Monthly Archives: April 2019

Lawmakers threaten to gut Minnesota Historical Society over an entrance sign

I hear a lot these days about how “they’re erasing our history.”  Well, here’s an example of politicians doing their darnedest to accomplish that very thing.  How many of the people who complain about erasing history will speak up about this?

Minnesota senators on Thursday passed a GOP-sponsored measure that would cut the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget for using a Dakota people’s name to identify the site of Historic Fort Snelling.

The fort is located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers; the Dakota people called the site “Bdote.” To identify the location, the Historical Society recently added the words “at Bdote” to temporary signs welcoming visitors to the fort.

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, called the addition “revisionist history” and moved legislation to cut the society’s state funding.

Kiffmeyer is chair of the Senate committee that oversees state agency budgets, and she tucked a provision into a larger budget bill that would reduce the Historical Society’s appropriation by $4 million a year.

That represents an 18-percent decrease that could mean 53 to 80 layoffs, cutting hours at historic sites and “severe reductions” in the organization’s educational and other programs, said Historical Society Director and CEO Kent Whitworth.

Eighty Minnesotans should lose their jobs, thousands of schoolchildren should lose access to historical programming, and tens of thousands of residents and visitors should lose access to the state’s historic sites…because a welcome sign now reads “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote” instead of “Historic Fort Snelling.”

There just might be some revisionist history going on here, you see.

Eventually, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, stepped in to explain.

“The controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history,” Newman said. “I do not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing. I believe it to be revisionist history.”

Yessir.  Once you start revising history, there’s no telling what calamities might ensue.

Everybody knows that you can’t do science without revision and correction.  But people have this idea that history is a static body of knowledge.  This knowledge isn’t the product of inquiry and interpretation. And it certainly isn’t the product of revising earlier interpretations (which were themselves the result of careful, deliberate inquiry).

This knowledge just exists.  It always has, ever since the historical events in question took place—as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.  Amen.  

The historian’s task thus becomes a simple, straightforward matter of custodianship.  You can forget critical inquiry or investigation. In fact, you can forget even simple addition to this body of knowledge.  It’s a zero-sum game.  If you try to broaden it by taking new perspectives into account, it means you’ve got to delete something else.  

You can’t, for example, add Indians without taking away military history:

On Thursday, Kiffmeyer engaged in some revising of her own. Now the controversy was about more than a single sign.

Fort Snelling, she said, should be an unbroken celebration of Minnesota’s military history.

“It is the history of Minnesota. It is military appreciation,” Kiffmeyer said. “Minnesota’s history all the way back to the Civil War and the very first regiments … is deep and strong and long.”

“Fort Snelling is about military history and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that,” she said. “It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans.”

If history has any usefulness, it’s all about “unifying” and a instilling a sense of “appreciation.”  Again, critical inquiry and investigation aren’t part of the equation.

But the funny thing is, while Kiffmeyer wants the site to focus on “Minnesota’s military history,” she seems blissfully ignorant of how central Indians were to Fort Snelling’s existence as a military post in the first place.

She invokes Minnesota history “all the way back to the Civil War.” Does she realize that the most important event in Fort Snelling’s Civil War history was the 1862 Dakota uprising?  Does she know that during the Civil War, the fort was an internment camp for more than 1600 of the very same people whose ancestors called the place Bdote?

Dakota internment camp at Fort Snelling, 1862. From the Minnesota Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, the state senate’s funding proposal isn’t the last word on this.  The governor and representatives still have to weigh in.  If you’d like to learn how to support the Minnesota Historical Society amid this brouhaha, click here.

Fort Snelling. Ben Franske [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

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The Alamo’s furry guardian

I was today years old when I learned that the Alamo has an official resident kitty.

The cat’s full name is Isabella Francisca Veramendi de Valero, but you can call her “Bella,” for short. Her royal full name pulls from Texas history, including the Goliad Massacre (Francisca, the Angel of Goliad), an early leader of San Antonio de Bexar (Juan Martín Veramendi) and the original name of the Alamo (which was Mission San Antonio de Valero).

