Category Archives: History and Memory

Glenn Beck is offering history internships. Seriously.

Ever dreamed of the chance to study history with a guy who thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls are remnants of texts that Constantine suppressed, that Native Americans carved Hebrew inscriptions, and that Parson Weems is a reliable source of information on George Washington?

Well, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, you—yes, friend, YOU!—are eligible for a two-week internship at Beck’s Mercury One library.

You’ll have to apply first, of course.  They’re not just taking any Tom, Dick, or Harry from off the street.  But if you make the cut and fork over $375, you get access to Beck’s collection of original documents and “the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge from our speakers and guest lecturers.”

While you’re there, maybe David Barton will sign your copy of the book his publisher recalled.  Start getting those CVs ready!

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What’s the difference between a historic site and a historical attraction?

I just ran across an MSN listicle on tourist traps to avoid in each of the fifty states.  The entry for Arizona is the town of Tombstone, which surprises me a little.  Tombstone has its tacky, gaudy aspects, but it’s an interesting place to spend a few days.  I’ve always enjoyed my visits to the Town Too Tough to Die, and the folks there are fantastic.

By mia (originally posted to Flickr as USA 247) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I noted a few years ago, I bounced around a lot of old gunslinger haunts with my family when I was a teenager, and many of these places straddle the boundary between public history and the kitschy roadside culture that you’d associate with tourist traps.  It might be more appropriate to term some of them “historical attractions” than historic sites in the usual sense.  I should add that I don’t mean to lump all “Old West” or gunfighter-oriented sites into this category; I’ve visited quite a few that take interpretation and curation as seriously as any museum.  But I think it’s fair to say that you’re more likely to get a tourist trap vibe from a site associated with a gunslinger or bank robber than you are at, say, a Civil War hospital.

Is there a clear demarcation between a museum/historic site and a history-oriented tourist trap/attraction?  When does a site that attracts visitors because of its history become something other than a “real” historic site?

Take Graceland, for example—the Volunteer State’s entry on MSN’s list.  (Personally, I can think of quite a few places in Tennessee that are a much bigger waste of your admission fee, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Does Graceland count as a historic site?  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.  Elvis was undoubtedly a figure of tremendous significance, someone who had a tremendous impact on the history of music and American culture.  Leonard Bernstein called him “the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.”

Of course, he was exceptional in terms of his wealth, fame, and eccentricity.  A visit to his estate isn’t likely to shed any light on the lives of most people of his place and time.  But, as I’ve written elsewhere, that’s true of a lot of “historic” homes.  If exceptional wealth, fame, and eccentricity of a home’s occupant disqualifies it from being a “real” historic site, where would that leave Monticello?

Could be the Jungle Room, or it could be Jefferson’s study. I’ll let you be the judge. By Thomas R Machnitzki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever historians think about what distinguishes a “real” historic site from an attraction, what probably matters more is what the visitors are thinking about the places they go.  I suspect a lot of visitors to historical tourist traps still think of the experience as an encounter with history in the same sense of a trip to Williamsburg or Ford’s Theatre.  Some places give them a bigger bang for their buck, but at the end of the day they’re still paying to kill some time while getting a taste of the past.  And if most visitors to Graceland see the trip as a sort of quasi-religious pilgrimage or a chance to pay homage to a figure they admire rather than a chance to learn about history, the same is probably true of a lot of people who visit Monticello or Lincoln’s home.  Public historians’ aims for visitors are one thing, the meanings visitors attach to their experiences quite another.

I don’t mean to imply that attempts to distinguish serious historic sites from historical tourist attractions are doomed to break down, or that at the end of the day public historians and entertainers are all engaged in the same enterprise.  That’s not true, and it’s a dangerous attitude to cultivate.  But minding the occasional fuzziness of the boundary between historic sites and historical attractions is useful precisely because we need to take the distinct aims of historic sites seriously.  Figuring out just what it is that makes them “real” historic sites can help us do that.

