Tag Archives: public history

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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Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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

Keep the doors open

I’m of the opinion that history departments need to be more open to the possibility that students may want to pursue career paths outside academia, so I’m pleased to see that this was one of the subjects of discussion at the AHA.

Professors need to avoid discouraging budding public historians, of course, but they should do more than that—they should be actively encouraging them.  They should familiarize themselves with the career paths open to non-academic historians and equip themselves to guide interested students along those paths.  To assume that all roads originating in higher historical education should end in a tenure-track teaching position is, I submit, irresponsible.  Jobs for history majors are scarce enough without mentors closing possible doors before their students can consider walking through them.

If academic historians are looking for ways to bridge the chasm between the ivory tower and the public, they should remember that  their classrooms are full of potential public historians.

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The changing face of Civil War museums

USA Today looks at the ways Civil War museums are changing with the times:

For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.

Inclusivity, technology, and objectivity have been on the rise in history museums of all kinds, not just those devoted to the Civil War.  What’s interesting is that Civil War museums in the South have a particular hurdle to overcome.

Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., Waite Rawls.

“It’s still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we are all working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately the Confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s.”

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More strange but true tales from public history

While we’re on the subject of befuddled tourists, check out Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles for a horror story from Little Bighorn.

Since people seem to have gotten a kick out of the Legend of Virginia Beach, here are a few other anecdotes from the good old days when I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. Once again, these stories are all, unfortunately, true.

  • When I was an undergraduate intern, one of the first projects with which I was involved was an exhibit on black troops in the Union Army. One day a visitor marched into the lobby in a huff and demanded to know why that exhibit didn’t include any information about Confederate soldiers.
  • On a related note, another guy once asked why the museum—the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, mind you—didn’t give equal space to Jefferson Davis.
  • I answered my phone one morning and took a call from a gentleman who demanded to speak to the museum’s director in order to correct him on a point of history. When I asked him to be a little more specific, he told me that he had watched an interview with the director on C-SPAN and took issue with a remark about Lincoln’s presidency. Turned out he thought he’d called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. I gave him their main number and wished him good luck. That was back when Richard Norton Smith was running the ALPLM; I wonder if the guy ever managed to get hold of him. If he did…sorry about that, Dr. Smith.
  • A woman sent us a letter with detailed recommendations about improving the tours we offered to school groups. She suggested we give each child a kepi, a uniform coat, and a toy musket to take home with them. Alas, she didn’t suggest how we should pay for all this.
  • A visitor asked me if we ever “got into trouble” for having a Lincoln museum in a Confederate state. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him with whom we could have gotten into trouble. The guys who hanged the East Tennessee bridge burners in 1861, maybe?
  • A surprisingly large number of visitors informed me that they were direct descendants of Lincoln, whose last undisputed descendant died in 1985.
  • Another surprising thing was the number of panicked high school students who e-mailed me to ask if I could send them “all the stuff you have about Abraham Lincoln” for an assignment. Conscientious fellow that I am, I eventually put together a standardized packet of material for these requests. I didn’t manage to get “all the stuff” we had into it, but in my defense, that would’ve been a heck of a lot of stuff.
  • Finally, here’s the only story that rivals the one about the Virginia Beach guy. One of the items in the museum’s collection is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Painted by her niece Katherine Helm in 1925, it depicts Mary as she would have appeared on her wedding day. Two ladies came out of the gallery one day and informed me that the exhibit label for this painting contained a typographical error. Surely, they said, Mary Todd Lincoln was dead by 1925. Indeed she was; it had not occurred to them that artists occasionally paint pictures of people who are no longer alive. When I pointed this out, they remarked that they had “fixed it.” Alarmed, I ran to the gallery and looked at the label. Sure enough, one of them had taken an ink pen, marked an “X” over the date, and written “1825” above it. (For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not get married in 1825. Child marriage never really took off in nineteenth-century Lexington.)

I don’t want you to get the impression that my basic attitude toward visitors was one of disdain. I miss doing public history, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to share the past with people on a daily basis. These days, when I find myself at a museum or a site, I’m the one on the other side of the admission counter. I just hope I never take an ink pen to a label.

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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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History in the first person plural

The other day I was at UT’s McClung Museum, where there’s a fantastic exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.  The exhibit includes a film about the experiences of the Cherokee from prehistoric times down to the present day, with onscreen commentary from current members of the tribe.  Some of them use the first-person plural when talking about past events.  “What we decided to do when the whites came was such-and-such,” or, “One of our holy people said such-and-such,” and so on.  I’ve seen the film a number of times, and this use of the first person plural to discuss events that happened well over a century ago has always struck me.

Coincidentally, when I got home I ran across an interesting editorial called “No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong.” It’s worth reading in full, because it touches on some fundamental issues regarding historical interpretation and historical memory.

