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Comment glitches

Ladies and gents, we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties.  Some comments are getting kicked into the spam bin, despite the fact that they’re obviously not spam.  Others are getting put in the approval queue even though they’re from folks who have already commented in the past.  Once you leave a comment on this blog, all additional comments from your e-mail address are supposed to be approved automatically and appear as soon as you submit them, but some comments from frequent fliers have ended up in the queue anyway.  Weird.

I don’t know what the problem is, but rest assured that if you’ve tried to comment on a post and it’s been kicked into a queue, it wasn’t intentional.  I’ll try to figure out what’s going on, but given my lack of technical competence, it’ll mostly involve staring at the computer in slack-jawed ignorance.  Until then, continue to comment away; I’ll keep checking in as often as I can to see if anything has been wrongly held in blog limbo.

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So you want to enrich your child’s education. . .

I just ran across this bit of advice for concerned parents:

I’m going to tell you a little secret. Shhhh, come close ….the school curriculum is available, grade by grade, on the district’s website. (Here they are for District 102 and District 96.) And now I’m going to tell you why you care. By reading it, you will not only have a full and detailed preview of what your child is expected to learn over the course of the school year, but, it will give you valuable knowledge on how to prepare your child for the school year as well.

No, it won’t say “your child will be learning about the Revolutionary War so take a trip to Gettysburg,” but it will say that in fifth grade your child will need to explain the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. So now that you know that, you can help your child build priceless background knowledge.

Forget Gettysburg, they don’t concentrate on the battles in fifth grade. Heading east?  Do the Freedom Walk in Boston. Staying close to home?  Watch the Liberty Kids cartoon series or the HBO mini-series John Adams (great for the aftermath of the war).

A good idea, that.  People who drive all the way to Gettysburg to learn about the Revolutionary War are indeed in for a disappointment.

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Browsing won’t be the same

Borders bookstores are not long for this world.  I’m very sad to see it happen.

Shelf for shelf, the Borders store near West Town Mall in Knoxville, TN has the finest history selection of any general bookstore I’ve ever visited. I think every major historical time period, place, and subject is covered there, from Mesopotamia to the War on Terror. Along with releases from the big commercial publishers, I can always find an excellent assortment of titles from academic and independent presses.  The Civil War books alone take up an entire section of ceiling-to-floor shelves and spill over to part of another bookcase.

On a number of occasions I’ve spent two hours or more there; in fact, my family used to drop me off at Borders and then come back to pick me up after shopping all over half of the city.  Whenever I want to kill a lot of time in Knoxville in blissful contentment or do some seriously hedonistic splurging, there’s never been any question about where I’ll go to do it.  But I suppose now there will be.

As much I like the selection and prices I can get from online book retailers, there’s no substitute for being able to scan the shelves. I’m a physical book person.  I don’t own a Kindle or any other type of e-reader, and I never will.  When I browse for books I want the same things I want when I read them.  I want to pick them up and feel their heft, and I want to appreciate the grain and color of the paper.  Above all, I want to riffle through the pages and savor that smell.

There are plenty of other big bookstores, of course.  In fact, West Knoxville has three others of comparable size within a mile or two of the very one I’m discussing.  And these days it’s not very fashionable to lament the downfall of an enormous franchise anyway, so I guess this post would probably be more politically correct if I mourned the loss of some small, independent bookshop.  But that Borders was my store, and being a history buff and book lover won’t be the same once it’s closed.

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Yet another scandal involving alleged archival shenanigans

This one involves author and collector Barry Landau.  He and an accomplice named Jason Savedoff allegedly—allegedly, mind you—tried to steal millions of dollars’ worth of material from the Maryland Historical Society.  The Baltimore Sun has the details.

Here’s the really bad news:

Though [MHS President Burt] Kummerow said the society has been growing, it remains short on funds and staff. That puts it in a potentially vulnerable position as it allows access to its collection of 7 million documents contained within its library.

[Joseph M.] Coale, the former board member for the Maryland Historic Trust, said he doesn’t believe archives will be able to continue to allow access to original documents. “They don’t have the staff to do it, especially nowadays with societies more or less operating with skeleton crews,” he said.

But Kummerow says his staff is also not in a financial position to digitize its archives or provide photocopies of the volumes of material researchers may want to see.

Great.  Just great.

You know those signs in department store restrooms telling you that shoplifting messes with everybody, because it forces the store to jack up their prices?

Innocent until proven guilty…but if proven guilty, then under the jail with them.  Under the freaking jail.

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“A historian and keen observer of human nature”

Here’s one of the differences between Ken Burns and the folks running The History Channel.

Ken Burns turned acclaimed authors like Shelby Foote into TV celebrities.  The History Channel works backward, turning TV celebrities into acclaimed authors.

