Preserving buildings and sites associated with painful memories or tragedies encompasses challenges that extend far beyond technical ones. We asked three individuals whose professional work has involved the study or the development of such sites—or both—to share their perceptions of the complicated human concerns that this area of preservation inevitably involves, particularly with respect to sites in the United States.
Conover Hunt is a public historian who from 1978 until 1989 served as the director and chief curator for the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, which contains a permanent exhibition dealing with the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy. She is the author of JFK for a New Generation, her third book on President Kennedy. She was recently named executive director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Consortium.
Kenneth E. Foote, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, has an interest in American and European landscape history. His most recent book is Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, which examines the memorializing—or neglecting—of sites of tragic or violent events in the United States.
Felicia Lowe is a producer and director whose film Carved in Silence documents the history of Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. She is the immediate past president of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, a nonprofit organization leading the effort to preserve, restore, and interpret the immigration station, a National Historic Landmark.
They spoke with Kristin Kelly, head of Public Programs & Communications for the GCI, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Kristin Kelly: Places associated with painful memories or tragedies over the years have met with various fates, ranging from sanctification to obliteration. What are the factors that determine the fate of these kinds of sites in the United States?
Conover Hunt: I think that the treatment of the site is largely determined by how the public connects the site to key American values.
Kristin Kelly: When we say, "American values," who makes those judgments?
Conover Hunt: Sites in America are battlegrounds for different points of view. In the case of the Sixth Floor Museum, the decision was made by the public—not by Dallas or Texas leadership. The site was absolutely despised by local leadership. Over time, the public turned it into sacred ground and associated it with the culture of hope and key elements of American patriotism. Then community leaders took their lead from the public and said, "We must not only preserve this site, which belongs to everyone, but also oVer educational information here."
Jeffrey Levin: Ken, would you concur that these sites are battlegrounds over values?
Kenneth Foote: The debate that goes on around these sites in the aftermath of the violence is very much a process of building consensus within the community. It's nearly impossible for monuments, in the long run, to be one-sided, because then, eventually, they are vandalized and effaced. So part of the debate is building constituencies. Some sites—such as the Sixth Floor Museum or the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was killed—involved grassroots efforts where people said, "This is an important site" and gradually built up a constituency. I think back to Professor James Young's observation about the Holocaust memorials: that the debate itself is as important as what happens at the site. Without debate, the resolution won't be found.
Kristin Kelly: Isn't Angel Island Immigration Station an example of that grassroots effort? The station was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, a part of history that wasn't anyone's particular interest, outside of those in the Chinese American community—which claimed ownership of the site and pressed to preserve it.
Felicia Lowe: Yes, at Angel Island we had to press for ownership, but it's a multistep process. Once we found a voice, what we said is that "this is everybody's history." We wanted to bring in the broader community. But we were the ones who were most vested in starting the dialogue. If not for us, it would not have happened.
Jeffrey Levin: Ken, in your book Shadowed Ground, you described how the meaning of the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg changed over time the further one got from the actual event. Felicia, is that process of reinterpretation one that occurred with respect to Angel Island?
Felicia Lowe: Well, interpretation or reinterpretation, it's one and the same. What are the facts and who's telling the facts and from what perspective? With Angel Island, it's hard for me not to color it because it's my history. My father went through Angel Island Immigration Station and was interviewed three times. I've seen the original papers. Each time people were interviewed, they had to sign the document. Once I saw my father's shaky handwriting. My heart sank. He must have been so scared that day.
The story of Angel Island has come out because of the presence of absence in our own lives. Nobody talked about it much. There were some small references to Angel Island in history books, but little information came from the people who were actually there. As scholars and those in my generation—the first generation to go to college and get an education—started digging into it and finding documents, the story unfolded.
Conover Hunt: Interpretation is generational. We interpret the past according to the values and needs of each generation. Gettysburg began as a symbol of victory for one side. Then it was heroic encounter. And now it's been adopted by all and is directly connected with the values that make us Americans. Another point is that in our generation, history has, with its division into increasingly complex specializations, become multicultural. People now access the past through their own group.
Kenneth Foote: I agree that interpretation is generational. One thing that I don't want people to think is that it's always historical revisionism. The needs of people in different generations are very important. People who experienced the event often use the site as a memorial—which is very different from what their children will do. When people who experienced the event pass away completely, the site is reinterpreted again. I think of sites like the Johnstown Flood Memorial in Pennsylvania. For the people who lived through the 1889 flood, the memorial itself was a very important part of their lives, something they came back to every year. They continued commemoration ceremonies, like those at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. When the last survivor is gone, these things move into another realm. Each generation needs something different out of the site and out of the memorial.
Conover Hunt: The first generation that deals with these sites—the generation dealing with memory rather than history—they're going to purify that site, take the sting out of it one way or another. Once that passage from memory into history is complete, other generations are going to reshape the site—perhaps more accurately, because the emotion involved with the memory of the event is absent.
