Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

A respite at Marble Springs

We just had our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs, along with our “Sevier Soirée” fundraiser.  Thanks to everybody who stopped by; I think both events went over really well.

It gave me a good excuse to take a brief respite from doctoral work and do a little public history.  I really enjoyed the time I spent working in museums, and interpretation was always my favorite part of the job.  Part of me has always missed it, so it was nice to get to do it again this weekend.

Plus, there’s nothing like sitting on the step by the door of the Sevier cabin and listening to an afternoon rain shower.  Rain doesn’t do much for visitation, but something about the way it sounds against a two-hundred-year-old roof is just wonderful.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Let’s build a new barn for Gen. Greene

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I’m a big fan of Gen. Nathanael Greene.  This project is definitely worthy of your support:

The Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead, a National Historic Landmark in Coventry RI, is a house museum located in Spell Hall, the home built in 1770 by George Washington’s most trusted general and Revolutionary War Hero of the South, Nathanael Greene, once had a beautiful colonial barn.

 

This barn was torn down when the property was sold out of the family and subdivided in the early 20th century. We are hoping to raise $75,000 to build a replica of the barn on our remaining 11 acres of the original Homestead for use as a classroom, for educational programs and special events. If you would like to help contribute to this project we are gladly accepting donations.

 

The Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead is a 501 (c)3 non-profit

 

Visit us on the web at

 

www.nathanaelgreenehomestead.org

 

on Facebook at :

https://www.facebook.com/GeneralNathanaelGreeneHomestead?ref=hl

And speaking of the homes of Rev War heroes, don’t forget about our Sevier Soirée at Marble Springs on September 20. We’ll have BBQ, live music, and open-hearth appetizers, and we’ll be auctioning off some nifty stuff, too.  The deadline to reserve a spot is September 15.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

Party hard with John Sevier

We’re throwing a bash at Marble Springs State Historic Site in three weeks, and you’re all invited.  Here’s the deal.

Sept. 20-21 is our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend.  On Saturday from 10:00 to 5:00 and Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00 we’ll have reenacting, demonstrations, crafts, food, historic presentations, and tours of the buildings.  Admission is $5.00 for adults and $3.00 for kids aged seven to fifteen; kids six and under get in free.

Saturday night there’ll be a little something extra.  We’ll be having our second annual Sevier Soirée fundraiser on Sept. 20 from 6:30 to 8:30, with a BBQ dinner, open-hearth appetizers, live music, and a silent auction.  Tickets to the soirée are $50 per person.  Reserve your seat before Sept. 15 online, by mail (P.O. Box 20195 Knoxville, TN 37940) or via phone at (865) 573-5508.

It’ll be a blast.  Hope to see some of you there!

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Why we need plenty of historic house museums

A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:

Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.

The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”

I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one.  But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.

  • HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience.  People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
  • They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
  • Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles.  Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point.  HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional.  The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara.  It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
  • HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact.  The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum.  That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
  • HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions.  A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM.  When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there.  Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience.  There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.

A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving.  But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd.  What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.

When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession.  It’s a small tragedy.

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Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Southern Rev War site news

Some of my favorite national parks are joining forces:

Southeast Regional Director Stan Austin announced that four National Park units in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia will begin to consolidate operations on or about September 1. The four units represent significant stories of the American Revolution in the southern United States.

“This action will ensure financial sustainability, provide more efficient use of resources, and help these parks to better serve the visiting public,” Austin said. “The units share historic backgrounds, missions and geographic proximity, and this provides an opportunity to share employees who perform identical or similar functions at each of the parks.”

Kings Mountain National Military Park, Cowpens National Battlefield, and Ninety Six National Historic Site are located in South Carolina. Overmountain Victory Trail spans parts of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. As part of the National Trails Program, it is a partnership entity and does not own land.

The four units will be formed into a “group” under one general superintendent who will manage all four units. The National Park Service has begun the hiring process for a general superintendent. It is expected that the position will be filled by September 1, and the new superintendent will begin the process of combining park functions. The new superintendent will also be responsible to promote the individual identity of each park and build coalitions within each of the parks’ surrounding communities. It has not yet been determined where the new superintendent will be stationed, but it will be at one of the three existing park units.

It’s a move that makes sense, I think.  KMNMP and the OVT are inseparably intertwined, Cowpens is one of the stops on the trail, and Ninety Six in the same general neck of the woods.  I just hope this isn’t a sign that any of these parks are having major financial trouble and needing to cut back on operations.

Meanwhile, Historic Brattonsville has unveiled some big changes at the site of Huck’s Defeat (or the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation, if you prefer):

The new quarter-mile gravel trail, which is part of the attraction, features a series of interpretive kiosks that illustrate the details of the battle and tell the story of the Williamson and Bratton families.…

Lynch [no relation to yours truly] said a wood frame has been erected at the site where the Williamson home stood. Painted cutouts of soldiers representing the British and American forces have been placed on the battle field to illustrate what happened, he said.

The CHM also commissioned Charlotte painters Don Troiani and Dan Nance to visually capture the story of the Battle of Huck’s Defeat.

Seven original paintings will be on display in Brattonsville’s Visitors Center during the opening weekend festivities. Prints of the artwork will be sold year-round. Nance will be on hand to sign prints both days, Lynch said.

Lynch said the Visitors Center will also feature a new 14-minute documentary that will help visitors understand the events that played out during Huck’s Defeat.

“It enriches the experience,” Lynch said. “You have the battlefield trail and the video you can watch to augment the experience.”

When I visited Historic Brattonsville a few years ago there was a trail to the battleground and a short pre-recorded narration, but it’s great to see that they’re telling the story more fully.  If you haven’t been to HB, I heartily recommend it.  It’s a wonderful place to learn about the early South Carolina backcountry.

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Bigger and bigger battlefields

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan noted how the environment of combat changed over the course of history.  One way it changed in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is immediately apparent—battles got a whole lot bigger.

If you had four and a half hours to lead a tour of a major Civil War battlefield, what would you highlight?  You’d never have this problem with a Rev War battlefield, at least not a Southern Campaign site.  You could probably lead three back-to-back-to-back tours of King’s Mountain or Cowpens in four and a half hours.

Take a look at King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Gettysburg on Google Maps, all at the same zoom level.  The Cowpens field would likely fit between the Round Tops and Emmitsburg Road, and I think you’d still have room for King’s Mountain.

Numbers engaged illustrate the difference, too.  Greene had something like 4,500 men at Guilford Courthouse; the Confederates fielded ten times that many at Shiloh.  Washington had over 14,000 at Brandywine, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the Union suffered over 12,000 casualties at Antietam.

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