The Landscape of Memory: Why Historical Sites Still Matter – by Danny Heitman

CRC Editor’s Note:  On May 28th, as I was preparing this insightful and nostalgic essay by Danny Heitman for posting here, I took an (ostensible) “break” and clicked on where I found Danny’s powerful piece on the catastrophic BP oil spill, Louisiana, land of Audubon…and now?

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A couple of years ago, while writing a book about a pivotal season in the life of John James Audubon, I spent a great deal of time at Oakley House, the Louisiana plantation where the world’s most famous bird artist lived and worked in the summer of 1821.

My research involved numerous challenges, but competing with other visitors at Oakley House was seldom a problem. Open to the public since 1954, and now known as the Audubon State Historic Site Oakley logged just 17,810 patrons in its most recent annual head count, about half of what the site drew in 1996.

Nestled within the wooded beauty of Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish, and located less than an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge,  Oakley is far from alone when it comes to declining attendance. Across the country, visitation at historic sites and house museums has trended downward for 30 years, according to findings presented in the November 2008 issue of The Public Historian.

Some institutions have resisted the decline, with varying degrees of success, by offering new programs and promotions, but the general pattern of public ambivalence about America’s historic sites isn’t encouraging.

Culprits for the drop in patronage abound. In a 2005 Wall Street Journal commentary, museum administrator Bruce Courson singled out cheap airfares, which encourage families to ditch the household car and jet to destinations that by-pass rural museums.

Other observers suggest that in an age of TV, cyberspace and video games, the quieter appeal of historic sites simply isn’t appealing enough for the latest generation of travelers.

Of course, technology can also help raise the profile of historic attractions, drawing visitors from around the globe through virtual tours on institutional web sites. I was delighted when my book inspired a public television documentary that exposed thousands of viewers to Oakley who might not otherwise have darkened its doors.

Even so, there’s no real substitute for standing on the same ground where history was made, as I learned many times during my research at Oakley.

The oppressive heat and humidity of Louisiana summers, a reality not easily felt without sensing them firsthand, gave me a unique insight into the physical hardships Audubon faced as he combed the woods near Oakley.

Oakley’s relatively tight quarters also partly explained why tensions ran so high in the household during Audubon’s stay there. I doubt that merely looking at pictures and videos of Oakley would have provided the same revelation.

The lack of natural light in Audubon’s Oakley lodgings led me to conclude that the bird artist must have created some of his most memorable work by bringing his paper and paints outside – into the very environment where he had found the subjects of his art. For me, it was yet another reminder that place can clarify the past in ways small and large.

Other historians have reported similar eureka moments. Biographer Robert Caro pored over hundreds of documents and conducted scores of interviews over the years to plumb the character of Lyndon B. Johnson, but Caro said he didn’t truly understand Johnson’s ambition until he saw the U.S. Capitol gleaming at dawn – just as Johnson would have as a young legislative aide.

To get Harry Truman’s true texture, author David McCullough lived for a time in Independence, Missouri, the former president’s hometown.

Such connections shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of professional historians. In opening historical sites to the public, their custodians remind us that history is a broad bequest, not the narrow domain of the specialist.

If the public often seems disinterested, perhaps it’s because of what I call “Abe Lincoln Slept Here” Syndrome, the tendency to frame historic sites as static commemorations of a single event or period.

But when land and history meet, they typically create not one story, but many.

“Walden Pond,” W. Barksdale Maynard’s masterful history of a magical Massachusetts landmark, is necessarily about Henry David Thoreau, its most famous resident, but Maynard’s book is also about a great many other things, including what came before and after Thoreau at Walden.

In a similar way, the story of Oakley is much larger than Audubon, yielding important lessons about such things as prehistoric geography, the legacy of slavery, and the implications of modern development.

Embraced this way, land becomes a literature of its own, a text that tells us much about who we were, who we are, who we might become.

At Oakley, Audubon refined what was then a revolutionary technique of depicting birds in their natural surroundings, and his message, quite clearly, is that place defines us.

That reality often abides most vividly in the old homes and haunts of those who have gone before us — in historic sites scattered across the country.

With another vacation season set to begin soon, Americans would do well to give them another look.

— Danny Heitman is the award-winning columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate and a member of The Advocate’s editorial board. His essays have also appeared in The Christian Science MonitorSmithsonianThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and other national publications. His critically-acclaimed book, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House appeared in 2008 from Louisiana State University Press.

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1 Comment »

  • Kathleen Hulser says:

    A timely reminder that history is firmly anchored to place, and that real things and real objects function in context. Eloquently stated, even if one hardly needs to argue for the necessity of traveling to such compelling sites. Come to New-York Historical Society to see original Audubon drawings, albeit severed from the contexts Heitman so artfully evokes.


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