Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

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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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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Historic sites and sequestration

CBS News talked to NPS Director Jon Jarvis about how sequestration will affect services and operations at the national parks:

“Running a national park is like running a small city,” Jarvis said. “We do everything from utilities to law enforcement to search and rescue to firefighting to proving public information when the visitor shows up. And when you take 5 percent out of that, you have a direct impact on all of those services.”

Looks like we’re in for closed facilities, reduced hours, cancelled programs, and less maintenance (which means uncollected trash, uncleared paths, uncut grass). And it’s not just the parks themselves that will take a hit.

As many agencies have argued, blindly cutting the parks budget, Jarvis said, has a domino effect on local economies across the country. A newly released 2011 NPS report on benefits to local communities from national park visitation shows that park visitors spent $12.95 billion in local gateway regions, meaning within roughly 60 miles of the park. Nationally, that contribution created 251,600 jobs, $9.34 billion in labor income and $16.50 in value added.

To see how the cuts might affect specific parks, check out these articles on Guilford Courthouse, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and MLK.

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Volunteers at war

While my cousin and I were in Nashville last week to see the Emancipation Proclamation, we visited a collection I’d managed to miss on all my previous trips to Music City: the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch.

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Jacket, cap, leg guards, medals, and dog tags belonging to Alvin C. York

Located inside the War Memorial Building near the Capitol, the Military Museum focuses on America’s wars from 1898 through 1945 and Tennesseans’ participation in them.  It’s a small facility, but it’s chock full of impressive artifacts.  Historical weapons and uniforms make up the bulk of the collection, but you’ll also find models, medals, propaganda posters, the silver service from a battleship, and a jacket worn by Dwight Eisenhower. Some of the items on display are trophies carried home by Tennessee veterans, such as Philippine and Japanese swords and German sidearms.

Although the exhibits give you a pretty general overview of America’s wars, special attention is paid to Tennessee connections.  A special highlight is a case devoted to Alvin York containing a uniform jacket, the Congressional Medal of Honor he received for his exceptional exploits of October 8, 1918, and some additional items.  (The museum is currently running a temporary exhibit on Sgt. York and the effort to map and excavate the site of his most famous engagement, so this is a great time to visit if you’re interested in WWI’s most famous soldier.)

The exhibits are a little dated, but the items on display more than make up for the lack of bells and whistles.  Give yourself about an hour and a half to tour the museum; hardcore weapon and military buffs will probably need additional time to take it all in.

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Miscellany

  • If you’re within driving distance of Nashville, don’t forget about the special exhibition of the original Emancipation Proclamation at the Tennessee State Museum, Feb. 12-18.  Viewing hours are limited and lines may be long, so click here to learn how to make advance reservations.  Some time slots are already full.
  • Hey, speaking of Lincoln, did you know that in addition to leading a Marxist war effort, he was also an “unscrupulous fascist“?  A sneaky devil, that Lincoln.
  • Here’s an interesting history of the sites associated with Lincoln’s early life.
  • Thoughts from East Tennessee on the importance of family heirlooms.
  • There’s another proposed state law to prevent people from fiddling with or renaming monuments.  This one is right here in Tennessee.
  • Some info on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Chattanooga Campaign.
  • Mt. Vernon has acquired an original painting by Benjamin Latrobe.

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

Knoxville is getting a taste of the War of 1812

The Tennessee State Museum’s traveling exhibit on the War of 1812 is now at the East Tennessee Historical Society, and will be in Knoxville through May 19.  Looks pretty cool!

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A heritage tourist’s bucket list

Preservation Journey asked readers to name the historic buildings they’d like to see in person before they head off to that big self-guided walking tour in the sky.  Maria Pease decided to take them up on it, so she’s compiling a list of all the places in the United States that she wants to visit.

In that spirit, I thought I’d write down a bucket list of U.S. historic sites and history museums of my own, and I was surprised at how long it turned out to be.  Before I did this little exercise, I thought I’d been making pretty good progress with my history travels, but it turns out I’ve still got quite a bit to cover.  Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. All the Rev War sites in and around Boston
  2. Lexington and Concord
  3. Plimoth Plantation (I’ve never been to New England, so there are quite a few entries from that neck of the woods.)
  4. New Bedford. The history of whaling has fascinated me for a long time, longer than I’ve been interested in “history” in general.
  5. General Nathanael Greene Homestead
  6. Trenton and Princeton
  7. Valley Forge
  8. Saratoga
  9. Petersen House (Went to Ford’s Theater with my family when I was a kid, but for some reason we didn’t go across the street.)
  10. Alamance Battleground (This was a near-miss for me.  I planned to visit during a weekend trip to North Carolina, but I spent more time than I’d expected at Guilford Courthouse and had to head back.)
  11. Mary Todd Lincoln House (I lived ten miles from Lexington for a year and never made it to this one.)
  12. Moore’s Creek Bridge
  13. Museum of the Confederacy
  14. Fort Sumter (I’ve seen it from Sullivan’s Island, but haven’t actually been to it.)
  15. Blue Licks
  16. Perryville (I’ve never been really obsessive about hitting Civil War battlefields; I just try to make it to the ones that really interest me and the obligatory destinations like Gettysburg and Antietam.  But I’ve heard Perryville is really nice, so I’d like to make it up there at some point.)
  17. Monmouth Courthouse
  18. Brandywine
  19. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (I’ve never really been into these engagements, but it seems a shame to have all those battlegrounds in one place and not visit.)
  20. Fort Necessity
  21. Blair Mountain (Better see it while it’s still there.)
  22. Atlanta History Center (A friend of mine went a few years ago and said it was great.)
  23. Horseshoe Bend
  24. The Mariners’ Museum, just for the Monitor stuff
  25. Savannah, GA

Finally, a few places I’ve visited already, but which need do-overs for various reasons.

  1. National Museum of American History, since it’s been totally renovated since the last time I was there.
  2. Independence National Historical Park.  I didn’t have time to see the whole thing.
  3. Mt. Vernon.  Went when I was a kid, but I don’t remember anything except the tomb.
  4. New York City.  Been a couple of times, but it was before I’d developed an interest in history, so I didn’t want to see anything except the American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, and a couple of Broadway shows.

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Now, eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your–on your dinosaur tour, right?

Check out Katy Lasdow’s write-up of her visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After forking over twenty-five bucks, sitting through a mock town meeting, pretending to dump tea chests from the deck of a replicated ship, and watching two holographic women talk about the coming war, she got to see a grand total of one original artifact.

“When does a museum stop being a museum,” Lasdow rightly asks, “and become something else?”

My former boss used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” I agree. A museum should do more than collect and display artifacts; it should use the tools at its disposal to contextualize those artifacts. The days when an exhibit consisted of a conglomeration of artifacts, labels, and pictures are over. But the use of artifacts and other objects to communicate and instruct is still the distinguishing feature of museums. That’s what separates the museum exhibit from other means of communication and instruction.

There’s no magic ratio of artifacts to gizmos that works for each and every exhibit, but when there’s only one artifact in the whole building, one wonders why they decided to call it a museum in the first place, whatever the quality of the information being conveyed or the nobility of the planners’ intentions.

To read a couple of my older posts along these same lines. click here and here.

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