Tag Archives: museums

“…if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

I think I was even more psyched about visiting Lexington and Concord than doing the Freedom Trail.  It’s a must-see for anybody interested in the Revolution, and Paul Revere’s Ride was one of the first books I read after I switched my major to history in college.

Minute Man National Historical Park holds much of the important real estate involved in the Revolution’s first fight, although Lexington Common is town property and therefore outside the park’s bounds.

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The common is probably the most well-groomed battlefield I’ve ever visited, and for one of the most important pieces of turf in the world, it’s also relatively unadorned.  Just a few monuments, including the “Revolutionary Monument” set up in 1799…

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a rock inscribed with Capt. John Parker’s instructions to his men…

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…and the iconic statue of a militiaman.

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The Lexington Historical Society operates three historic buildings in the town as museums.  We took a tour of Buckman Tavern, which is right beside the green.  In the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775 the town’s minutemen awaited the arrival of the British here.  It’s one of the best historic building tours I’ve ever enjoyed; the tavern is beautifully restored, and our guide was outstanding.

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Heading west from Lexington brings you to Minute Man Visitor Center near the eastern entrance to MMNHP.  Here you’ll find a small exhibit on some of the battle’s participants and an innovative multimedia presentation that gives you a great overview of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings.  It’s similar to some of the shows at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, and very engaging.

This is one of those parks you can see in a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how much time and interest you have.  I should note that MMNHP also boasts a couple of really important literary sites, including a home owned by both Louisa May Alcott’s family and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as another home inhabited by Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The NPS was renovating one of these buildings and the other closed before we arrived, but we hadn’t really planned on touring them, so no big deal.  (I wanted to maximize my time at the Rev War sites anyway, and I’ve always thought the Transcendentalists were a bunch of insufferably self-righteous navel-gazers.)

There’s a five-mile trail tracing part of the route of the running battle between the militia and the British regulars with stops at a few key points, like the Revere capture site.

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The park has another visitor center near Concord’s North Bridge.  Among the artifacts displayed here is “the Hancock,” one of the cannons stashed away in Concord that the British hoped to recover on their ill-fated mission.

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A short walk downhill from the visitor center is the most famous bridge in American military history this side of Antietam—or a replicated version, anyway.  (The town of Concord dismantled the original North Bridge in 1793.)

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There are three monuments worth noting near the bridge.  Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn was written for the dedication of the first one, an obelisk erected in 1836.

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Daniel Chester French’s impressive statue of a militiaman was cast from seven Civil War cannons.

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Finally—and the most impressive one to me—is the grave marker for two of the British soldiers killed at the bridge fight.

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My Boston marathon

I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.

We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail.  As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history.  I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.  (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)

My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I  had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day.  Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak.  Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.

One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one.  It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.

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Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically.  I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.

And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.

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Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact.  Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660.  Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers.  Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.

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There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…

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John Hancock…

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James Otis…

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Sam Adams…

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Paul Revere…

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…and the victims of the Boston Massacre.  All in the same graveyard!

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The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent.  An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

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British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.

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To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.

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You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…

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some Stamp Act material…

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…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

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You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here.  Great stuff.  If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.

Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre.  This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces.  I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.

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Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams.  The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.

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Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition.  Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it.  It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.

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Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.

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There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them.  (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)

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Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.

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There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church.  I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.

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The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit.  Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.

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Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking.  I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around.  The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.

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Here’s one final recommendation.  If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house.  Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.

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Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing.  The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time.  There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent.  A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.

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Admission to LMU’s museum free for active duty personnel this summer

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Lincoln Memorial University’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is one of 2,000 institutions across the country participating in the Blue Star Museums program.  Admission for active duty military personnel (including National Guard and Reserve, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and NOAA Commissioned Corps) and up to five family members is free until September 2, 2013.  Just bring your Geneva Convention common access card or Uniformed Services ID Card (1173 or 1173-1) when you visit.

For more information about the museum, call (423) 869-6235 or visit www.lmunet.edu/museum.

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How to secure $12 million in museum funding in one easy step

Step 1: Get $12 million from Oprah Winfrey.

All levity aside, this museum is going to feature some fantastic artifacts:

Some of the highlights of the collection include a lace shawl owned by abolitionist Harriet Tubman; a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car; slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible; and the glass-topped casket that held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman helped spark the civil rights movement.

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Your very own Civil War tourist attraction

If you’ve got $1,695,000 to spare, you could be the next proprietor of the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.  It’s officially on the market.

The exhibits depict such critical turning points as the fateful evening of May 2, 1863, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mark Twain tended to a wounded Grigori Rasputin…

…and Lincoln’s 1860 conference with Lt. Commander Worf of the USS Enterprise.

Pics are from tripadvisor.com.

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Great stuff, lousy execution

Here’s an instructive tale for all you aspiring public historians out there who are thinking about a career in the museum biz.

This past weekend I went to a very prominent museum in a large U.S. city to see a “headliner” temporary exhibition.  The museum in question boasts a huge facility, a stratospheric budget, and a staff the size of a small army.  For the purposes of this little screed it shall remain nameless.

