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A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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Greg Grandin will discuss slavery in Melville’s America at UTK on April 20

UPDATE 4-18-17: The lecture’s postponed for now. New date and time TBA. 

This year’s Milton M. Klein lecture at the University of Tennessee is going to be a real treat.  Historian Greg Grandin will discuss “Slavery in Herman Melville’s America” in the Howard Baker Center‘s Toyota Auditorium at 3:30 p.m. on April 20.
Dr. Grandin is a professor of history at NYU and the author of a number of acclaimed books, including Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City a National Book Award Finalist and a fascinating read; Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism; and The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which won the Bancroft Prize, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and was NPR’s Maureen Corrigan’s selection for the best book of 2014.  Grandin is also a member of the American Academy of Arts ad Sciences and the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.

The lecture is free, and copies of Empire of Necessity will be available for sale at the book signing immediately afterward.  This is a great opportunity to hear a master of the historical craft discuss his work.

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One step closer to killing support for the humanities?

Well, it looks like what we dreaded in January is one step closer to coming to pass.  Trump’s budget plan calls for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nothing will change for the endowments or other agencies immediately. Congress writes the federal budget, not the president, and White House budget plans are largely political documents that telegraph a president’s priorities.

Yet never before have Republicans, who have proposed eliminating the endowments in the past, been so well-positioned to close the agencies, given their control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and now the president’s fiscal plan. Reagan administration officials wanted to slash the endowments at one point, for instance, but they faced a Democratic majority in the House (as well as Reagan friends from Hollywood who favored the endowments).

As for 2017, it is unclear whether Republicans who are friendly to the endowments will fight their own party’s president on their behalf. Mr. Trump went ahead with the proposal even though his daughter Ivanka is a longtime supporter of the arts, and Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, has been a staunch advocate for art therapy for years, being a painter herself.

Who benefits from these endowments?  Well, you do, for starters—assuming you’ve ever read a history book or novel, visited a museum or historic site, used a library or website to research your genealogy, watched a documentary, attended an author’s talk, etc., etc., etc.

Would killing these endowments save money?  Yeah, something like 0.006% of federal spending.  That’s not hyperbole, by the way; that’s literally how much of the federal budget the NEH and NEA accounted for last year.  Why anyone would want to kill agencies that do so much for so little is beyond me.

We really, really need to be contacting our lawmakers right now.

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Tiya Miles will discuss Native American and black history at UT

Dr. Tiya Miles, Mary Henrietta Graham Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, is coming to the University of Tennessee to discuss the historical intersections between African Americans and Native Americans.  Her lecture, “Call of the Ancestors: Historical Imagination and the Black and Native American Past,” will be in the Hodges Library’s Lindsay Young Auditorium at 3:30 on March 20.

Miles is the author of Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, and The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.  She received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2011.

The lecture is free and open to the public, so I hope those of you who are in the Knoxville area will come by.  Should be interesting!

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Touch the work every day

A week ago I came down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me bedridden for several days and caused me to miss nearly an entire week of TA duty.  It also left me unable to make much progress on my dissertation research.  The problem wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned; the problem was that days passed without me doing anything to move my project along.

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of my mom’s friends who are involved in creative writing used to say, “You’ve got to touch it every day.”  I didn’t know how right they were before I started in on my dissertation in earnest.  If you’re working on a substantial project, don’t let a twenty-four-hour period pass without doing something—no matter how small—to keep it moving along.  It’s not so much a time issue as a quality-of-work issue.  I find that if I let a day pass without engaging the project, I end up losing more than just the hours.  I lose my bearings and my momentum, too.  When I get back to it, it’s like walking into a room that’s been sealed off for weeks; the air is stale, the furnishings are unfamiliar, and there’s a fine layer of dust everywhere.  You’ve got to keep everything in motion or a kind of general funk settles in, and you won’t be at your best until it dissipates.

I should add that you don’t necessarily have to be writing every day.  The resolution to do a little something every day doesn’t necessarily mean you should always be churning out prose.  (Most of what I’m doing at this point doesn’t involve putting words together.)  But you should be getting your hands dirty somehow, whether that means locating and poring over sources, reading through notes, juggling bibliographic entries, or knocking out grant proposals.  Even if you’re just putting in twenty or thirty minutes a day, do it.  The point isn’t those twenty or thirty minutes, but making sure you’ve engaged with your project before hitting the hay.

The only exception to this rule comes when you’ve completed a draft, at which point it’s best to let it sit for a while before you start revising.  But if you’re still in the research or rough draft phase, a day off will ultimately do more harm than good.

And on that note, I’ve lost too many days to recovery already.  Time to pop a cough drop and get back at it.

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Lecture on African American soldiers in WWI

Here’s an event to commemorate the centennial of American involvement in the Great War that might be of interest to those of you in the Knoxville area.

On Thursday, Feb. 23 UT’s Department of History and the Center for the Study of War and Society will co-host the Second Annual Fleming-Morrow Distinguished Lecture in African-American History.  Chad L. Williams, Associate Professor and Chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, will discuss “Torchbearers of Democracy: The History and Legacy of African American Soldiers in World War I.”  Like his book of the same name, Williams’s talk will examine the 380,000 black soldiers whose WWI service was part of a larger battle waged both at home and abroad.

The lecture is at 5:30 p.m. in the Alumni Memorial Building, Room 210.  It’s free to the public, with a book signing to follow.

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Monday Night Massacre?

UPDATE: Check out this HNN piece by David Shorten, who notes the problems inherent in interpreting current events with simple historical analogies.  He urges us to “give up on historical comparisons and replace them with historicism—to quit analogizing and start contextualizing.”

Well, look on the bright side.  This administration is going to be a freaking bonanza for historians looking to get on the talking head circuit.  The Lincoln folks had all the fun for eight years, but now we’re less than two weeks into the new regime and the Jacksonian scholars are already passing the mic to the Nixon experts.

U.S. President Donald Trump fired the federal government’s top lawyer Sally Yates on Monday after she took the extraordinarily rare step of defying the White House and saying the Justice Department would not defend his new travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.

The White House said on Twitter that Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, would replace Yates, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, as acting U.S. attorney general.

…There have been only a handful of instances in U.S. history of top Justice Department officials publicly breaking with the White House. The most famous example was in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

And it looks like things are only gonna keep spiraling down from here.  If society totally breaks down, maybe us backcountry Rev War guys will get our fifteen minutes on C-SPAN.

NSFW but apropos and amusing:

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