So what are your criteria for distinguishing “real” historic sites from historical attractions?  Authenticity?  Education?  Scholarship?  A 501(c)(3) exemption?

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In James K. Polk news…

Polk’s current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. By Brent Moore from Antioch, TN (President James K. Polk tomb, Nashville) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that Young Hickory has a big news week, but a couple of developments have quite a few people talking about James K. Polk lately.

First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.  Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.

He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office.  Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims.  Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years.  But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself.  It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.

There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN.  Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824.  The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House).  Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.

The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval.  But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.

Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is.  In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place.  Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood.  It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government.  That’s just my take.

The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project.  This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.

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Rethinking history and picturing deep time

Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before the Deluge was a time machine between two covers.  By the mid-nineteenth century, geologists knew that different rock layers and the fossils entombed in them corresponded to distinct periods of time, ages when animals and plants unlike any known to modern man had populated the globe.  Figuier took his readers on a grand tour of these geologic periods—or rather, he did so with the assistance of Édouard Riou, whose evocative engravings brought these extinct environments back to life.

Each engraving showed readers a primordial landscape characteristic of a phase of prehistory.  The result was a sort of highlights reel of earth history, a sequential arrangement of what the historian of science Martin J.S. Rudwick calls “scenes from deep time.”

Riou’s illustrations have long since lost their scientific value, but they still pack a visual wallop.  In this image, torrential rains hammer the surface of a newborn globe:

Trilobites and other marine invertebrates wash up on the shore of the Silurian sea:

The forests of the Carboniferous:

Two dinosaurs, depicted as the stocky and elephantine reptiles that early Victorians assumed they were, engage in mortal combat:

The emergence of large mammals:

A primeval flood inundates northern Europe:

The appearance of (notably white and European) humans:

And finally, a later, “Asiatic” flood, perhaps the one described in Genesis and other ancient texts:

If you’ve ever read a paleontology textbook, visited a natural history museum, watched a documentary on evolution, or stepped into a science classroom, you’ve probably seen a modern variation of these sequential deep time scenes.  Paintings in books, dioramas in museums, and CGI clips on TV often take the form of the “prehistoric highlights reel” that Figuier and Riou helped popularize.

And although the science of paleontology has changed a great deal since the 1860s, the organisms that populate our own scenes from deep time tend to correspond with those Riou associated with specific periods.  The dates assigned to the scenes have changed (and in the case of he dinosaurs, the physiology of the animals has changed, too), but the cast has remained much the same.  The scenes start out with marine invertebrates, then move on to primitive chordates and fish, then amphibians and early terrestrial organisms, then dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, then mammalian megafauna, and finally humans.  I had a lot of books on prehistoric life when I was a kid, and the sequence of illustrations was pretty consistent across most of them: marine invertebrates, jawless fish, jawed fish, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, and Homo sapiens.

This sequence may seem inevitable; after all, it’s the order in which the major groups of organisms appeared.  But there’s a sense in which it’s misleading.  The illustrations tend to be much better at highlighting when groups of organisms appeared or were especially prominent than they are at indicating how long they flourished.

Take reptiles, for example. Many illustrators will throw one in around the late Carboniferous to mark the emergence of the first reptiles, or perhaps include a picture of the sail-backed Dimetrodon in the Permian. Pictures of reptiles then dominate the Mesozoic, and then tend to disappear from pictorial sequences and time charts altogether after the age of dinosaurs.

But reptiles didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago.  Nor, for that matter, did the dinosaurs themselves.  Birds are advanced theropod dinosaurs, and living bird species outnumber mammals species by two to one.  Extant reptile species outnumber mammal species, too.  But you wouldn’t know this from looking at pictorial deep time sequences and geologic time scales.  Illustrators are keen on reptiles and birds when they first appear, or when they’re the biggest terrestrial animals going.  Once you hit the end of the Cretaceous Period, however, it’s as if we assume that reptiles and their descendants ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be relevant.  Indeed, we call our own time the “Age of Mammals,” but it would be just as accurate to keep calling it the “Age of Reptiles.”

