Tag Archives: historic sites

The ultimate Gettysburg souvenir

The original, honest-to-goodness Electric Map is up for grabs at a government auction site (with a tip of the hat to Brooks Simpson).

Need the perfect gift for that Civil War buff who has everything? Look no more. He’ll be the envy of all his fellow CWRT members. Oh, Bob, I heard your kids bought you another Kunstler print. Here, step into the living room for a minute and I’ll show you what the wife picked up for my birthday.

But wait, there’s more! During the holiday season, the Electric Map doubles as a festive lawn decoration! With a simple bulb reconfiguration, Longstreet’s July 2 attack on the Union left transforms into two elves dancing atop the words JOY TO THE WORLD.

All joking aside, think about this for a minute. On several occasions we’ve noted how an individual’s personal memories sometimes intersect with collective historical memory. When you’ve been visiting a site for many years and it’s become the locus for many fond recollections, you come to regard it as much for its personal nostalgic value as for its objective historical significance.

Now, consider how the Disney parks cater to hardcore fans. Some Disney rides stay in operation for decades, acquire enthusiastic followings, and become venerable institutions in their own right. A few years ago, the folks at the Mouse introduced a line of commemorative pins which contain tiny pieces of the actual attractions themselves, removed during refurbishment or when a ride is dismantled. They’re like little pop culture reliquaries.

Thus Disney enthusiasts get to have a tangible connection to something that’s dear to them, and the parks make a little money. Maybe historic sites are missing out on the nostalgic market. The uproar over the Electric Map and the Cyclorama building indicate that we’re a pretty sentimental bunch.

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A dozen Civil War sites

CNN Travel lists twelve top destinations for Civil War buffs.  Lists of this sort make for great debate fodder.  I’m actually pretty satisfied with these choices, except I’d be tempted to replace Mobile Bay with Ft. Sumter.  If you consider Springfield a Civil War destination with all of its Lincoln attractions, then you could probably throw that one in, too.

What we really need is a list of the top Rev War spots.  The tricky part would be deciding what constitutes a “location.”  Does the Philly area get one slot on the list, or do you separate Independence National Historical Park and Valley Forge?  How about Williamsburg and Yorktown?  And what in the world are we going to do about Boston?

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The brand

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve gone on a road trip (either with my family as a kid or taking the wheel myself as an adult) I’ve collected brochures and rack cards at rest stops and hotel lobbies.  Actually, “collecting” is the wrong term, because I don’t have a collection in the formal sense of the word, just disorganized stashes and piles all over the house.  There’s really no reason to keep them, but for some reason I have a hard time throwing them out.  I suppose I could’ve created some system for organizing and labeling them, but it’s really more of an obsessive-compulsive habit than anything else.

Image from the NPS Harpers Ferry Center

The other day I made a passing, tongue-in-cheek reference to NPS brochures.  These standardized leaflets are familiar to every heritage tourist—an advertising device, tour guide, and teaching tool all rolled into one.  Most of the ones I’ve got are wrinkled and crushed from being clutched in a sweaty fist while tramping around on some battlefield.  To me, the sight of that white Helvetica font on a black strip has always been a sign that there’s an adventure in the making.

Modern NPS brochures use the Unigrid system designed by Massimo Vignelli in the late 1970’s.  It’s versatile enough to allow each site to customize it a little, but of course it also helps maintain consistency across the park system. Consistency and standardization are important, because when you get right down to it, the NPS is a brand.

That applies to interpretation, too.  Every public history institution has to develop an interpretive “voice” that works for its multiple audiences, but the NPS has the added task of maintaining a voice across dozens of different sites.  This puts some constraints on the people doing the interpreting, something I’d never really thought of until I read this recent post at Interpreting the Civil War.

When you’re a visitor, it’s easy to forget that the NPS is made up of individual people, each of whom have their own ideas about how to interpret a site and must work within the constraints of the brand.  Personally, I’ve always found NPS interpretation to be consistently superb.  Would any of you folks out there who wear the gray and green care to share your experiences and opinions about doing public history within an agency framework?

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Touring the Tipton place

I’ve been on a real Tennessee frontier kick lately, visiting places in my home state that I’ve been meaning to see for a long time.  A few days ago my cousin and I took another day trip to the Tri-Cities region, which means it’s time for yet another historic site review.

Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City has a story that goes back quite a long way. A spring and cave on the property attracted animals for thousands of years, and the animals attracted humans who hunted them with stone weapons.  In the late 1600’s, the first Englishmen to set foot in Tennessee passed through the area; a century later, Daniel Boone stopped there.

In 1784, when Tennessee was still part of North Carolina, Col. John Tipton purchased 100 acres around the spring and cave, building a one-and-a-half-story log home.  That same year, some of his fellow settlers proclaimed the creation of a new State of Franklin, consisting of the three westernmost counties of North Carolina, with military hero John Sevier its first governor.  The problem was that, as far as North Carolina was concerned, this statehood movement was illegitimate, and the Franklinites were still subject to North Carolina law.  As you might imagine, the coexistence of two rival states in the same place presented a rather interesting political dilemma.

Tipton refused to recognize the legitimacy of Franklin, and by late 1786 had become the region’s foremost supporter of North Carolina sovereignty.  In February 1788, when North Carolina authorities seized some of Sevier’s slaves and took them to Tipton’s farm for safekeeping, the would-be governor and about 135 fellow Franklinites showed up to demand their return.  Tipton and the other North Carolina loyalists holed up in the log house, trading occasional shots with Sevier’s force outside.  When reinforcements arrived for Tipton, the standoff turned into an outright skirmish—the only armed confrontation between Franklinites and North Carolina—which ended in a retreat by Sevier and his supporters.  The fledgling statehood movement petered out not long after the firefight at Tipton’s farm.

The house and the land around it passed to Tipton’s son in 1813.  In 1837 a newlywed lawyer named Landon Carter Haynes received the farm as a wedding gift from his father. Haynes built a number of additions to the house and constructed a small law office adjacent to it, where he attracted clients from across Tennessee and North Carolina. An ardent Southern advocate, he served as a Confederate senator during the Civil War. He obtained a pardon when the war ended, but left his home and moved to Memphis. The state purchased the property in the 1940’s.

This complicated history of prehistoric hunters, stillborn states, and Civil War politicians is told in a fine new exhibit at the Tipton-Haynes visitor center, which includes artifacts excavated from the grounds, Tipton and Haynes family heirlooms, and short video presentations on the State of Franklin and slavery in the Haynes household.

It’s a very attractive site; in fact, it’s difficult to believe that this pastoral little chunk of real estate exists in the middle of modern-day Johnson City. Unfortunately for frontier aficionados such as yours truly, Tipton’s log house was altered dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century. Its present appearance thus reflects the Haynes era more than the period of the Franklin battle, but it’s still a nicely restored structure.

There are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, some of which are original to the Haynes farm, others reconstructed or relocated from other sites. A short path along an old buffalo trail takes you to the spring and cave.

This is a great little site with an effective interpretation of an impressive cross-section of Tennessee history, and of course it’s located right in the cradle of the Volunteer State, so there are a lot of other historic places just a short drive away if you decide to make a day of it.  Give yourself about thirty or forty minutes to take in the visitor center’s exhibit and an hour or so to tour the grounds.

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Lifestyles of the deceased and famous

The most popular historic home here in the Appalachian region is probably Biltmore House, the palatial Gilded Age mansion of George Washington Vanderbilt II in Asheville, NC.  Some readers will be surprised that I qualified that statement with the word “probably.”  In terms of visitation, no historic house museum in Appalachia comes close.  In fact, few historic homes in the entire country could compete with Biltmore’s annual numbers, although offhand I’d guess that Mount Vernon and Monticello welcome more visitors.  The reason I hedged is not because its popularity as a destination is in doubt, but because I’m not sure whether I’d consider it Biltmore a “historic house museum.”  It’s difficult for me to associate Biltmore Estate with other historic sites.

Strictly speaking, I realize this seems a little ludicrous.  It’s a house, it’s historic (or old, at least), and it’s a museum.  What’s my problem here?

Biltmore House, as seen from the front

Consider the reasons why people visit Biltmore and what they get out of it.  If we were to speak with guests as they stood in line to buy their tickets, how many of them would tell us that they’re about to shell out money to learn about the past?  I’d say it would be very few indeed.

Or perhaps we might ask them if they came to Biltmore to learn about its first resident, the man responsible for its construction.  Here, too, I think affirmative answers would be few and far between.  People go to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and the Lincoln Home because of their former occupants, but I don’t think this is the case with Biltmore.  Quite a few Americans will probably recognize the name “Vanderbilt,” but not George Washington Vanderbilt II in particular.

