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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Redefining Interpretation at America's Eighteenth-Century Heritage Sites

  • Author(s): Lindsay, Anne Marie
  • Advisor(s): Allgor, Catherine A
  • et al.

For over a decade historians have debated the "history wars," discussions of difficult history and public memory that have identified problems in the American meta-narrative. While these debates have produced fruitful academic discussion they have mainly identified problems, rather than addressing viable solutions. The solution is to alter public memory through public history that incorporates multiple historic voices and integrates geographic and regional contexts. This study analyzes interpretation at American heritage sites of the eighteenth century to consider the standard interpretive narrative and understand how alterations to narrative and interpretation can shape public memory. The heritage sites included represent the four prominent colonial regions of the eighteenth century--Chesapeake, New England, Middle, and South--and cover mainly historic house museum installations. Current interpretation of the eighteenth century by public historians has been largely dominated by an American meta-narrative that is not multi-cultural in focus. While public history has incorporated elements of the "new social history," most sites have not developed unified narratives that acknowledge multiple voices and influences in the shaping of American history. The history presented is largely overly localized, lacks larger historical context, and overlooks topics of difficult history such as race and slavery. Altering current narratives to include topics that were significant to the everyday life of eighteenth-century Americans has the ability to reform public memory and create a popular American history that is more textured and accurate. These proposed alterations focus on reconsidering the power of the presidency in the Early Republic, contextualizing the significance of landscape, recognizing the Atlantic context, reforming depictions of slavery, and developing better concepts of the reality of life in the period. The creation of new and more challenging narratives at heritage sites has the potential to dramatically alter American public memory.

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