Kto Zbawi?

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Kto Zbawi (Polish for ‘Who will save us?’) is a project I worked on for a class last year, The Social Gospel in American Life, taught by Heath Carter. I am revisiting this project this summer, looking through more archives and primary sources to strengthen my interpretation in hopes of findings its way into publication.

 

 

Kto Zbawi?

American Polonia and Rerum Novarum

Seventeen-year-old Anton Kloza wept in the hallway of the Laporte County courthouse. Earlier in the day, February 27, 1904, a jury failed to reach an agreement in Kloza’s suit against the Haskell-Barker Car Company, one of the largest freight car manufacturers in the United States. Haskell-Barker was owned and run exclusively by John Barker, an industrialist, and financier worth sixty million dollars upon his death in 1910. [1] Kloza had lost his leg while working in Haskell-Barker’s Michigan City Indiana plant and was suing the company for $10,000 in damages. When he was found in the hallway, it turned out that the young Pole, who was unable to speak English, had not eaten in days and had neither money nor a place to stay.[2]

In the American Polish diaspora or Polonia, Anton Kloza’s case was not unique. Polish immigration to the United States peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing millions of Poles into circumstances like Kloza. Between 1899 and 1932 1.8 million Poles flooded into the country, many of them gathering in industrial centers of the Midwest, particularly Chicago. [3] This wave of immigration is typically called the ‘za chlebem’ ‘for bread’ wave as most of the immigrants were peasants escaping famine and restricted economic mobility in partitioned Poland.[4] Like Kloza, these peasants were thrown into a dangerous world where they lived and worked in some of the worst conditions of America’s Gilded Age. These Poles were at the foot of powerful industrialists like John Barker, Philip Armour, or Gustavus Swift. As a pillar of the Polish community, many of these oppressed Poles turned to the Catholic church for support. Unfortunately for Polish laborers like Kloza though, the Catholic Church was never clear on the side of labor in their struggle under industrial capitalism––until 1891 that is.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, a papal encyclical which laid out for the first time the Church’s official stance on industrial capitalism and the labor issue. Rerum Novarum condemned socialism, but it also affirmed the validity of the worker’s movement. Rerum Novarum was released thirteen years before Anton Kloza lost his leg, but did it have an impact in his time? Did working Polonia recognize the role the Catholic church could play in their struggles? How was Rerum Novarum received in places like Michigan City or the South Side of Chicago, so far afield from the Vatican?

 

With Kloza’s case, the historical trail runs cold. We never see if Rerum Novarum touched his life. In this essay, though, I explore the reception of Rerum Novarum among working Polonia in general. I begin with an outline of Rerum Novarum and the encyclical’s reception among American Catholics. Polish Catholics represented a very distinctive community isolated from the mainstream Catholic Church. After highlighting this distinction, I dive into the reactions of Poles to Rerum Novarum as evinced in Polish newspapers in the time period. In the final section, I locate Poles’ reception of Rerum Novarum in the context of Polish labor activism.

Rerum Novarum was released on May 15, 1891. The encyclical’s subtitle reads ‘On Capital and Labor,’ as the encyclical was intended to be the Church’s first official stance on the labor issue. The encyclical legitimized many of labor’s most pressing grievances, recognizing that “by degree, it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the heartlessness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”[5] In response to the plight of the worker, though, the Pope did not endorse socialism; on the contrary, he denounced socialists for “striving to do away with private property” and then proceeded to affirm the sanctity of the same.[6]

While the encyclical did affirm the rights of workers, it did so while clarifying the duties of capital and labor so as not to sound socialistic. The pope first off denied class antagonism: “capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital.”[7] Workers had a duty to work fully and faithfully “the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon.”[8] The encyclical went on to clarify that it was not Christian to consider one’s wealth to be ‘private property’ alone, rather all riches were ‘common to all, so as to share them without hesitations when others are in need.”[9] Employers thus had to ensure that a worker’s wages were enough so that all workers could live comfortably, yet those wages must be made through free agreement.[10] This was a major departure from previous American economic thought. Americans previously thought that a freely agreed contract by itself made labor just, this idea of a living wage was radical.[11]

Rerum Novarum was the beginning of what would become known as Catholic Social Teaching, a collection of Catholic doctrines on human dignity and society. The encyclical affirmed the fundamental rights of workers, and through this, the Pope had made a demand of his flock that had not been made so explicitly before: Rerum Novarum had made an argument relevant to public economic life.[12]

In the United States, the encyclical spoke to some of the most pressing issues of the day, but according to Aaron Abell’s overview of the reception of Rerum Novarum in the United States, the encyclical did not have much of an impact. Abell noted that the encyclical had provoked American Catholics to think about the moral law governing property.[13] However, Abell points out, the encyclical did not have a widespread impact on mainstream American Catholics. Some American Catholics recognized that the church supported labor, but the argument did not move them toward sympathy with labor.[14] The encyclical in some places even had the opposite effect, with priests latching on to the pope’s condemnation of socialism and ignoring the Pope’s call for support of labor.[15]

Despite the general apathy, Rerum Novarum did have an impact in some quarters. Some major Catholic periodicals ran articles praising the call for the liberation of workers. One article in Catholic World ended by stated that “indeed Pope Leo XIII would seem to imply by his encyclical that the church should take the lead in a worldwide movement for the relief and elevation of the toiling, struggling masses; and surely the nineteenth century offer no ampler field.”[16] Another article in the following issue of the Catholic World wrote on the significance of the encyclical for American coal and ironworkers.[17] Even though some thinkers interacted positively with Rerum Novarum, most who reacted in this way were blind to the plight of ethnic Catholics and immigrant workers.[18]

While most American Catholics were apathetic to encyclical’s call for labor, Rerum Novarum was directly used in a number of small labor movements in the twentieth century. The San Francisco labor movement, for example, was heavily influenced by Rerum Novarum. Father Peter C. Yourke, an Irish priest from Baltimore, successfully used the principles of the encyclical to explain to San Francisco workers in the 1900-01 strikes to explain the workers’ moral right to association.[19] An Irish priest was noted for speaking on Mid-century, the encyclical also had a noted impact on labor resistance to the Bracero Program, the US government’s use and abuse of migrant laborers on southwest farms in the 1950-60s. Archbishop of San Antonio Robert Lucey and his missionaries used Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals in the canon of Catholic Social teaching up against that point, to counsel Bracero workers on the importance of labor organization.[20]

While sharing the same religion and geographic space, American Poles were radically disconnected from the world of Abell’s Catholics as well as Irish Catholic priests such as Peter Yourke. Catholic Polonia was distinctly different mainstream Catholicism. Poles in the late nineteenth century were perceived as being non-white in comparison to German or Irish Catholics. Poles were a relatively new immigrant group in 1890s America, and they were considered to be too different from previous Irish and German immigrants. Poles, along with Italian and Jewish immigrants, were deemed to be non-white by the prevailing nativist and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political and social elites in the United States.[21] Poles were ethnic Catholics, included in the church as Catholic in name only.

