Civil War Connect #3: Abraham Lincoln and medicine

In the third installment of Civil War Connect, the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine‘s Jake Wynn discuss Abraham Lincoln and medicine.

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Two TAM awards for ALLM in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic may have kept Tennessee Association of Museums members from getting together this year, but it didn’t stop TAM from conferring its annual awards.  And I’m pleased to inform you that the ALLM took home recognitions for the second year in a row.

Our popular kids’ program, Tad’s Tots, picked up an Award of Excellence, and our fantastic program coordinator Natalie Sweet earned an Emerging Museum Professionals Award.

We’re looking forward to seeing all our TAM colleagues in person next year…and looking forward, too, to seeing visitors again once we complete our building project.

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Need online resources about presidential history?

There’s a good chance you do, since so many people are homebound right now.  Check out the White House Historical Association’s collection of resources from the nation’s presidential sites—virtual tours, blogs, educational material, you name it.  The ALLM is there, too, right at the top of the list of Lincoln sites.

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Civil War Connect #2: Civilians respond to war

Here’s the second installment of virtual conversations between the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s Jake Wynn.  This episode focuses on civilians’ responses to the war.

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When museums fold, small towns and rural communities lose the most

According to the president of the American Association of Museums, as many as one-third of the museums that have closed for COVID-19 may never reopen.  That’s astonishing to contemplate.  And if it happens, I think it’s the small towns and rural communities that will lose most.

Although I work at a museum that has one of the largest private collections of its kind, it’s located in a region of low population density. Our county has about 32,000 residents, with a density of seventy-four people per square mile (something like half the density of the state as a whole).  There are only about 4,000 people in our hometown, and the closest towns north and south of us have just over 10,000 and 2,000 people, respectively.

Since we’re one of the more visible museums in the area, people rely on us for a wider range of functions than a glance at our mission statement might suggest. They’re not just coming to learn about Lincoln and the Civil War.  They come with inquiries about history as a whole, from the Archaic period to the Cold War…and with questions about genealogy, education, preservation, grant writing, tourism, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes they come with questions that have nothing to do with history at all.  People bring in fossils, rock specimens, and archaeological material.  There are a lot of things we can’t identify, of course, but we can direct them to other institutions with the relevant expertise. We’re lucky to be a kind of conduit between local residents and the rest of the museum and academic world.

Perhaps more importantly, small towns and rural areas don’t always have the array of specialized services, facilities, and institutions that people in cities take for granted. A local museum can help fill the void.

At the museum where I’m employed, we’re proud to be a multipurpose institution for our region. We’re a homeschool classroom, a speaker’s bureau, a civic center, and a library.  We’ve hosted yoga sessions and political debates, scouting activities and voter registration drives, memorial services and Easter egg rolls, art workshops and reunions.  We have regulars who come by just to browse the gift shop for new reading material, since our town doesn’t have a bookstore on every corner.

When rural and small-town museums close, who will fill all these needs?  Who will provide all these services?

If you live in a small community, your local museum will need your support in the coming weeks: your donations, your engagement with online and remote programming, and your advocacy.  Take a few minutes to let your elected officials know how much that museum means to you, and if you can spare some money to help tide a neighborhood museum over, consider sending them a donation.

Downtown Sylva, NC. AbeEzekowitz / CC BY-SA (

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A conversation on disease in the Civil War

Museum buildings might be closed, but that doesn’t mean their staff members can’t get together for a virtual chat about history.

Join the ALLM‘s own Natalie Sweet and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine‘s Jay Quinn as they talk about dealing with disease during the Civil War.

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Museums and historic sites need your help during the COVID-19 crisis

We were lucky at the ALLM.  When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we were already closed to the public because of our big construction project.  For a lot of other museums, though, it’s a real catastrophe.

In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak is costing American museums, historic sites, zoos, and aquariums something like $33 million per day.  And these institutions can’t just turn off the lights, lock their doors, and wait for the crisis to pass.  Collections have to be monitored, historic buildings have to be maintained and secured, and (with so many kids now doing all their learning at home) their online programming is more vital than ever.

Like other sectors of the economy, museums and historic sites are in desperate need of support to keep their heads above water during this emergency.  The fallout could be disastrous—as in one quarter of all museums closing permanently if they can’t start bringing visitors in again soon.  We simply can’t let that happen.  This is a $50 billion industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, and immeasurably enriches the lives of many millions more.

The American Association for State and Local History is asking people who care about these institutions to get in touch with their legislators and urge them to back economic relief legislation for nonprofit museums, along with a temporary charitable deduction to boost the donations museums depend on.  They’ve even put together some talking points you can use when calling lawmakers.

Please read AASLH’s appeal, and then take a few minutes to get in touch with your representative and senators.

Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. Photo by Dave Pape via Wikimedia Commons

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When remarkable artifacts meet exceptional stagecraft

A museum visit can be such a powerful experience that you walk out of a gallery feeling like the world has shifted on its axis.  Sometimes it’s because you see an artifact so remarkable that it stops you dead in your tracks.  Sometimes it’s because of exceptional stagecraft on the part of the exhibit designers.  And sometimes it’s both, a combination of artifact and stagecraft so outstanding that it knocks the wind right out of you.

It happened to me a couple of weeks ago at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The artifact was Emmett Till’s coffin.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how it ended up at the NMAAHC, click here and here.)

It’s not just the object itself, but the presentation that packs such an emotional punch.  It’s in its own small gallery, set up to look like the front of a church.  You can hear a choir performing.  You line up with other visitors and file past the coffin, just as you would if you were one of the mourners paying your respects in Chicago more than six decades ago.  In a small anteroom there’s a short video with interviews from Till’s mother and other people who knew him.

