Monthly Archives: March 2010

The American Antiquarian Society is onto something

As someone remarked in a comment to an earlier post, one of the hard things about raising money for conservation is the fact that donors want plenty of bang for their bucks.  A new museum wing named after dear old dad gives a donor a real sense of satisfaction.  Artifacts in a locked vault, not so much. 

Donors also need to feel a kind of proprietorship when they give to a worthy cause.  They should be able to point to a specific need they met and say, “This is where my money went.”  A check written to a museum for something vague, like “collections management” or “routine conservation costs,” doesn’t provide that sense of ownership.

This is a real dilemma for those who work in historic preservation.  Many of the most pressing needs are for services that the general public might not notice, but folks with money want to leave their mark on something visible, something with sex appeal.  How, then, do you encourage people to donate to things like collections care?

The Boston 1775 blog mentions a way to do it, in the form of an interesting program at the American Antiquarian Society.  Here’s the deal:

“The Adopt-A-Book Catalog features a variety of items acquired by AAS curators in recent months. All will be offered for ‘adoption.’  That is, you may adopt any item by pledging the stated amount.  In return AAS will permanently record the adopter’s name 1) on a special bookplate attached to each item, and 2) in the AAS online library catalog.”

The genius of this approach is that it visibly ties donors’ contributions to specific items in the collection, giving the donor the same sense of ownership and appreciation as they would get by writing a check for something with more pizzazz.  Old books need TLC; donors want people to see where their money went.  Everybody goes home happy.

In fact, this approach works for many kinds of institutions that have high ongoing costs.  Almost anybody can find an exotic animal they like, even if they’d never think of mailing a check to the local zoo for food and veterinary care.  If people are willing to “adopt” books and zoo animals, then you can find folks who will adopt specific artifacts, manuscripts, and deteriorating monuments.

Those working in preservation, museums, and archives can learn a lesson here.  Don’t solicit money for abstractions; make those abstractions concrete.  Set different levels for the objects under your care, with higher levels of support tied to the most spectacular items.

This isn’t just a fundraising gimmick; it reflects the reality of the situation.  Budget lines aren’t numbers on a page.  They stand for actual, tangible, irreplaceable pieces of history.  When you tell donors that their money ensures the protection of these pieces, you’re telling them the truth.

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Old Baldy custody dispute resolved

The most important consideration is what’s best for the kid.  Or in this case, what’s best for the severed horse head.

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Spend those heritage dollars wisely

Not long ago, the Civil War museum where I used to work sent one of their battle flags to a conservation lab.  The red fabric in the canton was frayed and had needed attention for some time, but the museum had to secure the funds first.  A lot of history museums have backlogs of artifacts in need of more than in-house treatment, which they send out in dribs and drabs as donations, grants, and appropriations trickle in.  The conservation and repair of one artifact can run well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.  Multiply that by thousands of artifacts, and you understand why financial assistance is important. 

That flag is one of those artifacts that always left an impact on visitors.  It belonged to a Confederate cavalry unit from Tennessee—and one of the members of that unit may have been the person who left his blood on it.  The stains are still quite visible.  

I thought about that bloodstained flag when I read this post over at Civil War Memory.  A local SCV group has secured private land and raised nearly $100,000 for a brand-new statue of Gen. Joe Johnston at Bentonville. 

Readers of CWM may recall that the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, which the SCV commissioned and then had to trot around in search of someone willing to accept it, had the same price tag.  Remember, these aren’t historic works of art that have come onto the market and need a home, but entirely new sculptures produced for specific purposes.  

Personally, I’m not at all uneasy about monuments to Confederates.  I can understand why public displays of this sort bother some people, but the sight of a Confederate flag doesn’t make me any more uneasy than the national flag of Argentina.  In fact, when I hear discussions about removing or relocating old Confederate monuments, I lose both interest and patience pretty quickly.  

Monuments that are ninety or a hundred years old have historic value in and of themselves.  They’re artifacts in their own right that have become a characteristic aspect of certain American landscapes, and they’re evidence of who we were and what we used to believe about ourselves.  One shouldn’t go around trying to blot out every piece of culture simply because it’s distasteful.  Furthermore, in some cases Civil War veterans themselves placed these monuments, so they provide information about how participants in the war interpreted their own experiences.  Occasionally, they tell us where units were positioned during engagements, or at least where its members thought they were positioned. 