The artificiality of deep time imagery is even more apparent when you look at fish.  Illustrators highlight fish when they’re the only vertebrates around, but once amphibians show up and start colonizing the land, fish more or less vanish from the pictures.  Likewise, you don’t see many amphibians in illustrations of scenes dating from after the first appearance of reptiles.  And invertebrates tend to disappear entirely once animals with backbones evolve, even though they make up more than 95% of all extant species described so far.

These charts and sequential images also tend to favor terrestrial over aquatic life.  Marine organisms are plentiful in scenes of early eras, when there’s no life on land.  But once terrestrial animals appear, many geologic time scales omit marine life altogether, except for the occasional aquatic reptile from the Mesozoic (presumably included because they look really cool).

You can see the same sequence of organisms in illustrated charts and tables of geologic time.  Take a look at this one produced by CliffsNotes.  Invertebrates for the earliest periods populate the oldest periods at the bottom, and then it’s fish, terrestrial animals, dinosaurs, and mammals.  Not a single invertebrate after the first appearance of insects.

Here’s another one from a professional development site for teachers.  It’s pretty consistent with the one above.  Invertebrates, fish, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, large mammals, and finally man up at the top.

The point I’m belaboring here is that pictorial sequences of earth history and illustrated geologic time charts are as notable for their omissions as they are for what they include.  There’s a sort of implicit narrative thrust at work here, focused on organisms that are vertebrate, terrestrial, and warm-blooded.  Organisms, in other words, that seem most relevant to our own origins.

Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to discuss extinct organisms here before, but this post isn’t one of my gratuitous prehistoric indulgences.  I raise the issue of scenes from deep time because it offers insights into the ways we think about the more recent, human past.

We might compare the treatment of some historical subjects in textbooks and survey courses to depictions of organisms in pictorial sequences of deep time.  Just as illustrators render some animal groups invisible once a more recent group arrives on the scene, so we tend to render Indians invisible after, say, King Philip’s War, Jacksonian removal, or Wounded Knee.  But Native Americans didn’t vanish after these important turning points.  They might have ended up in a different location, but they didn’t become extinct or irrelevant, any more than amphibians became extinct once animals started laying amniotic eggs.

And the descendants of Spanish colonists in the American Southwest didn’t cease to exist after the mid-1800s, when Anglophone Americans took political control of the region.  They were there the whole time, just as birds kept fluttering along through the mass extinction of 65 million years ago and the emergence of large mammals afterward.

In the same way, just as it’s misleading to ignore marine life and focus exclusively on terrestrial life after the movement of the first organisms into land, it’s also misleading for history books and courses to ignore the Southwest after the passage of the “frontier” era, or to be attentive to southern history only during the Civil War, New South, and civil rights eras.  And our discussions of such important changes as the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t blind us to the fact that most Americans remained tied to agriculture long after the first steam engines started puttering, just as most organisms remained invertebrates long after the first backbones appeared.

Our selective memory of history suffers from the same problems as our selective memory of the story of the life on this planet.  We need to remind ourselves to step away from selective scenes of the past to take in the sweep of the whole drama.  And we need to stop thinking of history in terms of a “highlights reel” of status scenes, and start thinking of it as a totality.

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UTK historians on the 2016 election

Pundits like to toss around the word “historic” when referring to presidential elections, and the last election in particular stirred up a lot of talk about historical parallels.  But if you’re in the Knoxville area and you’d like to hear some actual historians weigh in, the University of Tennessee is hosting an Inauguration Eve symposium that might be of interest.  On Thursday, Jan. 19 these folks from UT’s Department of History will discuss the significance of the 2016 election, provide some historical perspective, and use the past to shed light on its implications:

  • Joshua Hodge, doctoral student specializing in nineteenth-century land use in the South
  • Bob Hutton, senior lecturer and authority on Appalachia
  • Max Matherne, doctoral student specializing in Jacksonian political thought
  • Brad Nichols, lecturer and specialist in Nazism and genocide
  • Tore Olsson, assistant professor and expert on the history of food, agriculture, the environment, and politics in the U.S. and Latin America
  • Julie Reed, assistant professor and authority on Cherokee social policy and education

This event will be in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of Hodges Library, 5:00-6:30 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public.  (And the panelists are some of my favorite people!)

