Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

Another year, another existential threat to museums and libraries

Well, here we are again, facing another federal budget proposal that would stamp out the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

NEH Senior Deputy Chairman Jon Parrish Peede said the agency will continue to work as the budget debates begins. Since it was created in 1965, the NEH has awarded more than $5.6 billion in grants that supported books, movies and museum exhibitions, among other cultural projects.

In a statement, IMLS director Kathryn K. Matthews said her agency is the primary source of federal funding for museums and libraries.

“Without IMLS funding for museums and libraries, it would be more difficult for many people to gain access to the internet, continue their education, learn critical research skills, and find employment,” Matthews said.

Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums, blasted the “continued threats” to the cultural agencies that support the work of her membership.

“Today, the White House doubled down on its appalling request to eliminate key agencies that help museums nationwide serve their communities. These continued threats only reaffirm how critical our ongoing advocacy efforts will be in 2018,” she said. “President Trump’s last round of misguided cuts has already been rejected by committees on both sides of Capitol Hill. The museum field must now work with its bipartisan allies in Congress to ensure this reckless proposal meets the same fate.”

I can’t overstate how disastrous the crippling and loss of NEH and IMLS would be to museums, libraries, and archives.  As I said the last time this came up, if you’ve ever visited a museum or historic site, looked into your own genealogy, conducted any historical research, or watched a historical documentary, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve directly benefited from these agencies.  And taken together, their funding makes up a mere drop in the bucket of the overall federal budget.

Please contact your representative.

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What determines which objects you see in history museums?

Here’s an interesting piece by Jack Ashby on the human factors that determine what we see—and what we don’t see—in natural history museums.  “Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in,” Ashby notes.  “They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality.”

In other words, the exhibits aren’t pure reflections of the natural world they purport to show us.  They tend to overrepresent megafauna and male specimens, since large animals with impressive headgear pack a bigger visual wallop.  Species from the colonial possessions of an institution’s home country usually get overrepresentation, too.  And you’re far more likely to see taxidermy mounts than specimens preserved in fluids.  As Ashby writes, “I suspect that one reason is that—unlike taxidermy—fluid preservation cannot hide the fact that the animal is obviously dead. It is likely that museums shy away from displaying mammals in jars—which are very common in their storerooms—because visitors find them more disturbing and cruel than the alternatives.”

Buffalo Bill Center of the West. By Paul Hermans (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I read Ashby’s piece, it occurred to me that the same sort of selection bias affects exhibits in history museums.  In the same way that natural history exhibits overrepresent big animals, historical museums tend to showcase larger objects while keeping the majority of their smaller items in storage.  An intact stagecoach or an artillery piece has a wow factor that you’re not necessarily going to get with a ceramic fragment.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, like most museums, only has gallery space for a fraction of what we possess, and much of that space is devoted to big, impressive pieces like firearms, carriages, life-size portraits, and large statuary works. It’s not a cross-section of what we keep in our vaults. Many of the objects we have are small, and while they posses considerable historical value, they’re not the sort of thing that stops a visitor in their tracks: commemorative medallions, books, CDVs, and so on. And some of our most captivating and precious items rarely go on display, simply because they’re in manuscript form and very susceptible to damage by light and exposure.

The nature of an object itself has a big impact on whether or not it’s suitable for incorporation into an exhibit. Maybe this isn’t as big a deal for history museums as it is for natural history institutions.  We don’t purport to show nature in all its variety.  But perhaps history museums should try to find ways to convey a sense of the overall composition of their collections when they plan exhibits.  It might be useful for visitors to learn not only the subject matter, but something about what sort of things constitute museum collections in the first place, and what determines the types of objects they get to see as opposed to those they don’t.

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GDP: An eruption of paleonews

Fossil resources under threat, a volcanic trailer, two new theropods, and a tweeting tyrannosaur.  It’s all in today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. By US Bureau of Land Management (http://mypubliclands.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ITEM THE FIRST: You’ve probably heard about the Trump administration’s move to slash land away from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-National Monument.  What you may not know is that the two sites are paleontological treasure troves.  In fact, their spectacular fossil resources helped get them established as national monuments in the first place.

Trump’s decision puts a lot of scientific data in jeopardy, so the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is taking the administration to court to try and stop it.  SVP President P. David Polly explains why this lawsuit is necessary:

When Grand Staircase-Escalante was set aside, there were very few areas anywhere in the world where we had a mammal fossil record right at the late Cretaceous period, when different mammal groups were diverging. Those fossils really filled a gap in mammal paleontology and put Grand Staircase on the map from a paleontological point of view. We now have the most extraordinary Late Cretaceous ecosystem documented anywhere. After the monument was established, a lot of the dinosaur material was discovered.

