The traditional uses of commemoration in America are various—but often include a nostalgic reaching for a perceived “better time.” In recent years the RIHS has viewed commemoration as a chance to complicate our understanding of the past, to explore (and to fill) the silences which have been hitherto elided or ignored. We have also tried to make more connections between the achievements of people in the past and the achievements of present influencers. This effort only increased in 2020, with the sharpening focus on national and global issues of social justice, public health, and the environment.
In the Fall of 2020 the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Newport Historical Society collaborated to publish a combined issue of their respective scholarly journals to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The articles examine the diversity of participants, the anti-suffrage movement in Rhode Island, and the struggles for leadership between those in the nascent Rhode Island Woman’s Suffrage Association and the national women’s suffrage convention held in Newport in 1869.
In an effort to make “legacy” relevant, our social media efforts for Women’s History month have included a series of posts with the themed pairing of two individuals, one who is a high-achieving woman presently, paired with a past figure who relates to the present one in some parallel way. For example, we featured a story pairing Morgan Nathan (age 17), recently named the first female Eagle Scout in Rhode Island, with Providence-born mountaineer Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935), who sailed from New York to Peru in May of 1906 to begin her 2nd attempt to climb Mount Huascaran. Another example is award-winning actor and producer Viola Davis, paired with Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (1868-1933), who gained international fame for her soprano opera singing.
In terms of collecting, a new process of commemoration was the launch (with the Providence Public Library) of our online COVID Archive, an effort to collect history as it unfolds through the voices of its participants. We quickly found ourselves in the midst of a national effort, with each institution or collecting entity approching the theme in their own way.
In sum, our aspiration in terms of commemoration and legacy is to ensure that the understanding of history among our audiences is more nuanced and more representative of everyone who plays a part in the course of human affairs.
Deputy Executive Director for Collections & Interpretation
Rhode Island Historical Society