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Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

A bit of a fracas involving public history and memory developed over the weekend.  From Indian Country Today:

For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.

For the first time in the Society’s history, the celebration coordinators chose to reenact a public hanging, this time of Mamachtaga, a Delaware man convicted of murder in 1785.

According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.

A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.…

Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.

“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”

Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.…

Kerry Holton, President of the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”

The Westmoreland County Historical Society also posted this statement on Facebook:

Hanna’s Town was the site of the first English Courts west of the Allegheny Mountains, and we present and annual reenactment of authentic court cases heard there between 1773 and 1786. The Trial of Mamachtaga in 1785, was one of several cases reenacted that day at Frontier Court. Each case, including the one in question, provided an analysis of the early-American judicial system, which was based on English Common Law, and a comparison to our Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. We address the historic political climate and social attitudes as well. The video clip excludes the context of the reenactment and only shows the result of the verdict.

The reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga was not a depiction of a murder, nor was it a lynching. It was the portrayal of an actual trial and subsequent hanging by the court system that was carried out at Hanna’s Town. The defense attorney for Mamachtaga, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, left a detailed account of the trial and execution and provides the context of the event, which the video does not show. Another man, who was white, was also tried and hung that day, but the historical record does not provide a thorough narrative.

Mamachtaga did not deny killing two men near Pittsburgh, and he stated that he thought his trial was fair. He asked for the opportunity to prepare for his death including painting his face as a warrior, and it was granted. He also said that he did not want his people taking any revenge for him.

The account of the defense attorney, Hugh Breckenridge, can be accessed here: Link: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/…/text4/brackenridge.pdf

We don’t take concerns about the video lightly. We have talked to Native people who assist us with programming, and they continue to support our organization and educational activities. They know our true heart. To discuss this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way, please contact us via email at history@westmorelandhistory.org.

Finally, here’s the video itself: EDIT: Looks like the video’s been removed from YouTube.

Reenacting historical court cases is both instructive and a pretty well-established practice when it comes to living history interpretation, but staging an execution is a dicey matter indeed.  That’s especially true when racial or intercultural issues are involved.

Personally, I don’t really see how a mock hanging adds any educational value to a reenacted trial.  Nor do I see the connection between a mock hanging and the historical context of the Eighth Amendment.  If the idea is to demonstrate the range of corporal punishments meted out by eighteenth-century courts, there’s no shortage of “cruel and unusual” options to choose from: branding, ear cropping, flogging, etc.  Execution by hanging was not considered cruel and unusual punishment in the eighteenth century, nor for a long time thereafter.

I should stress that I’m not trying to slam the Westmoreland County Historical Society here.  I don’t doubt that it’s a professional public history organization that does fine work, and I’m sure there was no ill intention.  I just think the mock hanging was a bad idea.

Anyway, if you’re teaching a course on public history or historical memory, you might want to file this story away.  It would make for an interesting and provocative classroom case study.

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Illinois calls “finders, keepers” on Santa Anna’s leg

I guess this story is sort of Halloween-appropriate, since it involves a severed body part.  It’s a fake body part, but still.

A history professor from Texas believes there’s an appropriate place for Mexican general and president Santa Anna’s artificial leg and it isn’t the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

Teresa Van Hoy thinks it should be returned to Mexico, where he headed the Mexican government 11 times.

The state says it is staying right here.

“To us it’s non-negotiable,” said Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. “They say they want to start a conversation. That conversation has been made before. We’re not interested in a conversation. The answer is no. The leg is where it belongs and it’s staying here.”