Kenneth Foote: In some cases, until the last survivors pass away, the emotional stake in horrible events will prevent any really accurate interpretation until there's some distance—60 years, 100 years. It just isn't possible. People won't allow it.
Conover Hunt: The usual time frame for recognition of a site as historic is about 50 years. The Park Service has a 50-year rule on the start of significance of architecture or sites, but some of them are done much sooner. The urge to obliterate versus the urge to preserve is a dynamic tension that shapes it. Plus, we always preserve these sites according to our own values for our generation.
Kenneth Foote: Almost all of this memory work requires quite a bit of time. And the more shocking or shameful the event, the more time it often takes for people to come to terms with it. I've been researching sites associated with anti-Chinese massacres, and I finally found one in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago. It has been over 130 years for some of these events to be commemorated. That is because they are so diffcult to interpret within the context of American values.
Jeffrey Levin: In the U.S. context, are there some places that just never get noted or are completely obliterated? If so, can we say why those sites remain invisible?
Conover Hunt: Being a southerner, I think of the sites associated with slavery. It's hard to find physical remains of that period of American history, in which most of the artifacts, buildings, and materials were in the South. There is now a move afoot to do a museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the history of slavery. And already there are those trying to expand that museum into an overall Black history museum. In other words, there is this thing, as there should be, with the memory of slavery. It did happen and it needs to be interpreted, but you can see that forces already are trying to sanitize the concept a little bit.
Felicia Lowe: I've noticed a number of efforts to create various immigration-type museums. It's a peopling of the United States that's connected to what Conover talked about—history becoming multicultural. For many of us, Ellis Island has never captured our history, and so there's an increased interest in creating museums that reflect our experience. It's not obliterating, but trying to present the other perspectives.
Kenneth Foote: I know hundreds of sites that aren't marked that have to do with African American history, although that's rapidly changing. And there is a vast array of Native American sites that have not been marked. Sites having to do with Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans are just beginning to be marked. Some of the heroic moments in U.S. labor history and immigration history are barely noted on the landscape. Some of the seminal riots and uprisings and things like gay rights and other social causes are hardly mentioned at all. There is a whole range of things that are still sensitive issues.
Jeffrey Levin: What you're saying is that if one wanted to capture a picture of American society's attitudes about its past, one would simply have to go down that list of places not yet designated.
Kenneth Foote: Yes. I have to say that over the last generation, there has been greater openness. We're beginning to see some sites marked from the civil rights movement, some sites of slavery, a few sites associated with ethnic groups coming into the United States, like the Japanese and Chinese. There's the beginning of acknowledging the contributions and the suffering of some of these groups. But it's just a beginning.
Conover Hunt: In the 1980s, we started to see recognition of intact neighborhoods in historic districts that are historically or traditionally minority. This has expanded into a full and very healthy multicultural movement in historic preservation. And it's necessary, because people access history through their own group.
Jeffrey Levin: Something said earlier was that the debate was as important as the preservation of the site itself. How do we address competing voices? Is there something that we can learn from past experience that can help preserve sites in a way that's meaningful now and in the future?
Conover Hunt: A lot of the process is traditionally determined by the requirements of the group in charge. The responsibilities of the National Park Service are very different from the responsibilities of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who oversee the Alamo. Now there is a place that is totally resistant to reinterpretation because it is still regarded as a shrine. By the same token, the National Park Service, dealing with public money, has a multicultural audience it must serve. Competing voices should be there, but in my view, the most sacred sites in America belong to everyone.
Felicia Lowe: While the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation does feel like the steward of the site, the site is, in fact, a California State Park, and that state park is within the footprint of the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The three groups have signed a cooperative memorandum, and thus far, everybody has been very respectful. The discussion over how the site ends up is still ahead of us. Now that the site has National Historic Landmark recognition, we've been working cooperatively in getting basic studies done—the conditions assessment, the cultural landscape, and so forth. From the Foundation's point of view, we want to turn this site into a healing place, to transform it from a symbol of exclusion to one of inclusion.
Conover Hunt: The National Historic Landmark designation for Dealey Plaza was very significant because, until that time, there was heated debate in Dallas about whether the Texas Book Depository building should be removed from the landscape. With the National Landmark designation came the offcial recognition that the Kennedy assassination was the most important thing that happened at that site and that the site belonged to the American people.
Kenneth Foote: We've learned from these processes of memorialization that it is important to open the process of debate up to a number of voices. I point to things like the development of the Sixth Floor Museum, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are sites in the last 20 to 30 years where people have brought in a cross section of the community, including those who have very disparate views of the event. This happened at the Oklahoma City bombing site, and it's coming up at the World Trade Center as well. People are very conscious of having a number of constituencies involved.
