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Response to Review no. 833

The task of reviewing edited collections can be nearly as daunting as assembling them, especially one like ours that presents 13 essays from 12 countries in six continents, and we are grateful to Steven Dubin for rising to the challenge.  Our intent was to compile an illustrative group of public history controversies in different national settings that would encourage readers to critically question how race and empire shape how histories are represented and understood. He nicely summarizes most of the essays in ways that will allow readers to engage with them on their own terms. 

His discussion of the one essay he found most problematic seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of his review, but this imbalance reflects his own extensive recent experience in that country.  Some of his other concerns – such as how the Holocaust debate emerged at Ellis Island – are indeed important. However, that particular controversy did not seem to illuminate the tensions between racial/ethnic and U.S. national identities that prompted our selection of the Alamo and Ellis Island as sites to analyze. At the conclusion of the essay, Dubin raises provocative questions about the role of curators and their assessments of, and expectations for, audiences. Most of our authors spoke extensively with curators and other heritage professionals, even if only a few (such as the Philipses and Poole) include detailed discussions of the presenters’ concerns. We are keenly appreciative of how curators must strike a balance between challenging viewers and turning them off, and we understand that no single exhibit, monument or performance can possibly contain all the possible perspectives and nuances; we have worked in such roles ourselves and trained others to do them.  But good history does not breed comfortable minds, and we have great confidence in the willingness and ability of publics to engage difficult stories. The idea that national identities are both implicitly and sometimes explicitly racialized should not be so difficult to hear (or read). As we are frequently reminded, even in ‘the age of Obama’, race still matters, and it is too important to bury as a ‘turn off’.