Monthly Archives: April 2013

Here’s a treat for all you WWII buffs

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light) will be speaking at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre on Sunday, May 19 at 2:30 P.M.

Admission is free, but you’ll need to call (865) 215-8883 or click here to reserve a seat.

The guy’s a stellar writer and speaker.  Don’t miss it.

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Great stuff, lousy execution

Here’s an instructive tale for all you aspiring public historians out there who are thinking about a career in the museum biz.

This past weekend I went to a very prominent museum in a large U.S. city to see a “headliner” temporary exhibition.  The museum in question boasts a huge facility, a stratospheric budget, and a staff the size of a small army.  For the purposes of this little screed it shall remain nameless.

The museum entrance area—absolutely cavernous in size—lacked any directional signage, map handouts, or a docent to point visitors to their destinations.  There were plenty of signs advertising the special exhibit, but none telling you how to get to it.  We finally spotted a janitor, who directed us downstairs.  Judging by the number of bewildered-looking tourists in the lobby, I don’t think we were the only ones who were confused.

Once we got to the line for entry into the exhibit, we noticed a few people clutching small audio devices with headsets.  When an attendant walked past the line, somebody ahead of us asked him about the headsets, and he said, “Oh, those are the audio tours.  Did you want one?”  After shouting out something to the effect that audio tours were available, he disappeared and then came back with an armful of the devices, collecting the rental fees and making change out of his pocket while yelling directions to the crowd about how to use them.  As we headed inside, there were still people in the crowd who were asking around about whether there was some kind of audio tour, whether it was free, whether you could see the exhibit without it, etc.

When we finally entered the exhibition, we found that the whole thing was arranged in a linear fashion.  You had a wall of objects and text assembled in a straight line, sort of like a police line-up.  (“Do you recognize the artifact who stole your purse, ma’am?”)  This linear arrangement forced everybody in the gallery to queue up in order to see the material and then when you got to the end of that line of artifacts, you turned the corner to find…yet another wall of artifacts arranged in a straight line, and so on.

It was impossible to explore the exhibit at your own pace, focus on areas that you found particularly interesting, or step across the gallery to another display while the crowd died down elsewhere.  There was no choice but to stand in line and shuffle along with the crowd, waiting for the person ahead of you to move on before you could proceed.  One of the tricks of exhibit design is to arrange the material so that you minimize bottlenecks, but here the entire exhibit consisted of nothing but bottlenecks, laid out in a way that forced you to queue up single-file and wait for the person ahead of you to finish reading the text in their spot before you could move on.

The only exception to the police line-up approach was a huge, circular exhibit case in the last gallery, sort of like a gigantic coffee table with artifacts and text arranged around the perimeter.  That turned out to be even worse, because here the line of visitors had no beginning and no end—just a continuous circle of people in single file, moving from one object to the next.  In order to see any of the material in that case you had to hover on the outskirts of this ring of visitors and wait for an opening in the line to develop, cut in, and then join the agonizingly slow shuffle around the perimeter of the exhibit case in a great Circle of Life.

It was a real shame, because in terms of the quality of the material on exhibit, it was one of the best assemblages of artifacts I’ve ever seen in one place.  They had great stuff, but no idea how to arrange it in an exhibition; a wonderful facility, but no thought as to what visitors needed in order to orient themselves when they arrived.

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Spared no expense

I usually avoid 3-D movies. The image is usually too dark, and the artificial depth just reminds me that what I’m watching is, after all, only a movie on a screen. But when Jurassic Park gets a re-release for its twentieth anniversary, I make an exception.

They’ve given it a darn good 3-D conversion. If you get the opportunity to see it in IMAX, by all means do so. Watching the T. rex attack sequence in the larger format is worth the price of a ticket by itself, especially with a good sound system behind it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t really pay to see it in 3-D or IMAX, but simply to watch it with an audience in a darkened theater again. It holds up remarkably well. Photorealistic CGI effects were still in their infancy back in 1993, but JP‘s visuals still compare favorably with the digital effects in many modern films. Stan Winston’s live-action puppetry and robotics work in the JP franchise remains the pinnacle of the craft. The ensemble’s chemistry is still there. The plot hums right along without missing a beat. (Since it’s been on DVD, I’ve gotten accustomed to viewing my favorite moments separately rather than the movie as a whole, and one of the things that surprised me as I watched it from beginning to end in a theater again is what a lean and efficient piece of entertainment it is.) The whole thing still works.

A lot of people have asked me whether I prefer Jurassic Park as a novel or a film. I think they’re both masterpieces, but I’ve never been able to answer the question simply because the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the book. They’re best taken as two different stories based on the same premise. Spielberg’s distinctive fingerprints are all over his version, not just in terms of the visuals but also in terms of characters, emotion, and theme. Whereas Crichton’s novel ends on a note of uncertainty and pessimism, Spielberg’s movie ends with the creation of a sort of surrogate family. And whereas Crichton’s John Hammond is greedy and temperamental, the movie presents him as a tragic but sympathetic figure whose primary goal is not profit, but the desire to share something grand and wonderful. “An aim,” as he puts it, “not devoid of merit.”

Whether as a novel or a film, it’s one of the definitive expressions of modern man’s peculiar dilemma: there’s a formidable gulf between the power at our disposal on the one hand, and the wisdom and knowledge with which we exercise it on the other. What better way to explore this theme than a story about humans encountering dinosaurs, the creatures we can know about but never really know, who ruled this planet long before we ever started trying to understand it and master it?

Anyway, because I was a thirteen-year-old dinosaur fanatic when Jurassic Park hit theaters, I suppose I’ve never been in a position to be objective about it. Whatever faults the film has, I remain blind to them, like a guy who marries his high school sweetheart and never falls out of love with her. Don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen again.

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Your name in lights

If you’re one of those lovably eccentric wackos who finds learning about humanity’s collective heritage to be worthwhile, you could be the next Honey Boo Boo:

Are you a curious person, and obsessed with history? Can you recite facts inside and out, and name-drop (and even date-drop) with the best of them? Do your friends at trivia night, dare we say it, label you as the history buff? Maybe you’re not a full-blown “buff” but if you like history and get psyched at the idea of even visiting a museum, or actually read those placards on your tour, then we want to meet you…virtually for now though.

Send us a video (YouTube, Vimeo, iPhone…whatever! Just send it to us) of you around your house, your office, your family, your town. Let us know what makes you interesting, and why your brains (and mug) should be featured on a history based reality TV show for all to see. On that note, email a photo too, and everyone of all ages is welcome to apply.

People who actually read exhibit placards!  How delightfully zany!

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Lincoln looking south from Peoria

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses.  The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery.  Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong.  The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.

The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.

Abraham Lincoln in 1854. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension.  He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve.  Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery.  He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.”  He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”   Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”

To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward.  But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it.  Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors.  Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it.  This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.

For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best.  His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices.  On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric.  Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet.  He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves.  That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.

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