The Poles were looked down upon by the Irish-dominated mainstream Catholic establishment. One of the most well-documented cases was the continuing conflict between Cardinal George Mundelein, bishop of Chicago from 1915 to 1939, and the Polish Catholics in his community. In the 1920s Mundelein refused multiple times to approve Polish prayers in Catholic masses in mixed parishes and at several points attempted to block the establishment of Polish parishes.[22] Mundelein’s attitude toward the Poles was typical of relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the Polish church. Was this social distance from the Catholic hierarchy enough for American Poles to be able to form a social gospel such as in San Francisco or in the bracero program?

 

Despite being isolated from the church hierarchy, Polish communities in the United States were deeply Catholic. For Poles, the church as a way of retaining their identity and community in the New World. In rural Poland, the church was the center of identity, it wholly defined how Poles knew and interacted with one another.[23] In the United States, the Polish diaspora tried their best to recreate this foundation. Polish workers working in the packinghouses and steel mills of Chicago, making barely enough to survive, always saved up enough to send their children to the local Polish parish school, where their language and identity could be protected.[24] Poles also increasingly created community organizations through the church, such as Fraternal clubs and devotional groups, essentially defining all public life in Polonia through the church.[25] With such a profoundly Catholic working-class community, one would expect that Rerum Novarum made some impact in the Polish community.

 

The encyclical did make an impact in the community, but of a different kind than that of Abell’s Catholic hierarchy or the labor movements that used the encyclical. Early Polish responses to the encyclical were subtle. In the years immediately following its publication, Polish newspapers did not write any significant tracts in response to the encyclical. But, over the following twenty years, Rerum Novarum would be mentioned in Polish papers at a much higher rate than other newspapers in the time period.[26]

Poles took a positive meaning from the encyclical. An article 1898 in Dziennik Chicagoski, a prominent Polish-Catholic newspaper, praised Leo XIII for following in ‘the path of common people’ with Rerum Novarum.[27] An 1893 article praised the encyclical for being aimed at ‘social harmony.’[28] Through Rerum, Poles recognized that Leo was on their side in their struggle with industrial capitalism.

A poem published in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1895 titled “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!”  or ‘Who will save us? –God!’ directly cited the meaning of Rerum Novarum for Polonia. The poem began:

 

W “Rerum Novarum” rzekłeś nam,                   In Rerum Novarum, you told us

Niech miłość będzie waszem prawem,             Your love is all our right

Niech biedak u bogacza bram                             Let Poor man and rich man enter the gates

Nie stoi z okiem łzawem…                                   He does not stand with tears

Niech będzie w słusznej cenie trud                    Give labor its rightful price

A wtedy Szczęsnym będzie lud.                          and the people will be happy[29]

 

To the Pole who wrote this poem for the newspaper, Rerum Novarum was seen as the Pope stepping in on the side of ‘us’ to give labor its due. The final stanza of the poem states that the world does not understand Leo’s words and that the only one who can save the Poles is God.

Through this explicit identification with the encyclical, it is evident Rerum Novarum had a well-known and pervasive meaning for the Polish communities. Through the following decades, this meaning subtly lingered on in many Polish newspapers. For example, into the twentieth-century Polish newspapers continued to reprint excerpts from the encyclical. A 1904 reprint in a Polish paper in Minnesota republished excerpts from paragraph twenty-four of the encyclical, on the importance of using the riches responsibility. The reprint also included excerpts of paragraph thirty-six on the responsibility of the state to interfere in strikes and worker’s issues.[30] Other Polish newspapers followed a similar pattern.

The encyclical later became a lens on a labor organization. Much of this language connected the encyclical to the labor movement in both the United States and in partitioned Poland. An 1898 Chicago paper published a labor periodical about Rerum Novarum that had been circulating in Galicia, to ‘advise’ Polish workers in America.[31] A newspaper in Cleveland in 1906 praised a new social-democratic party in Warsaw for taking ‘action’ on the encyclical.[32] American Polonia was aware of the impact and use Rerum Novarum had in Poland. The encyclical had been better received by the hierarchy there, and the labor-sympathetic message of the encyclical made its way into most pulpits, but it had relatively little effect on the weak labor movements in Poland’s few industrial centers.[33]

In 1911 Polish papers celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. One article celebrated the power the encyclical gave to the working class to defend against their exploitation and called upon the working class to celebrate its anniversary.[34] Other articles surrounding this revealed Poles to be considering how the encyclical connected to calls for Social Christianity. Another 1911 article detailed the history Social Christianity, as it was embodied in the French revolution and the German revolutions of 1848, the history ended with Rerum Novarum.[35] An extensive overview of Social Christianity also appeared in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1910. This overview was titled “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflections on Social Christianity], and it detailed the role of Christianity in civilization with several descriptions of the critical the role Rerum Novarum played in handling class relations.[36] These articles were only a few years after the publication of Robert Ruaschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and John Ryan’s A Living Wage (1906) which led many Americans into conversation on the role of Christianity in industrial America as well as popularizing the notion of ‘Social Christianity.’ Ryan, a Catholic priest, especially commented on social Christianity through the lens of Rerum Novarum. Ryan argued that Leo’s support of private property and profit-seeking was not all-out support of capital, instead of private property was equally the property of labor and capital.[37] As these articles revealed, Poles were to a minor extent part of this conversation.

Through the two decades after its publication, the Polish diaspora was persistently aware of the meaning and potential of Rerum Novarum. Poles reflected upon its meaning and consistently spoke of the encyclical with reverence and hope. Yet it is not clear if the encyclical made it way into the Polish labor movements as it did with Father Yourke in San Francisco or Archbishop Lucey in Texas. What was the Polish church’s role in the Polish labor movement? Did Polish workers have a social gospel in the first place and if so, did Rerum Novarum directly make its way into that gospel?

