Monthly Archives: December 2011

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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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Lincoln stops in Knoxville

A few days ago I had the opportunity to see the National Constitution Center’s traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” during its stay at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville.  It’s a fine piece of interpretation, analyzing the thorny constitutional issues Lincoln faced during his presidency.

The Knoxville version of the exhibit features supplementary material from historical collections in Tennessee, including the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, where I used to work.  Some of this stuff is usually locked away in the vault out of public view.  They’ve also included a section on Lincoln’s relationship with Tennessean Andrew Johnson.

The East Tennessee Historical Society is one of my favorite public history institutions.  Anything they undertake is definitely worth your time, so stop by and see this exhibit if you get the chance.  And while you’re there, you can take in their fantastic permanent exhibit, which covers the history of this region from prehistory to the modern era.

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

In infamy

I usually don’t wander into the twentieth century, either on this blog or in my own personal interests, but it seems remiss not to give a nod to the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  If you’ve got some time to do a little virtual commemoration, here are some links worth checking out:



Filed under History and Memory

Hold onto your butts!

Some guy managed to crash his car into a 1750’s house in Northampton, MA, leaving a gaping hole in the structure itself and destroying some of the artifacts inside.  Nice job, buddy.

And while it doesn’t have anything to do with this news story, or with history in general, I can’t resist directing your attention to a recent art exhibit.

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Are you sure you’re interested in history?

I’ve often said, and heard it said by others, that lots of Americans are interested in history.  I’ve decided that’s not true. I think a genuine interest in history is a comparatively rare thing. What we have in this country is, instead, a widespread interest in the past. That may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but I think it’s a crucial one.

History and the past are not synonymous. History is the art and/or science of reconstructing, understanding, and explaining the human past. It’s not the same thing as the past itself; it’s not even necessarily the same as talking or thinking about the past. Humans have been referring to the past and telling stories about it for millennia, but something like actual history—a reasoned and systematic inquiry into the past—is a comparatively more recent phenomenon, going back to Herodotus and Thucydides.  In fact, the very word “history” means “inquiry,” and comes from the title of the classic account of the struggle between Greece and Persia by Herodotus.  He and Thucydides weren’t the first writers to set down accounts of the past, but they pioneered the practice of trying to make sense of it and explain it.  They wanted to understand what happened, and not merely to recount it.

When most people claim to be interested in history, what they actually mean is that they’re interested in its raw materials.  The notion of a time filled with dramatic events, colorful characters, and nifty gadgets appeals to them, but the idea of conducting a systematic inquiry into that world doesn’t factor into the equation.  Thus books about the past top the bestseller lists, and shows about the past abound on television networks, but these productions neither draw upon nor inculcate a genuine historical sensibility. As often as not, they’re actually detrimental to the historical sensibility of the general public.  We’re up to our armpits in information about the past, but much of it is either inaccurate or so superficial and isolated as to be of little use.

This is doubly shameful, because while learning about the past is one of the great benefits of studying history, an equally important benefit is learning how to think. A proper education in history, whether gained in a formal academic setting or by one’s own personal efforts, should nurture useful habits of mind—the ability to digest and make sense of complex information, to appreciate human activity outside the bounds of one’s own time and place, to consider that activity with sympathy but simultaneously with a certain unemotional detachment, and to organize and present one’s conclusions in a persuasive and elegant manner. To understand history is to be better equipped to make sense of reality in all its scope and untidiness. It’s too bad many people who love the past never get to enjoy all the pleasant side effects of grappling with it.

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Filed under History and Memory