Material culture and public memory in nineteenth century historical societies : a case study of the Tennessee Historical Society /

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Kanon, Tom
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation examines the role of American historical societies in collecting and preserving history during the nineteenth century. By looking at what these organizations accrued and how they presented their collections, we can better understand how people in the nineteenth century viewed their past. This dissertation, however, argues that historical societies did more than compile and conserve the past. It contends that these historical agencies, through various methods, influenced the way the public perceived and, consequently, believed to be true about their history. I utilized office files, newspapers, original correspondence, pamphlets, legislative materials, and contemporary accounts to prove this point. I combined these primary sources with a solid background of secondary-source literature on various social, political, and cultural aspects of the nineteenth century. My findings reveal that nineteenth-century historical societies, despite their reluctance to admit it, directly shaped public memory. These conclusions are illustrated in a case study of one such institution---the Tennessee Historical Society.
Museums, libraries, and lyceums had a profound influence on nineteenth-century historical societies---an impact assayed in this dissertation. Also, the material culture and public memory of nineteenth-century historical societies centered on a version of history that remained constant throughout the century. This interpretation focused on the narrative of the American Revolution and early settlement of the frontier as the key to understanding American progress and order. Furthermore, the accomplishments achieved by the founding generation were divinely inspired and best left to the patrician class to preserve and disseminate.
Adviser: Ellen Garrison.