refusing this project that the story of enslaved African Americans was too “complex”).
At the heart of the president’s house, there resides national shame and national pride. Washington and the enslaved persons under Washington’s control represent national shame; the President’s house itself represents the lofty ideals upon which this nation was founded.
The site of the President’s house now exhibits mostly shame, even though the site planners initially wanted to whitewash the President’s house and exhibit mostly pride. Is there a golden mean between pride and shame that the site planners could have reached? I don’t know, but the planners could have been at least proud enough to put up some noticeable signage in front of the site.
I agree that this case study is a great example of the difficulty in interpreting early American history. A figure like George Washington is held as a sacred figure in American history and the president’s house is an extension of his life. The difficulty in interpreting the president’s house is how to incorporate slavery into its narrative. It is a difficult line to walk between interpreting the house as a prideful piece of American history and the interpretation that focuses on the president’s ownership of slaves. While an interpretation of slavery at the president’s house can be viewed as national shame, I think it is a necessary incite into the complexity of a nation built on the system of slavery while fighting to uphold liberty and justice for all.
The President’s House should be one of the big sites-to-see in Philadelphia long with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but when one walks around Independence Mall, and you can turn 45 degrees and look at the Liberty Bell, another 45 degrees and look at Independence Hall, and yet another 45 degrees and look at the Constitution Center, the President’s House looks like an art installation leftover from another era. I can’t say with authority that it is not one of the big draws of the Mall, but I did visit the Mall on a Tuesday afternoon and was faced with a big line at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but no such line to file through the President’s House existed. The reason I think the President’s House is such a so-so attraction is that, while it is interesting to look at, without much context (which I had going into it), it’s hard to really figure out what it’s supposed to be without spending a lot of time looking at the panels. This perhaps speaks to the lack of commitment on a certain vision for the house. Is it here to remind us that slavery is integral to the founding of our nation? Is it here to remind us that Philadelphia was once the capital of our nation? Is it here to teach school children that the White House was not always the home of the president? And certainly, if one takes the time, they can learn all of those things. But where the site falters in finding some kind of cohesion. The President’s House gives off the vibe that it’s uncomfortable with its history of slavery. This is evidenced by the fact that it doesn’t really know which is the primary narrative of the site. If it can’t hold both the thought that George Washington was a slave owner and also a fine president than it is missing something. Perhaps an example of balancing one’s darker history and also celebrating democracy can be found just a few feet away inside the Liberty Bell museum. After one goes through security, they have to walk through a series of cubicles to get to the liberty bell. Inside the cubicles are panels with varying themes. Some panels have cool artifacts from the Liberty Bell or adjacent products. But a major theme that carries throughout is this tension between the liberty promised by the Declaration of Independence and the inequality that major groups in America face. There were giant photographs of Gay Rights protests in front of Independence Hall. There was a video playing MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. And while these are all somber reminders to the visitor that our history is fraught with inequality, one could still pride in how people fought for liberty and against inequality. So, when one finally reaches the bell, they can still have some kind of palatable narrative of US history. This stands in contrast with the President’s House which just has two contradictory things with no sense of how they relate to each other. How can one craft a satisfying narrative if one has no idea how to fuse the two pieces together? Perhaps this is a larger existential crisis, and perhaps there is no way to make the story of American history palatable because of these two perpetually conflicting elements. And perhaps the President’s House wins as a meta-commentary on American history’s incompatibility. But my gut says that the President’s House could’ve done better.
The lesson that all public historians can learn from the President’s House is the importance of inclusion. We have to be respectful of everyones’ opinions as public historian and must be inclusive in our creation of monuments, statues, and museums. It seems unfortunately clear as to why slavery wasn’t thought of when establishing the ideas for the President’s House, America has a tendency to “sweep things under the rug”. Especially things that might portray certain historical figures in a negative light. The thought of including slaves in the exhibit might have not seemed as great importance.
When considering both the President’s House & the Liberty Bell, it becomes evident that these two historical landmarks do not belong in the same conversation when regarding the history of freedom & liberty in our country. Too often, individuals turn a blind eye to events that have contributed to the development of the United States. Public Historians have an ethical responsibility of presenting information to consumers in a factual & appropriate manner, & concealing major facets of how we as a society have grown is 1) unfortunately far too common, & 2) directly opposing the purpose of history as a subject of study. The Liberty Bell’s symbolic platitude of ‘freedom for all’ certainly doesn’t represent the enslaved individuals who were nearby at the President’s House, serving the white man.
Of course, the discussion of the relevance of the Liberty Bell then becomes apparent, considering that the bell only gained notoriety in the 1830’s.
Many thoughts here!
The Presidents House Case Study offers public historians a unique insight on how establishing a historical landmark, and bringing the history to life, are to separate things. While it was easy to bring together the Presidents House and Liberty Bell as a historical site, it was harder to allow the actual history of both places seep through. Public historians are shown how there are always multiple sides of history, and when creating a historical site one needs to make sure it is inclusive, and includes history of all walks of life. The Presidents House misrepresented itself by including the liberty bell, which represents freedom, while our founding presidents had their own enslaved people. The journey to include the enslaved people of President Washington was a thorough process and took a very long time, however I do believe the main goals of the site were necessary and important to todays understanding of history. Overall, this case study demonstrates the thorough process of establishing a historical site and how it is not easy, but necessary.
The result of the President’s House case study exemplifies the problematic nature of allowing for too many conflicting voices to be included in one project. By trying to please everyone, no one is satisfied. The project went to through many stages and tried to incorporate many ideas, but it failed to come together. While the committee and public were excited that a memorial finally established, the ultimate result lacked coherence and vision. Despite taking years to erect, the site has become a site of public disappointment and criticism. Articles from both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, display their displeasure for the site. Thus, if the committee and project managers created a single coherent theme and layout, the site would be much more appealing to the general public. A failure of the committee to come to a consensus eventually lead to catastrophe of the project.
Another piece of the project that is often criticized is the failure of technology at the site. More often than not, the videos fail to play for the public as they walk through, preventing the visitor from the learning. These technological problems are a result of a faulty design plan. By creating an outdoor design, the video technology is subject to weather and other disturbances. The plan should have been subjected to more critical testing by a public audience. For example, the team could have set up the layout with tap and cones, and place the technology and information out to be tested by a selected group to obtain valuable information about flow, coherence, and set up of the site. Once this knowledge was accumulated and corrected, the structure then could be erected.
For public historians, the two key points from this project include the need to create a clear and concise objective as well as better critically thinking regarding the practicality of the design.