Assimilating Past and Present

History is a tricky concept, depending on when it was written and who did the writing. As they say, “To the victor go the spoils.” We might add, “To the victor goes the interpretation.”

In recent years, interpretations of our past have started to change. As new research and new voices broaden and challenge the accepted narrative many of us learned in grade school, museums are embracing more inclusive stories to paint a fuller picture of America’s history.

One example is the Chief Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, featured in this issue. For at least half a century, the National Register site has been interpreted primarily as a plantation house notable for its vibrant—some might say jarring—color scheme.

Almost as an aside on the lengthy list of the home’s owners since 1804 is a short acknowledgement that a Cherokee native once lived there. Early docents attributed the wall colors to the Indians’ respect for elements of nature—red for the Georgia clay, blue for the sky, green for the trees and grass, and yellow for corn and wheat.

That myth aside, the early interpretation misses the challenges of disparate cultures living together on a plantation within the context of struggles over land, freedom, and political influence throughout the country in the first half of the 19th Century.

Cherokees such as the Vann family sought to assimilate with whites—to the extent of embracing racial enslavement—as they fought to hold onto their land and traditions. The way Africans, Indians, and Europeans worked together—or didn’t—offers a more informative story than the décor.

Missionaries who traveled to Hawai’i during the same period in the early 1800s brought Christianity and American ideas to the Polynesian islanders in a more benign fashion, building a school to teach children English, religion, and such life skills as growing their own food. Today a complex encompassing the school, the missionaries’ home, and a museum explore the early years of missionary life in Hawai’i as well as native island culture and natural history.

Look further back, Cheryl Donahue always had an affinity for colonial style, which she finally began to incorporate into her home after several of her and Jim’s ten children had grown and went out on their own. Slowly, with the family’s support, she transformed their 1980s ranch in Massachusetts into a tribute to our forebears.

In Pennsylvania, a group of high school students chose to end the school year by immersing themselves in history. Rock Hill Farm, part of the southeastern frontier in the 1760s and now the heart of Conococheague Institute, partnered with nearby Mercersburg Academy to create a program allowing them to really “live 18th Century.” They found the experience fun, physically taxing, and eye-opening. Several want to learn more, a potential boon for museums and historic sites looking for future staffers.

Efforts in Rhode Island to preserve and rebuild some of New England’s iconic stone walls show how experts and volunteers with a respect for the past are sharing traditional masonry skills to help preserve part of an early agricultural landscape that is disappearing.

America’s history is complex. We hope delving into its stories a little deeper will foster a better understanding of the past, ourselves, and everyone who calls America “home.”

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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