Lest you think the lead character from Pawn Stars is bereft of wisdom that merits preservation for the ages, heed the promotional copy of his new book’s dust jacket:

Rick isn’t only a businessman; he’s also a historian and keen observer of human nature. For instance, did you know that pimps wear lots of jewelry for a reason? It’s because if they’re arrested, jewelry doesn’t get confiscated like cash does, and ready money will be available for bail. Or that WWII bomber jackets and Zippo lighters can sell for a freakishly high price in Japan? Have you ever heard that the makers of Ormolu clocks, which Rick sells for as much as $15,000 apiece, frequently died before forty thanks to the mercury in the paint?

The late Shelby Foote may have been quite the wordsmith, my friends, but I’ll wager a shiny nickel that he didn’t know why pimps wear so much bling.

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An attempt to be constructive

Over at Interpreting the Civil War, John Rudy argued that some of us history bloggers were too hard on the makers of The History Channel‘s Gettysburg special, and urged us to remember that Civil War specialists and hardcore enthusiasts were not the show’s intended audience.  He raises some good points.

I do, however, want to clarify one matter.  When I criticized the show’s “gritty and modern” style, I was referring to the fact that it made Gettysburg seem like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century battle, not to the fact that it depicted the ugliness of combat.  What I meant was that the cinematography and the restricted focus on small groups of men moving in fairly loose formations seemed more appropriate for a modern war film than a Civil War film. Looking back at my post now, I can see that I didn’t express this very well.

In fact, I think that depicting the ugly side of combat was one of the things the show got right.  I’m all for putting the horrors of war front and center,  Indeed the last museum exhibit that I scripted back when I did that sort of thing was devoted entirely to graphic photos of dead Civil War soldiers.  I just didn’t think the Black Hawk Down-esque “combat photography” style was the best approach for a documentary on the nineteenth century.  It just looked…off, somehow.

While I disagree with some of John’s specific points, his broader point is valid.  Popular documentaries must cast their nets wide when it comes to audience.  This doesn’t lessen the need for scrupulous accuracy—if anything, I think it magnifies it—but it does mean that filmmakers don’t cater exclusively to us history aficionados.

Like all public historians, history filmmakers have a daunting task before them.  As we’ve started working on the historical travel TV segments that I posted about back in April, I’ve learned how difficult even the simple logistics of production can be.  I still stand by my numerous and frequent criticisms of The History Channel, even though they’ve been among my most snark-ridden posts.  But in recognition of the fact that it’s a lot easier for me to lob those shots over a keyboard than it is to actually produce programming, I offer here some suggestions for The History Channel.

You can think historically while thinking broadly at the same time.  One of the biggest turning points in the study of history has been the explosion of brand new fields of studying the past.  Anything is fair game these days—the history of childbearing, the changing relationships between people and the environment, the history of commemoration, the history of food.  You can be as creative in framing your shows as historians are in framing their subject matter.  Indeed, the network has done this in the past, with specials on the history of everything from comic books to sexuality.  I would urge the network to think historically and creatively at the same time.

Don’t be afraid to think big in terms of scope.  Some of the network’s best offerings have been those occasions when they’ve bitten off a bug chunk of history to tackle.  Their miniseries on life in the Third Reich was as fine as some of the best documentary material being produced for television, and the recent miniseries on the American Revolution was also quite good.

You can be historically relevant while still indulging your current programming style.  If we must have reality shows, why not try to make them a little more historical in content?  How about a series chronicling the struggles faced by the staff of some historic house museum, instead of a family-run pawn shop?  Or a series that follows a few reenactors around as they practice their hobby?  Why not chronicle the lives of battlefield park rangers instead of taxidermists?  Are taxidermists really that much more interesting than public historians?

In the name of all that is good and decent, cut the flying saucers loose.  Give up on the aliens, conspiracies, and cryptozoology.  It’s bad enough to be irrelevant; it’s much worse to be counter-productive by providing a platform for outright claptrap.  If I want to watch something that will make my brain cells shrivel up like raisins, I can always flip over to E! or Bravo.

Use the unique tools at your disposal in ways that cater to their unique strengths. Here’s an example.  The History Channel loves its computer generated maps and imagery.  Okay, fine.  How about a show or a one-shot special that looks at historic or well-known places and then uses CG to depict how these places have changed over time?  A televised version of landscape archaeology in cities, around landmarks, or at historic sites would fit the medium to the content, instead of employing bells and whistles just for the sake of doing so.

Choose your talking heads wisely.  The celebrity interview segments in America: The Story of Us added absolutely nothing to that program, besides (I assume) some hefty appearance fees.  In this age of Google and Linkedin, it’s not that hard to find qualified commentators.

