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Sharon Ann Holt Email to Park Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod

The following email was sent on 8/12/2009 by Sharon Ann Holt. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Dear Superintendent MacLeod,

As a founding member of the Ad Hoc Historians, I feel it's appropriate to comment on your recent exchange with Ed Lawler about the President's House. I hope you'll agree. As a (new) public history executive myself, I do appreciate your efforts to juggle competing priorities and interests and keep an important project moving forward. The work is done by compromises and accommodations, as every sensible person realizes. But the justification for every compromise always rests on fidelity to the critical center of historical interpretation — which is how powerfully authenticity can engage, empower, and educate our public.

With that in mind, I strongly object to two portions of your response.

The first is your declaration that "the entire site is an abstraction." I can't recall when you took on the superintendency, but I believe it was in December 2007. Perhaps having missed the whole struggle from 2002 through 2007 has led you into a material misunderstanding of what's at stake. The impetus to do this commemoration has been concrete from the start, brutally concrete. The explicit quality of the documentary evidence about the presence of enslaved people at the House, and the literal reality of the 2007 archaeological finds were the unquestionable, unburiable, un-fogged realities that ultimately trumped the abstractions, resistance, obscurantism, and dithering of INHP professionals. As you surely know, the Park knew "abstractly" in 1974 that the Washingtons kept slaves at the House, but not until the actual location of the smokehouse, along with its proximity to the Liberty Bell Center, emerged into public discussion was the INHP finally forced to interpret the site at all. To now state categorically that abstraction must prevail in these matters is just vile; the betrayal of trust and promises of collaboration is the purest of cynical, self-serving power plays.

Second, the justification you offer for the power play, "this hour that is past the 11th hour," is utterly hollow. It is a problem of INHP's own making, which you again wish to use to excuse errors and insularity. I continue to be amazed and hurt by this INHP habit, now of almost a decade's standing, of resisting collaboration in hopes of maintaining a pre-ordained project schedule, getting blind-sided by public outcry, and then having to endure even greater delay. Starting in the late 1990s with the attempt to ignore Lawler's findings, then to discredit him personally through 2002 and 2003, the 2003 public presentation of the first design, the refusal throughout 2004 to create a design competition, the attempt in 2005 to foreshorten the public comment period on the competitive designs, the resistance to doing archaeology in 2006-07, and the efforts to shorten the digging and observation period through July 07, and the continuing disengagement through 2008 and 2009 from the group recruited by the Park as content consultants — it's a non-stop habit of doing things your way and then crying foul over timing when you get caught and actual collaboration is forced upon you.

I suspect the Park will lose this round too, as it has every other round. The public cares about this story, the public cares about accuracy, and the public doesn't care that much about the Park's convenience. Nor should it. This is too important. But things need never have come to a confrontation between convenience and collaboration, except that the PARK continues to stonewall input and then demand compliance. Resistance takes a great deal more time and energy and money than cooperation. I would have hoped that INHP had learned this lesson over a decade of struggle at the President's House. I'm really stunned to see you trotting out the same old chestnut as if it still had the remotest credibility with stakeholders.

The real loser here will again be the city of Philadelphia, whose efforts to generate momentum around heritage are consistently undermined by INHP's inability to be a consistent, reliable, open, and effective partner. I had hoped that, under your leadership, INHP would cease to be Philadelphia's cultural black hole, where good ideas go to die. Get this one right, and everything could change. Do this the same old way with the same old stupidities, and we'll just keep circling endlessly around what the city could be.

Again, we look for leadership. We look for integrity. We look for openness. Do we look still in vain??


Sharon Ann Holt

Sharon Ann Holt is a member of the Ad-Hoc Historians and Executive Director Sandy Spring Museum in Sandy Spring, MD

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