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.)
Tag Archives: museums
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.
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.
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.
- All the Rev War sites in and around Boston
- Lexington and Concord
- Plimoth Plantation (I’ve never been to New England, so there are quite a few entries from that neck of the woods.)
- New Bedford. The history of whaling has fascinated me for a long time, longer than I’ve been interested in “history” in general.
- General Nathanael Greene Homestead
- Trenton and Princeton
- Valley Forge
- 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.)
- 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.)
- Mary Todd Lincoln House (I lived ten miles from Lexington for a year and never made it to this one.)
- Moore’s Creek Bridge
- Museum of the Confederacy
- Fort Sumter (I’ve seen it from Sullivan’s Island, but haven’t actually been to it.)
- Blue Licks
- 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.)
- Monmouth Courthouse
- 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.)
- Fort Necessity
- Blair Mountain (Better see it while it’s still there.)
- Atlanta History Center (A friend of mine went a few years ago and said it was great.)
- Horseshoe Bend
- The Mariners’ Museum, just for the Monitor stuff
- Savannah, GA
Finally, a few places I’ve visited already, but which need do-overs for various reasons.
- National Museum of American History, since it’s been totally renovated since the last time I was there.
- Independence National Historical Park. I didn’t have time to see the whole thing.
- Mt. Vernon. Went when I was a kid, but I don’t remember anything except the tomb.
- 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.
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.
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?
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?
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.