Tag Archives: museums

Neat Rev War exhibit opens in New Jersey this month

It’ll be at the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts in Madison starting Feb. 25, and it’s about the war’s impact on NJ civilians.  Too bad I’m not within driving distance; I’d really like to see it.

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Monitor lab closed until funding becomes available

From Andy Hall comes word that the Mariners’ Museum has been forced to temporarily close the USS Monitor conservation lab.  The Monitor wreck and the artifacts are government-owned, but the Mariners’ Museum has undertaken the task of conserving these items for the American people.  The museum depends on assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for this project, and NOAA is waiting on congressional budget approval to see how much funding they can provide.

If you want to help out, sign this petition to let the folks in Washington know that this is a project worthy of support.

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101 awesome Smithsonian artifacts, plus a set of Spidey tights

If you were wondering which artifacts made The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects but didn’t want to shell out the shekels for the book, you’re in luck.  Here’s the whole list, plus an interview with author Richard Kurin.

Speaking of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History is getting a costume from that Spider-Man musical.  Seems like an odd addition for the NMAH.  I saw that show when I was in New York this past summer, and it was pretty meh.

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What impact will minority museums have on majority visitors?

There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system.  The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015).  There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums.  Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.

Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history.  The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people.  Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects.  But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history.  How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration?  Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.

I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum.  I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest.  The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility.  White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.

And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing.  I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.

On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect.  Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.

Your thoughts?

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Texas collection burglarized

It seems like we’re seeing a lot of these stories lately.  Somebody broke into the Jean and Price Daniel Home and Archives in Liberty, TX and made off with part of the collection.  If you’ve got any information, call the Liberty Police Department at 939-336-5666

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Two nifty exhibit ideas

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD just opened an exhibit on PTSD among Civil War soldiers.

The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA isn’t letting any wall space go to waste.  All their public restrooms now feature cartoon panels about the history of using the toilet at sea, mounted so that you can read the text right there while doing your business.  I kid you not.

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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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