Conover Hunt: Inclusion makes for better interpretation.
Kristin Kelly: Those that have firsthand experiences of these events are sometimes the ones most eager to obliterate these places and these memories. To what extent are we disrespecting the victims and the people involved by encouraging the preservation of these sites, and how do we best overcome their objections?
Conover Hunt: That's an excellent question. This is where time is so helpful. People need a chance to heal. In the Sixth Floor development, we had witnesses and we had victims—the best known, of course, being the Kennedy family. As a courtesy, the family was kept informed of everything we were doing. When the exhibit opened, they sent an emissary and saw that it had been well done—and then we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. But Dallas never asked for the presence of the family. Mrs. Kennedy edited my first book back when she was at Viking, and a reporter said to me, "Did you ever invite her back?" I said, "Good heavens, it was the worst day in that woman's life." We respected everything she had managed to do after that day in Dallas.
But while respect for the witnesses and the victims is key, the victims don't own history. And this is relevant to the World Trade Center, where we have identified that site with key American patriotic values. It is not a maudlin process of pilgrimage to that site. It's commemorative. And it's already associated with positive values in the minds of those who were not victims.
Kenneth Foote: They maintained a good balance in Oklahoma
City, opening the debate to survivors and to victims' families
but not allowing them to dominate. The decision about what would
happen to the site, as well as the memorial, had input from a wide
range of people affected by the tragedy, as well as people from
outside, like professional designers. There was a temptation early
on to let too much decision making go to the families and survivors.
As Conover says, the people directly affected don't own the history, and so a more balanced and encompassing approach is appropriate.
Felicia Lowe: Regarding Angel Island, I think that the silence of our ancestors was about shame and keeping a low profile. For my generation, the notion of restoring and preserving the Angel Island site has meant honoring our parents' memory and sacrifice—as much as it is to learn and interpret what this all means. Of course, the meaning of the place is very important. The site says a lot about where our country was at a particular time regarding race.
Conover Hunt: I think the victims have ownership for a while. The process has to have time. We do so many things in an instant way, but history takes some time.
Felicia Lowe: It does take time. The victims don't own it, but they certainly have a particular attachment to their experience in living it and in grieving. All of that does take time. It's so easy, when it's an uncomfortable memory for people, to dismiss it, to say, "It's over, get over it." I think that's both disrespectful and arrogant.
Jeffrey Levin: Felicia, we've talked about how interpretation depends on the generation you are in. What you're describing with Angel Island is the children and the grandchildren of those who were directly affected by the site taking a significant interest in its preservation.
Felicia Lowe: Yes. And it was the children and grandchildren of the Japanese Americans who were interned at Manzanar during World War II who led the charge for reparation and the conservation and preservation of that site.
A large part of what drives me is a desire to understand where I, as an American-born Chinese, fit in the United States. To this day, there are people who say to me, "You speak English so well."It doesn't occur to them that I am an American. So it's very multilayered what Angel Island represents. It's asserting, to a large degree, our place in history. Angel Island is sort of our Plymouth Rock. It's something we can touch, feel, and know, even though we've been here since the 1700s.
Kenneth Foote: A lot of these sites have an important function as rallying points—like Manzanar, which was a rallying point for the Japanese American redress legislation. Some of this commemoration only happens when a group feels confident enough to say, "We've accomplished a lot, and we're going to mark some of the significant sites in our history."
Jeffrey Levin: So when this does occur, it suggests a certain maturation or stabilization in these generations.
Kenneth Foote: Yes. If you look at the demographics of Japanese Americans, there is remarkable economic accomplishment and assimilation. By the time 1988 rolled around, they were, as a group, quite conffident of their position in American life and began to rally around this cause.
Felicia Lowe: Recently, I saw again the movie Flower Drum Song. Now, when the movie came out 30 years ago, I was one of those people asserting our rights for Asian American identity—and Hollywood came out with this thing full of stereotypes. How disrespectful, we thought. But now I look at it and say, "What a fun film." I'm not charged the way I was then. And I really enjoyed the film. It was camp and had great production numbers. My reaction was that of a more mature person who has confidence that this film will no longer have the power to define us and the images we were fighting against.
Kristin Kelly: Can each of you draw any conclusions about the particular way we in the United States handle these kinds of sites?
Kenneth Foote: Most of what we've talked about is specific to the United States. There is one trend that I've noticed recently. Over the last generation, there has been a shift toward greater acknowledgment of horrible, violent events like Oklahoma City or the Waco massacre. I've resisted saying, but I've come to recognize that Americans are now more inclined to acknowledge and memorialize these events than they would have been a generation ago.
Felicia Lowe: I think that openness is an American thing. These very violent acts—they're like the elephant sitting in the living room. How could you not acknowledge it?
Kenneth Foote: But it's a selective openness. A lot is hidden away.