In fact, I think most Biltmore visitors would be hard pressed to identify any salient facts about Biltmore’s first owner, or to name any notable accomplishments of his other than the fact that he built himself an awesome pad.  An introverted younger sibling, George wasn’t responsible for running the family’s business affairs.  Instead, he spent most of his free time (presumably he had a great deal of it) cultivating his own personal intellectual interests.  A brief bio on Wikipedia notes that he was fluent in a number of foreign languages and managed some family property for a while; other than that, he “inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father’s death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund.”  Not a bad gig if you can get it, but it won’t lead generations of children to recite your speeches at their second grade recitals.

My point here is not to belittle G.W. Vanderbilt II, but to point out that neither a regard for history nor a familiarity with Biltmore’s original occupant will explain the estate’s astronomical attendance numbers.  Instead, I submit that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Biltmore are exercising the same impulse that makes people watch TV shows where opulent houses are exposed to the cameras and to buy magazines with photographs of lavish interiors.  They go there because want to see how the fabulously rich once lived, to vicariously experience what it must have been like to enjoy untold wealth in an age of elegance and opulence, and to appreciate majesty and beauty.  Having talked to people who enjoy visiting Biltmore, and having visited myself on a number of occasions, I think most people go there just because they want to ooh and aah.

In and of itself, this is no big deal.  Historic sites aren’t necessarily any less historic just because visitors patronize them for reasons that have nothing to do with history.  Lots of folks visit national historical parks for the fresh air, the hiking, and so on.  The difference is this: What I’ve seen of interpretation during my visits to Biltmore, and what I’ve seen of the estate’s promotional material, leads me to believe that oohing and aahing is pretty much all you’re supposed to get out of the experience.

Now, before we rush to denounce this “lifestyles of the rich and famous” approach to historic interpretation, and to ask ourselves whether it constitutes historic interpretation at all, let me pose a consideration about historic house museums in general.

Perhaps historic house sites are inherently deceptive, in that they inadvertently perpetuate a very common and romanticized view of the past that I call the “frilly notion of history.”  When people think about how great it must have been to live in an earlier age, it’s usually because they have a myopic view of what living in that earlier age was actually like.  Many people have spoken to me about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a sort of wistful attitude, longing for the days when well-mannered ladies and gentlemen lived in gorgeous houses, wore frilly dresses, and danced the quadrille.

And yet the world of mansions, frilly gowns, and quadrilles wasn’t necessarily how “people lived back then.”  That was how the affluent lived “back then.”  It reflects only a slice of human experience from the period in question.  In the pre-modern world, most people’s lives were anything but mannered and frilly.

Historic house museums, I think, can unwittingly perpetuate this notion of a comfy, genteel past, although it happens through no fault at all of the people who manage and interpret these sites.  It’s simply a by-product of the differential vagaries of time.  The houses that last 150 or 200 years and transform into museums are generally the homes of the wealthy or notable.  Places where ordinary schmoes lived are harder to come by; they get torn down, renovated beyond recognition, or cannibalized for building materials to make the homes of later ordinary schmoes.  Thus when you visit some historic house, it was probably the home of someone who was comparatively well off.

Lest you think I’m knocking historic house museums, let me note that I spent a year of my life running one.  It was pretty small as far as historic house museums go—just three rooms, a garret, and a kitchen joined to the main residence by a dogtrot—but it was pretty nice for the time and place of its construction.  The occupant had been an officer in the militia, a statesman, and one of the largest slaveholders in his county.  When visitors remarked that the house seemed awfully small, I reminded them that contemporaries of its original owner would have found it quite comfortable.

At the really big house museums, the discrepancy between what visitors see and how most people of the period lived is even greater.  Most Revolutionary Virginians didn’t live at places like Monticello, just as most Tennesseans of the Jacksonian era couldn’t dream of living at a mansion like the Hermitage.  We cherish these places because we’re lucky that they’ve lasted to the present day and because of the remarkable men who inhabited them.  They’re worthy of our appreciation not because they’re typical residences of typical people, but precisely because they and their owners were very special indeed.

So this brings us back to the question of whether visitors to historic house museums are getting a skewed view of the past. I suppose they are, but that’s also true of visitors to any public history institution.  No site can ever hope to encompass an entire era or place.  People who restrict their heritage tourism to one type of site or field of interest—battlefields, for instance—will invariably miss out on many other aspects of historical interpretation.  Perhaps people who visit Biltmore in order to vicariously experience the life of a Gilded Age millionaire are not so different from those who visit battlegrounds to vicariously live the experiences of common men and boys who left their mark on history with bombs and bullets rather than bricks.