Bella isn’t the first cat to call the Alamo home. “Mistress Clara Carmack” (C.C.) reigned for 18 years before Bella, as did Ruby, who lived there from 1981 until 1986. According to Texas Monthly, both Ruby and C.C. are buried on the grounds and each of the animals receives permanent memorials on the website of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, where sentences like “C.C., as you can see from her photo, was a regal feline who was aware of her importance,” “during her short life not a stray cat, dog, nor ‘nother varmint dared set foot in the sacred battleground,” and “she liked reading about Ms. Clara Driscoll, who with Adina de Zavala, saved the Alamo from being demolished” appear with utmost sincerity.

Bella’s quite active on Twitter.

Hey, maybe historic site cats need their own professional association.  A feline auxiliary of the AASLH, perhaps.

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David Brion Davis, 1927-2019

The historical profession lost another one of its giants. David B. Davis was an eminent scholar of slavery and abolition, author of a number of magisterial works, and founding director of the Gilder Lehman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale.

Here are a few words from his colleague David Blight:

He was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom. In his presence one always learned something. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past. He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world. He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history. We stand on his shoulders. At the GLC we carry on his legacy every day. We loved him. His portrait hangs on the wall at the GLC amidst a large portion of his book collection, still containing his post-its, book marks and thousands of annotations. We will always have him nearby.

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Can you tell the story of Lincoln’s presidency without chronology?

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re getting ready for a pretty big construction project here at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  After adding some new exhibit space, a kids’  learning lab, a programming and a collection processing room, and making other structural improvements to the building, we’ll move to the most exciting renovation phase: new exhibits on Lincoln’s presidential years in our second and third galleries.  Along with an overhaul of our Civil War displays, this will complete the transformation of our permanent galleries that we began last year, when we installed a new exhibit on Lincoln’s life before the presidency.

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam. From the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The first step in creating a new exhibit is deciding how you want to organize the material.  We knew from the outset that we’d start out with his nomination and end up at Ford’s Theatre, but we didn’t plan on a strictly chronological path between the two.  Our early outlines took a more topical approach, with sections on emancipation, Lincoln as commander-in-chief, civil liberties under his administration, his family’s private life in the White House, and so on.

But when you’re dealing with the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency, there are points where a topical approach mucks things up.  As James McPherson noted in his preface to Battle Cry of Freedom, you run into problems when you try to break the Civil War era into self-contained subjects without recourse to narrative or chronology.  Political, military, economic, and diplomatic events were inextricably interrelated.  Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was all tangled up with the course of the war, from Union reversals in the summer of 1862 to Lee’s check at Antietam that fall.  Similarly, it’s hard to explain Lincoln’s re-election without making sense of the military situation in 1864.

Lincoln’s own development also calls for a more chronological approach.  His attitudes toward the war changed so much between 1861 and 1865 that it’s difficult to speak of “Lincoln’s policy on emancipation” or “Lincoln’s policy on Reconstruction” apart from the specific crucibles that shaped those policies.  One of the big ideas we want to convey is how the war transformed his thinking, and how he himself became a transformative agent as his willingness to wield presidential power shifted.

Lincoln claimed that events had controlled him rather than the other way around, and whether that’s accurate or not, the fact that he believed it means you have to take those events into account when you’re trying to explain why he did what he did.

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Crichton and the “unknown unknowns” of the past

One of the most notable instances of dramatic license in Jurassic Park is the venom-spitting Dilophosaurus.  As far as we know, neither Dilos nor any other dinosaur had venom, let alone used it as a projectile weapon.

But that’s only as far as we know.  As Dino Dad Reviews noted on Twitter, there’s a lot that we don’t even realize we don’t know when it comes to dinosaurs:

I can understand if people are simply annoyed that it’s [i.e., a venomous Dilo] an overused trope in pop culture now, but the idea as originally in JP is entirely reasonable, not too different from the informed speculation of All Yesterdays.

Chrichton includes this to build upon the theme of what All Yesterdays calls “unknown unknowns” in he study of prehistory. Things that we aren’t simply unsure about, but are completely surprised by because we had no particular reason to suspect them.