 

Polish labor was in a desperate state in the time these articles were written. Poles lived in some of the worst slums in industrializing America and worked some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs. Many Poles worked an eighty-four hour week in South Chicago steel mills while other salved away in the horrifying mess of Chicago’s packinghouses. Poles working at the Haskell-Barker factory in Michigan City where Anton Kloza worked before he lost his leg, walked to the freight car factory at dawn and worked a 12-14 hour shift seven days a week. Polish workers slowly organized at the end of the nineteenth century.

Since Poles, like most turn of the century immigrants, were for the most part unskilled laborers, unionization was especially difficult for them. Skilled workers refused to unionize with the Poles and attempts at organizing unskilled labor rarely succeeded since there was always a large labor pool to draw from. Poles did turn to unions in times of crisis in the Gilded Age, but when they did, they were not as radical as other immigrant groups in the time period.

Poles were somewhat averse to radicalism. Polish workers, although at the bottom rung, were especially conservative in their outlook on labor. Poles protested against Capital under cases of severe pay cuts or changes. In these cases though, but their demands were always for a return to the status quo.[38] Some later Polish immigrants who migrated from regions of Poland with high rates of peasant populism were more assertive but on the whole Polish workers were seen as docile in the time period.[39] Poles were also generally far less likely to support or join socialist organizations in this time.[40]

Polish labor activists were also not entirely united behind Catholicism. Many Polish labor agitators argued their case from Polish nationalist rhetoric instead of religious rhetoric. Poles, when leaving for the United States carried strong nationalist impulses stemming from Poland’s multiple partitions and political disenfranchisement. Nationalism provided a sharp lens on Polish views on labor, as well as American politics in general.[41] Through the first world war, Polish community leaders in Chicago remained divided over whether nationalism or Catholicism would define their political and labor movements in the United States, whether arguments for the dignity of Polish labor lay in the church or the nationalist spirit.[42] Rerum Novarum did sneak its way into some of these nationalist calls for labor, as evinced in the newspaper articles on Polish labor in both Galicia and in Poland above.[43]

A number of crucial Poles in the labor movement who relied upon Catholic arguments made arguments similar to that of Rerum Novarum. The prominent historian of Polish labor, John Radziłowski argued that while Poles were generally upset with the impact of industrial capitalism, but they did not partake in labor radicalism due to the influence of the Polish church in their lives.[44] The role of Polish religious leader, Wincenty Barzyński was a factor in this aversion to socialism, according to Radziłowski. Barzyński was a very successful church planter in Polonia, and wherever he started Polish parishes, he carried strong arguments against modernism that included both indictments of industrial capitalism and socialism.[45]  Barzyński also successfully aligned Polish Chicago with the Democratic party in the 1890s, politicizing the group’s goals but not making them too radical. Barzyński was just one loud voice in Polonia’s reaction to industrial capitalism though. He used some of the principles of Catholic social teaching, but his arguments did not define the movement or make a discernable impact.

Rerum Novarum, while on the minds of Poles, could not take root in the Polish diaspora in America. Poles were too averse to radical unionization, divided, and numbed by arguments against socialism to fully take on the calling of Rerum Novarum. While it would seem as if such a deeply Catholic community would take on the pope’s first social teaching, Polonia was merely too divided and complex. Polish newspapers evinced a distinct awareness and appreciation of Rerum Novarum, albeit it never worked its way into a robust Polish social gospel.

 

In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Centesimus Annus or “hundredth year.” Centesimus Annus was a capstone to the tradition of Catholic Social teaching that had begun with Rerum Novarum; it condemned the communist regimes of the twentieth century and made a strong call for the ‘principle of subsidiarity,’ which stated that a higher order community must respect the right of a lower community to make its own decisions for itself but that the higher community still bears a responsibility for the lower community when that community is in need. Before taking his regnal name in 1979, John Paul II was the Bishop of Kraków, Karol Joźef Wojtyła. American Poles reacted to the election of the first Polish pope with tremendous zeal. Polish Catholics became a much closer, prouder community in the era of the ‘miracle pope.’[46]

Poles in this time had come a long way from Rerum Novarum. In 1983 the Solidarność movement put the plight of Polish workers in the global spotlight, highlighted the abuse of Polish workers by the postwar communist regime. John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s were key in motivating Solidarność. Polish labor now had a radical face, tied in deeply with the Catholic hierarchy. This was a state of affairs inconceivable in the time of Kloza, albeit its seeds may have already been sewn as he wept in the courthouse hallway.

[1] James Forgan Recollections of a Busy Life (New York: The Banker’s Publishing Company, 1924), 224, “John H Barker Dead, Expired Soon After Noon” Michigan City Evening Dispatch December 11, 1910

[2] “Jury Fails to Agree, No Verdict in Damage Suit of Friendless Polish Boy” Indianapolis Journal February 28, 1904

[3] Pacyga, Dominic. Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880-1922. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 17

[4] William Galush, For More Than Bread: Community and Identity in American Polonia 1880-1940 East European Monographs DCLXXXIX (Columbia University Press, 2006) vii

[5] Leo XII Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor (May 15, 1891) §3 http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[6] ibid §4-5

[7] ibid §19

[8] ibid §20

[9] ibid §22

[10] ibid §45-46

[11] See Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[12] Kevin Schmeising, Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II. (Lenham MD: Lexington Books, 2004) 18

[13] Aaron Abell, “The Reception of Leo XIII’s Labor Encyclical in America” Review of Politics Vol.7 No4 (October 1945) 464-495; 471

[14] ibid 478

[15] ibid 481

[16] E.B. Brady, “The Pope and the Proletariat” Catholic World Vol.53 No. 317 (August 1891) 633-644; 644

[17] Rev. Morgan Sheedy, “The Encyclical and American Iron-Workers and Coal Miners” Catholic World Vol.53 No.318 (September 1891) 850-861

[18] Martin Zielinski, “The American Catholic and Chicago Response to Rerum Novarum” Chicago Studies Vol.31 No.2 (August 1992) 142-153; 145

[19] Richard Gribble, “Rerum Novarum and the San Francisco Labor Movement” American Catholic Historian Vol.9 No.3 (Summer 1990) 275-288; 285

[20] Brett Hendrickson, “Catholic Social Policy and Resistance to the Bracero Program” in Heath Carter, Christopher Cantwell, and Janine Giordano eds. The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016) 192-210

[21] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) Jacobson identifies race as a lens defined by power struggles in the United States in this time, Poles and other new immigrants were excluded from being white on account of the 1798 naturalization act which stipulated that citizenship was only available to ‘free white males.’

