A Grain of Salt

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,

Blocking out the scenery, Breaking my mind.

You’ve probably heard this song before. A hit in 1971, by a group from Ottawa called Five Man Electrical Band, it celebrated the free-thinking philosophy of flower children. Sometimes these two lines run through my head for a different reason.

Plaques, waysides, interpretive markers, call them what you want they are all signs. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with any of the above-mentioned interpretive devices. I like to read a good label or marker just like everyone else. But they come with an inherent weakness – implied authority.

When I last taught Introduction to Public History, one class’s discussion led to the topic of waysides and plaques. My students were aghast to learn that, 1) anyone can get a plaque made saying whatever they liked and, 2) a lot of the time there is no vetting procedure to make sure what is on a marker is accurate. They could easily see how this set of circumstances can lead to a host of problems.

It is interesting how the basic bronze plaque, you know the one, with the brown enameled background and raised polished letters, has come to be viewed as a source of unchallenged authority. In my class, it became a great teaching moment, one that I think all students need to internalize – question what you read and be a critical thinker. Just because something as permanent as a bronze plaque is bolted to the side of a building, the base of a statue or imbedded in a concrete walk doesn’t mean the words on it are true and accurate.

Marker placed in the 1930s on Rt. 355 near Urbana, Md., Frederick County. Understanding the history of the era during which a marker was placed helps to provide context as to why it was put there. But the age of a marker doesn't make it any more or less apt to be accurate.

This is a phenomenon that is unique to public history.  Try and think of a plaque or even a wayside marker, that doesn’t have something to do with history.  Any individual, club, family group, municipality, you name it, can purchase a marker and write what it wants on it. The vetting needs to come when the site for the marker is chosen and permission is requested to place it. Typically, plaques are in public places or off public thoroughfares and often some sort of government entity has to be involved. I think this is why most people think that markers have been “checked out” by someone. Sadly, whether or not a marker’s text is accurate and understandable all depends on an area’s review process, if there is one.

So until there’s a change, don’t believe Washington slept everywhere there is a plaque saying he did. Oh, and if you just love reading historical plaques you can see all kinds at Historical Marker Database.

Photo credit: Historical Marker Database