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Keeping up with the Carters

Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business.  Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.

Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.

I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip.  I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.

If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.

Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior.  The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier.  Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.

I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.

Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…

…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.

A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated.  The negotiations didn’t turn out well.

A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list.  Totally worth the wait.

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Record visitation at Ft. Sumter

This year’s levels may even surpass those of last year, which was the 150th anniversary.

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I’ve got a few remarks on the Booth bobblehead brouhaha

…over at the Lincoln Institute blog, but Kevin Levin says pretty much the same thing more concisely and bluntly at Civil War Memory.

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Hudson Valley sites try to stay afloat

More bleak news about the travails of trying to manage a cultural attraction while the economy’s in the toilet.

When I was an intern, I spent a fair amount of time manning a cash register in a museum lobby.  Some visitors used to complain about admission costs (a paltry four or five bucks per adult back in those days), remarking that we must have been glad we such a nice little cash cow going.  They were so wrong it wasn’t even funny.  In many museums, admissions revenue rarely even comes close to meeting operating expenses.  Indeed, in many cases, it doesn’t even cover basic maintenance costs.  Keep that in mind the next time you feel like griping to the guy at the ticket counter.

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State senator wonders whether historic site employees are “sitting around not doing anything”

Historic sites that are subdivisions of larger organizations or institutions are often left languishing due to the utter neglect of the powers that be.  But there is something far, far worse than the utter neglect of the powers that be, and that’s the attention of the powers that be.

As a case in point, consider a recent news item out of North Carolina.

RALEIGH — The North Carolina legislature is conducting a sweeping review of the state’s attractions – from museums and parks to the state fair and the zoo – to determine whether they should be combined under a single agency and whether their staffing, hours and admissions fees should be adjusted.

The legislature’s study, which is scheduled to be released in March, follows budget cuts this summer that forced some state-owned tourist attractions to cut hours or special programs, lay off workers and increase admission fees. It has many working at the sites worried about their future.

Sounds pretty ominous, but the prospect of laying off a bunch of public employees actually has State Sen. Andrew Brock kind of excited.  I’ll let him tell it.

“I’m kind of excited about the evaluation of some our museums and sites,” said Brock, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing general government.

See there?

Now, don’t get the impression that they’re targeting all the fine cultural attractions North Carolina has to offer.  Some of them are doing a—what’s the word he’s looking for here…

Brock said that while some attractions “are doing a fantastic job” and deserve more state funding…

That’s it!  Some of them are doing a fantastic job, just absolutely fantastic, but…

…while some attractions “are doing a fantastic job” and deserve more state funding, there are others that need closer scrutiny.

“We’ve got some others, you’ve got 100 people on staff, you’ve got few visitors and only a few volunteers,” Brock said. “Are people sitting around not doing anything? Are we paying for positions and nobody has a real job? Those are the ones we will have to take a good hard look at. Some of them, to be honest, we have to make sure it was not political patronage over the years.”

Can’t have people on the payroll just “sitting around not doing anything.”  Can’t fund something that isn’t “a real job.”  Not that Brock is disrespecting state employees, or anything.

Brock cited Tryon Palace in New Bern, a pet of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, as an example of a historic site that might be overstaffed. The palace is a replica of the home of Royal Governor William Tryon, originally built in 1770. The palace, which recently opened a history center, drew 172,264 people during the fiscal year ending June 30. (Department of Cultural Resources officials said the Tryon Palace complex, which includes 41 buildings and had 85 employees when the history center opened in October 2010, now has 59 employees. That number is scheduled to be reduced to 31 employees unless funding is restored in the next budget year.

Right.  Some governor wants to reward a guy who worked on his campaign, so he gets him a job as a part-time tour guide at a historic house museum.  I’m sure that’s what happened.

Among other things, Brock said, the study will look at whether some sites should have shorter or different hours, should charge higher fees and should offer gifts and other services to defray costs.

“We are not going to get rid of our history,” Brock said. “But we may limit their hours, how many days they’re open and also look at their expenses while they are open.”

We’re not going to get rid of our history.  We might make it darn near impossible for people to get access to it, but we’re not going to get rid of it.

For now.

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