[22] Edward R. Kantowicz, Corporation Sole: Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 75-6

[23] Pacyga Workers 111-12

[24] Pacyga 144-45

[25] Galush For More than Bread 67

[26] The majority of the results for a search for ‘Rerum Novarum’ in several digital newspaper databases for the decades between 1890 and 1920 were in Polish newspapers.

[27] “Polacy w Chicago” [People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[28] “Poglądy Katolickiego Męź Stanu Na Kwestyę Socalnyą” [A Catholic’s View on the State of the Social Question] Dziennik Chicagoski April 4th, 1893

[29] “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!” [Who will save us? God!] Dziennik Chicagoski July 23rd, 1895, Author’s translation

[30] Wiarus February 4, 1904

[31] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[32] “Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[33] Brian Porter, Faith, and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford University Press, 2011) 129-130

[34] “Rocznica Encyliki Rerum Novarum” [Anniversary of Rerum Novarum] Dziennik Chicagoski  June 9, 1911

[35] “Uwagi: Socyalizm Chrześcijański” [Comments on Christian Socialism” Dziennik Chicagoski December 7, 1911

[36] “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflection on Social Christianity] Dziennik Chicagoski December 15th, 1910

[37] Ryan, John A., Harlan Beckley Ed. Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and A Living Wage (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1996) 118

[38] William Falkowski, “Labor, Radicalism, and the Worker” in John Bukowczyk ed. Polish Americans and the History: Community Culture and Politics (University of Pittsburg Press, 1996) 39-57; 41

[39] Falkowski 43

[40] Galush For More than Bread 61

[41] See Matthew Frye, Jacobson,  Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants. Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1995.

[42] George Pabis, “The Polish Press in Chicago and American Labor Strikes, 1892-1912” Polish American Studies Vol.48, No.1 (Spring 1991) 7-21;8

[43] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[44] John Radziłowski, “Rev. Wincenty Barzyński and a Polish Catholic Response to Industrial Capitalism” Polish American Studies Vol.58 No.2 (Autumn 2001) 23-32; 24

[45] ibid  29

[46] John Radziłowski, “Miracle: American Polonia, Karol Wojtyła and the Election of Pope John Paul II” Polish American Studies Vol.63 No.1 (Spring 2006) 79-87

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A Cultural History of Gilded Age Suicide

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

 *The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

In the summer of 2017, I spent a significant chunk of my time looking through newspapers on microfilm at the Michigan City public library. This was part of the research for a book on the Barker Family which eventually that book turned into a full history of Michigan City in the Gilded Age, Michigan City and the Gilded Age: Industrialists, Immigrants, and Sand which is coming out this fall through the History Press of Charleston SC. I was looking through these newspapers for information on the Barkers, local politics, factories, immigrants, scandals, and other pieces of Gilded Age Michigan City history. As the case with most late-nineteenth-century local papers, Michigan City ran more national news than local news, using new telegraph news services such as the Associated Press. This meant sifting through pages of articles that had little to do with Michigan City or even Indiana to find information usable for my research (in the end I actually found more information on Michigan City in Chicago, South Bend, and Indianapolis newspapers than I found in Michigan City).

While mind-numbing at times, there were a few interesting things in these non-Michigan City articles. My favorite was a series of 1880s articles on an individual known as “Bill Nye, Scientist.” Rather than a beloved 1990s children’s science educator, the Gilded Age Bill Nye was a doctor who answered questions about anatomy in a column for the New York World.

One of the more troubling things in the Michigan City papers was the regularity in which Michigan City papers sensationalized Suicide. Nearly every day, there were long articles on the front page about the suicides of local residents as well as people from Chicago, New York, and even overseas. The most striking article I found (which I made a note of but unfortunately did not print off a copy of) was a long report on the Suicide of an inmate at the state prison in Michigan City. Reporters for the New Dispatch had gone to the prison and taken, from the prison post office, several letters the prisoner had addressed to his family, and then proceeded to print the text of the letters in full on the front page. I was perplexed, why was Suicide such a sensational topic in Gilded Age? What drove the demand for this extreme in nineteenth-century media?

An important historical question, but one that would have to wait. I had more pressing concerns, including securing the book contract and my upcoming senior seminar paper on the Katyń massacre, which I was writing that fall. The following spring, which was the second semester of my junior year at Valparaiso University, I began exploring possible topics for my honors thesis. At the end of the semester, my project proposal was due, and I was expected to work on it for the next year with the final draft due in April of my senior year. I was still under the thrall of Eastern European history when I first decided to do honors work. My first idea for the project was going to be an intellectual history on the influence of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Poland. The previous year I had run across some debates between Polish Hegelian academics and Polish Catholic priests while researching a philosophy paper. I ran into trouble on this topic, though. While some sources were in Polish, the majority of the sources on Polish Hegelian thought was written a German, a language in which I was woefully unskilled.

Around this time, I was beginning to drift more and more into American history. I had studied and written on American history in my work at the Barker Mansion, but I never considered myself an American historian, I always had my hopes set on becoming a historian of the Soviet Union and Poland. I had my doubts about this dream, though. For one, I had never traveled to Eastern Europe. I had never experienced the culture which I wanted to study, and I also lacked knowledge of Russian. I had studied Polish with a tutor for several years at Valpo, but my knowledge of Russian barely extended beyond being the Cyrillic alphabet, basic grammar, some phrases from the Soviet Era, and crossover words between Polish and Russian. I found American history on the hand very attractive.

American history, while shorter, was much more real to me, especially the Gilded Age. The problems of the Gilded Age seemed very much alive with many of the same issues in our public discourse today. I still live and walk amongst the buildings, institutions, and inventions of that era. I also found that I did not have to abandon Polish history wholly, for the Gilded Age was the time when all of my Polish ancestors came over to the United States to work in the steel mills.

I quickly abandoned my plans for the thesis on Hegel in Poland and started exploring the history of Polish immigrants in the United States. I spoke to Heath Carter, the Gilded Age historian at Valparaiso, who agreed to be my thesis mentor on the project. Dr. Carter also supervised an independent study on the Gilded Age that spring, where we explored the vast literature on the Gilded Age. He also gave me feedback on my book manuscript in the class. We read a few books on immigration history such as John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, which covered the history of immigration debates in the Gilded Age, and Dominic Pacyga’s Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago, a history of Polish steel mill and packinghouse workers in Chicago.