Use your ability to draw an audience for the greater good.  The “Save Our History” effort is praiseworthy, and could be expanded beyond the occasional special.  There are more than enough endangered sites out there to make for a regular series.

Of course, I doubt that anyone who’s in a position to re-direct the network is reading this, and I doubt even more that they’d care if they did read it.  In terms of raw numbers, business is evidently booming at The History Channel.  I think the shift in the network’s program indicates how little the folks running it are concerned with the opinions of history buffs.

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History apps

After much prodding from family and friends, I finally threw up my hands and got an iPhone a couple of days ago.  Given my proclivities, I started looking for apps that might come in handy for historians and history enthusiasts.  Here’s a list of some of them.  They’re a mixed bag; some of them are really useful and creative, while others seem a little superfluous.

  • Revolutionary War Site Locator.  I’m really fond of this one.  It’s a map program that tags Am Rev parks, museums, monuments, and cemeteries, allowing you to find historic sites near your current location and instantly access background information, photos, links, directions, etc. One of the things I liked about using a TomTom when doing heritage tourism is that you could pull up the names and locations of nearby museums and parks, but this app is far more comprehensive, with many more sites included (down to the burial places of individual historic figures or small museums with just a few Rev War items) and much more information per site.  If you’re in Kansas City, MO and you need a Rev War fix, just bring up the map and you’ll find that there’s an equestrian statue of Washington in town, and you’ll also get information about when it was constructed, who made it, who raised the money, and so on.  (This is an actual example, believe it or not.) This app is also constantly updated with additional material from other users, and you can add your own photos and sites for the benefit of others..  At only $1.99, it’s a must have for AWI aficionados.
  • American Civil War Locator.  Identical to the Rev War app, except the locations are broken down into “Major Civil War Battles,” “Civil War Sites,” and “Civil War Events,” which gives you the dates of upcoming reenactments or symposia and contact information for the hosting venue.  It’s $1.99 and well worth the price.
  • Museum Locator.  Includes hours, admission, contact information, and instant access to maps and official websites.  This app is free, so it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and download it for those occasions when you’re on vacation or a business trip with some extra time to kill.
  • Freedom Trail Walking Tour.  This is the sort of thing that you could only do with handheld digital technology.  This app gives you access to information about sites along Boston’s Freedom Trail—maps, videos, admission, hours, links, etc.  It’s like having your own personal tour guide for Revolutionary Boston, and it’s free.
  • CamScanner.  There are quite a few document scanning apps, but this one seems to be the most popular one available in a free version.  You just take a photo of the document with your iPhone and crop the picture, and you get a high-contrast PDF or fax-type electronic version that you can visually enhance, share, upload to a computer or the Internet, tag for easier searching, etc.  It’s mostly intended for simple, black-and-white documents like articles, bills, receipts, and so on, but it might come in handy in archival situations when dealing with printed or typed material.  I haven’t had chance to try it on older manuscripts yet; it might not work without the heavy contrast that you get with modern documents.  Still, it’s a handy thing to have on hand, especially since most archives restrict the use of conventional document scanners.  This device never comes into contact with the document surface itself, since it’s basically using the phone’s camera function and then enhancing the image.  As long as you disable the flash, you might be able to use this for quick, easy image acquisition in many repositories while doing research.  Of course, it goes without saying that you need to check with the institution beforehand to see what guidelines they have in place.
  • WorldCat Mobile.  A handheld version of the library database.  You can search for materials, see which repository with the item you need is closest to you, instantly call for information, and then get a map to find out how to get there.  This app is free.
  • Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  These apps include the text of the documents along with additional notes containing information about the dates of ratification and so on.  Handy for quick reference purposes.  They’re both free.
  • Abraham Lincoln Quotes and Abraham Lincoln Quote App.  These are more gimmicks than anything else.  The first costs $1.99 and generates a random Lincoln quote every time you tap the screen; the second is pretty much the same thing, but also plays an audio version of the Gettysburg Address and costs $0.99.  I’m not sure what you’d need this sort of thing for.
  • The Civil War: A Narrative.  Unabridged audio recordings of Shelby Foote’s massive trilogy  for $19.99 per volume, with automatic bookmarks to pick up where you left off, navigational capabilities, and more.
  • Today in History.  One of several similar trivia apps.  A free version is available.

It seems to me that the most inventive stuff is being turned out for historical tourism, giving people instant access to information about places they can visit and helping them make sense of it when they get there.

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Take the Past in the Present April Fool’s Day Challenge

First of all, I’ve been sick for days with no end in sight.  Prescriptions, confinement to bed, Vitamin C, all to no avail.  Not fun.

