CCCC 2014 Reviews

A.08 "The Rhetoricity of Public Memory: Accessing 'the Past' through Museums and Memorials"

Reviewed by LauraAnne Carroll-Adler (lauraana@usc.edu)

Chair: Frankie Condon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lisa Mastrangelo, The College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ, “Layers of Re(Created) Memory: Accessing Laura Ingalls Wilder”
Wendy Sharer, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, “Layers of Re(Created) Memory: Accessing Laura Ingalls Wilder”
Jane Hindman, Queensborough Community College, New York, NY, “De-scription and Disruptions: Native American Students’ Autoethnographic Texts”
Amy Gerald, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC, “Disrupting the Politics of Silence: Reinscribing Sarah and Angelina Grimké into Public Memory”

Lisa Mastrangelo and Wendy Sharer co-presented the first paper, a discussion on “Layers of Re(Created) Memory: Accessing Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Their presentations opened with a brief narrative of a trip to the 2011 Feminism and Rhetoric Conference in Mankato, Minnesota, and a visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN. The experience of the museum prompted them to consider questions of history, memory, and the role of museums in the community. In this case, the museum faced contradictions between pop culture and history, and between the curation of both sets of memories and the goal of supporting a community in need of economic activity. The analysis of the rhetoric of memory—or memories—performed in the curation of the museum tracked those contradictions between Laura Ingalls Wilder, the historical figure who wrote/co-wrote books about her life in various homes on the frontier, and the Wilder family portrayed in the Little house on the prairie (1974) television show.

The museum exhibits were described as disorienting. The gift shop sold Wilder’s Little House books, but also sold Confessions of a prairie bitch (2010)—a piece by the actress who portrayed Nellie, a fictional character who was a composite of three girls from the original books. A replica of a prairie church in the museum is not from any actual prairie, but from the television show. The exhibit was built by local children, and continues to serve as a wedding chapel, thereby fulfilling the community’s needs, if not history’s. A visit to the museum’s website (2012) shows the incongruous rhetorical construction: an advertisement for a reunion for the TV show highlights the page.

Even the exhibits based on the actual Wilder family seemed detached—both from the TV memories displayed throughout other areas and from connection with the Wilder family. Exhibits displayed replicas of items in other museums rather than actual artifacts. Other materials consisted of text, maps, and copies of photographic images. The presenters noted the metonymic appeal of genuine artifacts displayed in museum exhibits; they stand in for a history and create a connection between the viewer and the past. What happens to that connection when the items are merely replicas? The question gets to the essence of what an historical museum does: without that connection, it would seem that viewers could simply buy a book or view pictures online.

Ultimately, the presenters suggested that the conflicting goals of the museum disrupt visitors’ terministic screens. Viewers who tour the museum hoping to recreate Michael Landon’s vision of pioneers—and their own childhood memories of enjoying the show—must be startled by the information on the actual Wilder family, which includes less-than-flattering depictions of Pa Ingalls and an account of the family fleeing town to avoid paying their rent. Researchers hoping to learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder or life on the frontier find instead a cache of lunch boxes and souvenir plates from the 1970s. Sharer and Mastrangelo’s conclusions served to remind us that a museum can be an unreliable narrator. The interpretive screen of the museum must be understood when reading the history it displays.

The panel moved to another examination of the re-imagining of history. In something of a reversal from the previous presentation, this paper described the purposeful re-imagining of history driven by the community represented in the received images. Jane Hindman, in her presentation “Description and Disruptions: Native ‘American Students’ Autoethnographic Texts,” addressed the work of students in a class based at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These students were majoring in Museum Arts, and the curriculum examined how museums construct the public’s understanding of Native Americans. An auto-ethnographic text, she explained, responds to earlier representations and re-interprets them. For Native Americans these texts are particularly useful and important, since Native American images and culture have been so frequently defined and appropriated by others.

A key figure in this project is Edward Curtis, whose The North American Indian (1907) depicted iconic photographs of somber, static figures in traditional Native American dress in what was described as an effort to document a vanishing race. The English 101 students at IAIA wanted to contest these received images. They found works that used “double vision” to challenge the dominant narrative of the received images. These “double vision” artworks juxtaposed old images with competing images to make the contrast apparent. Lindman projected images of Tonto and the Lone Ranger by Larry McNeil (2014), which epitomized this process of privileging Native American readings of their own history over the mythologies of a “Vanishing Race.” In one image Hindman displayed, Tonto is the star of the scene, and is dunking Richard H. Pratt—famous for founding Indian boarding schools and for his advice to “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”—in dirty dishwater.

Hindman referenced several scholars and artists in her presentation:

Their works and their readings privileged the artists and Native American identity over commercial reception.

The final speaker, Amy Gerald, shared her efforts to re-insert two abolitionist sisters back into the historical narrative of Charleston, S.C. in “Disrupting the Politics of Silence: Reinscribing Sarah and Angelina Grimke into Public Memory.” She noted that Charleston had successfully rebuilt itself after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Much of this rebuilding/rebranding effort redefined the city’s history and historically marked space around white, elite culture, and it emphasized the less polarizing colonial legacy of the town. Charleston’s architectural tours, for example, directed attention towards the pre-civil war history of the town and towards upper class cultural aesthetics. Unfortunately, the legacy of slavery, and of Southern women who openly opposed it, didn’t fit seamlessly into that narrative. Specifically, Gerald was looking for historical memory of the Grimke sisters, abolitionists from Charleston. She listened to narratives told by tour guides and other disseminators of the town’s memory, and noted that questions about the Grimke sisters were met with resistance, evasion, and redirection.

Gerald’s project started with a premise from feminist historical research: look for absences, figure out what the redirection from those absences is hiding, and then investigate the motives for distracting. So, Gerald embarked on a project to re-inscribe the Grimke sisters into Charleston’s history. She and her students wrote to the Charleston Museum, which initially responded that the house the Grimke sisters had occupied, the Heyward-Washington House, was curated as a showcase for Colonial life—again, averting attention from the more contentious abolitionist heritage. After further persuasion, the curators agreed to a small display encased in a hallway closet of the house showcasing the sisters and their work as abolitionists in antebellum Charleston. Now, at least, interpreters guiding visitors through the house acknowledge the sisters, and the sisters are mentioned in the Heyward-Washington House website as “the famous abolitionists and suffragettes.” They’ve been re-written back into the history of Charleston.

The three presentations complemented each other exceptionally well. Those of us who are interested in the intersections between museum curation and rhetoric, or in the historicization of space to place, were well rewarded here. The presentations also provided examples of the practice of bringing writing into the community for those searching for changes to bring lessons beyond the composition class.

Arngrim, Alison. (2010). Confessions of a prairie bitch. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Charleston Library Society. (2014). Heyward-Washington House. In The Charleston Museum. Retrieved from http://www.charlestonmuseum.org/heyward-washington-house

Curtis, Edward S. (1907). The North American Indian: Being a series of volumes pictures and describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Hodge, Frederick W (Ed). Cambridge, MA: The University Press.

Landon, Michael, & Friendly, Ed (Producers).Claxton, William F., Dexter, Maury, French, Victor, Landon, Michael & Penn, Leo (Directors). (1974). Little house on the prairie. United States: NBC Productions.

McNeil, Larry. (2014). Larry McNeil Photography. Retrieved from http://blog.larrymcneil.com/

Wilder Pageant Committee. (2012). Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Retrieved from http://walnutgrove.org/index.html


CCCC 2014 Reviews

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