Dr. Carter also introduced me to the extensive scholarship on the cultural history of the Gilded Age. Cultural history is a historical method which focuses on the symbols and representations with a single culture. This meant following the changing use of terms in American media and literature; seeing how different Americans found different meanings for the same turn. It meant understanding how Gilded Age Americans perceived the world through their culture. I found this method of historical inquiry extremely interesting. To me, cultural history seemed to get closer to the ‘what-its-like’ of historical experience than other methods seemed to allow. I have always wanted to get into the head of historical agents, to get an inkling of what is meant to live in a particular historical context; cultural history seemed to be the best route towards that.

I tried to integrate my newfound love for cultural history into my honors thesis plans. My initial plan was to explore the perception of time among Polish immigrants working in Chicago. Polish workers were mostly peasants who went from working in the fields of Poland to working eighty-four hours weeks in the blast furnace of South Chicago Steel Works or spending all day on the horrific assembly line of one of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. I wanted to see if their perception of time changed as their experience changed; did time slow down for them when they made this move?

This was a big question, and I quickly found that it was not feasible given the scope of an honors work project. To understand how Polish immigrants experienced the time I would have to essentially read any bit of media circulated in the Polish community both in Chicago and in Poland, hoping to find evidence of angst or anxiety about how they felt the time was moving. I found some evidence of this thesis in my cursory research, but the task was too monumental. I did not want to condemn myself to read newspapers on microfilm for another, and Polish newspapers at that!

Around this time, the question of Gilded Age suicide drifted back into my train of thought. Dr. Carter had me read TJ Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace, cultural history of the anti-modern impulse in American history, which I covered in broad strokes my the previous post. Lears’ work covered different ways in which Gilded Age Americans responded to the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization. These Americans felt a feeling of weightlessness as their entire world changed dramatically.

Lears’ book made me think about the suicide notes that the Michigan City papers stole from the prison post office; what meaning did Suicide have for these Americans? Americans felt their whole world change, did Suicide have some sort of metaphorical significance to this feeling?

It turns out Suicide was a major topic of public debate in the Gilded Age. Americans claimed that suicide rates were increasing due to urbanization and modernization. Extensive tracts on the rise in Suicide regularly ran in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune as well as in the labor press, the immigrant press, the feminist press, religious periodicals, fashion magazines––just about everywhere I looked I found debates over Suicide. Suicide was also sensationalized in American media with dramatic accounts of suicides and graphic illustrations regularly printed in newspapers. Reprinting suicide notes as the case with the Michigan City paper turned out to be a common practice.

A cultural history of Suicide in the Gilded Age thus became my honors thesis. For the past year, I have poured through thousands of newspapers, magazines, books, medical journals, and other sources to reconstruct several areas of public debate and discourse where Suicide played a significant role. Eventually I narrowed the study down to three distinct areas of discourse: (1) suicide and anarchism in the Gilded Age, the Suicide of anarchists such as condemned Haymarket bomber Louis Lingg were commented on extensively in American media; (2) gender and Suicide, the Suicide of women in nineteenth-century American cities were sensationalized by different strata of American society; (3) suicide and the market, Americans increasingly tied Suicide into the new industrial economy of the Gilded Age. Through all of these arenas of discourse, I argued that suicide sensationalism expressed Americans’ deep anxieties about the direction America had taken under industrialization.

I finished writing this thesis a few weeks ago, I went a little primary-source-crazy, and it ended up being 118 pages long. On May 10, I defended the thesis and managed to pass. This summer, I plan to share some of my findings in a three-part podcast on Suicide and the Gilded Age, which will be posted on the mansions podcast site. I also will publish pieces of the study on this blog, and I am going to submit some sections for consideration by various journals. You can also read it by clicking here.

You never know where a research project may go or what may strike interest. I traipsed from Hegel’s influence in Poland to the perception of time by Polish immigrants. The only reason I ended up studying Gilded Age suicide was because of some articles I happened to stumble by in my quest for other sources. That’s why I plan to live my life immersed in the world of primary sources; you never know where you are going to go, and I always enjoy the journey.

TJ Kalin, May 26, 2019

Anti-Modernism and the Barkers

By TJ Kalin Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

John Barker was born in Michigan City, Indiana in 1844. Chicago, fifty miles away, had a population of about 15,000 when he was born. When Barker passed away in 1910, the city had a population of over 2,000,000. His lifetime saw other dramatic changes to American life. He lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction; people began to say the ‘United States is” instead of the “United States are.” In his lifetime, electric light fundamentally changed how Americans viewed their own homes and cities. Telephones and telegraphs made once great distances seem incredibly small. With the railroad and later the automobile, humans were able to travel faster than horses, wind, or water. Laws of incorporation saw companied became incredibly large, and the advent of bureaucracy gave a new face to the government.

When Barker was born, Americans lived by the Jeffersonian Republican ideal; everyone worked in hopes of someday running their own independent farm. Wage labor was seen as a means towards one day, gaining independence. Labor was a matter of interacting with one’s environment. With industrialization, this changed. Millions of immigrant workers entered perpetual wage labor in the United States. The modern assembly line meant that the workers’ tasks were simplified, repeating the same motions all day long.

Labor changed for the professional class too. With incorporation, more white collar workers were needed to manage the complex hierarchies of American companies. Factories like the Haskell and Barker car company needed more middle management, more people in offices. Suddenly, labor for middle was a matter of sitting in artificially lit offices all day, endlessly shuffling paperwork. In their attempt to feel as if they were still interacting with the work, these workers began to work extremely long hours. According to John Barker’s obituary, even though he was president of the company, Barker was still in the office before anyone else in the morning, and he was always last to leave.

 

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Oglesbee and Hale, History of Michigan City Indiana (1908) p.200

 

This changes in labor occurred in tandem with shifts in Americans view of morality and the self. Before the Civil War, most Americans lived in small towns. Their identity was rooted in their communities; they had moral accountability among a small group of people. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization, that sense of self fractured radically. Living in cities of millions of people uprooted Americans’ sense of identity and moral assuredness. The image of the urban vices of the city, opium, alcohol, prostitution, further undermined Americans’ moral sense in the era.