Second, in the spirit of the current holiday, here’s a short exercise in discernment.  I’m going to give you three increasingly improbable scenarios, all of them somehow relevant to the sort of thing I usually post here.  Your task is to determine which, if any, of them are April Fool’s Day hoaxes that I just made up out of the recesses of my twisted mind.  I’ll give you the correct answers at the end of the post.

Of course, you could just Google these one at a time, but because I have such trust in my adoring faithful, we’ll do this on the honor system.  Besides, there are no prizes other than the smug satisfaction of a job well done, so it’s not like there’s anything at stake.

Ready?  Here goes!

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #1: The History Channel will premiere a new series this month devoted to the workings of an Alaskan taxidermy shop.  The promotional copy describes it as a sort of Cake Boss with moose carcasses, in which we can witness “the real process of what it takes to preserve natural history–on a deadline, and always for a demanding client.”

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #2: Until just a few years ago, a Baltimore museum exhibited what was reportedly Abraham Lincoln’s last bowel movement.  It was recovered from a chamber pot at Ford’s Theater and mounted in a frame, along with an old manuscript attesting to its authenticity.  An analysis of its contents revealed traces of Necco Wafers.

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #3: Past in the Present—the little history blog that could, which you are now reading with your very eyes—has been picked up by a television station to become an educational/travel series.  A camera will follow your intrepid blogger as he travels to various historic sites and interviews the folks who work there about why these places are significant and what visitors can expect to see.  Filming hopefully starts this summer.

So how many of these astronomically unlikely situations are true, and how many are April Fool’s Day hogwash?  I’ll give you some time to mull this over.

Okay, here are the answers.  Try to contain your excitement.

SCENARIO #1: This one is true, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s been watching The History Channel‘s gradual descent into madness.  The show is called Mounted in Alaska, and it premieres in less than a week.

The first time I heard the title, I thought it was about Anchorage cavalry reenactors.  Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good show, too.

SCENARIO #2: Get ready to pick your lower jaw off the floor.  This one is true, too, although the museum in question apparently closed in 2007.  Even the bit about the Necco Wafers is real.  While the artifact undoubtedly existed, Roadside America claims that it wasn’t really Lincoln’s, since Necco Wafers first hit the shelves in 1912.  The manufacturer, however, states that the wafers have been in production since 1847, when Lincoln was in Congress, so maybe it was the genuine article after all.

It would be fun to try to track the provenance of that thing, and even more fun to present the results at a conference.  Any of you researchers out there who’d like to commit career suicide should tackle this one.  Let us know how it goes.

SCENARIO #3: I didn’t make this one up, either.  Today the blogosphere, tomorrow the world.  Fortunately, I’m not the person to blame for all this.

A good friend of mine is a program manager at a TV station owned by the same university where I’m an adjunct.  They do a number of original shows that broadcast throughout northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky.  For reasons that he’ll probably come to regret later, he decided to pitch the idea of a show similar to the historic site visit reports that I post here from time to time, and his colleagues thought it was a good idea.  We’re planning to do about six episodes, each one built around some similar historical theme or region, where we’ll take viewers on a virtual tour of historically important places.

What’s nifty about all this is that we’re going to try to combine the informative aspects of any history-oriented show with the informal tone and atmosphere of a travel show.  Heritage tourism is really popular, but when travel shows tackle historic sites, they don’t always provide the kind of content that history enthusiasts are after.  We’re going to try to offer history buffs enough meat and potatoes to keep the shows interesting, while following an on-the-road format that will hopefully engage other viewers and motivate them to visit these places for themselves.

Anyway, I’ll provide more information about the show as it develops.  In the meantime, if any readers of the blog have suggestions for places or topics you’d like to see us tackle once we get rolling, feel free to pass them along.  We’ll probably be staying in the southeast for this set of episodes, but if it takes off and we end up doing more, then we might venture farther.

Of course, if I don’t get over this bug, then you can box me up and ship me to those guys in Alaska.  We’ll still do the show, but it’ll be sort of like Weekend at Bernie’s.

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The Smithsonian should’ve jumped on this

Take a look at these sample ads produced as a portfolio project by Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler.

These things have been circulating online, originally with the Smithsonian’s name and logo.  A lot of folks assumed that they were actually part of a Smithsonian ad campaign.  I thought this was some of the best public history PR I’d ever seen.  It turns out the Smithsonian wasn’t aware of them until they went viral, and then asked one of the creators to remove the name and logo.

I think they’re awesome.  The folks at the National Museum of American History should’ve snapped this up in a heartbeat.

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History Channel’s gravitas meter drops another couple of notches

Ladies and gentlemen, your new guide across the highways and byways of American history and culture is Larry the Cable Guy.  No reaction yet from the producers of American Experience over at PBS, but I don’t think they’re quaking in their boots.

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