In Bears Ears, the very oldest and the very youngest fossils have been excluded, including one area that documents the transition from amphibians to true reptiles. In Grand Staircase, they’ve hacked off most of the very southern edge of the monument and the very eastern edge. That cuts out a really important interval in time, including the world’s greatest mass extinction, and the Triassic period, which is really when life started re-evolving again. Some of the mammal-bearing units I just described are out in their entirety. One of the great ironies is that the original localities where all the great discoveries were made in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the founding of the monument, are now out of the monument.

[But on BLM lands managed for multiple uses,] if there’s another competing use the paleontology does not necessarily hold sway. An extreme example would be mining—if mining wins out, then the fossils can be destroyed. Second, the monument is better staffed, so it’s harder for someone to sneak in illegally and take things, whereas on ordinary BLM land it’s much less well policed.

Third, in national monuments where paleontology is one of the designated resources, there’s a whole special funding stream for research. A lot of the work that has been done at Grand Staircase has essentially been a public-private partnership. The funding through the monument has really made the science there blossom; we would not have seen the level or number of finds there over the last 20 years had that not existed.

ITEM THE SECOND: Now, how ’bout that Fallen Kingdom trailer?

As far as first trailers go, I like this one a lot better than Jurassic World‘s.  JW‘s trailer, I think, gave away a bit too much.  Revealing the helicopter crash in the aviary was especially unfortunate.  It undercut a lot of the shock we should’ve felt at Masrani’s death.

One thing the trailer does reveal is a ginormous volcanic eruption that triggers a dinosaur stampede.  This prehistoric plot trope dates back to the very dawn of dino movies, having been depicted in the 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.  But I don’t think it’s ever been done as impressively as this.

The Baryonyx at 00:58 has been generating most of the buzz on the Interwebs, but I’m especially glad to see Carnotaurus finally making its debut in the film series.  Crichton featured this genus in the second novel, so it’s high time it showed up in the movies.

Fans have also been speculating about the identity of that carnivore at 1:51.  It looks a lot like an Allosaurus.  As a longtime allo fan, I’d love to see it in a JP movie, but it does seem a little odd to add such a standard carnosaur to a film franchise that already has quite a few big meat-eaters.  With so many weird theropods out there, you’d think they’d want to showcase some of the more offbeat ones.  Then again, since Allosaurus fossils are plentiful, I suppose it’s as likely to turn up in a dinosaur theme park as any other big predator.

ITEM THE THIRD: Halszkaraptor, the newly christened, semi-aquatic theropod from Mongolia, had a goose’s neck, a raptor’s claws, and a snout full of sensors like a crocodile’s.  Convergent evolution is a heck of a thing.

ITEM THE FOURTH: One of the most famous fossils in Haarlem’s Teylers Museum is getting a new name…again.  In 1970, while examining the museum’s pterosaur collection, John Ostrom determined that its type specimen of Pterodactylus crassipes wasn’t a pterodactyl at all, but an Archaeopteryx.  Now a team of researchers has identified the Teylers fossil as a new genus of dinosaur, which they’ve named Ostromia crassipes.

ITEM THE FIFTH: Chicago magazine caught up with Sue, the Field Museum’s resident T. rex, to talk about social media and how she’ll be spending her downtime as she awaits her move to a new gallery:

There may be some behind-the-scenes hijinks while I’m off display getting ready to be remounted. As a (temporarily) disembodied rage emu, I can roam the halls and maybe check in on the new 122-foot-long sauropod playing door greeter. That is, if it can ever shut up about “going vegan.” WE GET IT YOU EAT KALE [leaf emoji].

Also, did you know less than 1 percent of The Field Museum’s collections are on public display? With some free time on my tiny, but powerful, hands I will finally be able to see EVERY rove beetle we have. And buddy…DEMS A LOT OF ROVE BEETLES.

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Help for museums and historic sites in Harvey’s wake

If you’d like to help museums and historic sites around the Gulf Coast of Texas recover from this catastrophe, the American Association for State and Local History has put together some great resources.

One thing we can all do right now is donate to the AASLH Hurricane Harvey Cultural Relief Fund.  Every cent will go to museums, sites, and other cultural institutions hit by the storm.

