Monthly Archives: March 2018

Bypassing books in museum gift shops

History people tend to be book people.  The first place I hit up when I visit a museum or historic site is the gift shop, so I can scope out the book selection.  It’s a great chance to find titles I might not be aware of, and since I’m OCD, I have to get a sense of what I’ll be buying on the way out before I can settle down and enjoy the exhibits.

That’s why this tweet caught my eye the other day:

Books aren’t top sellers at the ALLM’s gift shop, either.  The only exception is a history title that LMU publishes in-house, meaning we’re one of the few places you can buy a copy.  Our most popular items are inexpensive souvenirs: facsimile Gettysburg Addresses (we sell a lot of those), novelty Lincoln items, mugs, pencils, postcards, and plastic Civil War soldiers.

It’s a little frustrating.  If you want your gift shop to contribute directly your institution’s mission—if you want it to be something besides a simple income generator—then offering edifying books seems like a good way to make it happen.  But if visitors don’t buy them, there seems little point in stocking them.  A lot of gift shops thus end up contributing to the site’s mission only indirectly, by defraying the costs associated with other areas of operations.  (Of course, a lot of visitors who scout out good books at museum and site shops might be trying to save some money by waiting until they return home to order them online.)

Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing.  Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them.  Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them.  Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.

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Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

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

Upcoming symposium on the Tennessee frontier and the American Revolution

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville is hosting a really cool event on Saturday, April 21.  It’s a half-day symposium focused on the American Revolution on the Tennessee frontier, co-sponsored by Marble Springs, Blount Mansion, and the Department of History at UT.

It’s right up my alley, so I’m delighted to announce that I’m one of the speakers.  My presentation will deal with the ways settlers in the Tennessee country sought alliances with and protection from fellow Revolutionaries outside the region.  Here’s some more info:

The American Revolution created the United States of America. Tennessee’s rich history is linked to the very founding of our nation. Access to frontier lands and control over Appalachian territories were key factors that caused the Revolution. The Battle of King’s Mountain involved prominent frontier settlers such as John Sevier. The peace treaty that ended the war also paved the way for Tennessee to become the 16th state in 1796.

The History Department at the University of Tennessee is partnering with local organizations to make possible the first ever American Revolution on the Tennessee Frontier symposium. The event will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 from 9am to noon at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Speakers from the Blount Mansion, the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and the UTK History Department will talk about the Battle of King’s Mountain, John Sevier, William Blount, the Cherokee, and much more. The event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be served.

9:00 AM–Opening Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department
J. Tomlin, UTK History Department, “No Popery, No Tyranny: The Episcopacy Crisis and the Origins of the American Revolution”

9:30 AM–Lisa Oakley and Cherel Henderson, East Tennessee Historical Society, “The Revolutionary War through Artifacts and Family History”

10:00 AM–Michael Lynch, UTK History Department, “Declaring Dependence in Revolutionary Tennessee”

10:30 AM–Samantha Burleson, Marble Springs State Historic Site, “Marble Springs, Last Home of Governor John Sevier”

11:00 AM–Dr. Julie Reed, UTK History Department, “Willstown: Cherokee Casualty or Creative Adaptation of the American Revolution”

11:30 AM–David Hearnes, Blount Mansion, “William Blount: The Revolution and Politics”

NOON–Closing Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department

This event is free, and they’ll be providing food and drinks.  I hope to see some of you there!

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History