Tag Archives: historic sites

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

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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Bringing the background to the foreground

So, as I was saying, I was driving around in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park the other day when I spotted a wayside marker I’d never seen before.

I’ve driven by this spot several times, so I think this sign is a recent addition, but maybe I just need to be paying closer attention.  Anyway, this marker is worth a closer look, because it scratches an itch that I noted earlier this year.

Back in March I was griping about our tendency to get so caught up in the dramatic and exceptional events that happened in historic areas that we ignore what happened in between them.  The Gap is notable mainly for those people who were (often quite literally) just passing through.  Its story is one of long hunters, pioneers, Civil War garrisons, and industrialists who came and went.  The people who lived in the area had their own history—a long and interesting one—but it’s a history that’s invisible to many observers.  Their story forms a hazy and indistinct background to the procession of pioneers, soldiers, and boosters that passed by on their way to whatever it is they were after.

In some cases, the local story vanishes altogether.  CGNHP isn’t a battlefield or a building; it’s acres and acres of beautiful green space.  A lot of visitors come for the views and the hiking trails instead of the history.  It’s so easy to find the “wilderness” along this famous segment of the Wilderness Road that you can forget about the people who once lived nearby.  Who were these folks, and how did they live?

These are the questions I was asking back in March, and they’re exactly the questions the NPS answers in this wayside exhibit.  It affixes an actual, flesh-and-blood past to the rural Appalachian communities that so many Americans misunderstand or ignore.  Here’s a close-up of the text:

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A wider view from Tryon Palace

The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern.  It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.

What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on.  And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.

Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.

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Historic sites going wireless

The always-stimulating Mysteries and Conundrums blog has a post that’s well worth reading for anybody interested in historic site interpretation.  John Hennessy looks into the near future at what wireless devices might bring to public history.

Some NPS sites are already taking advantage of the ubiquity of cell phones to incorporate them into their educational efforts, as I’ve noted here before.  It’s a handy, unobtrusive way to do an audio tour.  Now that wireless devices capable of handling images and video are becoming almost as common as basic phones, visitors can also access pictures, maps, movies, GPS, and any number of other types of information, all while standing on a battlefield.

Hennessy notes one implication of all this that I hadn’t considered.  As people find that there are opportunities to generate such material for visitors to access (sometimes for a profit), the NPS and other preservation/interpretation agencies “will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage.”

Imagine ten or twenty visitors standing at a tour stop, each one with a wireless device, accessing completely different types of information from independent sources.  Some of these sources won’t be as reliable as others, of course, which is cause for some concern.  But the possibilities of a scenario like this are still pretty exciting.

Visitors bring their own needs to a site—some people need basic orientation, while others will want more in-depth coverage.  If each visitor has access to whatever information they want while they are at the site, then they can tailor their own interpretation to their level of knowledge and interest.

Personally, one of the things that excites me the most is the possibility of mixing GPS with visual and audio data.  If you had a handheld device capable of both taking a GPS reading and pulling up images, text, or audio information keyed to particular locations, then you could have as many tour stops as you wanted, each one packed with reams of information, and the device could access all this automatically.  You could even orient it to the direction the visitor was facing.  And it wouldn’t require any intrusion into the landscape of the site at all, since the information would be transmitted invisibly through the air and into a visitor’s iPhone, iPad, or whatever.

Check out the Civil War Augmented Reality Project to see some of what might be possible.

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Dial-a-battlefield

Last time we looked at some of the interpretive techniques the folks at King’s Mountain National Military Park are using in their visitor center exhibit.  Today let’s examine one of the tools they’re using out on the battleground itself.

The  basic building block of King’s Mountain interpretation, like that of many battlefields, is the trailside sign.  Anybody who’s visited a historic site is probably familiar with these things.  Each sign has text describing what happened at that particular sector of the field, some images, maybe a first-person quote or two, and an orientation map.

Not too long ago, a new type of sign appeared along the trail at King’s Mountain.  I first encountered them during a visit this past summer, and they were still there on my last trip a few days ago.  Each one marks a stop on a cell phone audio tour.  You just dial the number on the sign, press the key for that particular stop, and listen to the narration.

These audio clips are a little lengthier than the narrative excerpts written on the trailside signage, which makes sense, because most people will be more likely to listen while standing or walking than they will be to stand there and read a lengthy block of text.  As I mentioned last time, “exhibit fatigue” is a real problem with long passages of text in galleries.  Many visitors will get bored with the narrative and just browse at whatever pace and in whatever order suits them, which means the interpretive scheme and storyline will fall apart.  An audio tour can incorporate more verbal information because visitors will passively receive it.  It also has the advantage of including visually-impaired visitors into the experience.

Of course, audio tours at museums and sites are nothing new in and of themselves.  What I find innovative about this particular application is that it utilizes a tool that visitors already have on hand.  Since so many people carry cell phones these days, King’s Mountain can implement the advantages of an audio tour without the inconvenience and expense of distributing a bulky personal audio player with headphones to each guest, or setting up playback devices across the battlefield.  It’s also unobtrusive with respect to the landscape, because all you need is a small sign.

Independence National Historical Park and Minute Man National Historical Park are two other sites getting in on the cell phone tour act, although the latter charges a small fee for it.  Saratoga has a cell phone tour, too, in addition to audio clips which you can download to an mp3 players from the park website and listen to when you visit.

The times they are a-changing, and historic sites are rolling with it.

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Preservation, interpretation, destinations, and denominations

Going back to the subject of Mormon historical tourism, here’s a pretty extensive list of LDS historic sites in the U.S.  Some are full-fledged, public history-type institutions, with the usual trappings: visitor centers, guided tours, restored buildings, exhibit areas, and so on.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this kind of extensive effort to preserve, restore, and interpret a chain of church-related historic sites all over the country is unique to Mormonism.  Just about all of the major American denominations have archives and historical societies.  But historic sites and museums operated under the aegis of a national church body are few and far between.  Some of these churches have episcopal structures that could theoretically oversee this sort of thing, and even de-centralized groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have cooperative programs to fund education and missions, but it seems that no religious group is nearly as active in preservation and interpretation program as the Mormons.

So why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints devoting so much more effort to running historic sites than other religious groups?  I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, there’s a steady supply of enthusiastic volunteers to keep the sites going.  As I noted in my review of the Illinois LDS sites, that church actually utilizes its missionaries to work at them.  This is critical, because interpreters are the foot soldiers of large historic sites.  With lots of young people and retired couples eager to serve eighteen-month or two-year stints as missionaries, and a church organization willing to post them at historic sites, the church has both the human resources and a framework in place to deploy them.  Of course, evangelicals are keen on winning converts, too.  The Southern Baptist Convention recruits, trains, and supports laypeople who serve on the domestic and international mission fields.  They don’t, however, employ them as historic site interpreters.  The fact that the LDS church does so says something about the importance of history to this religion.

Second, Mormonism’s origins are both domestic and comparatively recent.  That makes its most important historic locations more accessible to preservation.  There are plenty of significant places in the U.S. that would make for great Baptist or Methodist historic sites, but none that are as cherished to these denominations as Hill Cumorah or Carthage Jail are to Mormonism.  You’d probably have to go to Europe to find a Protestant equivalent, or maybe even the Middle East.  (Come to think of it, there actually is a living history site at Nazareth, but we’re getting waaayyyy beyond the scope of this blog with that one.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mormonism has embraced its own distinctiveness.  The church has a long history of suffering persecution, misunderstanding, and exile, and this lends itself to historic consciousness.  You’re more likely to hold onto your history if it’s a cornerstone of your identity.  As I said in a previous post, visitation to Historic Nauvoo is 80% Mormon.  This suggests that a lot of the people who go there want to be reminded of who they are and who they used to be, and why their deposit of faith is something significant.

Still, since the church deploys its missionaries to places like Historic Nauvoo, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not historic tourism is an effective means of proselytizing.  I don’t have any figures, so I don’t know the answer.  I can say from my own recent experience that if it doesn’t win converts, it does at least win interested observers.  I doubt I’ll ever become a Mormon, but since visiting Nauvoo and Carthage I’ve become fascinated with Mormonism’s origins as a subject of study—as an interesting historical phenomenon, in other words.  That’s generally how it goes with historic sites.  I can’t tell you how many Civil War buffs have told me that they owe their obsession to a battlefield visit.

But you can’t use your history to generate interest if you don’t have a platform for doing so.  All those church archives and historical societies operated by the bigger denominations are important enterprises, but it’s mostly researchers and history enthusiasts who will use them.  Heritage tourism reaches a broader audience, even if it’s the already-converted who need to know more about their own spiritual heritage.

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On using battlefields

Not long ago I went to a military park located in the middle of a fairly good-sized city.  I arrived bright and early, and as I headed into the visitor center, I noticed a couple walking their dogs along the trail.  I didn’t really think anything about it.

After seeing the exhibits, I hit the trails myself, where I encountered more dog-walkers.  In fact, I saw many more dog-walkers than sightseers.  I was seemingly the only person on the battlefield with a map and a camera instead of a dog leash and a sport bottle.

I finally arrived at the park’s largest, most impressive monument.  Sitting on the base was a college student, her back leaned against the pedestal on the front, with a textbook open in her lap and a cellphone stuck against her ear.  The battlefield was apparently a study lounge as well as a dog park.

As the morning progressed, the park got more corwded.  Dog-walkers began to give way to walkers and joggers, in ever-increasing numbers.  By this time I’d started counting “battlefield users” as compared to “battlefield visitors,” for the purpose of reporting my findings in a planned blog post on the subject of battlefield use, which you are now reading.  I finally had to give up counting.  There were simply too many walkers and joggers to keep track of, although I think I could accurately state that they outnumbered the obvious tourists by ten to one or more.

They came at me one by one and two by two.  They came with large, friendly dogs and they came with small, nervous dogs.  They came with strollers.  They came wearing fashionable, color-coordinated jogging suits, and they came with mp3 players of all shapes and colors.  There were quite literally dozens of them.

One guy in particular stands out in my mind.  I was reading an interpretive sign when I heard rapid footfalls, and turned to see a sweaty fellow with headphones in his ears, decked out in what appeared to be a uniform obtained from the Fantastic Four.  He came to a stop, caught his breath, nodded hello, and then crouched over, put his hands on the ground, propped his feet on a bench, and did a set of push-ups.

Of course, this issue of “multi-tasking” is something that many historic sites face.  Some of them actually include “fitness trails,” with pull-up bars and the whole nine yards. 

Chances are, if you’ve done any kind of work with historic sites, you’ve had to accomodate unconventional use of your facilities to one degree or another.  It’s worse for small institutions like museums that are a part of bigger ones like government entities or universities.  If you’re a staff member at one of these institutions-within-an-institution, there’s a chance that somewhere up the line there’s a supervisor who doesn’t really know why you exist, and doesn’t really care.  And if that’s the case, God help you.  Sooner or later you’re going to end up having to justify your performance in terms that have nothing to do with what you’re technically supposed to be doing.

In other words, if you’re doing public history, you’ll eventually find your institution being put to some strange and unintended uses.  Sometimes this can be a good thing.  It gives your site a larger role in the life of the community than it would otherwise have, and I think most people who manage historic sites and museums want members of the community to feel something like a sense of proud ownership with regard to it.  It helps motivate them to get involved and support the place.

Still, there was something about the inundation of joggers and dog-walkers at this battlefield that was more than a little disturbing.  Patriotic obligation aside, there’s simply the question of good taste.  At the end of the day, a battlefield is a place where a great many dreadful things happened within the space of a few hours.  You’ll find few places in America where death and violence have taken place on such a concentrated scale.  I suppose people have every right to use battlefield trails for no purpose other than exercise, but this behavior does indicate a rather striking failure of perception. 

Of course, this problem of internalization isn’t limited to battlefield “users.”  It’s also common among battlefield “visitors.”  Your common tourist, visiting a military park to learn and to see the sights, may never fully appreciate the horror involved in the notion of thousands of men trying desperately to kill each other within such a relatively confined area.  But the common tourist does, at least, take the field for what it is primarily intended to be.

In one sense, the very scale of violence that took place on most battlefields may work against our ability to comprehend the loss of life.  We can all identify with an individual life lost, but how do you get your head around thousands of them?  At some point one stops thinking in terms of human lives and starts thinking in terms of abstract numbers. 

When I graduated from high school my parents and I went to New York.  I had long wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History, so we had to make our way over to the Central Park West district.  Walking back, we passed the Dakota, where a small group stood reverently outside the entrance where John Lennon was shot.  They took pictures, as tourists will do, but their overall demeanor was consistent with what you’d see at a cathedral.  In fact, they wouldn’t have been out of place at the site of Bergen-Belsen.  The emotional impact seems to work in inverse proportion to the body count.  Kill one prominent man, and you sancitfy an otherwise ordinary spot.  Kill scores of anonymous soldiers and farm boys, and the impact diminishes rather than increases. 

This perverse arithmetic doesn’t speak very highly of the value we place on human life.  But of course the major factor involved isn’t math but time, that most corrosive of all agents when it comes to memory. 

Two hundred years from now, our descendants might very well be going to the top of One World Trade Center for no other reason than to admire the view.  They’ll think it a fine place to have their pictures made and propose to their girlfirends; the fact that it was once the scene of unimaginable misery may sadly be nothing more than a vague, almost subconscious awareness. 

Jefferson stated that the earth belongs to the living, and he believed it to be cause for hope.  In many ways it is, but there’s a certain tragedy in it, too.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Historical Touring with TomTom

There are few things I like more than a good historical field trip, but I’m cursed with a poor sense of direction.  Hence my recent interest in automotive GPS navigation systems.

It’s something I’ve resisted for a long time, because I’ve got a Luddite streak a mile wide.  I was the last member of my generation to trade my tapes for CDs, and my CDs for an iPod.  Most of my cell phones have been antiques, and until pretty recently I habitualy kept my cell turned off.  So I considered GPS car navigators to be more superfluous pieces of junk being foisted on a fad-crazed public.

