Preserving Positive and Negative Histories Simultaneously

As is often the case in the historical record, there are many sides to a story. When it comes to preserving heritage, these individual sides must be weighed and represented, ideally concurrently. Modern preservation focuses itself on preserving so-called “negative” histories, as is seen in recent renewal of interest in preserving the stories of slaves on great estates, such as at Monticello. Similar interests have been taken in preserving Native stories in National Parks, which now often recognize that the land that now functions for public use was once ancestral land to Native American peoples and often still holds significance for these groups. American preservation has thus come to preserve the stories that it reviles the most- those of our failures as a society.

In the case of war, there is almost always a winner and a loser. In preserving the histories of these sites, whose stories do we tell? I remember about 2 years ago taking a tour of the Palace of Versailles. It was my first time inside the palace, and I was alone, walking through the great rooms. I happened upon a German girl, about my age, who spoke English and we continued through the rooms together, chatting along the way. We came upon the Hall of Mirrors, and I was overtaken with awe. After substantial study on the construction, the history, and the grand fêtes that had taken place there, I was overcome by the experience of being there in person. I was surprised to find that my new-found friend had a much different reaction. She said, a bit sadly, that this room was a source of national shame in Germany. Remembering my history, and taking a step back, I remembered the long and complicated relationship that Germany had with this room, and was taken a bit aback that no mention was made of if in any of the plaques or guidebooks that helped narrate the room.

Negative histories are everywhere, if you know who to ask. Without taking these stories into consideration in the interpretation, are we truly preserving? At the sites of most battlefields today, the winners are exalted and the losers are hardly mentioned at all. In the future of preservation, I would like to see not just the positive or just the negative stories being told separately, often at separate sites. I would like to get a fuller picture of both the triumphs and the sorrows that have occurred.

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