Thursday, June 14, 2007

History With Warts and All

Hmmm . . . how to present an underground slave passage belonging to one of the icons of liberty? Could be tricky.

Washington DC was not our original capital. Philadelphia was. When George Washington became our first leader in the 1790s, his presidential home was in Philadelphia.

The National Park Service is excavating that home, right in front of the Liberty Bell Center. (this pictures is from AP/Matt Rourke) They planned to build a nice, media-savvy, pro-active, 21st century exhibit hall; sounds like the excavation was intended to be a quick look and no one expected to find much.

Lo and behold, they found a lot, including the underground walkway. The passage is evidence that the nine slaves serving Washington in Philadelphia (he actually owned 300, but most stayed in Mount Vernon) tiptoed around unobtrusively, using secret tunnels to go in and out of the house. How best to incorporate this into the planned media exhibit?

The National Park Service is filled with dedicated people. They want to show visitors what they’ve unearthed. If they have to add ramps to an underground passage, reposition the building so that the excavation is protected . . . you don’t have to be an engineer to realize that the budget is going to explode!
But what else can they do? Maybe a corporation or millionaire patriot/history buff will cover the new expenses.

Public History—I know this because I got my masters (in history) from Arizona State U, which has a great Public History program—is about preserving history for the public. Museums, historical societies, monuments, publishing, even things like grant-writing, are all part of public history.

National Park employees, public historians, writers, all of us, believe that history is exciting. You and your kids should see it, not lock it up in libraries or bury it underground.
So if you know any potential benefactors just aching for a worthy cause, please let them know about this! The original story, published at, is here.

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