Sometimes I’m skeptical of attempts to recreate or generate the emotions and perceptions of people caught up in past historical circumstances in a museum setting.  But I think the Emmett Till exhibit works because the emotions it stirs up in visitors are the very same emotions that made Till’s murder and funeral such a watershed.  The sight of his body confronted people with the monstrous nature of racism.  And the exhibit serves the same purpose.  It turns the history of racism into something concrete, immediate, and individual.  Putting the coffin on exhibit in the NMAAHC accomplishes the same thing in the present that putting it on exhibit in a church effected for people living at the time.

And the effect is magnified by the setup.  Visitors are going through the same physical motions as the mourners themselves, standing in line and filing past in order to see, to bear witness for themselves.  The distance between the 1950s and the present—between that Chicago church and the museum gallery that represents a section of it—collapses.  For a few moments, you forget that you’re a tourist in a museum.

I watched visitors stand there in the anteroom and literally weep, while others would spontaneously walk by and comfort them.  I’ve never seen an exhibit generate such emotion, let alone prompt strangers to embrace one another.  Lots of exhibits recreate or simulate historic settings, but this is one of the few that deserves to be called transportive—and transformational.

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David Library collection heading to its new home

The David Center for the American Revolution at the American Philosophical Society (formerly the David Library of the American Revolution) just sent out an update about the move to Philadelphia.  The DLAR’s manuscripts and rare books are already in their new digs at the American Philosophical Society, and the rest of the collection is relocating this winter.

The DCAR’s new web address is, so update your bookmarks.

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GDP: The Smithsonian fossils are back, and better than ever

One of the perks of my job is an annual trip to DC for the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on the National Mall.  Every year, I make a point to visit the National Museum of Natural History.

It was the first big natural history museum I ever visited as a child, and may very well be the place that first turned me into a museum junkie.  But it’s been years since I was able to see my favorite part of the NMNH—the dinosaur hall on the first floor.  The fossil exhibits have been closed for renovation since 2014.

Last week marked the first time I’ve been to DC since it reopened.  I was both excited and nervous.  As I’ve said before, the idea of this renovation was a bittersweet thing for me.  I was thrilled at the thought of an updated exhibit, but I was also afraid I’d miss the old mounts.  And I was especially worried I’d miss the dinosaur dioramas at the back of the hall.

I shouldn’t have worried.  The new exhibit Deep Time is nothing short of magnificent.  It combines everything that was great about the old hall with beautifully updated mounts, the latest science, and the finest in both modern and old-fashioned exhibitry.

Chronologically, Deep Time is about as comprehensive as it gets, from the emergence of life all the way up to the first human migrations and the extinction of the Ice Age megafauna, with hundreds of specimens along the way.

But let’s start with that T. rex.  Hoo boy!

My tastes tend to be pretty conventional when it comes to T. rex mounts.  I usually prefer your standard pose, with the animal in a simple striding position, head raised up to show off its height.  When I heard about the plan for the Nation’s T. rex—one foot planted on a Triceratops carcass, the neck and skull craning down to wrench its prey’s head off by the frill—I had my doubts.

But as soon as I stood in front of it, the NMNH’s mount instantly became my favorite T. rex display anywhere.

I don’t know why, but the whole creature just seems a lot more massive and powerful when you see it in this position.  Maybe it’s because the skull is closer to eye level.  Come to think of it, when Henry Fairfield Osborn planned the first-ever full T.rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History more than a century ago, he initially wanted to have two of them crouched over a carcass, with those big skull and hip bones down where visitors could get a good look at them.

This pose also allows you to examine the head from different angles.  You can really see the cranium shape that is so characteristic of tyrannosaurs—wider at the back, and then narrowing toward the snout.

I was under the impression that NMNH was going to attach the original skull to the mount, but a docent informed me that this is a copy.  Still looks pretty awesome.  And a lot of the bones in the photo below are the genuine article.

Diplodocus is still there, although no longer the centerpiece of the hall as it once was.  The new layout is a tremendous improvement.  You can get much closer to a lot of the big specimens now than you could in the old hall.

Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurs are back, too.  Now they’re engaged in combat, and it looks like the carnivore’s getting the worst of it.  Check out that patch of  armor on the stego’s throat.

Allosaurus, by contrast, is taking some down time.

And those dioramas from the old hall I was afraid I’d miss?  The new exhibit features a whole series of new ones, as exquisitely detailed as the masterpieces from the former exhibit.

Take this scene from the Cretaceous, for example.  If these little hadrosaurs know what’s good for them, they’ll put some serious distance between themselves and this creek bed…

…because somebody on the other side of it is about to wake up.

A much more recent scene, as a mastodon finds itself mired down at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky.

Yes, mammals are here, too—from the armored Glyptodon

…to the “Irish elk” Megaloceras.

And here’s everybody’s favorite sail-backed distant cousin, Dimetrodon.

Moving on from the terrestrial to the marine, here’s a mosasaur…

…and a mosasaur meal.

And we haven’t even gotten to the fish, invertebrates, or plants yet.  You could easily spend three or four hours wandering through the hall without taking it all in.

In fact, if there’s anything to criticize, it’s this: Deep Time perhaps tries to do too much from an interpretive standpoint.  The main theme is the extent to which changes in climate impacted environments and drove evolution, and how humans are accelerating these changes at a dangerous rate.  But the exhibit also delves into convergent evolution, migrations, predator-prey relationships, and taphonomy.

But having a lot to chew on is a great problem to have when you’re a museum visitor.  This is definitely an experience that will reward repeat visits.  And since I plan on repeating my visit annually, I’m totally okay with that.

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