Conover Hunt: Don't you think that the preservation of our American sites seems tied to interpretation—that we sequester these sites and use them to teach, as opposed to Europe, where buildings are preserved all the time but not necessarily interpreted?
Kenneth Foote: It's hard to state a general difference between Europe and the United States because the individual national traditions are so different. In western Europe, there is a tendency to hide away some of the events of violence, like the school shootings or mass murders. But countries like Germany, because of their defeat in the Second World War, were forced to come to terms with the Holocaust and other horrible events. In some ways, Germany has been forced to face these more than the United States. Other countries are becoming more forthcoming because they've had a change of government from communism to some sort of democratic system. It varies considerably. But I agree with Felicia about Americans being more open. They're saying, "Look, we need to face these events." I think Americans are far more open than, say, the Japanese have been about some of these atrocious events of the 20th century.
Felicia Lowe: I was struck by reading in the paper yesterday about how some neoconservatives in Japan are working to remove from their textbooks troubling references to Japanese actions in World War II.
Conover Hunt: In the movement for preservation in the United States—with the notable exception of battlefields—we predictably began preserving sites that are celebratory. In my work, you have to stand up and say, "I'm sorry, but all history is not good news." Just read the newspaper. It takes a certain amount of maturity to deal with that. But you're never going to get everybody to agree. So these sites are platforms for debate.
Jeffrey Levin: To use Felicia's phrase, the elephant in the living room for this conversation is the World Trade Center—and how that site would best be preserved. I can anticipate Conover's comment, which is that it's way too soon to say.
Conover Hunt: You got it!
Jeffrey Levin: But even if we shouldn't do anything for 20 years, something's going to happen at that site long before that.
Conover Hunt: There are too many economic pressures.
Jeffrey Levin: Exactly. Things are going to happen very soon.
Conover Hunt: I'm very aware of the economic pressures that will be involved. It's interesting how quickly the U.S. public has sanctified that site. And we've already experienced the concern of the families of the victims about putting platforms at ground zero for broader public participation. Whatever happens, I agree it's going to happen faster than has traditionally happened in the past, and there will be pressures that spur forward an early resolution to the problem.
Felicia Lowe: The thought that comes to mind—and this can be learned from places such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Oklahoma City—is that there will be a mechanism to honor each individual who died at the site. I think from the standpoint of the families that lost someone, that particular acknowledgment of a life will be very important.
Conover Hunt: At this site, like a battlefield, you are not just dealing with a place of violence but also a burial ground. There's tremendous pressure to commemorate those people at the exact site where they died. It's going to be fascinating to see how they do it. I don't see a multistory business complex there without major commemoration of the victims.
Kenneth Foote: It's inevitable that there will be a memorial there. I think the precedent will be Oklahoma City, and the decision making will be distributed to a number of groups. I hope we won't choose to commemorate on such a grand scale that people can't go back and reinterpret later. This idea of personal remembrance has become very important in American memorials recently, so there will be some aspect of personal remembrance for every victim, and it will involve a lot of constituencies.
Felicia Lowe: How ready are we to talk about the World Trade Center and what it represents?
Conover Hunt: I don't think we're ready at all. We're in a very active emotional period, and wise decisions cannot be made.
Kenneth Foote: Over the last six months, I've been trying to think of analogies to this attack—and there aren't any. I find it difficult to compare this to a battlefield, because it's not possible to interpret it in the same way. I hope that people won't equate it with Bunker Hill or Gettysburg or so on, because it's very different.
Jeffrey Levin: Is it a unique event?
Conover Hunt: You could say yes today, and that could change tomorrow.
Kenneth Foote: It's diffcult to say. It's not like a natural disaster. It's not quite like a battlefield. It's very difficult to interpret.
Jeffrey Levin: One of the things about the Johnstown Flood disaster was the overwhelming response that people in other communities had when they heard the news of the flood and heard of the tremendous loss of life. In terms of public response, is there something of a parallel between the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood and what occurred at the World Trade Center?
Kenneth Foote: Yes, absolutely. The folks who work in the area of natural disaster research call the behavior postdisaster-situation convergence behavior. There is this tremendous outpouring of sympathy and aid, and that's certainly what we saw in New York—although in New York, this response escalated to incredible heights. But what happened at Johnstown or what's happened with hurricanes and floods is very similar to what happened there. However, while there is that parallel in convergence behavior, I don't know whether that will be true when it comes time to decide what to do with the site—because of some of the issues Conover has raised about the way that sites are interpreted through time.
Conover Hunt: The massive revival of American patriotism that followed the tragedy in New York—we had a similar experience after Kennedy was assassinated. It was one of those trigger points that unified the nation in grief. It reminded many people what it means to be an American—and educated many others about what it means to be an American. I think that will certainly form a part of the interpretation in the future in New York.