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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
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.”