This statue of Joe Johnston in Dalton, GA is an artifact in its own right. The UDC erected it in 1912 at a cost of $6,000. Image from Wikimedia Commons, info from roadsidegeorgia.com.

 Here, though, we’re not talking about statues that have been around for decades and have accrued some intrinsic historical or cultural worth.  We’re talking about brand-new sculptures which cost a great deal of money, and that money has come from the efforts of heritage groups.  

I’m extremely grateful that there are dedicated, generous people out there who are willing to support history with their money and to spend their time persuading other people to do so.  I wish, however, that more of this money could be used to meet existing needs, rather than to create new monuments.  Honoring brave men is a fine thing to do, but commemorative sculpture doesn’t play the prominent role in public memory and civic education that it once did.  What matters now is that we have the raw material of history at hand, and we’re losing it.  The sort of money spent on these statues could go a long way toward helping us preserve it. 

If the SCV is looking for ways to perpetuate the legacy of Confederate soldiers, there is no shortage of opportunities.  The CWPT is trying to raise $150,000 for the site of a remarkable Confederate breakthrough at Franklin, in the face of overwhelming fire and despite devastating losses.  That spot of ground is a far more eloquent testimony to the bravery and prowess of the Confederate soldier than any plaque on a monument could provide. 

The same organization is also trying to raise $75,000 for part of the field at Gettysburg associated with Longstreet’s assault of July 2.  The cost of one of those statues would have secured ground over which southern troops marched during what Longstreet called the “best three hours of fighting” he had ever seen, with funds left over for even more.   

Finally, there’s a need for $12,000,000 for a critical portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, site of one of Lee’s most decisive victories.  These are just a few handy examples; there are plenty of other endangered sites, along with historic Confederate monuments on battlefields and in graveyards that need the sort of serious maintenance that this sort of money could provide.  

A hundred thousand dollars would renovate a museum gallery.  It would cover the salary of a full-time historic site interpreter for three or four years.  (There is currently no interpretation at Brandywine, due to a loss of state funds.)  It would send a cabinet full of deteriorating uniforms, weapons, flags, portraits, or documents to the conservator.  

Of course, the SCV and other heritage groups do, in fact, support such efforts with their money and time.  I’m sincerely thankful for that.  But I also think that in a tight economy, with governments and institutions slashing budgets for historical causes left and right, it’s important for those who care about history to be especially prudent with their resources. 

That applies not just to Confederate heritage groups, but to those who want to preserve the legacies of Union soldiers, Revolutionary soldiers, abolitionists, Native Americans, or any historic group or individual.  Is the best way to honor their memory a work of art, or ensuring that what’s left of their world is still around for your children and grandchildren to learn from and appreciate? 

One more thing about that flag I mentioned at the beginning of this little tirade.  It used to hang in a display case near the uniform of a young Confederate soldier from Virginia, who died in battle at age eighteen.  The uniform isn’t on exhibit anymore.  It’s in fragile condition, but it might go back on display after some treatment.  Just as soon as there’s enough money to do it.

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Light at the end of the grad school tunnel

Dimitri Rotov directs our attention to a series of items on the hazards of a graduate education in the humanities.  The specific problem is the scarcity of lucrative positions relative to the number of people who want them.  It’s definitely something to consider.

As someone who’s currently holding two part-time teaching positions instead of a single, higher-salaried full-time one, I know as well as anyone how hard it can be to try to start an academic career.  At the same time, though, I think history grads who convince themselves that they’ll never land a decent job are missing an important point.

The next time somebody tells you that there aren’t enough jobs, find out what they mean.  If their point is that there aren’t that many tenure-track openings at research universities that confer terminal degrees…well, what else is new?  Such a job isn’t the only possible outcome for someone with a history degree.

I know, I know—nobody wants to pull 40+ hours (at minimum) at a museum or documentary project when they can teach four classes a semester and have the summers off, with the balance of their time devoted to whatever research they darn well please.  But I think one of the reasons history grads are so desperate about the job market is because they limit themselves.

My career in history has been short, but I’ve sampled quite a bit of what the discipline offers.  Let me take this opportunity to assure any students who might be reading this that historical work outside the academy is not only fulfilling, but a genuine privilege and an occasional blast. 

