J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Back to the New-York Historical Society

This fall I noted the opening of the New-York Historical Society’s “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn” exhibit, and a critique of that exhibit by Prof. Alan Singer. It’s only fair, therefore, to quote the heated rebuttal to Singer, also on History News Network, from chief curator Richard Rabinowitz.
Enflamed by his mission to uncover the exhibition’s “right-wing agenda,” Singer’s method is to locate single sentences within secondary or tertiary level interpretive panels, elevate them arbitrarily to the status of “major themes,” and then dismiss them as platitudinous or even worse, as inaccurate. Then he lays on long lists of humanity’s troubles in the post-revolutionary era to disprove the “themes” he has chosen to attack. Every one of his observations, astonishingly, deliberately misreads the exhibition text, ignoring the ideas presented before and after, and neglecting altogether the evidences presented by the documents in the exhibition.

The first of Singer’s examples comes from the very last line of the very last text panel in the exhibition. He writes,
“The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds.” I only wish this were true. If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s…
Perhaps we are as stupid as the professor suggests. But I prefer to think, as most historians do (e.g., Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights), that the past two centuries have witnessed the rise of a global humanitarianism, stemming from the intellectual, moral, and religious impulses of the Age of Revolution, as well as political and economic forces.
On this point, Rabinowitz seems to be trying to have it both ways. He later faults Singer for discussing the 1830s slave rebellions in the Caribbean at length, saying they have nothing to do with the exhibit’s “eighteenth-century age of revolutions,” but here he insists that anyone not “stupid” would interpret the exhibit’s concluding sentence as referring not just to the 1700s but to “the past two centuries” since.

At best, the panel’s phrase “made us all citizens…” expresses an ideal that came out of the eighteenth century, not a practice (and not an uncontested ideal, either). So is Singer wrong to point out that, contrary to that statement’s past tense, those revolutions didn’t make all of us citizens?

On the other hand, Rabinowitz seems to be correct in accusing Singer of quoting some statements on the signs out of context:
At the bottom of an interpretive text panel that explores the opportunities offered by British forces in the War of Independence for black Americans to escape slavery, Singer locates a sentence about Washington’s begrudging acceptance of black troops into the Continental Army. Forgetting the opening paragraphs, the professor then astonishingly accuses us of failing to stress that more blacks joined the British than the patriots. He takes no notice of the actual original proclamation by Governor Dunmore of Virginia just inches away from the offending text panel.
Singer’s description of that sentence led me to think that the exhibit might not have mentioned black Loyalists, but clearly it does. (I also posted a correction to Singer’s understanding of the Continental Army policy toward blacks at H.N.N.)

The biggest difference between Rabinowitz and Singer might be in how the two scholars approach the exhibit itself. It’s striking how the curator focuses on the artifacts while the professor focuses on the text panels.

Rabinowitz lists many things that Singer “missed”—i.e., didn’t acknowledge despite the tremendous effort it took to bring them all to one place. He seems almost hurt as he writes, “the professor did not take notice of any of the 300 objects, documents, and images (from 73 repositories in 18 countries) collected for this exhibition.”

But what does a look at the official Stamp Act as a scroll or the ”first genre painting in American art” (showing one American sea captain vomiting into another’s pocket) tell us about revolutions and human rights? Those artifacts don’t speak for themselves, which is why Rabinowitz and his staff wrote the interpretive labels and text panels around them. And if Singer sees omissions or bias in those labels, of course he’d focus his critique on their words.

Thus, Rabinowitz writes that Singer “missed the copy of Notes on Virginia that Jefferson gave to Abbé Morellet to translate into French (and the French translation that came of it).” But Singer actually complains that the exhibit interpreted that object inaccurately:
According to another panel, in Notes on the States [sic] of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson expressed his “fundamental opposition to slavery and his fear of what emancipation would bring.” I think it would be more accurate to say Jefferson expressed his total antipathy towards people of African ancestry. . . .
Singer goes on to quote racist words from Jefferson’s book. Rabinowitz displayed a significant copy of that book, yet the nearby panel describes Jefferson’s “fundamental opposition to slavery” without noting that he never changed his lifestyle fundamentally based on slavery. So which is inaccurate?

At H-Public, Darlene Roth wrote more on the gap between a history professor’s job of teaching and writing and a history curator’s job of creating an exhibit for the public.
Singer refutes the NYHS exhibit point by point and takes 2811 words to do so. If his response were translated into an exhibit format, his words would fill 19 text panels, (granting him a generous 150 words per panel). This would require an exhibit gallery that could accommodate 95 linear feet for the panel displays alone, (giving each panel a 2.5 foot buffer on all edges). Given that the average person reads 40 wpm, this would require that the visitor stand and read for 70 minutes—without counting the time it would take to step from panel to panel or to lay eyes on the first object.
There are similar concerns in television history: the amount of text one can get through in an hour is frustratingly low.

It might be fruitful for critics like Singer to try to write their own interpretive panels for the artifacts in this exhibit, seeing how much (or how little) can fit into the available space. Perhaps they’d do a better job. But they’d certainly come to appreciate the challenges for curators like Rabinowitz.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

"It might be fruitful for critics like Singer to try to write their own interpretive panels for the artifacts in this exhibit..."

It might be even more fruitful for Singer and other critics to create podcasts that would allow visitors to read the panels and hear the critique in real time, all while viewing the objects. If the Gilder Lehrman Institute is as interested in "supporting the study and love of American history" as their mission statement claims, perhaps they would even support the podcasts, since, at least in my experience, nothing stimulates a deeper interest in history than an understanding of the multiple and often conflicting ways we view and interpret the historical record.

Anonymous said...

Having gone to the exhibition as an early Americanist trained by a slavery historian, I found Singer's "review" to be one of the most disingenuous, lazy, and self-serving pieces of criticism I've ever seen on HNN.

The man has tried to make a career out of being a culture warrior, desperately trying to implicate anyone who's ever set foot in the NYHS as being a lap dog of Gilder and Lehrman's personal politics.

He didn't write the review in good faith; nothing on any panel at the NYHS would have ever satisfied him.

Thanks for the follow up posting.