Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country. Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit. USA Today has the details. Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.
There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system. The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015). There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.
I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums. Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.
At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history. The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people. Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects. But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history. How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration? Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.
I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum. I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest. The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility. White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.
And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing. I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.
On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect. Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.
It seems like we’re seeing a lot of these stories lately. Somebody broke into the Jean and Price Daniel Home and Archives in Liberty, TX and made off with part of the collection. If you’ve got any information, call the Liberty Police Department at 939-336-5666
As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.
Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage. Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood. For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country. Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.
Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery. He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material. In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.
In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T. The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons. Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist. The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.
The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children. For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence. Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep. The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile. Check out this deleted scene:
There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis. He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history. We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability. If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated. The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.
The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end. When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling. The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation. The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved. And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.
The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) will display a new exhibit “Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C. Curated by Steven Wilson, ALLM curator and assistant director, the exhibit investigates the significance of inventions and new machines in the Civil War.
Included in the exhibit are artifacts from the B&O Railroad Museum, the Kentucky Military History Museum, the National Firearms Museum, the Center for Northern Indiana History, the Tennessee State Museum and the Vicksburg National Military Park-U.S.S. Cairo. Some rare items from the collection of the ALLM are a Greene bolt-action breech-loading rifle, Captain John Worden’s speaking trumpet and a collection of carte de visite photographs.
“Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” will open to the public on January 14, 2014. The exhibit will remain on display through July 6, 2014. Admission is included with regular daytime visit tickets to Ford’s Theatre, which is free but requires timed entry tickets. Tickets may be reserved in person at Ford’s Theatre Box Office, through Ticketmaster at 800.982.2787, or online at http://www.fords.org.
Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington. I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call. Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing. (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)
But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years. Think American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats. It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.
I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role. There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced. Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.
Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right. Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved. He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text. I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.