Together, the loss of identity and the change in labor led middle-class Americans to feel a ‘weightlessness’ of modern life. They felt as if they were no longer interacting with the world, that their actions were futile; American did not think they had control over their lives. The term ‘neurasthenia’ came into usage to describe a nervous collapse brought by weightlessness and ‘overcivilization.’

 

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“Worry Drives Thousands to the Death, the Madhouse and to Suicide,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 13, 1905.

 

One remedy was to search for intense experiences to offset the weightlessness. The middle class took up hobbies such as silversmithing, crocheting, beekeeping, and pottery. Through these hobbies, Americans tried to embody the ideals of medieval artisans, whom they thought lived intense lives. Outdoors hobbies such as camping and fishing became popular, as Americans sought to escape the cities into the outdoors. The Barker family was involved in these hobbies. Pillows sewn by Katherine Fitzgerald Barker are in the museum’s collection and our archives house several photos of the Barkers on camping trips with other high society families.

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The return to the medieval artisan was one way in which Americans sought to defy modernization, i.e., a return to pre-modern ideals. American architecture also reflected this change, as Greek and Roman revival style skyscrapers sprung up across the country. These styles masked the modernity of the buildings, hiding steel beams, electric light, and elevators beneath old facades. The Barker Mansion is an excellent example of this impulse, constructed in English-Renaissance revival style. Inside the mansion elaborate woodwork, tapestries, and faux candelabras hide electric light, radiators, modern vents, and pressurized plumbing. Historians refer to these trends as the anti-modernism.

When I am in the mansion today, I try to look for more evidence of the Barkers’ anti-modernism. The advent of the internet on my life is nothing compared to these changes the Barkers went through and I try to keep that in mind when I look at their world through my eyes. The Gilded Age was a time of changing perceptions of the world, people saw time, space, and themselves differently and my plan for the next year is to design interpretive programs that convey the weight of these changes. Last weekend I held the second “Building Barker Architecture Tour” which explored the mansion and the family’s history through the lens of Frederick Wainwright Perkins, the architect who designed the mansion as well as that of Jens Jensen, who designed the gardens. Using Perkins’ correspondence with the Barkers as well as the context of Gilded Age architecture, we explored several manifestations of anti-modernism in the structure of the mansion as well as the symbolism and designs throughout the building and grounds. I am also planning a program for September 18th, tentatively titled “Lighting the Barker Mansion” (not much pizzazz right now, but I’ll work on it!). In this program, I explore the impact of electric light in the Gilded Age, how lighting changed social customs, fashion, and altered how people interact with the space inside their own homes. Anti-modernism is just one of a myriad of perspective we can take on the Barker Mansion, and it brings us a hair closer to seeing the world through the Barkers’ eyes.

Further Reading:

Lears, TJ Jackson. No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1870-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

———, The Railroad Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

“Work today to breathe better tomorrow”

As you might have heard, the Barker Mansion has been closed since January 21st for a bit of restoration work. There is always as similar question the staff and I are asked; “so what do you do then? Do you actually work?”

Oh yes.

The past two months have been filled with projects. While this is supposed to be our slow season, the staff are gearing up for what lies ahead. Rooms have been cleaned from floor to ceiling. We created a preservation room on the second floor where our Christmas ornaments were previously housed. This new room will serve as a station for working on artifact cleaning, preservation and further interpretation. Tapestries were taken down, vacuumed, and placed on rest now reside in a corner of the room. The smell of Renaissance Wax still lingering from a project completed a few minutes ago. The trash filled with dirty q-tips, rusty staples, crumpled paper and several pairs of Nitrile gloves. To me, this room symbolizes what I hope the mansion can be- a research center. A place where our events serve the public and act as a gateway into another time and place. I want students to use our reading room as they use our archives. This preservation room is an a sense, where artifacts will come to be rejuvenated and where exhibits will be created.

This preservation room isn’t the only place where things have been cleaned up. Yesterday our staff took on a series of massive projects on the first floor. We noticed that our sinuses buzzed and noses immediately stuffed up when we entered the library. Staff heard crunching when they stepped on the carpet. When the carpet was lifted, the carpet pad had degraded to a hard chip that flaked off and powered. It had to go.

 

 

Staff vacuum up the powdered carpet pad with a handy wet/dry vac
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Putting the Puzzle Back Together

At the start of February 2019, rooms on the first and second floors of the Barker Mansion were emptied of their artifacts so work could be done on the original plaster ceilings. Now, a month later, it is time to put the rooms back together. I will be the first to admit that I assumed this meant we would be putting the rooms back to how they were one month ago, with maybe a few small changes in the placement of some artifacts. However, when we began putting the Morning Room on the second floor back to rights on Wednesday, I was surprised at how many differences there were between the older historical photographs of the room and how we had it set up before renovations. Now don’t misunderstand, we had the room set up in a way that was as historical as possible based on photographs, but there are at least two distinct time periods in our historical photographs of the Morning Room. The first, pictured below, shows the Morning Room set up as more of an office with a large desk, chairs, and a table.

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This photograph also shows the fireplace and bookcases crowded with pictures and other knickknacks.

The next photograph, which is closer to how we had the room prior to renovations, show the second time period where the Morning Room is arranged more as a sitting room with a couch and chairs in front of the fireplace. There are also significantly fewer photographs and knickknacks on the fireplace and shelves in these photographs.

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As we looked at the photographs, we made the decision to represent both eras, which meant a bit of fast thinking. One of the key pieces in what we believe to be the earlier era of the room was a large desk that sat near the door. Unfortunately, we no longer have this desk or the chair that went with it. In the end we decided to represent the desk by moving in a smaller table, original to the spot in yet another photograph, to represent the desk that was once in the room. Luckily we have many of the items that are depicted as being on the desk in the photographs, so we will be able to set the table up as the desk was many years ago. There will be a few other small changes, but the couch and chair from the second set of photographs will remain in front of the fireplace as they were before renovations.MR4

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While researching what to put into the Morning Room, I came across photos of another room on the second floor. The Monuments of Paris Room has long been one of my favorite rooms at the mansion. Originally this room served as the childhood bedroom for Catherine Barker until it was later changed into more of a sitting room for the connecting Marie Antoinette Room. Ever since I found the first picture of the Monuments Room depicted as Catherine’s childhood bedroom nearly two years ago now, I have been curious if there was a way to make it look that way once again. Seeing this same photograph this week, while in the middle of discussing the changes being made to another room, I decided to propose the idea of making the Monuments Room a bedroom again to my director. After some discussion over what would need to be moved into the room, we decided that it was more than possible to create a resemblance of Catherine’s childhood bedroom.

