Monthly Archives: August 2008

More joys of public history

Let’s assume you’re a convicted mail-bomber who’s currently enjoying the hospitality of the federal government.  Imagine your surprise when you open the Washington Post and find that Washington, D.C.’s Newseum has a special exhibit (“G-Men and Journalists”) about the evolving relationship between the media and the FBI–and the centerpiece is the cabin in which you lived.

So what do you do?  Well, if you’re Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, you send a letter of protest to a federal court.  According to this news story, Kaczynski thinks the exhibit violates his victims’ wishes to avoid undue publicity.  How thoughtful.

Besides the Unabomber cabin, “G-Men and Journalists” includes Hoover’s desk, Dillinger’s death mask, and the electric chair that killed Bruno Hauptmann.  Controversies aside, this looks like a fascinating exhibition for anybody interested in the history of American law enforcement.


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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Ah, the joys of public history

Kevin Levin has been following the story about the SCV’s proposal for a Jefferson Davis monument at Tredegar’s American Civil War Center.  According to his latest update, the museum’s board will be juggling this hot potato in a few days.

Whatever the final decision, it’s guaranteed to upset somebody.  Either the SCV will condemn the museum for being revisionist, or their opponents will rake them over the coals for bowing to pressure.  I pity the poor museum employee who’ll be charged with soothing all the offended parties.  Now you know why I’m glad to be spending the next two semesters in the classroom.

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

Sad news from Gettysburg

A locust tree on Cemetery Hill, one of the few remaining trees that stood on the field in 1863, toppled over during a nasty storm a few days ago.  This brief news story has a few details.

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And a bottle of rum

As I’ve mentioned before, the study of colonial America has changed quite a bit over the years.  Historians are looking at the colonies as one part of the Atlantic network of goods and people moving between the Americas, Africa, and Europe.    That means I’ll get to lecture about pirates in my colonial America course this fall.  In fact, I’d forgotten how deeply piracy is woven into the story of colonial America until I started putting the class together.   

The Howard Pyle image at right (from the handy Wikimedia Commons) shows a ritual that was probably rare in actuality, although it’s extremely common in films.  Interestingly enough, though, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie references a few authentic places and people.  Some of the action takes place in Port Royal, Jamaica, a pirate haven and one of the most important towns in England’s Atlantic empire during the seventeenth century.  Notorious for its taverns and brothels, much of Port Royal fell into the sea following a devastating earthquake on June 7, 1692. 

One line in the film mentions “the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew.”  Sir Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer who sacked the Spanish settlement at Panama City in 1671.  England and Spain weren’t actually at war at the time, but since Morgan convinced the authorities that it was an honest mistake, he came home with a knighthood and a government appointment.  Today, of course, he’s the mascot for a brand of rum, a fitting tribute if ever there was one.  I suppose “Bartholomew” refers to Bartholomew Roberts, another Welshman whose incredibly successful pirating career ended in combat with the Royal Navy on February 10, 1722.

One of the nifty things about the history of piracy is that their fortunes reflected those of England’s American empire.  Although English authorities looked the other way when pirates looted Spanish shipping, the buccaneers became a liability once the crown began to consolidate its control over the Atlantic.  Privateering was a means of advancement in Morgan’s day, but by the time Roberts took to the sea, a pirate was more likely to end his career swinging from an English rope than enjoying a comfortable retirement.

If you’re looking for a book on piracy’s golden age, I heartily recommend David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag.  It’s brimming with information and extremely hard to put down.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Assault on Fort Sanders

Last night I found myself in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville.  I decided to take a quick stroll over to the 79th New York Infantry monument, a testimony to a short but brutal Civil War battle.

East Tennessee’s considerable Unionist population was a thorn in the Confederacy’s side.  Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio arrived in September of 1863 and surrounded Knoxville with a network of fortifications; at the northwest end stood a bastion surrounded by an eight-foot ditch, above which rose a steep embankment.

James Longstreet, sent from Chattanooga to deal with Burnside, tried to cut the Union forces off from their fortifications at the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16.  When that failed, the two sides settled into a siege; during the stand-off, a Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded General William P. Sanders.  The northwest bastion, held by the 79th New York, was re-named in his honor, and was also the focal point for the Confederate attack on November 29.

