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The Lowell Experiment

The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Lowell Experiment
    Book Description:

    In the early nineteenth century, Lowell, Massachusetts, was widely studied and emulated as a model for capitalist industrial development. One of the first cities in the United States to experience the ravages of deindustrialization, it was also among the first places in the world to turn to its own industrial and ethnic history as a tool for reinventing itself in the emerging postindustrial economy. The Lowell Experiment explores how history and culture have been used to remake Lowell and how historians have played a crucial yet ambiguous role in that process. The book focuses on Lowell National Historical Park, the flagship project of Lowell’s new cultural economy. When it was created in 1978, the park broke new ground with its sweeping reinterpretations of labor, immigrant, and women’s history. It served as a test site for the ideas of practitioners in the new field of public history—a field that links the work of professionally trained historians with many different kinds of projects in the public realm. The Lowell Experiment takes an anthropological approach to public history in Lowell, showing it as a complex cultural performance shaped by local memory, the imperatives of economic redevelopment, and tourist rituals—all serving to locate the park’s audiences and workers more securely within a changing and uncertain new economy characterized by growing inequalities and new exclusions. The paradoxical dual role of Lowell’s public historians as both interpreters of and contributors to that new economy raises important questions about the challenges and limitations facing academically trained scholars in contemporary American culture. As a longstanding and wellknown example of “cultureled redevelopment,” Lowell offers an outstanding site for exploring questions of concern to those in the fields of public and urban history, urban planning, and tourism studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-165-6
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PROLOGUE: The Map in the Museum
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    In the summer of 2002, while I was completing my fieldwork in Lowell, nine coal miners became trapped in a flooded mine in Somerset, Pennsylvania. The underground landscape in that region is riddled with abandoned mines, which are supposed to be mapped definitively whenever a company stops working a particular deposit. For a variety of reasons, this final mapping does not always happen, and mining companies are sometimes left guessing about exactly what they are digging into when they follow a vein close to an older shaft. In this case, the miners discovered—too late, when they broke through a...


    • CHAPTER 1 Lowell and the Public History Movement
      (pp. 3-28)

      The flagship project of Lowell’s culture-led redevelopment is Lowell National Historical Park (NHP), created in 1978. Unlike traditional national parks, it is not a neatly bounded piece of real estate owned outright by the National Park Service, but a series of buildings and open spaces within the downtown area and along the canal system that once powered the textile mills (see map, pp. 42–43). This kind of decentralized park and its successor, the “heritage area,” have now become more common in the Park Service, but when Lowell NHP was being developed, it was an entirely new concept. Visitors—and...

    • CHAPTER 2 An Ethnographer in Public Historical Space
      (pp. 29-40)

      My goal in Lowell was to try to understand professional public historians as social actors within a postindustrial city undergoing considerable socioeconomic and demographic change. I wanted to investigate how public historians were responding to the kinds of social and economic forces that were shaping the city, and how the historians in turn affected the changes taking place in Lowell. Identifying specific fieldwork sites within this larger context proved challenging. I found it helpful at the outset to locate what I thought of as “public historical space”—the areas and activities created and controlled by public historians. Although Lowell’s public...


    • CHAPTER 3 The Run of the Mill
      (pp. 45-67)

      The “Run of the Mill” tour is one of several tour programs regularly presented by Lowell National Historical Park from late spring through early fall. These ranger-led tours are among the park’s most popular offerings and are often filled to their twenty-seven-person capacity. Most tour itineraries include a trolley and canal-boat ride, lasting from ninety minutes to just over two hours (fig. 1). The Run of the Mill is one of the longer tours, incorporating not only a ride along one of the canals but also a visit to an exhibit about waterpower in the Suffolk Mill, a location somewhat...

    • CHAPTER 4 A Walking Tour of the Acre
      (pp. 68-96)

      The Lowell neighborhood known as the Acre was originally an acre of land reputedly donated to Irish laborers in the 1820s so that they could build a church. It now encompasses more than 400 acres and is home to many thousands of people. It borders the downtown (to the west) and has been in many ways a kind of shadow side of the redeveloped business district. The Acre is and has always been Lowell’s poorest neighborhood, long a gateway for the city’s newest immigrants and refugees and now the site of its most extensive public housing projects. One of these,...

    • CHAPTER 5 Historic Preservation as Economic Development
      (pp. 97-132)

      In August of 2001 I took a special tour offered by the national park, entitled “Historic Preservation as Economic Development.” The tour was led by Peter Aucella, the park’s assistant superintendent, who began the tour by describing his own background:

      I’m one of those guys who had a political science degree and you always wonder what happens to them after poli sci…. Over the years I’ve worked for the state transportation planning agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Malden, Massachusetts, doing community development…. After that I was an economic development aide to U.S. Senator...


    • CHAPTER 6 Rituals of Reconnection: Work as History and History as Work in Postindustrial Lowell
      (pp. 135-184)

      Every other Wednesday morning in the winter and spring of 2002, I observed meetings of a team of public historians who were redesigning the final segments of the Boott Cotton Mills Museum exhibit. The meetings were held in a small conference room in what had originally been a circular staircase-tower in the Boott Mills complex. Directly outside the room, the hallway was open to the workshop areas of the Tsongas Industrial History Center, one floor below, and occasionally we would hear large groups of schoolchildren coming and going. Less often, in the late morning, there would be a more surprising...

    • CHAPTER 7 Feasting on Lowell: Authority and Accommodation in Lowell’s New Cultural Economy
      (pp. 185-228)

      In May of 2002, the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center held a public forum and open house to announce to the public that it was back in business. The Mogan Center was one of the proudest achievements of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, which renovated a muchaltered Boott Mill boardinghouse into a building that combined exhibit and archive space with meeting rooms. It opened in 1989, with the goal of providing a space where local people could actively participate in the study, exhibition, and ongoing creation of Lowell’s history and local culture within the city’s new public historical spaces. Named...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 229-238)

    In May 2005, as I was completing the revision of this book, I made a final brief fieldwork foray. There is always a temptation to do this with an ethnographic project that is close to home, especially after there has been a stretch of time to write about and reflect on the data gathered in the original fieldwork phase. One last interview or a quick look at one additional site, we think, will surely provide the final piece of the puzzle.

    In this case, there were two more things I wanted to accomplish. As I have already noted, I spent...

  9. APPENDIX Visitor Survey Summary, Lowell National Historical Park, Summer 2001 and 2002
    (pp. 239-262)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 263-278)
    (pp. 279-294)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 295-300)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-302)