How Memorialization Shapes History and Tourism

As I have begun writing the chapter on memorialization of the overland trails, I am struck by the connections this chapter has to others in the report. How people have commemorated, designated, wrote about, and toured sites along the overland trail have had a direct correlation to the national political, cultural, and social context of the time and have consequently influenced, either for good or ill, how the trails have been studied and remembered ever since. The history of the nineteenth century overland migrations themselves, as Nic Gunvaldson and I explore in our chapters on the migrations, obviously formed the cornerstone for memorialization efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The role of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the memorialization and commemoration process has much to do with its formation as a local landmark and subsequent development within the neighboring communities, as Doug Sheflin’s chapter on town and park relationships will demonstrate. Memorialization of the overland trail has privileged a white, Anglo-Saxon narrative that ignores or over-simplifies the rich and diverse Native American connections to the trail landscape and the Scotts Bluff region, past and present, as Andrew Cabrall is exploring in his two chapters on the Native American experience.

One of my earlier chapters written for this project involved a look at mobility in Nebraska and the Scotts Bluff area in particular, as people have moved about in the region from the 1860s to the present in search of land, industry, opportunity, and tourist experiences. The team has decided that because of the overlap between this chapter and others that will be part of the final report, my research for the mobility chapter will instead be folded into other appropriate sections of the finished document. It seemed to make sense to incorporate the tourism sections of the mobility chapter into my current chapter on memorialization. At first, I was unsure how strong the connections would be. As I have begun writing, however, I have noticed how well the two correlate. Memorialization of the overland trails and of Scotts Bluff National Monument has not just been about marker dedications, speeches, pageantry, and anniversary events. Memorialization is also part of the day-to-day, annual routines of how and why Americans remember, read about, visit, and explore sites connected to their nation’s past. The desire to increase tourism, and thus economic development, was a major reason why local residents of Scottsbluff and Gering pushed to get Scotts Bluff designated as a national monument. Tourism is both an economic driver and a vehicle for popular memory. When tourists visit historic sites, they bring to the table a host of preconditioned values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations, often colored by the cultural and social forces at work in their nation at that time. Many tourists believe that it is important to visit historic sites in order to gain an appreciation for their nation’s past, or to inculcate patriotism or a particular set of values in the lives of their children. Consequently, tourism is an important element of memorialization. However, tourists are not merely passive consumers of information who seek edutainment. They can, and many do, play an active role in how Americans continue to shape our understanding and commemoration of historic events. Many parents, including my own, have dragged many a young child along to a host of historic sites during the family summer vacation. In the process, many of those children, like me, have discovered a passion for the history of places that eventually turned into a career of helping to interpret and document that history for others. And most of us still enjoy touring the sites that are important to our nation’s heritage.

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