Category Archives: History and Memory

What impact will minority museums have on majority visitors?

There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system.  The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015).  There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums.  Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.

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At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history.  The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people.  Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects.  But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history.  How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration?  Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.

I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum.  I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest.  The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility.  White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.

And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing.  I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.

On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect.  Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.

Your thoughts?

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

The Patriot and rites of passage

As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.  In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage.  Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood.  For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country.  Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.

Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery.  He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material.  In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.

In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T.  The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons.  Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist.  The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.

The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children.  For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence.  Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep.  The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile.  Check out this deleted scene:

There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis.  He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history.  We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability.  If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated.  The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.

The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end.  When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling.  The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation.  The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved.  And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

Pastor reveals the sinister forces behind the Civil War

Brief digression on the origins of the NAACP thrown in for good measure.  This church is about an hour from my hometown.  Maybe a field trip is in order.

I award this fellow two facepalms: one for propagating ludicrous pseudohistory, and another for wasting his pulpit to do so.

By the way, if you’re looking for Internet conspiracy theory horseflop at its very best, Google “Abraham Lincoln Rothschilds.”  This site in particular is a masterpiece of unintentional hilarity.  Apparently Lincoln was Jewish, he fathered twins with a German ruler’s illegitimate daughter, and Mary Todd killed her own husband and pinned the murder on Booth, who was also her drug pusher.  Good times.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

The Anti-Federalists said there’ll be days like this

A columnist at WND seems to be suggesting that the Framers are the ones who screwed up this whole America thing:

It is high time Americans celebrate the Anti-Federalists, for they were correct in predicting the fate of freedom after Philadelphia.

To deny that the Anti-Federalists were right is to deny reality.

Having prophesied that Philadelphia was the beginning of the end of the freedoms won in the American Revolution, our Anti-Federalist philosophical fathers fought to forestall the inevitable. They failed.

Now you know who got us into this mess. It was these guys:

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Does nobody want to be a Confederate anymore?

When asked which side they would’ve taken in the Civil War, only 10% of Americans responding to a new poll picked the Confederacy.  That’s less than the number of respondents who said they would’ve tried to be neutral.  Republicans were more likely to say they would have supported the South, but would-be Confederates still made up a mere 20% of GOP respondents.  I don’t know about you folks, but I would’ve expected the percentages to be higher, especially among those on the Right.

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Fifty years since Dealey Plaza

Twentieth-century American history has never been my thing, but I’ll admit that the flurry of assassination anniversary coverage over the past couple of weeks has piqued my interest.

I’ve never put much stock in conspiracy theories, and what I’ve read of the events in Dallas has only reinforced my conviction that Kennedy’s death was the work of one man. Most Americans disagree, although belief in a conspiracy seems to be declining. I was curious to see what my students’ opinions were, so on Wednesday I conducted an informal poll in one of my classes. Out of about twenty people, only three believed Oswald carried out the assassination himself. The rest thought there was some sort of conspiracy, except for two or three students who abstained because they weren’t sure one way or the other.

Of course, this week marks the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, too. Bill Mauldin tied Lincolnian imagery to JFK’s death in a famous 1963 cartoon, but I’m not aware of any major attempts to connect this year’s dual anniversaries. That’s a little surprising to me, given that both presidents met the same fate.

Anyway, here are a few links I found interesting.

  • Three hours’ worth of original CBS coverage from 11/22/63
  • Access plenty of primary source material via the Mary Ferrell Foundation
  • The house where Oswald’s family stayed is now a museum operated by the city of Irving, TX
  • Fascinating interviews with Oswald’s brother, older daughter, and younger daughter
  • An interactive timeline of JFK’s Dallas trip
  • A list of things Oliver Stone’s movie got wrong
  • Explore the collections at the Sixth Floor Museum, the National Archives, and the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
  • Take a virtual trip to Dealey Plaza, or view the scene from the webcam in the sixth floor of the former Texas Schoolbook Depository
  • Finally, Oswald’s wedding ring fetched $108,000 at auction last month. Accompanying the ring was a note from his widow, reading in part, “At this time of my life I don’t wish to have Lee’s ring in my possession because symbolicly [sic] I want to let go of my past that is connecting with November 22, 1963.” Since she’s spent five decades with the memory of that day—on which she found herself in a strange country, a frightened young mother of two children, and married to an abusive man who had just been accused of the crime of the century—I think she deserves some peace and quiet.

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What exactly is the SCV’s problem with a new Olustee monument?

So there’s an effort underway by the Sons of Union Veterans to set up a monument at Olustee in order to “balance the cultural representation” on the battlefield, and some folks in the Sons of Confederate Veterans are opposed to the idea, calling it “a large black Darth Vadar-esque [sic] shaft that will disrupt the hallowed grown [sic] where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida, protecting Tallahassee from capture.

“I am altering the battlefield. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” (Image via http://www.jedipedia.de)

My opinion has always been that older monuments have intrinsic historical and artistic value, but when it comes to setting up new ones, I’d rather see these groups spend their money on something else, like buying endangered battlefield land, conserving artifacts, and so on.  I’m not opposed to new battlefield monuments on principle; I just don’t see the need to make sure every historical constituency involved with a site is represented with a slab of granite.

But having said all that, I don’t really get the SCV’s logic here.  Indeed, I’m not sure there’s any logic to be had.  There are Union monuments on countless battlefields across the South, just as there are Confederate monuments at Gettysburg and Antietam.  If this new monument is going to disrupt the site’s historic integrity, then fine, but I haven’t seen anybody make that case.  What the heck is the issue?

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