Monthly Archives: July 2012

Show and tell

Head over to Civil War Memory to watch Glenn Beck pick up Nathan Bedford Forrest’s sword, explain that the weapon likely “skinned people alive,” and proclaim it “a sword of tremendous American evil.”  Sort of like the One Ring, I suppose; we should put it in a fire to see if it’s got an inscription.

As you might imagine, the SCV was less than thrilled with Beck’s attempt to paint Forrest as a nineteenth-century Hannibal Lecter.

Beck also had a number of artifacts on hand during a rally in Texas this past weekend.  If this broadcasting thing doesn’t pan out, maybe he can get a gig as a museum docent.  Hopefully he’ll do some additional reading between now and then.

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The report of the Anti-Federalists’ death was an exaggeration

One of my grad school classmates referred to the Anti-Federalists as “the biggest bunch of losers in American history,” owing to their rout in the battle to define the political aftermath of the Revolution.

I’m not so sure he was right.  The Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the Constitution didn’t pan out, but attempts to resist centralization of political power at the expense of the states didn’t stop with ratification.  If you interpret the Anti-Federalist impulse as originators of that larger political tendency, then you’d have to admit that their ideological strain has been pretty persistent over the past two hundred years.  One thinks of the nullification controversy, the Confederacy, the controversy over civil rights legislation, and so on.  Indeed, as J.L. Bell points out over at Boston 1775, the Anti-Federalist strain is enjoying something of a revival in some circles even as we speak.

Of course, over the long haul, federal power has expanded anyway, so maybe there’s still not much of a success story there even if we define the Anti-Federalist impulse as broadly as possible.  Even many proponents of a weaker federal government failed to live up to their own rhetoric once they ended up in office, as Bell quite rightly states.  (Here, again, one thinks of the Confederacy, which was all about upholding states’ prerogatives until it came time to actually carry on a war.)

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Furnishing an illusion

Like most people, when I visited Appomattox Court House I was mainly interested in seeing the McLean House.  The tiny parlor looked much as it did on that day in April 1865, or at least the way it looked in the painting I recall from my fourth-grade textbook.

But the appearance is a little deceptive.  That photo doesn’t show the actual table where Lee sat, and its oval counterpart on the other side of the room isn’t the table used by Grant.  In fact, the entire room is something of a replica.  The McLean House had quite an eventful career after the two generals left.  Purchased by speculators intent on turning it into a museum, it was dismantled in 1893 and then rebuilt after World War II.  What you see is basically a reconstruction using original materials.

I knew this when I walked inside, and presumably most other visitors do too, since NPS signage explains the structure’s complicated history.  But I still wanted to go inside and be in that room, and once I was in there I forgot all about the fact that it’s sort of like an illusion.  All historic house museums collaborate with their visitors in this game of make-believe.  The museums use furnishings and paint to mask the building’s post-historical afterlife, and visitors suspend their disbelief and take the restoration for the way it actually was.

Or at least we hope they’re suspending their disbelief.  Some visitors, no doubt, assume when they visit historic buildings that the people who lived or worked there just walked off and left it intact, right down to the candlesticks, and there it sat like a hermetically sealed time capsule down through the decades until the tour guides came in and laid down carpet runners and velvet ropes.  Interpreters must walk a fine line between two opposing responsibilities, maintaining the illusion while explaining its boundaries at the same time.

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Looking to discuss the Civil War with somebody?

If you live in Tennessee, you’re in luck.  Looks like a pretty neat program.

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The brand

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve gone on a road trip (either with my family as a kid or taking the wheel myself as an adult) I’ve collected brochures and rack cards at rest stops and hotel lobbies.  Actually, “collecting” is the wrong term, because I don’t have a collection in the formal sense of the word, just disorganized stashes and piles all over the house.  There’s really no reason to keep them, but for some reason I have a hard time throwing them out.  I suppose I could’ve created some system for organizing and labeling them, but it’s really more of an obsessive-compulsive habit than anything else.

Image from the NPS Harpers Ferry Center

The other day I made a passing, tongue-in-cheek reference to NPS brochures.  These standardized leaflets are familiar to every heritage tourist—an advertising device, tour guide, and teaching tool all rolled into one.  Most of the ones I’ve got are wrinkled and crushed from being clutched in a sweaty fist while tramping around on some battlefield.  To me, the sight of that white Helvetica font on a black strip has always been a sign that there’s an adventure in the making.

Modern NPS brochures use the Unigrid system designed by Massimo Vignelli in the late 1970’s.  It’s versatile enough to allow each site to customize it a little, but of course it also helps maintain consistency across the park system. Consistency and standardization are important, because when you get right down to it, the NPS is a brand.

That applies to interpretation, too.  Every public history institution has to develop an interpretive “voice” that works for its multiple audiences, but the NPS has the added task of maintaining a voice across dozens of different sites.  This puts some constraints on the people doing the interpreting, something I’d never really thought of until I read this recent post at Interpreting the Civil War.

When you’re a visitor, it’s easy to forget that the NPS is made up of individual people, each of whom have their own ideas about how to interpret a site and must work within the constraints of the brand.  Personally, I’ve always found NPS interpretation to be consistently superb.  Would any of you folks out there who wear the gray and green care to share your experiences and opinions about doing public history within an agency framework?

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John Jakes on writing historical fiction

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Time to call your congressman

The House of Representatives can now vote to allow the NPS to acquire important Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites.  Drop a line to your representative and tell him or her to support the American Battlefield Protection Program Amendments Act (H.R. 2489).  It’ll only take you a few minutes.

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