Amazon kindly dumped a load of books on my doorstep, so I decided to get a jump on class reading. (Motto: if you have free bandwidth, use it. We’ll see how long that lasts.) I started with The Lowell Experiment.
In her Prologue, Stanton details a 2002 case of coal miners trapped in Somerset, PA, due to an inaccurate map. The correct map had been donated to a museum a month before the accident. It’s a great story, the perfect way to open a book with the goals Stanton sets out.
But, but…I had a difficult time cultivating the proper distance. I felt like the anecdote (however appropriate for the context) buried the lede:
The underground landscape in that region is riddled with abandoned mines, which are supposed to be mapped definitively whenever a company stops working a particular deposit. For a variety of reasons, this final mapping does not always happen…
The immediate problem, in this instance, would seem to be corporate malfeasance/incompetence/whatever. Throwing a museum into the mix may reframe industry, inappropriately casting miners as belonging to the past, etc…but that doesn’t change the fact that the mining company that was supposed to make the map did not make it accessible, and that the miners were dispatched with perilously incorrect documentation.
Perhaps this reaction reflects the fact that I came into public history via archives, rather than museums (and I am very interested in getting the more performative museum angle). It may also reflect my general…discomfort, perhaps, with history when those immediately involved are not safely dead. 2002 isn’t just living memory, it’s adjacent to “current events.” While I have become increasingly aware of the way history-making happens in real time—perhaps, in fact, because of this, and my rather strong dislike for some of the more successfully propagated narratives; or maybe because it just feels like working without a net—I’m hesitant to actually do so.
I am generally suspicious of arguments that take that broad view without addressing immediate issues of social justice. Like when I read this post about the BP oil spill: I think it’s valid to make an argument for collective responsibility…but. There is in fact a difference between driving a car that burns gasoline* and being a company that routinely flouts regulations intended to protect workers and the environment. Collective responsibility is not equivalent responsibility, and the degree of asymmetry between the players (“me” versus “BP”) is laughable. To deny or ignore this is to create an environment wherein things can “just happen” because “we didn’t do anything”—a self-flagellating inversion of “somebody should do something”—and in which it is possible to rhetorically distribute power to the powerless in order to saddle them with responsibility for decisions they neither made nor profited by.
Which is not to say that Cherie Priest is a shill for BP or that Cathy Stanton is a shill for mining companies (and there’s part of me that feels like a bit of a jerk for the way I’m framing my discomfort). Priest is processing emotional reactions to an unfolding ecological disaster, with an eye to social responsibility. Stanton, I can only imagine, must have been thrilled (with the miners once more safely above ground) to stumble across such a perfect illustration of problematic issues of museums. The fact that she is comfortable working without a net, critiquing the real time construction of memories, isn’t something I should hold against her; it’s something I should dissect.
* As opposed to one of the numerous electric or bio-fuel options vigorously marketed at competitive prices. Am I the only one who felt a little bit like the makers of Who Killed the Electric Car? were asking who would rid them of a turbulent priest?