Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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Some TV coverage of ALLM’s closing and expansion project

The folks at WBIR stopped by on Saturday to cover our closing event and the upcoming expansion.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

ALLM is going into hibernation, and then coming back bigger than ever

This week is your last chance to visit the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum before we close for our big renovation and expansion project.  We’re throwing a celebration on Saturday, July 20 from 10:00 to 6:00 with free admission, refreshments, a special glimpse inside our manuscript vault, and major discounts on items in our gift shop.  If any of you folks are within driving distance of the Cumberland Gap area, I hope to see some of you there.

And I definitely hope to see lots of you visit the expanded museum when this project is done.  We’ve got big changes in store, both inside and out: brand new exhibits on Lincoln in memory and the history of Lincoln Memorial University, some updates to our current gallery spaces, a learning lab, improved visitor access, a new front entrance, outdoor experiences, and more.  It’s going to take quite a while to get it all in place; we’ll probably reopen in late 2020.  But it should be well worth the wait.

Until then, I’ll be posting info about the project along with my usual history effusions here at my blog.  And we’ll have regular updates on the ALLM’s official Facebook and Twitter.

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Nathanael Greene’s home isn’t a place to dump your trash

The Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead in Coventry, RI has to shell out a couple thousand dollars for a security camera setup because of jackasses who dump their trash there.

It’s happened twice in two months.  And we’re not talking a little bit of trash, either.  It’s like truckloads of construction and landscaping debris.

If you’d like to contribute some money to help defray the cost of the cameras, click here for contact info.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

The story you want to cover vs. the artifacts you have

Glenn David Brasher paid a visit to the newly opened American Civil War Museum in Richmond.  His review is mostly positive, with a notable caveat:

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

I assume this dissonance between narrative and artifacts is due to the nature of the ACWM’s collection, much of which probably consists of militaria from the Museum of the Confederacy.  When an institution’s collection has been accumulating for decades, it takes time for the acquisitions to catch up with changes in academic or interpretive trends.

We’re actually wrestling with similar dilemmas at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  We’re getting ready to break ground on our big expansion and renovation project, which will in turn enable us to make further changes to our permanent galleries.  The biggest of these will be a new exhibit on Lincoln’s presidency.  One of the themes we feel compelled to explore in this exhibit is the transformative nature of that presidency—how Lincoln’s use of presidential power changed the office, the nature of the Civil War, and the nation.

Like most museum collections, ours has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and not all of our strengths play to the content we want to include in the new exhibit.  For example, we’ve got a lot of great artifacts from, say, the election of 1860 and Lincoln’s funeral, but precious little we could use to trace Lincoln’s evolving position on emancipation from spring 1861 to summer 1862.  (I mean, we’ve got a ton of popular prints and cartoons illustrating American responses to the Emancipation Proclamation, but not much that shows Lincoln’s internal reasoning for changing a war for the Union as it was into a war for a new birth of freedom.)

Of course, we’ve got ideas to meet these challenges.  After all, figuring out creative ways to convey historical information through exhibits is part of the job.  But when we finally raise the curtain on our new permanent exhibit, there will inevitably be an imbalance in the number of artifacts per narrative section.

It’s a bit frustrating, since building narratives out of objects is what museums do—or at least it’s the thing they do that other for of communication don’t.  But this is a dilemma that I think museums professionals are going to deal with more and more.  Expectations for more well-rounded and inclusive narratives will continue to grow, and older institutions will continue to transform from showplaces for relics into places that more fully reflect the breadth of their respective disciplines.

Lincoln-Douglas debate section of the Kincaid Gallery, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

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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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