Tag Archives: heritage tourism

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

Attendance and artifacts

There’s an interesting article at AxisPhilly on the challenges facing the historic attractions in and around Independence Mall.  Big museums in the City of Brotherly Love are dealing with shrinking funds and visitation numbers that are below their goals, even as yet another public history institution—the planned Museum of the American Revolution—is preparing to set up shop in the same neighborhood.

Even with some buildings closed due to budget cuts, Independence National Historical Park is doing a brisk business, with 2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell last year and capacity crowds of 686,788 at Independence Hall.  (If the number for Independence Hall seems low, bear in mind that NPS restricts the number of people allowed into the building and tours fill up early.)  The National Constitution Center, by contrast, brought in fewer than 400,000, even though it’s right across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell building.  You’d assume that most museums would be delighted with annual visitation of 400,000, but the folks at the NCC were apparently counting on more.  The nearby Jewish History Museum saw 100,000 visitors and the African American Museum just 65,000.

Independence Mall, from Wikimedia Commons

What accounts for the fact that INHP is doing a more brisk business than the other museums?  Some of the answers are obvious.  As the article’s author notes, the cost of admission probably has a lot to do with it.  Getting in to see the Liberty Bell or the room where the Continental Congress met won’t cost you a dime, but you’ll have to fork over some cash to visit the National Constitution Center and other museums.

Name recognition has got to be another factor, perhaps the most significant one.  You couldn’t ask for a historic building with more superstar appeal than Independence Hall.  The Jewish History Museum and the African American Museum presumably cater to a more specialized crowd.  But the National Constitution Center isn’t as narrowly focused in its subject matter, and it seems to market itself extremely well.

Why aren’t more of the people who visit INHP making the short stroll over to the NCC?  I think the AxisPhilly author is onto something important when she notes that the NCC “doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.”

Ultimately, what I think most heritage tourists want more than anything else is authenticity.  They want to stand in the original spot, see the real thing, have a face-to-face encounter with the past.  Take a tour of some historic house, and you’re bound to hear somebody in the group ask how much of the structure and furnishings are original.  Likewise, when I was a museum intern, the first question people asked when they stood at the counter trying to decide whether or not to hand over their money was, “What is there to see?”  They weren’t referring to the exhibits, but the collection; they’d come to a Lincoln museum to see Lincoln artifacts.  It’s like the apocryphal story about Willie Sutton.  When a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.”  People who are interested in history go to history museums because that’s where the historic stuff is.

This is an age of high-dollar mega-museums with ever more elaborate exhibits, but public historians always need to keep in mind that the objects themselves are what separate museums from other media of education and entertainment.  We definitely don’t need to return to the days when an exhibit consisted of nothing but text panels and cases filled with labeled items, but we also don’t need to lose sight of the fact that while exhibits will eventually become dated, the objects aren’t going to lose their appeal.

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The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

A few thoughts from the end of the Freedom Trail

Walked the Freedom Trail yesterday, and got back to the hotel exhausted but euphoric. The density of Revolution-related sites in Boston is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Usually, when I take a Rev War road trip, I’ll have two or three things I really want to see, I’ll have to drive quite a few miles to get from one to the other, and I try to read every wayside marker and exhibit label I can find.

Doing Boston is different. Here you can walk a couple of miles and hit more than a dozen sites, and each one of them is a headliner. There’s no way you can thoroughly cover it all. It’s like visiting a buffet where you want to eat everything, so you just pile your plate with as much as it’ll hold and start cramming your face until you’re stuffed.

Another thing that strikes me is the antiquity of what you can see. In my neck of the woods, seeing a building from the early nineteenth century is a treat, and getting to see one from the late eighteenth is worth a two-hour drive. Here, though, running across a material remnant of the seventeenth century isn’t unheard of. Yesterday I saw tombstones that had been sitting there a century before Tennessee became a state.

It’s historic sightseeing of a totally different order. And that’ll have to do it for now; I’m off to Lexington and Concord.

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Minutemen, waterfalls, dinosaurs, and so on

Hey, remember when I said I’ve got a bunch of Massachusetts historic sites on my bucket list because I’ve never been to New England? Well, a friend of mine has to drive up to Boston for a conference, and I’m tagging along because that’s the kind of shameless moocher I am. So barring some unforeseen disaster, I’m finally going to see the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord…all those places every American Revolution buff should visit before they die.

I’m actually on the road already. We saw Niagara Falls today, and we’ll hit New York and Philly on the way back. And New York means the American Museum of Natural History, which means dinosaurs. Whole herds of ‘em.

Dinosaur skeletons and Rev War sites. It’s like a perfect storm of awesomeness.

Anyway, I’ll post some stuff whenever I get the chance. Now, everybody sing…

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The two Gettysburgs

Check out Jesse Smith’s piece on the two faces of Gettysburg (hat tip: John Fea).  One is the solemn and scholarly face of the park, the museums, and historic sites; the second is the kitschy face of the tourist attractions and amenities that have sprung up around the battlefield.

Like Smith, I’ve got to admit that I like some of the hokey tourism-driven aspects of Gettysburg, even though I’m in favor of returning things to their circa-1863 appearance to as practical an extent as is possible.  Hokey tourist traps have become an indelible part of the Gettysburg experience, just as the hokey roadside attractions devoted to gunfighters and lawmen are an indelible part of my memories of visiting the West with my parents.  (I draw the line at ghost tours, however.  I’m not sure why, but the very notion of ghost tours near a battlefield rubs me the wrong way.)

Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time before all the tourist traps and gift shops, so they’ve always been a part of the only Gettysburg I know.  My affinity for .  If new ones started popping up near some relatively undeveloped historic site, I’d probably be up in arms.  I guess what I’m saying is that when we’re considering the maximum level of tolerable kitschification at historic places, our opinions will partly depend on subjective and personal factors and on our own personal memories of the places in question.

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The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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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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The Wilderness Road on two wheels

While looking up some information on Cumberland Gap I ran across something that all you heritage tourists and genealogists out there might enjoy.  It’s a firsthand account of one man’s long-distance bike ride through the Gap and along Boone’s Wilderness Road, following the same route his ancestors took all the way to Indiana.

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Take a tour of Kentucky’s War of 1812

The War of 1812 tour is now available on the Kentucky Historical Society’s Explore KY History app.  If you haven’t downloaded this thing, let me once again recommend it to you.  Most Americans probably associate the War of 1812 with the Chesapeake or the Gulf of Mexico, but Kentucky suffered more casualties in that conflict than all the other states combined.

Gov. Isaac Shelby as painted by Matthew Jouett, from the Kentucky Historical Society’s Hall of Governors via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most notable Kentucky vets was Isaac Shelby, who became the state’s first governor in 1792 and then ran for the same post twenty years later.  Shelby didn’t throw his hat into the ring until less than a month before the 1812 gubernatorial election, and he was more than sixty years old.

He won handily anyway, partly because he’d already made a name for himself during the Rev War and Kentuckians were gearing up for another confrontation with England. (Shelby had led a regiment at King’s Mountain; in fact, he was one of the primary architects of the expedition that defeated Ferguson’s Tories.)  In the summer of 1813 he took the field himself at the head of 3,500 volunteers who fought at the Battle of the Thames, thus seeing action in both of America’s wars with Britain.

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