Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

From women’s history to Ripperology: museum mission creep

From New York magazine:

A former Google diversity head decided he wanted to build a museum dedicated to women’s history in London’s East End, so he submitted a proposal outlining his goals last October. But after the proposal was approved and construction on the museum began, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe promptly switched tactics, and instead decided to build a museum dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who exclusively targeted female sex workers. His excuse? Jack the Ripper is less boring than exploring women’s history and accomplishments.

I’ll grant that Jack the Ripper is “less boring” than the social history of women in England, but holy cow.  This is like setting out to do a documentary on the decline of the American auto industry and making Transformers 5 instead.

Opening a museum entails more than hanging a sign out front with the word “museum” on it.  Not every building with immersive galleries, mannequins, a few artifacts, and a gift shop is actually in the historical interpretation business.  There are museums, and then there are what we might more properly call “historical tourist attractions.”  Such attractions are common at gunfighter-related sites in the American West, and they’re all over the place at Pigeon Forge here in East Tennessee.

The Jack the Ripper Museum opens on Tuesday, and then Londoners will be able to see if the exhibits really do interpret the Whitechapel murders in their historical context, or whether this is another of those museums in name only.

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The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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A walk in Jamestown

For the last post, we took a stroll around the place where England’s American empire came to an end.  Just a short distance away, at the other end of the Colonial Parkway, is the place where it started.

If you haven’t been to Jamestown since the 400th anniversary, you’ve missed out on a lot.  Last week was my first visit in a long time, and they’ve added so much stuff that it almost seemed like a different site.

The visitor center exhibit is packed with archaeological materials…

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…the fruit of many years’ worth of excavations, which are still ongoing.  (Check out this nifty interactive map for info on what they’ve found so far.)

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In addition to the visitor center displays, there’s a new museum in the park called the “Archaearium,” which sits atop the site of the statehouse.

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You can see the statehouse foundations through glass windows in the Archaearium floor.

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Excavators found these items inside one of the fort’s wells, and the exhibit designers mounted them in a way that illustrates their positions in situ.  It’s pretty neat.

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The most powerful exhibit in the Archaearium is a gallery with the remains of some of Jamestown’s dead, including “Jane,” a girl of about fourteen whose bones bear the traces of cannibalism.  Photography is forbidden in that part of the museum, but you can get some more info on Jane here.

The Tercentenary Monument is still there…

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…along with the site’s only remaining seventeenth-century structure, a church tower.

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The current church alongside the tower is a 1907 reconstruction, but seventeenth-century foundations are visible inside.

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There’s also a partial reconstruction of one of the earlier churches, a “mud and stud” building erected within the original fort walls in 1608.  John Rolfe married Pocahontas on this site in 1614.

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John Smith gazes out across the James River…

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…while Pocahontas stands near the reconstructed fort with arms outstretched in what looks like a gesture of welcome.  Hardly the most accurate depiction of what Powhatan’s daughter would have looked like when Jamestown’s settlers first encountered her, but still a nice piece of commemorative sculpture.

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Historians long thought that the site of the original, triangular fortification built by the first settlers was lost to the river.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.  The original fort site was right there near the church tower the whole time, although erosion carried away any traces of one of the corner bastions.  Cannons mark the site of the other two.  Only one of the bastions pointed inland; the others faced south toward the river, since the first settlers were more worried about Spanish ships than marauding Indians.

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What should have concerned them more than either were disease and starvation.  Crosses mark some of the early burials in and around the fort, bearing testimony to the fact that, in its first years, Jamestown—whatever else it eventually meant for the history of America—was above all else a deathtrap.

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The colony eventually outgrew the triangular fort and expanded eastward along two streets beside the river.  Walking trails take you past the reconstructed foundations of some of these later buildings.

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Near the park entrance are the remains of the glasshouse, one of many failed attempts to make the colony profitable before tobacco took off.

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In a reconstructed glasshouse nearby, interpreters demonstrate seventeenth-century glass-blowing techniques.

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Jamestown has the highest concentration of critters per acre of any historic site I’ve visited.  Geese enjoy hanging out by the river…

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…and turtles are pretty common, too.  I met this fellow taking a stroll beside the fort site.

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I also ran across herons, lizards, a muskrat, a deer, and bugs…lots and lots and lots of bugs, especially on Island Drive, where so many flying insects pelted the car windows that it sounded like driving through a hailstorm.

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It’s a little ironic that Jamestown is teeming with life today, given that so many of its settlers went to an early grave.

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A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:

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Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:

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Grand French Battery:

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The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:

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Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

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Site of the French artillery park:

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An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

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The Victory Monument:

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One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:

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In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:

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Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…

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…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

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Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:

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Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:

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Military history is on exhibit in Ohio

If you’re in Ohio and you’re a military history buff, there are a couple of special exhibits in your neck of the woods that are worth checking out.

The Toledo Museum of Art is hosting The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes until July 5.  This exhibit features paintings, sculptures, photos, and artifacts from the museum’s own collection, as well as items from the William L. Clements Library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, and other repositories that tell the story of Ohioans’ involvement in the war.

One of the highlights is Gilbert Gaul’s 6′ x 10′ painting Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor, on loan from the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society.

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Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855–1919), Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor. Oil on canvas, 1893. Framed: 10 x 6 ft. (305 x 183 cm). Lent by the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Photos by Gardner, copies of Volk’s cast of Lincoln’s hands, and a sword carried by Rutherford B. Hayes are in the exhibit, too.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

…sorry, at the Cincinnati Museum Center, Treasures of Our Military Past just opened this week.  This exhibition covers more than two hundred years’ worth of military history from the Cincy region.  John Holt’s broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, one of only four surviving copies, is the star attraction.

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On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

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