A beautiful Dilo at the Royal Ontario Museum. Eduard Solà [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

This is well worth noting. In the novel, this “unknown unknown” underscores the deadly risk the park’s managers have taken in resurrecting extinct animals and keeping them captive:

Knowledge has its limits. Moreover, there are limits to what is knowable at all. It’s a recurring theme in Crichton’s work.

His protagonists tend to be scientists, researchers, academics, experts—people whose business is to know their stuff.  They find themselves confronting the subjects of their expertise in visceral and unexpected ways.  Paleontologist Alan Grant must traverse an island populated with live dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; primatologist Peter Elliot faces off against a murderous breed of apes in Congo; and medievalist and experimental archaeologist André Marek gets stranded in fourteenth-century France in Timeline.

Readers be warned: spoilers for Crichton’s Micro and Congo in the next paragraph.

Sometimes the characters’ specialized knowledge saves them.  In Micro, when a group of young scientists find themselves shrunk to insect size, they survive by weaponizing their own research projects.  And in Congo, the expedition members escape the jungle after Elliot is able to decipher the apes’ language.

Time and time again, however, Crichton’s characters confront the limits of their expertise.  It’s not that their expertise is defective.  In fact, many of his protagonists are exceptional and ambitious researchers with impeccable academic pedigrees.  But their academic training and research can’t prepare them for the unknowable unknowns.

That’s especially true of the characters who study the past.  The distant past, by its very nature, is something one can’t experience firsthand, at least not in its totality.  Both Jurassic Park‘s Grant and Timeline‘s Marek specialize in long-dead subjects.  When they encounter these subjects as living, breathing antagonists, the experience takes them across the frontiers of what is knowable in their respective disciplines.

Marek is an avid practitioner of living history.  Steeped in medieval languages and customs, he practices jousting and archery in his spare time.  When a time traveling accident leaves him and and his colleagues marooned in medieval France, he’s the only one who seems right at home.

The Battle of the Herrings, 1429. Bibliothèque nationale de France [Public domain]

When he watches his first authentic, fourteenth-century sword match, however, it’s disconcerting:

A fellow time traveler asks, “André, is everything all right?”  Marek replies that he has a lot to learn.

In Crichton’s thrillers, the problem of unknowable unknowns is the stuff of life or death. For those of us who study the past here in the real world, a world without time machines and de-extinction, the problem is less immediate.  But it’s still one worth considering.

Like Marek, we all have a lot to learn about the times and places we study.  If we could travel to the settings of our own work, what unknowns would surprise us?  And how should an awareness that these unknowns exist inform our study of what we think we can know?

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In which I gripe about reference management software

Here’s something I wish I’d known before I started using Zotero: While it’s handy for generating footnotes and bibliographic entries, it suuuuuuucks when it comes to note taking.  In fact, I don’t even know why Zotero, EndNote, and other reference management programs include a note taking function.

When I’m writing, I want all the information I need in front of me and in the order in which I must enter it into my draft.

Consider the old fashioned, physical index card, a humble tool employed by generations of historians past.  An elegant weapon, one might say, from a more civilized age.

Andrew Powers at English Wikipedia [Public domain]

Sure, writing out hundreds or thousands of them over the course of a research project is laborious.  And if you lose them or your office catches fire, you’re screwed.  But in terms of flexibility in organizing and sorting information, you can’t beat them.  You can stack them, shuffle them, and tack them to a board in whatever order best suits your project.  When you’re ready to write, each little nugget of information is right where you need it.

Now consider Zotero’s electronic “note cards.”  You can fill out as many as you want for each source.  But what if you need one piece of info from that source in your first dissertation chapter, and another piece from the same source in your third chapter?

I mean, Zotero’s notes are fully text-searchable, but who wants to do a word search to find a particular piece of information while you’re writing?

What this means is that Zotero and other reference management applications add an unnecessary step in the research and writing process.  After you’ve assembled your sources and taken notes, you then have to pull your notes out of the application and rearrange them into the proper order, either by printing them out or exporting/pasting the contents into another application.

Next time I take on a major research project, I think I might try taking notes in Scrivener, or perhaps just a standard word processing program.  Either way, the only thing I’ll be using reference management applications for from now on is generating footnotes and bibliographies.

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