Jessie Swigger is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on her book History is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village (University of Massachusetts Press, July, 2014)
JF: What led you to write History is Bunk?
JS: My interest in Henry Ford's Greenfield Village began with a visit. I had long read about Greenfield Village in histories of preservation and museums, but did not get the chance to visit until 2005. Henry Ford opened the Village in 1929, so it's one of the oldest and most popular outdoor history museums in the country. When viewed as a history museum, the landscape is a little jarring because it mixes preserved buildings, replicas, and whole-cloth constructions that were linked to both famous and ordinary people. The Village was never a real place, but it certainly feels like a real small town. The centerpieces of the site are Henry Ford's birthplace, the Wright Brother's home and Cycle shop, and a replica of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park. But the museum also includes educational author William Holmes McGuffey's Pennsylvania birthplace, two brick slave cabins from the Hermitage Plantation in Georgia, and a Cotswold cottage from England.
Another aspect of the museum that I found interesting was the museum's location in Dearborn, MI. Just a few minutes from the Village is the Rouge Factory. Ford built his celebration of the past in the shadow of what was once the world's largest industrial factory. And, just a short 15 minute drive from Dearborn is Detroit. The city's fate cannot be separated from that of the struggles of the American auto-industry (including Ford Motor Company), but one of the metro-area's most popular museums celebrates Ford the man and Ford Motor Company.
I was fascinated by the Village's representation of the past and its longstanding popularity and wanted to better understand it.
JF: Summarize the argument of History is Bunk in two sentences.
JS: The history of Greenfield Village demonstrates how representations of the past are shaped by the complex dialogue that occurs between audiences and administrators.
JF: Why should we read History is Bunk?
JS: The Village's rich history helps us better understand Henry Ford, public history, and the role that local politics play in shaping representations of the past. This book also provides the most complete history of Greenfield Village to-date by drawing on the copious records kept by Greenfield Village staff.
JF: Tell us about how you became an American historian?
JS: My degree is in American Studies, but my interdisciplinary focus leans toward history. I am fascinated by how culture changes over time and in particular how Americans use museums, historic sites, and monuments to make meaning of their present.
JF: What is your next project?
JS: My next project focuses on the history of children's programming at history museums. Right now, I'm starting my research by looking at the Smithsonian Institution's Children's Room.