The museum entrance area—absolutely cavernous in size—lacked any directional signage, map handouts, or a docent to point visitors to their destinations.  There were plenty of signs advertising the special exhibit, but none telling you how to get to it.  We finally spotted a janitor, who directed us downstairs.  Judging by the number of bewildered-looking tourists in the lobby, I don’t think we were the only ones who were confused.

Once we got to the line for entry into the exhibit, we noticed a few people clutching small audio devices with headsets.  When an attendant walked past the line, somebody ahead of us asked him about the headsets, and he said, “Oh, those are the audio tours.  Did you want one?”  After shouting out something to the effect that audio tours were available, he disappeared and then came back with an armful of the devices, collecting the rental fees and making change out of his pocket while yelling directions to the crowd about how to use them.  As we headed inside, there were still people in the crowd who were asking around about whether there was some kind of audio tour, whether it was free, whether you could see the exhibit without it, etc.

When we finally entered the exhibition, we found that the whole thing was arranged in a linear fashion.  You had a wall of objects and text assembled in a straight line, sort of like a police line-up.  (“Do you recognize the artifact who stole your purse, ma’am?”)  This linear arrangement forced everybody in the gallery to queue up in order to see the material and then when you got to the end of that line of artifacts, you turned the corner to find…yet another wall of artifacts arranged in a straight line, and so on.

It was impossible to explore the exhibit at your own pace, focus on areas that you found particularly interesting, or step across the gallery to another display while the crowd died down elsewhere.  There was no choice but to stand in line and shuffle along with the crowd, waiting for the person ahead of you to move on before you could proceed.  One of the tricks of exhibit design is to arrange the material so that you minimize bottlenecks, but here the entire exhibit consisted of nothing but bottlenecks, laid out in a way that forced you to queue up single-file and wait for the person ahead of you to finish reading the text in their spot before you could move on.

The only exception to the police line-up approach was a huge, circular exhibit case in the last gallery, sort of like a gigantic coffee table with artifacts and text arranged around the perimeter.  That turned out to be even worse, because here the line of visitors had no beginning and no end—just a continuous circle of people in single file, moving from one object to the next.  In order to see any of the material in that case you had to hover on the outskirts of this ring of visitors and wait for an opening in the line to develop, cut in, and then join the agonizingly slow shuffle around the perimeter of the exhibit case in a great Circle of Life.

It was a real shame, because in terms of the quality of the material on exhibit, it was one of the best assemblages of artifacts I’ve ever seen in one place.  They had great stuff, but no idea how to arrange it in an exhibition; a wonderful facility, but no thought as to what visitors needed in order to orient themselves when they arrived.

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Struggling for survival in the museum business

The world of public history is downright Darwinian, folks.  Here’s an item on efforts to revive the Charlotte Museum of History’s fortunes, and a piece on small museums’ endeavors to keep their heads above water in the current economic climate.  (Hat tip to John Fea for the latter.)

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Volunteers at war

While my cousin and I were in Nashville last week to see the Emancipation Proclamation, we visited a collection I’d managed to miss on all my previous trips to Music City: the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch.

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Jacket, cap, leg guards, medals, and dog tags belonging to Alvin C. York

Located inside the War Memorial Building near the Capitol, the Military Museum focuses on America’s wars from 1898 through 1945 and Tennesseans’ participation in them.  It’s a small facility, but it’s chock full of impressive artifacts.  Historical weapons and uniforms make up the bulk of the collection, but you’ll also find models, medals, propaganda posters, the silver service from a battleship, and a jacket worn by Dwight Eisenhower. Some of the items on display are trophies carried home by Tennessee veterans, such as Philippine and Japanese swords and German sidearms.

Although the exhibits give you a pretty general overview of America’s wars, special attention is paid to Tennessee connections.  A special highlight is a case devoted to Alvin York containing a uniform jacket, the Congressional Medal of Honor he received for his exceptional exploits of October 8, 1918, and some additional items.  (The museum is currently running a temporary exhibit on Sgt. York and the effort to map and excavate the site of his most famous engagement, so this is a great time to visit if you’re interested in WWI’s most famous soldier.)

The exhibits are a little dated, but the items on display more than make up for the lack of bells and whistles.  Give yourself about an hour and a half to tour the museum; hardcore weapon and military buffs will probably need additional time to take it all in.

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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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Now, eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your–on your dinosaur tour, right?

Check out Katy Lasdow’s write-up of her visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After forking over twenty-five bucks, sitting through a mock town meeting, pretending to dump tea chests from the deck of a replicated ship, and watching two holographic women talk about the coming war, she got to see a grand total of one original artifact.

“When does a museum stop being a museum,” Lasdow rightly asks, “and become something else?”

My former boss used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” I agree. A museum should do more than collect and display artifacts; it should use the tools at its disposal to contextualize those artifacts. The days when an exhibit consisted of a conglomeration of artifacts, labels, and pictures are over. But the use of artifacts and other objects to communicate and instruct is still the distinguishing feature of museums. That’s what separates the museum exhibit from other means of communication and instruction.

There’s no magic ratio of artifacts to gizmos that works for each and every exhibit, but when there’s only one artifact in the whole building, one wonders why they decided to call it a museum in the first place, whatever the quality of the information being conveyed or the nobility of the planners’ intentions.

To read a couple of my older posts along these same lines. click here and here.

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