Vintage black-and-white photo depicting the Mullan Road monument in Spokane.

‘Dialogue in Place Project’ Will Reevaluate Historic Landmarks Through Public Dialogue

by Amanda Ong

The Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) has recently begun a multiyear, statewide project, “Dialogue in Place,” to use community dialogue to reevaluate 43 historical markers and monuments erected by the organization. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently granted them $142,000 to support the next phase of the project, particularly in their endeavor to engage local communities. 

“At a minimum, a lot of these markers and monuments had not been maintained over the years,” Allison Campbell, the heritage outreach manager at the Washington State Historical Society, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “There was no funding, or fluctuating funding over the years, that kind of thing. And then [we heard] from the public and certainly [realized] that a lot of these monuments and markers do not reflect the more complex, nuanced history that we feel is important to tell.”

Over the years, WSHS has received emails and phone calls from community members asking that they revise the language of these historical markers. After the murder of George Floyd and nationwide debates around Confederate monuments in 2020, these comments increased. Many of the specific historical markers community members called out referred to accounts that fail to acknowledge Indigenous perspectives and glorify the colonizers.

“Some of these monuments are in very visible places, and present very incomplete histories,” Campbell said. “They continue to inflict trauma, particularly on tribal nations who are deeply impacted by these histories and continue to be … So how do we kind of address that? But then also, again, I really see the audience as all of our communities. And how can we come together and talk about history? And in ways that enriches everybody’s understanding of the past?”

The project began in 2020 as the WSHS conducted a statewide inventory and identified 43 monuments and markers to investigate. In Phase 2, the WSHS team brought together an advisory committee to consider the 43 markers and prioritize them for community review. The IMLS grant will fund Phase 3: Dialogue In Place, as WSHS will work with their advisory committee as well as engage with local tribal nations and other communities to develop, pilot, and evaluate a process for effective dialogue around these monuments and historical markers.

“There was an internal kind of energy around really taking a look at the monuments that were placed by our [WSHS],” Campbell said. “We brought together a group of public historians and tribal historians to kind of review this list with us … We knew we wanted the public part of this process to be dialogue-based and to be about bringing communities together to have conversations about history and difficult histories, and to work with tribes to think about what they would like to see happen with these monuments.”

Ultimately, WSHS hopes to produce a tool kit that will allow smaller historical organizations within Washington to host similar conversations about challenging and difficult histories in their community. With this effort, the history that is represented on these monuments will hopefully better reflect context and nuance around the people, the community, and the events that they are commemorating.

“We’re really hoping that [the monuments] tell a more complete history of the individuals and incidents in the big picture,” Campbell said. “History is complicated, right? And it’s messy, and it’s not black or white. So I think the more that we can encourage conversations around just how complex history is, the more comfortable we can all get with the fact that it is ambiguous.”

The project’s website features a map in which all 43 markers are tagged. A few are in the Seattle area and within South King County, such as Hanson, Ackerson, and Co. Sawmill, the grave of William H. Brannan in Auburn, the Naches Pass Wagon Trail Memorial in Enumclaw and Pierce County, Fort Maloney Historical Marker in Puyallup, and Connell’s Prairie Historical Marker in Buckley. Community dialogues will begin as WSHS invites local community members to take part in the project.

“We look forward to inviting folks to be a part of these conversations,” Campbell said. “We have a lot of work to do still before we’re ready to kind of host these public dialogues, because we want to be really intentional about our approach and really be prepared to facilitate these conversations. So we’re going to do a lot of homework and a lot of thinking and learning, and hopefully we can come together with all kinds of folks to talk about the history of our region.”

Find out more about getting involved with dialogue opportunities by following the project’s website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Through the “Dialogue in Place” program, the Washington State Historical Society will reevaluate 43 historical markers throughout the state, inviting public dialogue and community input. Pictured: Mullan Road monument in Spokane. This monument was erected in 1922 to commemorate Captain John Mullan, a soldier and road builder who built Mullan Road in Montana, Idaho, and Washington State in 1859–1860. The monument is one marker up for reevaluation. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society)

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