Heritage of Labor Conflict in the United States

Hey there! I’m Maura Bainbridge, PhD Candidate at Binghamton and next up on the MAPA blog.  This month I will be talking about my research, that is – labor heritage in the United States. Many former MAPA blog posts have talked about heritage issues (Hey Ashley! Hi Angela!) but I aim to do so in the context of labor, particularly labor conflicts.

Situating Heritage

 I’m choosing to engage with heritage, rather than history, because heritage leaves room for personal identity- as people living today pick and choose bits of the past to identify with. (Though constructions of history are a fertile issue for another blog series.) Capitalism, and thus labor relations, are implicated in heritage production as more goods (tokens of memory to place aspects of identity into) are created, and the past is actively bulldozed over, reinforcing the need to remember before it’s too late (Connerton 1989).

Laurajane Smith (2006) presents the concept of ‘authorized heritage discourse,’ (AHD) as the official narrative of the past. The AHD focuses on beautiful objects, sites and places.  These must be preserved for future generations “for their ‘education’, and to forge a sense of common identity based on the past.” This discourse commonly discusses the greatest and biggest, the first or the best. It emphasizes national and class differences, as well as beauty and innovation.


A “Simpler Time” at Colonial Williamsburg

The AHD defines what is heritage.  It assigns value and defines national ideals of heritage preservation based on aesthetics and history.  The aspects that most appeal to the AHD are grand stories, often with morals to be internalized.  Think Colonial Williamsburg.


The AHD also makes room for terribly tragic events, as long as we can learn from them.  Often, the heritage of disaster is shrouded in messages of “Never Again”, with a tinge of horrific interest. This type of heritage is often termed “difficult” (MacDonald 2009). Sharon MacDonald uses the term to discuss re-use of Nazi buildings in Germany.  Other examples include the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, Hiroshima “Peace Memorial”, and Apartheid Memorials in South Africa (Logan and Reeves 2009).  We might also consider the 9/11 Monument in this context.

This process of authorizing heritage implicates the expertise of us as archaeologists and other heritage professionals because what we choose to work on becomes authorized as worthwhile heritage. The AHD promotes a shared national identity and set of beliefs.

Through this series of posts I will be arguing that the heritage of more mundane evils, for example, labor conditions and the eventual labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, do not easily fit into the Authorized Heritage Discourse.

Heritage professionals must negotiate between the AHD and the reality of their sites, as this has concrete implications for tourism, funding & preservation.

How to negotiate with AHD?

In my view, heritage professionals have a two options:

First, they can sanitize their sites for a wide range of visitors. In this option, labor strikes are not demonstrative of class war, but rather glazed over in grander narratives of industry.  The United States, or specific region of industrial might is touted for its technological prowess & producing power. Machines will be discussed in terms of how efficiently they can produce materials, how big the buildings built with them can get, and how magnificent this melting pot of the United States is because of it. Humans are rarely shown and if they are, they are merely props in demonstrating the enormousness of industrial machinery and spaces.

The other option is to resist. Heritage professionals can engage with the more gruesome side of the history.  They can present workers as humans, who labored in these dangerous spaces, often in unfair and unsafe conditions.  They can illuminate the exploitation that lead to labor conflict. THEY CAN MENTION LABOR CONFLICT AT ALL. Of course, this narrative comes with less funding, fewer visitors, and an often sour public opinion.

Stay tuned.



Connerton, Paul

1989  How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Logan, William and Keir Reeves

2009 Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with ‘Difficult Heritage’  Routledge, London.

Macdonald, Sharon

2009 Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremburg and Beyond. Routledge, London.

Smith, Laurajane

2006 Uses of Heritage. Routledge, London.




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