Van Hoy is a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, which also is home to the Alamo, the mission famous for its 13-day stand against Santa Anna’s army in 1836.

She was in Springfield Friday with about two dozen students who constructed a “Day of the Dead” memorial at the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the state Capitol grounds. The memorial is intended to recognize Lincoln’s “career-long solidarity with Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” the university said in an announcement of the trip.

They were accompanied by a crew producing a film called “Santa Anna in the Land of Lincoln,” which is part of a project of the class.

“(Lincoln) was the most outspoken critic of the Mexican War,” Van Hoy said. “It seems to us logical that it does not honor Abraham Lincoln to hold on display a leg captured in that war less than a mile from his tomb.”

The leg is housed at the military museum at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. It is currently not on public display as part of the museum’s practice of putting some artifacts in storage periodically.

It is in the Illinois museum because soldiers from Illinois captured the leg during the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, also known simply as the Mexican War.

I just want to note that if I’d known the State Military Museum had Santa Anna’s wooden leg when I was in Springfield, I would’ve skipped the ALPLM and gone there instead.

Santa Anna was eating in his carriage and had removed his artificial leg when the Illinois soldiers surprised him. Santa Anna escaped, but he left the leg behind. The captured leg, which was made in New York out of cork, is probably the most famous artifact in the military museum.

Van Hoy said the history goes beyond just Santa Anna’s leg.

“There is a really rich history here and unfortunately, so far in my view, it has been reduced to a freak show exhibit which doesn’t do full honor to the people of Illinois or the veterans of Illinois,” she said.

Leighton said the leg is a tribute to the 68 Illinois soldiers who died during the battle of Cerro Gordo and the 98 who died during the war.

“We paid for that leg with Illinois blood,” Leighton said. “It honors our soldiers; it honors their service, and it was put in our public trust by our troops to keep in perpetuity. And that’s where it’s going to stay.”…

Van Hoy said she wants people to understand that “hating Santa Anna is toxic.”

“It’s toxic for Mexican-Americans, it’s toxic for the United States where we’re fetishizing a body part,” she said. “It’s toxic for Mexico where their treasures are just held as a freak show exhibit. We can do better than this.”

I think it’s interesting that neither Van Hoy nor Leighton base their arguments on whether or not the leg serves any educational or interpretive function.  Leighton wants to keep it because it “honors our soldiers,” while Van Hoy wants to send it back because it’s “toxic” for Americans and people of Mexican descent.

From a curatorial standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral or “toxic” about putting the leg on display.  Museums are full of items that were captured as war trophies—weapons, flags, bits of uniforms—and remain on exhibit because of their historical significance.  If Van Hoy wants to make a case that Santa Anna’s leg isn’t a proper subject for an exhibition, she has her work cut out for her.

If I was a curator, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit such a compelling object.  With proper contextualization, you could use it to teach visitors something about why Illinois troops would claim such an object as a trophy, how nineteenth-century Americans understood Mexico and the war, and so on.

At the same time, however, I’m not totally on board with Lt. Col. Leighton’s argument for keeping the leg in the museum, either.  Rather than invoking the object’s interpretive or educational utility, he argues that it was bought with “Illinois blood” and that it honors the service of Illinoisans.  Both of those statements may be true, but they fail to take into account some of the nuances surrounding the repatriation of historical artifacts.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m bringing my own inclinations and biases to bear on this question.  As a museum guy, I see the object in terms of its historical and educational significance.  As a soldier, Leighton sees it as a validation of the military sacrifices of his comrades, past and present.  And as someone concerned with the history of Mexican-U.S. relations, Van Hoy sees it as a symbol of the long, troubled relationship between the two nations.

In other words, people engage the past from many different perspectives, and not all of them are detached and academic.

Anyway, if you want to see the leg for yourself, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.  The museum has temporarily taken it off exhibit for a little TLC.  Sounds like they’re taking better care of it than Santa Anna did.

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