The main issue is that parks don’t give Native Americans as much interpretive “airtime” as they do whites.  I’m sure that’s generally true, but with mitigating circumstances.  For one thing, history is inherently and inescapably weighted toward people and events that left a paper trail.  It’s much easier to document the comparatively few years during which the U.S. Army battled its way across the West than it is to document the many centuries during which Native Americans had the continent to themselves.

The Cherokee Female Seminary in Oklahoma, with the class of 1875 posed in front. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Second, things are changing.  If you visit NPS sites that have recently undergone interpretive overhauls, I think you’ll find that Native Americans aren’t all that underrepresented.  To take an example from my neck of the woods, the visitor center exhibit at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, updated not too many years ago, includes substantial sections on the Native experience along the Wilderness Road, both before and after European involvement.  Sites with older exhibits and signage aren’t likely to be as inclusive, but you can’t change a park overnight.  Each park doesn’t have its own onsite exhibit fabrication team.  If I’m not mistaken, there’s one department responsible for fabricating and installing historic exhibit galleries for the enite park system.  They’ll get to you when they can get to you.

Anyway, what really jumped out at me what this section:

Changes in interpretation have also been significant at Nez Perce National Historical Park, which includes more than 30 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. After having built closer relations with the Nez Perce nation over the past 20 years, the NPS is ready to let the tribe tell its own story here. The new park brochure about the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana gives the tribe this voice. It opens with a greeting in the Nez Perce language and then speaks in a Native voice: “Far from our beautiful homeland, upon this quiet terrain of our Earth Mother, the spirits now forever bear silent witness to our people’s painful and tragic encounter with manifest destiny.” The tribe, and not the NPS, appears as your host at this site.

Done right, this approach avoids one of the biggest risks of national park interpretation—having the arrogance to tell someone else’s story your way.

The phrase “telling someone else’s story your way” seems along the same lines as the frequent use of “we” in the McClung Museum’s film.  There’s a definite sense in which some parts of history can become “our story,” especially when it’s the history of one’s own ethnic group, country, region, class, or whatever.  That’s the sort of history that one “owns.”

But there’s an equally important sense in which it’s all “someone else’s story.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not the people of the past, and any belief that we can speak for them based on experiences we have in the present is usually a conceit.  We neglect the fundamental “otherness” of the past at our peril.  Sure, we all have our vested interests in the stories of particular groups, and concerns that these stories get told properly are legitimate.  But the fact of my membership in a group doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to have a particularly accurate appreciation of the reality behind those stories.

One has identities that coincide with those of people who lived in the past, but one also has an identity as a citizen of the twenty-first century.  This latter identity comes with a lot of baggage, and we’re unconscious of much of it simply because we’re so accustomed to it.  Anytime one invokes the historical “we,” there’s a risk of presuming that one can understand people of the past without any residue from our modern-day identities getting in the way.  The result is that we can easily misread both ourselves and our predecessors.

Let me stress that I’m not trying to imply that modern-day Native Americans aren’t “real” Indians, or that it’s none of their business how the NPS interprets Native history, or that an Irish-American has no business taking pride in Irish history, or anything along those lines.  I’m simply pointing out that our presence in the here and now puts limitations on our abilities to intuitively “read” the past.

History in the first person plural seems to be a more common practice among groups who have suffered misfortune, stereotyping, neglect, or defeat, which is perfectly understandable.  Native Americans have, of course, suffered more than most other historical groups.  It’s not surprising that all this cumulative experience would become an important touchstone for their collective identity, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The same thing happens among people who identify strongly with the Confederacy.  We did this, we experienced that, we were in the right, as if Sherman marched through Georgia last week and personally burned a row of condominiums.  Come to think of it, I once heard the exact same language used in a gathering of northerners.  For work-related purposes I once had to attend a dinner organized by descendants of Union soldiers. The keynote speaker referred to Grant’s assumption of overall command by saying, “Their winning team had been used to beating up on our losing team, but now they were finally going to have to face up to our winning team.” As the only southerner in the room, I couldn’t help but think this was a little comical.

None of this would be a big deal, except that this first person plural approach to history puts us at serious risk of presentism.  I think we all need a usable past, but our primary need is for a past that’s accurate.  There’s a healthy sympathy that we can bring to our attempts to understand historical figures, the kind that opens us up, makes us willing to accept them for what they were, and helps us to see their world as they saw it.  And then there’s an unhealthy kind of sympathy, which comes from an assumption that we’re basically the same as they were, making it impossible to get ourselves out of the way and appreciate the past on its own terms.

It’s never occurred to me to use the first-person plural when referring to events that happened more than a century and a half ago…but, of course, it wasn’t my ancestors that got dispossessed of everything they had and then sent packing to Oklahoma, was it?  Knowledge like that is probably going to make history more personal.

So do you guys think the “we” approach to history is appropriate?  If so, under what circumstances?  Sound off in the comments section.

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