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.

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

David Library of the American Revolution is moving to new quarters

Huge news for early American historical research:

The David Library of the American Revolution — a treasure trove of Early American history set within the scenic splendor of Washington Crossing — will move next year from Upper Makefield to a new home at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where the priceless collection of documents and books are expected to attract the attention of researchers worldwide.

Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the APS is the “oldest learned society in the United States.” The David Library’s collection will be housed in a new David Center within the society’s library at 105 S. 5th St. The APS draws 130,000 visitors a year to view its vast collection of books and manuscripts, including Franklin’s papers.

It’s located near both the new Museum of the American Revolution and the National Constitution Center, providing researchers and tourists an easy walk between these sites and nearby Independence Hall.

“This will now be the one-stop shop for the Revolution,” said Patrick K. Spero, librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society who studied at the David Library. “It will create a powerhouse, a center for the study of the Revolution that is unmatched.”

The library is expected to remain in Washington Crossing until the end of this year. The library’s board of directors will then determine the “next life” for the 118-acre property located at 1201 River Road in Upper Makefield. The property is zoned country residential and has an agricultural preservation easement.

A one-stop shop for both the APS and DLAR collections is a pretty awesome prospect.  As a former DLAR research fellow, though, I’ll miss the library’s old grounds at Washington Crossing.  The month I spent there was the most enjoyable (and fruitful) period of archival work I’ve ever done.  Indeed, it was about as close to the perfect research experience as one could get: living in a lovely house right next door to the library, twenty-four-hour access to an outstanding collection of books and microfilm, my own personal workstation and scanner, the assistance of a dedicated reference staff, and all of it right in the middle of some of the most important Rev War sites in the country.

If you’re not already doing so, I encourage you to support the David Library financially.  I can’t think of a better way to invest in the future of American Revolution scholarship.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

Last American slave ship found

Marine archaeologists have found the wreck of the Clotilda, an illegal slave ship that smuggled a human cargo from West Africa to Alabama in 1860, more than fifty years after the importation of slaves into the U.S. had been banned.  That makes her the last known slave ship to arrive on American shores—later even than the Wanderer, which brought more than 400 captives to Georgia in 1858.

Clotilda’s story began when Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile landowner and shipbuilder, allegedly wagered several Northern businessmen a thousand dollars that he could smuggle a cargo of Africans into Mobile Bay under the nose of federal officials.

Importing slaves into the United States had been illegal since 1808, and southern plantation owners had seen prices in the domestic slave trade skyrocket. Many, including Meaher, were advocating for reopening the trade.

Meaher chartered a sleek, swift schooner named Clotilda and enlisted its builder, Captain William Foster, to sail it to the notorious slave port of Ouidah in present-day Benin to buy captives. Foster left West Africa with 110 young men, women, and children crowded into the schooner’s hold. One girl reportedly died during the brutal six-week voyage. Purchased for $9,000 in gold, the human cargo was worth more than 20 times that amount in 1860 Alabama.

After transferring the captives to a riverboat owned by Meaher’s brother, Foster burned the slaver to the waterline to hide their crime. Clotilda kept her secrets over the decades, even as some deniers contended that the shameful episode never occurred.

Leave a comment

Filed under Archaeology

Glenn Beck is hosting a history-themed cruise

…to the Mediterranean along with David Barton and Bill O’Reilly.  Who better to guide you through the birthplaces of Western Civilization than a guy who thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls are texts suppressed by Constantine?

If you’re willing to shell out some extra cash, you can “upgrade your vacation package to associate with Glenn and crew in more intimate sessions.”

All levity aside, Barton seems an odd choice for an endeavor like this.  Since Barton bills himself as an American historian, one wonders what expertise he’s bringing to bear on a Mediterranean tour.  (I mean, all these guys are odd choices for a history-themed vacation, but you know what I mean.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

David McCullough turns back the clock on frontier history

When the PR campaign for David McCullough’s The Pioneers kicked off, yours truly said this:

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether….Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

Now the book’s out, and it looks like the marketing didn’t lie.  Here’s Rebecca Onion’s take from Slate:

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

A “throwback” indeed.  Some of these excerpts could’ve come right out of the work of Lyman Draper and his fellow nineteenth-century antiquarians, fixated as they were on their subjects’ public virtue, sterling private character, and domestic contentment:

McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.”

Andrew Isenberg agrees that The Pioneers is a historiographical leap backward:

The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.

Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.

For more, check out William Hogeland, who’s been sharing his reactions to the book on Twitter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historiography

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites