Tag Archives: museums

Why we need plenty of historic house museums

A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:

Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.

The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”

I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one.  But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.

  • HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience.  People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
  • They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
  • Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles.  Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point.  HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional.  The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara.  It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
  • HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact.  The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum.  That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
  • HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions.  A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM.  When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there.  Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience.  There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.

A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving.  But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd.  What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.

When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession.  It’s a small tragedy.

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Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Anchors aweigh

During my short trip to Baltimore I had the chance to visit a really neat museum in the Inner Harbor—and I mean literally in the Inner Harbor.

Historic Ships in Baltimore is a collection of four vessels and one lighthouse.  You just pick a ticket option depending on how many of the ships you want to see and then tour them in whatever order you please and at your own pace.  The star attraction is this lovely lady, the USS Constellation.

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Specifically, she’s the second Constellation.  The first was one of the six frigates approved for construction in the 1790s, and saw service in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, and against the Barbary pirates.  She circumnavigated the globe in the 1840s, but that was her last hurrah.  The next decade saw her torn apart for scrap just as construction began on the second Constellation, the one currently on display in Baltimore.

At some point in the twentieth century there was a lot of confusion surrounding the relationship between the two vessels, with a lot of folks thinking they were actually the same ship, the second one having supposedly been fashioned out of the original in the 1850s.  (For a thorough analysis of the brouhaha, check out this report.)  As of now the debate has been pretty conclusively resolved, and the ship sitting in the Inner Harbor is interpreted as a Civil War-era vessel, allowing visitors to get a firsthand look at the twilight of the Age of Sail.

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The second Constellation started her career in the Mediterranean, and then patrolled the coast of West Africa in search of slave ships, the trade in human cargo having been outlawed.  This is an aspect of U.S. naval history I hadn’t heard much about, but it’s one of the topics explored in the small museum alongside the vessel.  The exhibit also includes quite a few original artifacts from Constellation‘s very long career.  She returned to the Mediterranean during the Civil War to search for Confederate prey, and was still in service during WWI as a sort of floating classroom for naval recruits.

The view from the helm:

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In addition to the standard exhibit signage, visitors get a handheld audio device to take with them.  When you enter the number of each tour stop into the keypad, you hear a little recorded dialogue between a kid and a Civil War-era sailor who explains how the different ship components worked and what life on board was like.

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I’m not a tall guy, but I had to stoop a little to move around belowdecks.  I can’t even begin to imagine how chaotic it would’ve been in this confined space when the guns went into action:

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The captain’s cabin, ready to entertain fellow officers or a group of dignitaries from shore:

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Dining arrangements for the average seaman weren’t quite as genteel.

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One of the added bonuses of taking the Water Taxi is getting a close-up look at Constellation‘s starboard side.

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The second-coolest vessel in the Historic Ships collection is the WWII submarine USS Torsk, moored alongside the National Aquarium.

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A section of the controls.  I’d add more info here, but I have no idea what any of these buttons and levers are for.  I can’t even drive a manual transmission.

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On August 14, 1945 two Japanese frigates found themselves at the business end of these torpedo tubes and became the last enemy vessels sunk by the U.S. in WWII.

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There’s a lot for history buffs to do in Baltimore, but I’d rate Historic Ships as a must-see if you’re planning a trip to the city.

Within spitting distance of the ships is another treat for Civil War aficionados.  Just across the water from the Constellation is Federal Hill.  In 1789 Baltimoreans gathered here to ring in the Constitution.

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By 1861 the city’s attitude toward the national government had soured just a wee bit, so Union troops fortified Federal Hill to keep things in line.

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New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.

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What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

Wikimedia Commons

The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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You’d think a National Women’s History Museum could use some women’s historians

…but the folks who are working to get the thing built don’t seem to see the need, at least not at this point. The NWHM’s president responds here.

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History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.

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The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

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Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.

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More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.

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The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.

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And here’s the third animal, close to full size.

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Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.

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Another Triceratops.

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Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.

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A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.

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Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.

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An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.

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And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.

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I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

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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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