Monthly Archives: February 2020

David Library collection heading to its new home

The David Center for the American Revolution at the American Philosophical Society (formerly the David Library of the American Revolution) just sent out an update about the move to Philadelphia.  The DLAR’s manuscripts and rare books are already in their new digs at the American Philosophical Society, and the rest of the collection is relocating this winter.

The DCAR’s new web address is https://www.amphilsoc.org/david-center-american-revolution, so update your bookmarks.

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GDP: The Smithsonian fossils are back, and better than ever

One of the perks of my job is an annual trip to DC for the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on the National Mall.  Every year, I make a point to visit the National Museum of Natural History.

It was the first big natural history museum I ever visited as a child, and may very well be the place that first turned me into a museum junkie.  But it’s been years since I was able to see my favorite part of the NMNH—the dinosaur hall on the first floor.  The fossil exhibits have been closed for renovation since 2014.

Last week marked the first time I’ve been to DC since it reopened.  I was both excited and nervous.  As I’ve said before, the idea of this renovation was a bittersweet thing for me.  I was thrilled at the thought of an updated exhibit, but I was also afraid I’d miss the old mounts.  And I was especially worried I’d miss the dinosaur dioramas at the back of the hall.

I shouldn’t have worried.  The new exhibit Deep Time is nothing short of magnificent.  It combines everything that was great about the old hall with beautifully updated mounts, the latest science, and the finest in both modern and old-fashioned exhibitry.

Chronologically, Deep Time is about as comprehensive as it gets, from the emergence of life all the way up to the first human migrations and the extinction of the Ice Age megafauna, with hundreds of specimens along the way.

But let’s start with that T. rex.  Hoo boy!

My tastes tend to be pretty conventional when it comes to T. rex mounts.  I usually prefer your standard pose, with the animal in a simple striding position, head raised up to show off its height.  When I heard about the plan for the Nation’s T. rex—one foot planted on a Triceratops carcass, the neck and skull craning down to wrench its prey’s head off by the frill—I had my doubts.

But as soon as I stood in front of it, the NMNH’s mount instantly became my favorite T. rex display anywhere.

I don’t know why, but the whole creature just seems a lot more massive and powerful when you see it in this position.  Maybe it’s because the skull is closer to eye level.  Come to think of it, when Henry Fairfield Osborn planned the first-ever full T.rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History more than a century ago, he initially wanted to have two of them crouched over a carcass, with those big skull and hip bones down where visitors could get a good look at them.

This pose also allows you to examine the head from different angles.  You can really see the cranium shape that is so characteristic of tyrannosaurs—wider at the back, and then narrowing toward the snout.

I was under the impression that NMNH was going to attach the original skull to the mount, but a docent informed me that this is a copy.  Still looks pretty awesome.  And a lot of the bones in the photo below are the genuine article.

Diplodocus is still there, although no longer the centerpiece of the hall as it once was.  The new layout is a tremendous improvement.  You can get much closer to a lot of the big specimens now than you could in the old hall.

Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurs are back, too.  Now they’re engaged in combat, and it looks like the carnivore’s getting the worst of it.  Check out that patch of  armor on the stego’s throat.

Allosaurus, by contrast, is taking some down time.

And those dioramas from the old hall I was afraid I’d miss?  The new exhibit features a whole series of new ones, as exquisitely detailed as the masterpieces from the former exhibit.

Take this scene from the Cretaceous, for example.  If these little hadrosaurs know what’s good for them, they’ll put some serious distance between themselves and this creek bed…

…because somebody on the other side of it is about to wake up.

A much more recent scene, as a mastodon finds itself mired down at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky.

Yes, mammals are here, too—from the armored Glyptodon

…to the “Irish elk” Megaloceras.

And here’s everybody’s favorite sail-backed distant cousin, Dimetrodon.

Moving on from the terrestrial to the marine, here’s a mosasaur…

…and a mosasaur meal.

And we haven’t even gotten to the fish, invertebrates, or plants yet.  You could easily spend three or four hours wandering through the hall without taking it all in.

In fact, if there’s anything to criticize, it’s this: Deep Time perhaps tries to do too much from an interpretive standpoint.  The main theme is the extent to which changes in climate impacted environments and drove evolution, and how humans are accelerating these changes at a dangerous rate.  But the exhibit also delves into convergent evolution, migrations, predator-prey relationships, and taphonomy.