Don’t get me wrong; being a college instructor has its perks.  But it’s also a trade-off.  I miss the days when I could step into the vault and do my research in the original documents, instead of chasing down edited transcripts.  I miss holding in my (properly gloved!) hands the cane Lincoln carried to Ford’s Theater, the captain’s speaking trumpet from the Monitor, Mary Todd’s china, Lee’s personal correspondence, Sherman’s handwritten report from Bull Run, an order jotted down by Grant at Appomattox.

Rather than complaining that departments don’t explain how poor the job market is, I would complain that they don’t make students aware of the range of possibilities open to them.  By assuming that every successful student should aspire to an academic career, they limit graduates’ prospects and therefore do them a disservice.

Departments should encourage students who are interested in a career outside of higher ed.  They should provide them with information about job openings and access to people in their field who can provide advice.  They should direct them to internships where they can try different types of historical work for themselves.  (An annual panel discussion on historical careers, with representatives from museums, secondary ed, and so on might be worth trying, too.) 

Furthermore, and not least importantly, professors should watch what they say around students.  Casual remarks about non-academic history careers can stifle any interest in these valuable and important jobs that a student might have had, and will rightly offend those students who entered the program to pursue these paths.

Students, meanwhile, should broaden their vision of the profession—and should examine their reasons for entering a graduate program in the first place.  If you’re attracted by the notion of intellectual respectability, three months of freedom, and a nice diploma, then by all means bail out now.  If, on the other hand, you passionately love history and can’t imagine doing anything else, then be aware that historians aren’t found only in university classrooms.  There are far easier ways to secure wealth and renown than the long, tortuous process of a graduate education in history.

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Does military history belong with diplomatic history?

Scrolling through historical job postings is always an instructive experience.  I’ve noticed a lot of openings for “military/diplomatic” historians, and this combination of disciplines puzzles me.  Why would military and diplomatic history go together?

War had a personal effect on these two American veterans of WWI, pictured here at Walter Reed in 1918. From the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps it’s a holdover from the days when strategies, campaigns, and defense policy made up the basic building blocks of military history.  War, in that sense, is basically a nation’s attempt to secure political ends—diplomacy through organized violence.

The fact is, though, that much of the academic military history being written these days has little to do with war as an instrument of national policy.  The “new (now decades-old) military history” often takes its cues from social and cultural history, not political science.  A freshly-minted Ph.D. in military history today is as likely to be conversant with scholarship on race and gender as international relations. 

Indeed, many of today’s military historians could be considered military/social or military/cultural historians.  Take, for instance, Joseph Glatthaar’s examination of the relationship between white officers and black soldiers in the Civil War, a military approach to studying the history of race relations.  Or take Leisa Meyer’s book on the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, which looks at military history through the lens of gender. 

When, though, was the last time you saw a job posting for a military/race historian, or a military/women’s studies historian?  The job descriptions haven’t caught up to what many scholars are actually out there doing.  I suspect the reason may be that academia is still not entirely comfortable with military history, because many academics don’t realize how vibrant, diverse, and inter-disciplinary the field has become.

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That was quick

According to this news item, Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov already have dibs on the movie version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Note that the news story came out yesterday, the same day as the book’s release.  Note also that the video trailer for the novel helped get the film option rolling.  We live in strange times.

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TWO! Two instances of ill-conceived and frivolous museum programming! AH! AH! AH!

Image from the Muppet Wiki. (Yes, there's a Muppet Wiki.)

We’re reaching: “Seth Grahame-Smith will appear at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, Illinois as one of the first stops on the release tour for his new book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.…The result is an entertaining and educational blend of history and fantasy that should bring the Lincoln story to an entirely new audience.”

And we’re reeeeeeaaaaaaching: “A small exhibit will be on display in the Museum showing the influence of the Gothic horror novel upon Lincoln and his era.”

As inappropriate as I think the ALPLM’s attempts to cash in on this are, the book itself looks like it’ll be a riot.  Plus, I’ve got to admire this guy’s honesty: “It seemed like every popular hardcover book was either a vampire novel or a Lincoln biography, so I thought I might as well combine the two.”  An author who flat-out admits that he wrote a Lincoln book just to cash in on a trend—now that’s refreshing!

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites