Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

A few Lincoln and Civil War notices

In case you haven’t heard, Jurassic Park 4 will be here in 2015 instead of 2014.  I hate having to wait another year, but oh well.

Hey, speaking of Hollywood, my mom didn’t know World War Z is a zombie movie until yesterday.  I asked her if she assumed, based on the trailers, that it was a movie about Brad Pitt running from crowds of normal people.

Okay, on to business.

  • A woman who claims to have a photograph of Lincoln on his deathbed is suing the Surratt House Museum for $100,000 because of a statement on the museum’s website about the photo’s authenticity.
  • BBC America listed ten connections between Lincoln and Britain, but they left out the most obvious one: Lincoln’s ancestors came from England.
  • If you want to take in the anniversary festivities at Gettysburg but can’t make the trip, C-SPAN3 has got you covered.  They’ll be airing the festivities in both live and taped form during the anniversary weekend, and July 4th will feature 24 hours of non-stop Gettysburg programming.  For those of you in the Gettysburg area, the C-SPAN bus will be in town starting June 25th, and the Lincoln Diner will even have C-SPAN coffee mugs for the occasion.  (That’s the one across the street from the train station, right?  I’ve eaten there a couple of times.  Neat place.)
  • Sorry about the short notice on this one, but Dr. Earl Hess will discuss the Battle of Campbell Station at the Farragut Folklife Museum on June 23rd (that’s tomorrow) at 2:00.
  • Finally, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has obtained an original Civil War document.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Appalachian History, Civil War, Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Housekeeping with John Sevier

Well, as of today, I’ve been given the honor and privilege of being associated with one of the coolest historic sites in East Tennessee.  I’m now on the Board of Directors for the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association, which oversees Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville.  Sevier spent the last fifteen years of his remarkably eventful life there.

Needless to say, this is pretty exciting for an early Tennessee/King’s Mountain enthusiast like me.  Marble Springs has an extremely dedicated and talented staff, and I’m looking forward to being involved.

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

How to secure $12 million in museum funding in one easy step

Step 1: Get $12 million from Oprah Winfrey.

All levity aside, this museum is going to feature some fantastic artifacts:

Some of the highlights of the collection include a lace shawl owned by abolitionist Harriet Tubman; a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car; slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible; and the glass-topped casket that held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman helped spark the civil rights movement.

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Pivotal moments in the Civil War at the East Tennessee History Center

The Museum of East Tennessee History will debut a new Civil War exhibit tomorrow.  “Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee” features Andrew Johnson’s desk, original documents, and contemporary sketches.    They’re hosting a preview tonight with a lecture by Ed Ayers at 7:30, so if you’re in the Knoxville area you might want to check it out.

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

Memorial Day weekend at Marble Springs

If you don’t have plans for Memorial Day weekend, then head over to John Sevier’s place.  May 25-26 is the annual Statehood Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville.  They’re hosting militia drills, eighteenth-century demonstrations, a display of guns from the War of 1812, and a presentation on veterans of the Battle of King’s Mountain by yours truly.  (I think my talk is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday.)

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

Your very own Civil War tourist attraction

If you’ve got $1,695,000 to spare, you could be the next proprietor of the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.  It’s officially on the market.

The exhibits depict such critical turning points as the fateful evening of May 2, 1863, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mark Twain tended to a wounded Grigori Rasputin…

…and Lincoln’s 1860 conference with Lt. Commander Worf of the USS Enterprise.

Pics are from tripadvisor.com.

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We could all use some tactical back-and-forth

Check out this article on the history of Civil War battlefield preservation at The Washington Post:

Despite admirable efforts to connect battlefields to the larger history of the Civil War, the one thing that battlefields can teach very well is the history of what happened in a particular place. If the goal is simply to inspire thoughts about the larger social history of the Civil War, one battlefield is pretty much the same as the next — and it becomes difficult to explain why we need to preserve so many of them, and with so much land taken off the tax rolls. If the goal is to make people passionate about battlefields and their preservation, visitors need to engage with the actual place to understand its strategic importance and the tactical back-and-forth.

I would argue that visitors need to get the strategic importance and tactical back-and-forth because they have intrinsic importance, not just because they inspire respect for preservation.

I seem to run across more discussions about how to effectively integrate non-military subjects into battlefield interpretation than about how to effectively interpret the battlefield itself. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that battlefield interpretation is more well-rounded and contextualized than it used to be. We rightly emphasize the fact that the battles didn’t happen in a vacuum, but that insight cuts both ways.

Just as the war’s larger issues determined the conflict, the “tactical back-and-forth” determined the resolution of those larger issues. Emancipation, Union, and all the rest of it ultimately hinged on the stuff of old-fashioned military history: maneuver, terrain, firepower, etc. We preserve these places not only because people suffered and died there, but also because what happened there mattered. It mattered that such-and-such a colonel held a particular position, that such-and-such a general flanked an enemy. Determining the outcome of larger questions, after all, is why battles tend to be fought.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

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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Struggling for survival in the museum business

The world of public history is downright Darwinian, folks.  Here’s an item on efforts to revive the Charlotte Museum of History’s fortunes, and a piece on small museums’ endeavors to keep their heads above water in the current economic climate.  (Hat tip to John Fea for the latter.)

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet your newest national historic landmarks

Thirteen new sites just made the list, including Camp Nelson in Kentucky, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Connecticut, Honey Springs Battlefield in Oklahoma, and an eighteenth-century frame house in Virginia.

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Filed under Civil War, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites