Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

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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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

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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Statehood Days this weekend at Marble Springs

If you’re in the Knoxville area and you’re looking for something to do this weekend, stop by Marble Springs State Historic Site for Statehood Days.  They’ll have living history demonstrations, food, and tours of the historic buildings.  Here’s the schedule.

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

Anchors aweigh

During my short trip to Baltimore I had the chance to visit a really neat museum in the Inner Harbor—and I mean literally in the Inner Harbor.

Historic Ships in Baltimore is a collection of four vessels and one lighthouse.  You just pick a ticket option depending on how many of the ships you want to see and then tour them in whatever order you please and at your own pace.  The star attraction is this lovely lady, the USS Constellation.

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Specifically, she’s the second Constellation.  The first was one of the six frigates approved for construction in the 1790s, and saw service in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, and against the Barbary pirates.  She circumnavigated the globe in the 1840s, but that was her last hurrah.  The next decade saw her torn apart for scrap just as construction began on the second Constellation, the one currently on display in Baltimore.

At some point in the twentieth century there was a lot of confusion surrounding the relationship between the two vessels, with a lot of folks thinking they were actually the same ship, the second one having supposedly been fashioned out of the original in the 1850s.  (For a thorough analysis of the brouhaha, check out this report.)  As of now the debate has been pretty conclusively resolved, and the ship sitting in the Inner Harbor is interpreted as a Civil War-era vessel, allowing visitors to get a firsthand look at the twilight of the Age of Sail.

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The second Constellation started her career in the Mediterranean, and then patrolled the coast of West Africa in search of slave ships, the trade in human cargo having been outlawed.  This is an aspect of U.S. naval history I hadn’t heard much about, but it’s one of the topics explored in the small museum alongside the vessel.  The exhibit also includes quite a few original artifacts from Constellation‘s very long career.  She returned to the Mediterranean during the Civil War to search for Confederate prey, and was still in service during WWI as a sort of floating classroom for naval recruits.

The view from the helm:

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In addition to the standard exhibit signage, visitors get a handheld audio device to take with them.  When you enter the number of each tour stop into the keypad, you hear a little recorded dialogue between a kid and a Civil War-era sailor who explains how the different ship components worked and what life on board was like.

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I’m not a tall guy, but I had to stoop a little to move around belowdecks.  I can’t even begin to imagine how chaotic it would’ve been in this confined space when the guns went into action:

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The captain’s cabin, ready to entertain fellow officers or a group of dignitaries from shore:

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Dining arrangements for the average seaman weren’t quite as genteel.

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One of the added bonuses of taking the Water Taxi is getting a close-up look at Constellation‘s starboard side.

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The second-coolest vessel in the Historic Ships collection is the WWII submarine USS Torsk, moored alongside the National Aquarium.

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A section of the controls.  I’d add more info here, but I have no idea what any of these buttons and levers are for.  I can’t even drive a manual transmission.

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On August 14, 1945 two Japanese frigates found themselves at the business end of these torpedo tubes and became the last enemy vessels sunk by the U.S. in WWII.

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There’s a lot for history buffs to do in Baltimore, but I’d rate Historic Ships as a must-see if you’re planning a trip to the city.

Within spitting distance of the ships is another treat for Civil War aficionados.  Just across the water from the Constellation is Federal Hill.  In 1789 Baltimoreans gathered here to ring in the Constitution.

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By 1861 the city’s attitude toward the national government had soured just a wee bit, so Union troops fortified Federal Hill to keep things in line.

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The ramparts we watched

It’s the bicentennial year of the Battle of Fort McHenry, and a few days ago I managed to do something the British couldn’t: take the fort by water.  I was in Baltimore for a few days, so I hopped on a Water Taxi to visit the birthplace of the national anthem.

I was very impressed by the exhibit in the visitor center. The NPS always does a fantastic job at interpretation, but the set-up at Ft. McHenry is especially good, a model of clarity and conciseness that covers the background to the War of 1812, the British attack on Baltimore, Francis Scott Key’s song, and the process by which his words became part of the American canon.  All that in a pretty small gallery space.

There’s also an immersive film presentation that tells the story of the battle, with a simple but nifty trick at the end that takes you out of the virtual environment of the theater to put the spotlight back on the historic ground and why it matters.  It’s very moving and pretty darned cool.

I’m assuming we all know the basic story here, so we’ll skip the exposition and get right to the pictures.  Here are the fort walls, with the flag flying overhead.  (Well, not the flag, but a flag.)

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A reconstructed battery.

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Inside the walls, some of the buildings have been furnished as they would have been in the nineteenth century, while others serve as galleries for additional exhibits.

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One of those bombs bursting in air we keep hearing so much about.

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Powder magazine.  Not the best place for a smoke break.

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Sleeping quarters.

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During an archaeological dig in the 1950s, workers uncovered the actual cross brace which anchored the flagpole for the original Star-Spangled Banner.  It’s on display in one of the buildings.

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Looking out toward the area from which the British attacked.

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Ft. McHenry was in use for a long time after the War of 1812 ended, so some of the features you see date from well after the famous defense against the British, like this massive piece of artillery.

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There were quite a few school groups there during my visit.  Here’s an interpreter leading some kids through a hands-on activity on the parade ground.

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Funny story:  One of the rooms inside the fort has a short movie with a map presentation of the campaign.  Right after I sat down to watch it, a couple of kids came in.  When the film ended with the British in retreat and the Americans still in possession of the city, one patriotic little guy behind me jumped up and exclaimed, “YESSSS!”  Good to know the place and the story are still capable of instilling some good old-fashioned American pride.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet the resident cats of Marble Springs State Historic Site

This hard-working trio is on duty 24/7 at the home of Tennessee’s first governor.

Cinnamon…

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Boots…

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…and John Sevier.

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Follow them on Twitter, or stop by the site and pay ‘em a visit.

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You’d think a National Women’s History Museum could use some women’s historians

…but the folks who are working to get the thing built don’t seem to see the need, at least not at this point. The NWHM’s president responds here.

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History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.

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The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

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Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.

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More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.

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The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.

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And here’s the third animal, close to full size.

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Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.

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Another Triceratops.

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Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.

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A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.

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Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.

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An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.

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And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.

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I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites

Shocking new revelations that state governments are supporting museums

My fellow Tennesseans, we now have irrefutable evidence that a minuscule portion of your tax money is going to private museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions.  DUN DUN DUNNN!!

Noting the attendance at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the writer of the article linked above asks, “If the museum and other attractions are seemingly doing well, why then, do they need taxpayer money?”  But then, after citing evidence provided by the Chattanooga History Center showing that their visitors are economically beneficial to the community, he claims that the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center is located in a small community where the “economic development argument may not work,” and describes the museum’s low visitation and financial struggles.

So your museum doesn’t deserve public support if business is booming, and it doesn’t deserve public support unless business is booming.  I confess that I don’t find this line of argument persuasive.

I’m also irked that the article describes the institutions receiving these funds as “tourist attractions.”  The Chattanooga History Center and Alex Haley’s home do indeed attract tourists, but referring to these historic and cultural institutions as “tourist attractions” conveys the impression that this is equivalent to giving taxpayer-funded grants to Six Flags or a miniature golf course.

Russell Kirk defined a conservative as “a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions,” and noted that conservatives believe the past to be “a great storehouse of wisdom.”  If we can’t spare even a small portion of our public funds for history and culture, then what is it we’re trying to conserve?

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

This year’s Battle Road reenactment is a casualty of federal budget cuts

If you were planning to watch some reenactors do their thing at Minute Man National Historical Park this year, you’re out of luck.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting