The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006) is an ethnographic study of public historians at work in the former textile city of Lowell, Massachusetts, which has invested heavily in what is sometimes called “culture-led redevelopment” as a way to reinvent itself after deindustrialization. Specifically, the book examines the interpretive division of Lowell National Historical Park, founded in 1978 as the flagship project of the “new Lowell.”
I chose Lowell as my dissertation fieldwork site for a couple of reasons. First, it went down the culture-led path earlier than most other places and hence has served as a model for this kind of place-making and knowledge-production, as well as a testing-ground for what was then the emerging field of professional public history.
And second, the industrial history on display in Lowell raises unusually critical questions about the development and consequences of industrial capitalism. That made Lowell NHP a highly interesting site at which to investigate the effects of public historical scholarship within the next wave of capitalist development, which is based more on the production of ideas and services rather than more tangible goods.
The core question in the book was, “What effect have these critical interpretations had on the shaping of postindustrial Lowell, and what can that tell us about the potential for public scholarship in these kinds of projects and settings?”
In a nutshell, my answer is that critical questioning in Lowell’s public history and heritage realm has been largely sequestered or enclaved so that its insights are not permitted to unsettle the positive image of the city’s overall redevelopment project. I trace how this is affected by public historians’ own socioeconomic positioning within the postindustrial “new economy.”
I also look at how the specific cultural politics of the city have created a division of cultural labor that reinforces the distance between the most critical of public historical observers and the areas where their insights might touch most closely on vexed contemporary questions in the city (for example, issues arising from persistent poverty levels, recent immigration, gentrification, and Lowell’s ongoing vulnerability to economic fluctuations). The moments of provocative questioning at the national park and its allied productions remain essentially isolated from present-day discourse in Lowell in a way that is systemic and, on some level, purposeful.
The Lowell Experiment was the winner of the 2007 National Council on Public History Book Award.
“[One] of the best case studies in the world of public history I have yet read, and a very important story to tell.”
~ Edward T. Linenthal, author of Preserving Memory and The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory
“[A] landmark achievement in the application of interdisciplinary scholarship to fundamental questions of history in the civic realm… Stanton has produced a study of the highest quality, one that should be read by both aspiring and practicing public historians.”
~ Journal of American History
“[T]hought-provoking. [Stanton] raises significant questions about how decisions are made to develop a historic site and how to interpret it, and she offers valuable insights.”
~ Northeast Anthropology
“[C]lear, compelling prose… Those with interests in ethnography, heritage and history, the importance of people over forces (or as a force), labor and capital, community design, as well as the work of public historians, will enjoy reading Stanton’s thoughtful analysis of Lowell’s ongoing experiment.”
“[C]arefully researched, provocative…”
~ The Public Historian
“Stanton’s stimulating and reflective work is a timely and welcome contribution to a small but growing body of work that critically examines public history.”
~ Public History Review