Suffolk University Presents a Panel Discussion on the Middle East and America

11/13/2001

This week more than four thousand historians will converge on Boston for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. These scholars from around the country will take special note of our many historical sites. But they will also have a chance to see something else here. Exciting things are happening in Boston's history, and the historians who come to town this week can see us as a model for preserving and presenting the stories of the past.

In the past year, three major new historical attractions, which would be centerpieces in any other city, have opened their doors, and two ambitious new museums are in the works.

Dreams of Freedom, on Milk Street, recreates the story of immigration. Visitors have their passports stamped as they make their way by plane, ship, or train to Boston, hearing stories of immigrants past and present, winding their way to a multi-media show where John Winthrop, Phillis Wheatley, Patrick Kennedy, Mary Antin, Sacco and Vanzetti, and contemporary immigrants tell the story of Boston. The museum's sponsor, the International Institute of Boston, brought Boston historians together with a team of museum designers from Montreal, who knew nothing about Boston or its immigrant history other than that Pedro Martinez now pitches here. The designers wanted an attractive and engaging museum, the historians wanted to make sure the history was right. The collaborative process challenged both designers and historians, and in the end it worked. Dreams of Freedom makes the visitor feel the story.

Boston By Sea, a harbor cruise featuring live actors and videos telling the story of Boston as a port, grew out of a similar collaboration. Professional historians sat down with representatives from harbor-side museums and attractions, the National Park Service, the Coast Guard, city and state officials, virtually every agency having anything to do with the harbor, Boston Harbor Cruises, restaurant and hotel owners, amateur historians with a passion for Boston's history, and a first-rate playwright, a musical director, and a video producer, who together brought to life voices of Boston's past in a 90-minute show. The show is designed for visitors includes pirates and powder monkeys, the Tea Party and the golden age of sail, but also deaths of native Americans and immigrants, the 1854 capture of fugitive slave Anthony Burns. The real show-stopper celebrates the M.W.R.A.'s sludge digesters, now dominating the harbor entrance, and reminding us that Boston's history is still being made.

On Beacon Hill, the Museum of African-American History this year opened its new exhibit space in the former Abiel Smith School. Just as Dreams of Freedom reminds us that immigrant history is American history, the Museum of African-American History shows that African-American history is American history. From its beginning the Museum has drawn strength from collaboration among scholars, community activists, the National Park Service, and business leaders. It reaches beyond Boston, with the restoration of the African Meeting House on Nantucket, and now with the restored Abiel Smith School it can tell many more stories: about the nation's oldest free black community, centered on Beacon Hill in the years after the Revolution, when Massachusetts became the first state in the new nation to abolish slavery, about the antislavery movement which was born in Boston, but also about racial segregation in the city's schools in the 1840s, and the continuing history of black and white people in Boston. The Abiel Smith School and the Museum of African-American History is a model for how to tell the troubling stories of what has happened in our more recent past.

Plans are underway for two new museums in the city. The Boston City Museum is building on the collaborative efforts of the Bostonian Society, which is the City's historical society, and the Freedom Trail Foundation, which connects the Revolutionary-era historical sites in Boston and Charlestown, the Boston History Collaborative, the National Park Service, and other educational and civic institutions. The new Commonwealth Museum on Columbia Point promises to do showcase Massachusetts's history in a similar way, moving beyond the stories of colonial and Revolutionary activity to tell the story of what has happened since. These efforts all require professional historians to bring their ideas and research to the table.

These are exciting times for history in Boston, and the historians who gather this week can bring away some valuable lessons. First, we will be reminded that history is central to a community's identity. In Boston we share a rich history, from the oldest surviving urban house in the United States (Paul Revere's house), the oldest surviving commissioned warship afloat in the world, and the world's oldest functioning written constitution, to the banners hanging over the Fleet Center's parquet floor and the burden of the past at Fenway Park. But at one time or another, prominent people in our city wanted to demolish the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, and a Secretary of the Navy once suggested using Constitution for target practice. We did not preserve these sites because we like nice old things, but because each is essential to understanding who we are as a people.

Historians in Boston have been able to transcend the bounds of classrooms and textbooks to engage with a broader public. It is a lesson the historians who visit our city should bring home with them.

Robert J. Allison teaches history at Suffolk University. He will moderate a panel on "The Future of Boston's Heritage" at the American Historical Association meeting.

 Here are additional links which apply to this article:

www.bostonbysea.org

www.bostonfamilyhistory.org

www.bostonhistory.org

www.state.ma.us/sec/mus/musedu/edupro.htm

www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org

www.afroammuseum.org

 

Contact Information:

Robert J. Allison

Associate Professor, History

Suffolk University

(617) 573-8510

ballison@acad.suffolk.edu

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