If you’ve got expertise in collections care, restoration, insurance, mold removal, or any other aspect of disaster recovery that might be useful to museum and site personnel, you can sign up online to serve as a point of contact and referral.

And if you’re a curator or site administrator, this is a good time to make sure your institution or organization is prepared for a disaster.  (For additional information, check out the AAM’s website.)

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A few highlights from Valley Forge

The harshest winter of the war wasn’t 1777-78, but the place where the Continental Army toughed it out has become synonymous with the hardship and perseverance associated with the Revolution.  It’s on every Rev War buff’s bucket list, so I had to take a day off from scanning microfilm to visit while I was in the area.

Valley Forge’s prominent place in American sentiment was evident from the crowds.  Acre for acre, it was possibly the busiest national historical park I’ve visited with the exception of Gettysburg.  It was one of the busiest places in America during the months the army spent there, too.  In fact, the encampment was one of the country’s largest population centers.

The army’s first camp during the siege at Boston was a hodgepodge of structures.  Valley Forge, for all its misery and squalor, at least had standardized cabins laid out in regular lines.

If the reconstructed accommodations for officers look quaint and cozy…

…the prospect of spending weeks in the enlisted men’s quarters is downright chilling.

The memorial arch is one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen at a Rev War site.  Civil War battlefields tend to be more ostentatious in their adornment.

Pennsylvania has its own monument to native son Anthony Wayne.  The army arrived at Valley Forge not long after Wayne’s defeat at Paoli.

Washington had much finer quarters than the common soldiers, but the material perks came with a crushing weight of responsibility.

He shared the home with his “family” of staff and servants, whose accommodations were more modest—though still far preferable to the cramped huts of the enlisted men.

Valley Forge was in the Goldilocks zone for a winter encampment: close enough to occupied Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to provide some security.  The terrain also made it a position amenable to defense.  In the same way, several factors made it an ideal location for the iron production that gave it its name: abundant wood, running water, and ore.  British troops burned the ironworks not long before the Continentals moved in.  Archaeologists dug up traces of the forge in the twentieth century, and some of the bits and pieces are on display near Washington’s headquarters.

Henry Knox set up the artillery park in a spot from which he could rush cannon to any point in the event of an attack.  Luckily for the Americans, the British never mounted an assault on the encampment.  (Sir William Howe wasn’t exactly a go-getter.)  The only combat at Valley Forge was a skirmish between Americans and redcoats before the whole Continental Army moved in.

The place wouldn’t be complete without a monument to Baron von Steuben…

…gazing out over the field where the Continentals celebrated the Franco-American alliance with a feu de joie.

The Washington Memorial Chapel is an active Episcopal church, and one of the loveliest features of any national historical park.

It’s also one of the few churches in the country with its own Rev War archaeology exhibit.

 

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Across the Delaware

The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride.  Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.

Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing.  Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.

Washington’s army made it across without mishap.  I haven’t been so lucky.  A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is.  There went my passenger side mirror.  Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.

Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.

Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.

WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.

If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing.  They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.

If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats.  Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing.  It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate.  (Well, that and the sunlight.)

The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn.  I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here.  It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see.  Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776.  The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790.  Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement.  Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.

A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section.  Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill.  There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story.  Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.

An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.

This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House.  Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in.  William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here.  So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.

Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop.  He’s buried not far from the house…

…alongside comrades whose names are unknown.  Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.

The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s.  Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B?  Here’s your answer.  Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water.  The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.

Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park.  If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum.  The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries.  The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty.  (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)

While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey.  The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.

Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.

While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.

The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.

Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.

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Historic happenings at Knoxville museums this weekend

There’s plenty for history buffs to do in Knoxville over the next couple of days.

UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a brand new exhibit opening on Friday.  Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age focuses on the proliferation of consumer household goods that accompanied industrialization, trade, and travel in the late nineteenth century.  The McClung’s permanent collection has a ton of fascinating material from this period, so there should be some really neat objects on display.  The museum is hosting a lecture on the era by historian Pat Rutenberg on July 16 at 2:00, so check that out if you’d like to learn more.

On Saturday and Sunday, we’re having our annual Statehood Day Living History Weekend at Marble Springs.  Admission is free, and we’ll have reenactors and interpreters  on hand for demonstrations and talks at the historic buildings.  If you haven’t been to the site, or if you’ve taken the standard tour but have never been to one of our living history events, this is one of the best occasions to visit.

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