But having a lot to chew on is a great problem to have when you’re a museum visitor.  This is definitely an experience that will reward repeat visits.  And since I plan on repeating my visit annually, I’m totally okay with that.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Yet another federal attempt to gut libraries, museums, and humanities

It’s becoming an annual ritual.  This is the fourth time the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would eviscerate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

As I’ve said on previous occasions when this idiotic idea has been put forward, if you think you don’t benefit from these programs, think again.  Ever been to a history museum?  Researched your genealogy?  Read a biography?  Listened to a talk by a prominent historian?  If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve made use of programs or institutions that depend on NEH and/or IMLS support.

What’s really obscene about this is the fact that cutting NEH and IMLS wouldn’t even make a dent in the federal budget.  Sure, the money allocated to NEH last year might sound like a lot—but it’s barely a blip when you’re talking about the trillions of dollars that make up expenditures on the federal level.

Fortunately, these guys are 0-4 in trying to kill NEH and IMLS.  Contact your representatives and let’s make sure that track record holds up.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Robert Utley remembers meeting a Little Bighorn veteran

Remember that item from a few months ago about NPS historian Robert Utley interviewing a survivor of the Little Bighorn?  Well, Utley has written up his own recollection of the event for True West.  It’s captivating stuff.

And here’s an interview with Utley from True West‘s YouTube channel, in which he recounts his experiences as a teenage battlefield guide and his meeting with a man who fought under Custer.

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Filed under Frontier History

Manifest destiny and the frontier in Trump’s State of the Union

Looks like the phrase “manifest destiny” still has legs, 175 years after John L. O’Sullivan coined it.  Trump went full-on frontier in his State of the Union Address:

In reaffirming our heritage as a free nation, we must remember that America has always been a frontier nation. Now we must embrace the next frontier, America’s manifest destiny in the stars. I am asking Congress to fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and the first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts using this as a launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars.

It’s not the first time a president has invoked “manifest destiny” in the SOTU.  Woodrow Wilson did it in 1920:

The Old World is just now suffering from a wanton rejection of the principle of democracy and a substitution of the principle of autocracy as asserted in the name, but without the authority and sanction, of the multitude. This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.

Two speeches, a century apart, both invoking the same notion grounded in America’s frontier ideal—a notion made visible in Emanuel Leutze’s painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, which hangs in the very building where both speeches were delivered.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

O’Sullivan’s idea of manifest destiny was both territorial and ideological.  The U.S., he claimed, was ordained to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”  America was destined both to expand geographically and to carry democratic government with it.  It’s interesting that Wilson and Trump’s uses of the term each reflect a different aspects of O’Sullivan’s phrase.  Whereas Wilson used it to encourage the proliferation of American political institutions and ideals, Trump’s use reflects the territorial aspect.  If frontier expansion has always been intrinsic to America, as Trump claims, then planting more flags on moons and planets seems as logical as the annexation of the continent seemed to O’Sullivan.

Where Wilson and Trump’s speeches overlap is in a third aspect of O’Sullivan’s idea of manifest destiny—the notion of American exceptionalism.  For O’Sullivan, it was a matter of “Providence.”  For Wilson, it meant a responsibility serve as an exemplar of democracy for the Old World.  For Trump, it seems to be a matter of historical precedent, and those precedents are explicitly tied to the frontier ideal:

This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo — the beautiful, beautiful Alamo.

The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth. Our ancestors braved the unknown; tamed the wilderness; settled the Wild West; lifted millions from poverty, disease, and hunger; vanquished tyranny and fascism; ushered the world to new heights of science and medicine; laid down the railroads, dug out the canals, raised up the skyscrapers. And, ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors built the most exceptional republic ever to exist in all of human history, and we are making it greater than ever before.

This is a sort of Turnerian notion of history, in which the taming of a wilderness defined the American character.  As one of my former graduate profs, Julie Reed, noted, this rhetoric that’s meant to inspire and create a sense of national unity and destiny must also leave quite a few Americans wondering where they stand, since this process of expansion and colonization happened at their ancestors’ expense.

But I think there’s another sense in which both Trump’s SOTU and his presidency as a whole reflect America’s frontier past.  In one of my favorite works of historical scholarship from the last few years, Patrick Spero has argued that many eighteenth-century Americans did indeed see themselves as a frontier people.  But when they used the word “frontier,” they meant not the leading edge of expansion, but rather “a vulnerable, militarized boundary.”

Despite Trump’s invocation of an optimistic, expansionist, and inspirational frontier ideal, much of his rhetoric seems closer to this eighteenth-century sense of America as a “frontier country.”  Trump’s America is a place where boundaries—geographic, demographic, economic, and cultural—are liable to incursion from dangerous, alien elements.  The impulse is thus to shore up these vulnerable boundaries and militarize them.  Indeed, with the creation of the “Space Force,” even the “next frontier” of the stars becomes militarized.

Spaceward the course of empire, I suppose.

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Filed under Frontier History, History and Memory