In the first two photographs below, you can see the original furnishings of Catherine’s bedroom. Unfortunately we do not have many pieces of this set remaining, so we improvised. The twin bed you see in the third photograph is one of two from the Old Master Bedroom and is a rather close match to Catherine’s original bed with only a few minor differences. The fainting couch along the wall as well as the dresser table and mirror are two original pieces of this room, though the mirror was originally attached to the table.

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Though we do not have all of the original items from the Barker’s time period to decorate these rooms, what we do have is more than enough to accurately portray the story of the Barker family. It has been a rather exciting adventure to put the puzzle of the Barker Mansion back together!

Until next time!

Heritage Interpreter Jackie Perkins

 

Please, Pardon our Progress

Written by Heritage Interpreter, Bailey Roberts

December, as usual, was the busiest time for the Barker Mansion. Decorated with trees in every room, smiles of visitors, the Mansion never feels more alive than during the holidays.  January has always been the month of recovery, starting the new year by polishing the wood and silver, which the mansion has no shortage of, to keep us busy and ready for the summer months. But this year, we are telling a much different story. From January 20th all the way to March 1st, the Barker Mansion will be closed. Unfortunately, you did hear me right, closed.

While this may not seem ideal for our many guests and visitors, this break is much needed. If you have visited us recently, you’ll notice the amount of work that is being done currently. Many rooms and whole portions of the house have been under construction as restoration of the mansion’s plaster is reaching its peak.

This is something that has been long overdue. Ever since Jessica Rosier took over the mansion as Director a couple of years ago, the Mansion has experienced more and more people coming through the door. The increased foot traffic means more body heat and increased vibrations on the second and third doors which affect the ceilings below them. Plaster has cracked over time but stayed in place (thankfully). When Emily Reth took the mantle of directorship from Jessica, she came in with a vision. Last year we still had a wonderful increase in tourism, but the weather hasn’t been kind to the Mansion’s structure. We had a record amount of water seepage, ice dams and the like which has led us to take dramatic action. Which brings us here to this moment where history is being preserved for the first time a long time.

So, what are we going to be doing during this upcoming month, you may ask? Well, let me share some projects that we will be taking on. Currently, the Master bedroom and the Morning room are being updated. The ceilings have been stripped so we can reinforce the ceilings with newer plaster using more modern methods. The rooms look like a very respectful tornado came through, moving things around to new places. Plastic hangs from ceilings and walls, plaster dust coats the floors and paper walkways trail through the halls. At first, when Emily took me on a walk-through of the progress, my heart was racing faster than I thought it could. I was stressed, anxious, and internally freaking out at seeing how everything looked. But as I continue to walk through, I can’t help but feel relieved. I am excited to see what’s going to happen, what is going to come of the new restorations. I am proud to be here seeing this progress be made. This is a new chapter in our history, and I am anxious for its outcome.

 

The next big step after the second floor will be the Foyer and the drawing room, hence the need to close the mansion. The intricate, beautiful ceilings which have captivated many people upon their first entry will be getting a major facelift. If everything goes right, all that will need to be done is apply adhesive to the cracking sections of plaster, lift them up and reapply some plaster to make them stick together again. But if this proves to be too difficult, and the plaster is too heavy, then a big step will need to be taken. The entire ceiling will need to be replaced. When Emily told me that the entire ceiling might have to be stripped with new molds crafted, I about panicked. These ceilings were our pride, lasting 110 years to still be here today. That is still a point of anxiety, but I know that the product if it comes to that, will be done right. My co-worker TJ and I went to the University of Illinois two years ago because they have all the mansion blueprints in their archives. We were fortunate enough to recover blueprints of the plaster ceilings in those rooms. We will be able to create an exact reproduction of the ceiling if it has to come to that.

While the reproduction is taking place, the staff here at the mansion will have the meticulous duty of cleaning and creating new environments for the artifacts to be preserved in. For the first time, the artifacts will be getting a gritty cleaning, going over every little detail as much as possible. The giant candelabras that flank the main fireplace in the foyer are also going to get a deep cleaning, meaning we get to take Q-tips to clean every nook in the silver. While many people would see this as boring and pain-staking I see it as a new adventure. It’s a privilege to be able to handle these artifacts for the Barker Mansion and make them accessible to the public’s view. History should be accessible as possible for everybody to learn from. Being involved in that process is an honor. And because of that, while we clean the artifacts, I will be taking a photograph of every single artifact we go through and writing a synopsis of each one. In the end, I will place our findings in a binder to be a new, updated inventory for the staff and public to use. We get a lot of questions about some of our artifact, and a lot of them can be quite unique and esoteric, often leaving us stumbling and needed to learn more.  By doing this, the staff will be better equipped to provide more answers and let the public be able to learn even more about our history through the lens of the objects stored within our walls.

 

This month will prove to be difficult and quite the learning experience for all of us. History is a fragile subject which can open doors to vibrant growth. The mansion is a local history which offers worldly goods. No history is too small nor too big. Coming up on my second year as a Heritage Interpreter the mansion has become a home. And like any home, it needs to be taken care of. It will be a lot of work, but it will be the best time I’ve had. This hands-on approach to history is why I want to do history. My favorite thing, at the end of all this, will not be the work being out in, but the outcome of it and letting everyone see what we’ve done. My favorite part of history is seeing how people react to it. I look forward to seeing you all in a month.

 

 

 

Losing Control of History: Site Research and Misinformation

The following article was published in the November/December 2018 issue of the National Association for Interpretation‘s Legacy magazine, aimed at professionals working in parks and museums. The content is the property of Legacy and was written by Barker Mansion heritage interpreter TJ Kalin.

 

Losing Control of History:

Site Research and Misinformation

 Anthony “TJ” Kalin CIG

Heritage Interpreter, Barker Mansion Museum and Civic Center

I have given visitors to my site false information. In my first year as an interpreter at the Barker Mansion, a Gilded Age house museum in Michigan City Indiana, I told guests everything that was in the tour script I was given. Today, after years of research, I smack myself in the forehead when I think about some of the things I repeated to guests. I once told guests that our “Three Graces” sculpture in the living room was an original by Antonio Canova (the original is in the Louvre…) or telling guests that the mansion was built in 1905 (it later turned out to be 1909). That original tour script was written when the museum had neither a research nor an interpretation orientation. I told visitors what I was instructed to say to visitors, my interpretation was in good faith, but visitors walked away with false information. Years of research and archiving later we have written an entirely new history of our site, but misinformation still crops up.