I changed my mind after last month’s North Carolina trip.  Most of the historic sites I visit are in rural areas, where you don’t have to deal a flurry of turns within a few minutes or seconds, and where it’s usually easy to turn around when you get off-track.  That wasn’t the case in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, where I almost killed myself while trying to juggle printed directions and steer at the same time.  Worse, on two occasions, the online directions were completely wrong, telling me to take a turn when I should’ve gone in the opposite direction.  And, of course, printed turn-by-turn directions are useless if you take the wrong road or miss an exit.  (I do that a lot.)

I finally decided that this was a case where there was something to be said for gadgetry, so it was off to Best Buy.  I picked the TomTom One 130S, which is pretty cheap but still has a good-sized screen and speaks the actual street names.  

On Saturday a friend of mine and I conducted the first field test.  We headed off to a historic site neither of us had visited before, with absolutely no maps or printed directions of any kind, completely at the mercy of a 3.8-inch box with a computerized female voice. 

This, my friends, was no light matter.  A few years ago the two of us set out for Gettysburg with a set of Mapquest directions.  We did okay until we actually got to town, at which point we circumnavigated the roundabout near the Wills House for what seemed half an hour, trying to figure out which street to turn into.  Our attempt to get from our hotel to Cemetery Hill produced similarly unfortunate results, although we did get to a see a lot of things we weren’t necessarily looking for—Lee’s headquarters, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a local resident’s spacious driveway, etc.  We’re not exactly Lewis and Clark.

Luckily for us, the TomTom passed our road test with flying colors.  The difference with printed directions was like night and day; in fact, the spoken directions were so spot-on and handy that I didn’t even have to look at the screen.  I’m O.C.D., so I’m usually thinking about the next turn, keeping a close eye on the mile markers and my odometer, terrified that I’ll make a misstep.  This time I just enjoyed the drive, knowing that the device would prompt me in time to turn or exit.  When I missed a ramp on the way back, the device recalculated in seconds and got us right back on track.

Another great thing about these gadgets is that it makes your trip so much more flexible.  If you’re using printed directions you’re chained to your route.  Change your itinerary, and the directions become useless.  With GPS, you can alter your route as much as you want.  Happen to spot an exit for some out-of-the-way museum on your way to Antietam?  No problem.  You can hit all those spontaneous little finds and then move on to your original destination, and see everything in between.  You can use the search feature to find other historic sites near the place you’re headed, or the ones along your route.  You can hit every historic marker in your county, or every bivouac from your favorite campaign.  The only limitations are your gas tank, your trip budget, and the number of vacation days before you’ve got to head back to work.

I’ve got only a few minor complaints.  First, roads sometimes change, which requires you to update your device by plugging it into your computer from time to time.  For instance, my history-related trips usually start out on US 25E.  It’s the Yellow Brick Road for all those Carolina Rev War battlefields, the Tennessee frontier sites to my east, and the Shenandoah Valley and all Civil War points beyond.  It’s also perennially under construction, and has been for as long as I can remember.  Some of the newer road changes  between Claiborne and Grainger Counties aren’t on my TomTom’s map, which is really odd, since they’ve been in place for a while and the unit itself is brand new.  It wasn’t really a big deal; we just ploughed on ahead and the TomTom adjusted accordingly.

The second issue is more applicable to historic travel in particular.  To plot a route, you need to enter a city and then pick your point of interest.  You can either enter the name of the location or select it from a list of categories.  The thing is, different types of historic sites fall into different categories.  Battlefields and state parks tend to fall under “Parks and Recreation,” whereas historic house parks are usually under “Museums.”  There’s also a category for “Tourist Attractions,” but it seems to consist mostly of amusement parks and stuff like that.

I also haven’t figured out a way to enter a point of interest without first selecting a city, another nearby point, a route, or a map region.  You need to give the device a ballpark range before it will bring up a specific destination.  This can be irritating.  Everybody knows that you have to head to Gettysburg to see Gettysburg National Military Park.  But what if you get an urge to visit Moore’s Creek Bridge or Lincoln’s Boyhood Home?  If you can’t name a nearby town, you might have to do a little online digging first to see what’s in the vicinity.  Of course, since you’re probably going to look into a place you’re planning to visit, this isn’t a serious drawback.

These are definitely handy gizmos to have if you’re a dedicated history tourist.  Every battlefield stomper should have one, especially if you want to make a lot of first-time trips.  There’s your TomTom review for the discerning heritage tourist.  Next time I’ll review the site we visited on our field test, a house on a rocky hilltop with an interesting story to tell.

(Lewis and Clark portraits via Wikimedia Commons)

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