Crossing a field obstructed by telegraph wire strung between tree stumps, the Confederates plunged into the ditch, only to find themselves unable to climb the frozen walls without scaling ladders.  A few managed to make it to the top; many more fell to Union bullets and hand grenades sent over the walls and into the ditch.  The attack lasted only twenty minutes, during which the Confederates suffered 813 casualties.  Union losses were only thirteen.

digital file from original neg. of left half

In the nineteenth century (as in the twenty-first), Knoxville grew to the west, and the area occupied by Fort Sanders eventually became a neighborhood of Victorian houses; one of the natives of this area was James Agee.  Today it’s mostly occupied by students from the University of Tennessee.  The 79th monument near the corner of 17th and Laurel is one of the few reminders of what took place there.

(The top image is an illustration of the attack by Lloyd Branson, from the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable’s website, which offers an account of the Civil War in and around the city.  The bottom photo, from the Library of Congress, was taken by George Barnard after Longstreet abandoned the city.  The Tennessee River is in the foreground, with East Tennessee University beyond.)

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Filed under Civil War, Tennessee History

The pitfalls of the gift shop

In a very insightful comment, a critic of the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center raised the issue of gift shops at museums and historic sites.  As an ex-museum person, I immediately thought this would be a great topic to explore more fully.  So, with a hat tip to the aforementioned commentator, I’ll jump right in.

A lot of Civil War aficionados are far less pleased than I am about the new exhibits at Gettysburg.  Luckily, I think we can all rally against gift shop kitsch. 

I’m no opponent of gift shops, mind you.  They help raise needed revenue for sites that are often woefully underfunded.  More importantly, they offer visitors (especially kids) a tangible link to the museum experience.  When it comes to return visits and memberships, that’s more important than you might think.  And, of course, gift shops can play a small educational role by providing books and documentaries in an atmosphere that arouses public interest.  One of my favorite things about visiting historic sites is the chance to browse the bookshelves.  For me, reading and re-reading these books sparks memories of experiencing the place itself, one of the subtler joys I’ve gotten out of life.

The problem comes when there’s no intellectual control over the gift shop merchandise.  The need for revenue isn’t a license to fill the shop with crap.  At best, it’s in poor taste.  Take the fake beards on sale at some Lincoln sites, for example.    (This photo from a costume website isn’t the same brand I saw in Springfield, but you get the idea.)  At worst, the items are sometimes downright inaccurate.  In my first museum job, some gift shop supplier sent us a sample of Lincoln items with tidbits of historical information printed on them.  One of them labeled Lincoln a “Southern Democrat,” which probably made the die-hard Whig and the White House’s first Republican spin in his concrete-encased tomb.

The moral here is that museum administrators should be wary of outsourcing their gift shops to retail managers, or of delegating the gift shop to a volunteer organization without maintaining some kind of control over what makes it to the shelves.  Gift shops should be treated as another opportunity to engage visitors, not as an appendage that exists only to help offset operating costs.


Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Legacies of the bomb

Normally my historical interests lie on the far side of 1865.  After that date, we start moving into the treacherous realm of recent memory.  But here’s a controversial issue that hits surprisingly close to home, at least in the literal, geographic sense.

Today, of course, is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Some of the uranium inside that bomb came from the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about ninety minutes’ drive from my hometown.  Good power sources, sparse settlement, and cheap labor drew the government to the site, along with a series of ridges and valleys to isolate and contain any accidents.

Today, Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex still manufactures bomb components, and holds more weapons-grade uranium than any site in the world.  This combination of past and present purpose results in some uproar every August.  Here’s an article from the Knoxville paper detailing this year’s protests and counter-protests.  I hasten to point out that I mention this neither to condmen nor laud what happened at Oak Ridge sixty years ago. 

The force unleashed in 1945 was awesome, but I am more awed by the past itself, a force that can instantly erase the present-day distance between the mountains of East Tennessee and the skies over Japan.

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Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History