Research is a lot of fun, and with the technologies available today, it can be fast. The massive volume of digitized archives, newspapers, and literature available makes site research move quickly. Sometimes it goes too quick. New information pushes out the old information, but as a museum with limited resources, our ability to interpret new information quickly falls behind.

The pace of research outpaces the speed at which you can update tours, programs, and signage, not to mention materials that lie outside your site’s control. What do you do when you know information about your site is false, but you can not update it in time? Are we are misinforming our visitors in this case? How do we reign history back in when it gets away from us?

 

Old Habits

We have encountered many issues with false information at the Barker Mansion. Interpretive signage with some incorrect dates, put in long before we conducted extensive site research, are in front of the mansion and around the Haskell-Barker historic district in Michigan City. These signs are too expensive to change out. Similarly, a documentary was produced for our basement theatre to be shown before tours. This documentary was produced using our most up to date research at the time. Months after the documentary was produced, I found some documents in the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign archives that showed that a few dates and statements in the documentary were inaccurate.

Several local history books as well as many online resources, including some top Google, searches for our site, contain false information about the Barker Mansion. These are the sources the public goes to learn about our site before visiting. While the mistakes in signage and in the documentary were subtle inaccuracies, these resources had names wrong, spread urban legends, and contained egregiously false information that defamed the Barker family. Even worse, most of these resources are outside of our control.

Old habits are also hard to break. It is difficult to get everyone on staff on the same page about the history of the site. Historical sites handle massive, dynamic bodies of information that are difficult to update. When facts are updated quickly, it is quite a task to get everyone on the same page right away. Two interpreters can tell different accounts on tour, both are good faith interpreters, but they can still spread the wrong information.

Interpretation is revelation based upon information (Tilden’s 2nd Principle). The information sites’ interpret can be hard to deal with. Researching, updating, and conveying site information pushes interpreters into the bounds of misinformation. In this article am talking about museums but this definition can be used in any interpretive setting. The problems we had at the Barker Mansion led to some visitors gaining false information but does this qualify as misinformation?

 

Misinformation Defined

To understand whether the complicated cases above count as misinformation, let me start by describing a clear case of misinformation at our site. Twenty years ago, docents at our museum told several complete falsehoods to the public. For example, old tour programs talked about a dramatic assassination attempt in the dining room of the museum. This story did not have any sort of documentation to back up the stories, and basic site research would have proven it false. In this case, false information was spread without accountability. Guests were misinformed to sensationalize the site. This is a clear case of misinformation (as well as interpretainment over interpretation).

Apart from visitors learning false information, two key factors that make the assassination case a clear case of misinformation are (1) intention and (2) responsibility. Docents intentionally told a falsehood and also failed to fulfill their obligation to research and know their site.

The other cases of the signage, the documentary, inconsistency among staff, and resources outside our control fall into a grey zone. Visitors did receive incorrect information in all of these cases, but the other two factors (1) intention and (2) responsibility were absent. Barker Mansion heritage interpreters never intended to misinform in these cases nor did we fail to research our site, in fact, we researched too much.

The critical thing to remember is that interpretation is not just in the information. Recall Tilden’s second principle: “Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.” We want to call guests to recognize the importance of preserving our site, not just learn a bunch of facts.

Also, recall Tilden’s fifth principle: “Interpretation presents a whole rather than a part.” A good interpretive plan should be able to convey an interpretive theme despite some small inaccuracies. If my guests get a slightly incorrect year for when the Barker Mansion was built, it will not affect my interpretive goals. I can still convey the role of the Barker family in making Michigan City and the need to preserve the heritage resources of the Haskell-Barker historic district.

The above cases are not ideal, but if interpreters make a good-faith effort to give the best program possible with the best information at hand, interpreters are not culpable for spreading misinformation. Still, interpreters are responsible for providing guests the most accurate information on their site, how do we get history back under our control?

 

Controlling History

One obvious solution is to research and update carefully. Do not be hasty in accepting new information. Our current director has a “5 Source” policy, for any change to signage or the tour script, there must be three primary sources filed. In the past, we may have been a bit hasty in updating and acting on new information, but our site hosts programs and tours every week and research goes on all the time. Each program and tour tried to incorporate out most up to date information, but that information was continually changing and improving. With these factors in mind, we came up with a few strategies to minimize misinformation at the Barker Mansion.

A great way to reevaluate site information is by having peer feedback. Every few months everyone on staff must follow everyone else’s tours. When we did peer feedback at Barker Mansion, we argued quite a bit, but in the end, everyone ended up on the same page. Update the tour script regularly and make sure all interpreters are aware of changes. This remedies the “old habits are hard to break” problem.

Also, think of creative ways to incorporate and spread new information. We try to offer several programs a year that include new archival sources at the mansion. This fall I am hosting a program that walks visitors through all our recently found blueprints for the Barker Mansion. Having interpreters regularly write about new stories and sources on a site blog can disseminate the latest information. Making your site a vibrant place relays to the visitor how dynamic history can be.

Being upfront and telling visitors about incorrect information on tour is a great way of interpreting the work that goes on at your site. At the end of our documentary, I head to the front of the room and point out a small date error and use that error to interpret the concept of a working museum. Small changes like this can also help with the harder-to-fix issues, like incorrect signage on site.

The worst issues to fix are the ones outside of your sites control like the books, online resources, and signs around Michigan City. Having false resources in the community can make on-site interpretation difficult, especially when guests research your site before visiting.

Approaching this daunting task can be as simple as updating your Wikipedia page or adding new research on your website. Write history columns for a local newspaper or appear on local radio to talk about the history of your site. To remedy the problem with local history books’ inaccuracies, I wrote a new history of Michigan City that includes all the latest information about the Barker family and much of Michigan City history. Writing a book is a big project but it can be great for promoting your site, and its publicity can raise awareness that other resources are out of date.

All these solutions helped us to reign history back in at Barker Mansion. History is never static, there is always more to learn about your site and your community. I have great respect for those who did the site research that gave us the foundation we work from in Michigan City. Guests may occasionally receive incorrect information but as long as we make a good-faith effort to meet our interpretive goals history can be controlled responsibly.

Sources:

Freeman Tilden. Interpreting Our Heritage (University of North Carolina Press, 1957)