Executive Director’s Message

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Travel Journal, July 1992.

The importance of imagination in public history occurs to me several times this month as I participate in various com­memorations and celebrations.

July 4, New York

As the Brig Niagara maneuvers into position at the South Street Seaport, thousands of spectators line the docks, cheering and taking pictures. The festival of tall ships is inspiring and exhilarating, but a little disappointing too as the rain and fog slows the parade and causes maritime gridlock similar to that of epic Manhat­tan rush hours. As I peer through the mist across the deck of the Niagara, I tune out the cacophony of ship whis­tles, dance bands, fireworks, and crowds. Instead, I think of the fierce battle that we commemorate on this ship. I think about the one hundred and fifty-five sailors scram­bling madly amidst the cannon and ammunition. I think about the dead and the wounded, patriots all. And I think of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry boarding the Niagara – now the Common­wealth’s official flagship – with the famous battle flag, “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” and lead­ing his fleet to a decisive vic­tory on a September afternoon in 1813.

July 6, Homestead

I am attending a conference on the centennial of the Home­stead Strike of 1892. Hun­dreds of scholars, labor leaders, and community activists have gathered to discuss the meaning of the event, arguably the best known – but, perhaps, least understood­ – chapter in the history of Amer­ican labor. At the end of the day we take buses down to the Monongahela River for the unveiling and dedication of a state historical marker. This is the very place where three hundred Pinkerton Detective Agency guards, recruited by Henry Clay Frick to protect the Carnegie Steel Works in Homestead, landed. At this site they were confronted by irate steel workers who had been locked out of the mills for more than a week. As the dedication ceremony begins, my thoughts drift to this date and place one hundred years ago, and to the pitched battle that raged through an entire day, leaving ten dead and scores injured.

July 14, Cornwall

This is not the first time I am touring the remarkably well­-preserved iron furnace at Corn­wall in Lebanon County. The occasion is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the furnace, and I am pleased that we are taking steps to make long overdue repairs to the historic site’s buildings and structures. Our tour guide believes we can preserve the buildings, but notes that it is impossible to re-create the atmosphere of a working iron furnace. Think of the choking dust created by seemingly countless mounds of smolder­ing charcoal, our guide sug­gests, and think of the noise and the smell of suffocating sulphur permeating this in­dustrial complex. Try, just try, to picture yourself working­ – and living – in such miserable conditions. The image is grim.

The task we have in public history is formidable. To make the past come alive requires infinitely more than the acqui­sition, restoration, and preser­vation of documents, objects, buildings, and even entire villages. Finding meaningful ways to stimulate our imagina­tive powers involves creative skills of the highest order. Role playing, living history demonstrations, first person interpretations, and reenact­ments all contribute toward reaching this challenging goal. To engage public imagination as we preserve public memory is the next frontier in public history programming.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director