"History is bunk": historical memories at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village

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Swigger, Jessica, 1976-

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In 1929, Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village, his outdoor history museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Fourteen years earlier, Ford announced that written history was bunk. The museum was designed to reshape the historical project by celebrating farmers and inventors in lieu of military heroes and politicians. Included among the structures were Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, Noah Webster’s home, and Ford’s Quadricycle shop. Ford used architecture and material culture to connect American progress to self-made manhood, middle-class domesticity, and the inventive spirit. Despite signs that the struggling automotive industry is responsible for Michigan’s economic decline, the site is popular--since 1976 over one million visitors have attended each year. This project examines this phenomenon, which exemplifies how publics often fail to link past and present in the same way that scholars do. The Village’s largely unexplored archives documenting its internal history are mined, along with primary and secondary sources on the histories of public history and the Detroit metropolitan-area. Chapter one studies the site’s construction and audiences during Ford’s presidency arguing that the populist public images of Ford and Edison mediated encounters with the Village. Chapter two links the site to the racial politics of the Detroit metro-area, which marked the Village as an alternative public space for whites. Chapter three draws on visitor surveys, to show how patrons’ worldviews were shaped by the politics of populistconservativism. Chapter four explains how the appointment of an academic as president ensured the addition of progressive historical narratives, but the site’s location in Dearborn impeded efforts to draw a larger African American audience. In the mid-1990s, the fifth chapter contends, administrators successfully sought new patrons by blending progressive history and entertainment. This project argues that the Village is popular because it articulates both visitors’ longing for an imagined past, and desires for alternative futures. It also proposes that representations of the past are understood not only through a study of their internal histories, but by placing them in the broader contexts of the economy, politics, and social relationships of the geographic area in which they are located.