The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s newest exhibit features a glimpse at Hollywood’s Lincoln

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

The newest exhibit at Lincoln Memorial University’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum opened this week.  “Clouds and Darkness Surround Us”: The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln examines the tragic fate of Lincoln’s widow, and features original costumes from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film alongside additional material from the ALLM collection.  This exhibit runs through November 20, 2015.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is hosting a number of special events, including a screening of Spielberg’s film and presentations on the history of Lincoln in the movies.  For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, visit the ALLM website.

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$200 for the 200th anniversary of John Sevier’s death

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the honor of serving on the board of the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association.  GJSMA supports the programming and operations at Marble Springs State Historic Site, Sevier’s final home in Knoxville, TN.

This year marks an important anniversary in Tennessee history.  It’s the bicentennial of John Sevier’s death.  To commemorate the occasion, GJSMA is undertaking a special fundraising initiative for 2015, called “$200 for 200.”

We’re asking folks who love history, museums, and Tennessee’s heritage to make a $200 donation to support our programming, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Sevier’s death.  Donors who make this special bicentennial gift will be recognized on our $200 for 200 web page, and will also receive these benefits for one year:

  • Free site tours for two adults and our children
  • Free admission for two adults and four children to our special John Sevier Days event in September
  • 10% off gift shop purchases
  • Discounts for our special workshop events
  • A discount on site rentals

It’s a great way to support a fantastic historic site and do something meaningful in recognition of an important Tennessee anniversary.  If you’d like to join our $200 for 200 effort, you can donate via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or send a check to Marble Springs, P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 37940.

I know that a lot of you folks who read the blog appreciate Tennessee’s history and its historic places, so I hope you’ll consider a donation.  Thanks!

A gathering at John Sevier’s Alabama gravesite in 1889 before his reinterment in Knoxville. Tennessee State Library and Archives (http://tnsos.org/tsla/imagesearch/citation.php?ImageID=4259)

 

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Carnegie’s transatlantic dinosaur just got an eviction notice

Here’s a news item that’s gotten plenty of us dinophiles riled up.  After decades of faithful service, Dippy the Diplodocus is moving out of the central hall of the Natural History Museum, London.  A blue whale skeleton will take his place in 2017.

I, Drow male [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

The NHM has been reminding everybody that their Diplodocus is a plaster copy of a skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, whereas the blue whale’s bones are the real deal.  That’s true, but Dippy isn’t just any any other display cast.  This dinosaur has got quite a backstory, one that links a multimillionaire, a monarch, and two continents.

Andrew Carnegie was a man who liked to give away money, and some of that money funded dinosaur collecting.  His philanthropic activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with a period of fierce competition among America’s natural history museums, each institution sending teams of collectors into the great fossil graveyards of the West to find the biggest and most complete specimens for exhibition and trying to woo successful field men away from their rivals.  The three-way rivalry among Carnegie’s Pittsburgh museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum in Chicago was particularly intense.

The biggest game of all were Jurassic sauropods, those massive dinosaurs with long necks, whiplike tails, and legs like Doric columns.  Carnegie wanted something big for Pittsburgh, and he got it in 1899; the Diplodocus his collectors unearthed in southeastern Wyoming that year was the largest dinosaur ever found at the time.  It was an important moment in the Carnegie Museum’s history, establishing it as the premier institution for the collection and exhibition of Jurassic sauropods.

Diplodocus bones had been found before, but this specimen was remarkably complete and the holotype of a new species, which John Bell Hatcher named D. carnegii in honor of the man who signed the checks.  Carnegie was so proud of his namesake dinosaur that when Hatcher published a reconstruction of its skeleton in 1901, the steel magnate had the image framed on the wall of Skibo Castle, his Scotland retreat.  In 1902 King Edward VII paid Carnegie a visit at Skibo, spotted the picture, and decided that the British Museum needed a Diplodocus of its own.

Carnegie was happy to oblige.  His technicians cast the dinosaur’s bones in plaster, along with pieces from other sauropod specimens to fill in what was missing from the 1899 find.  The Diplodocus made its British Museum debut in the Gallery of Reptiles on May 12, 1905.  Carnegie’s remarks for the occasion pitched the dinosaur as a transatlantic link between two countries, emphasizing the connection between the up-and-coming science museums of America and the more established institutions in Britain:

It is doubly pleasing that this should come from the youngest of our museums on the other side to yours, the parent institution of all, for certainly all those in America may be justly considered in one sense your offspring; we have followed you, inspired by your example.…Thus you, Trustees of the old museum, and we, Trustees of the new, are jointly weaving a tie, another link binding in closer embrace the mother and child lands, which never should have been estranged, and which, as I see with the eye of faith which knows no doubt, are some day—some day—again to be reunited.

The skeleton was a sensation, and it wasn’t long before other museums wanted their own Diplodocus copies.  Plaster sauropods became something of a cottage industry in Pittsburgh.  Within a few years, duplicates of Carnegie’s dinosaur stood in Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and the museums of other great cities.  (For more on the backstory of Carnegie’s dinosaur, check out Tom Rea’s fascinating account, from which I pulled the above quote.)

The original specimen went on display back in Pittsburgh, while the London copy moved a couple of times before taking up its current quarters in the central hall in 1979.  That’s where it was in the late eighties, when I saw it as a kid on my first trip overseas.  My parents both taught high school, and used to take their students on field trips to Europe during the summer.  Maybe they decided this would be a good opportunity to give me a learning experience, or maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter willing to put up with me while they went galavanting off to England for ten days.  Either way, I managed to get a trip to the natural history museum out of the deal.  Young dinosaur nut that I was, I got a bigger kick out of Carnegie’s plaster Diplodocus than I did out of the Tower of London or any of the other things I saw.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of irony in my personal connection to Dippy.  After dinosaurs, whales were my second biggest obsession as a young kid.  Along with the Diplodocus, one of my most vivid memories from that trip to England is seeing the whale exhibit in the Large Mammals Hall, including the blue whale skeleton that’s taking Dippy’s place in 2017.  Normally I’d be thrilled to see a new whale mount going up in a museum, but when the whale is knocking a dinosaur off its pedestal I can’t help but be a little miffed.

According to statements released by the NHM, the blue whale will remind visitors of the fragility of life on earth, since even this huge creature is vulnerable to extinction.  I can understand that, but my sentiments are still with those who want to leave Dippy in place.  One of the reasons the dinosaur’s pending relocation has stirred up such strong feelings is the fact that we all have such strong emotional attachments to those places where our earliest moments of discovery happened.

The NHM is thinking about creating a new cast of Dippy for the museum’s grounds, or taking the skeleton on tour.  Those aren’t bad ideas, but I can’t imagine anything more fitting to be the centerpiece of the main hall than a dinosaur.  I’m extremely partial to dinosaurs—as partial as they come—but you don’t have to be a hardcore dino aficionado to realize that there’s just something uniquely transcendent about them.  As paleontologist Robert Bakker has said, dinosaurs “take your mind and they stop it.”  The only response to one of those massive skeletons, whether it’s a plaster cast or not, is to just stop and stare up in awe with our mouths agape and our eyes wide, everything giving way to simple, unfeigned, unmixed, undeniable awe at the notion that such things were real, that they walked the same planet we do now.  For centuries, we’d been telling ourselves stories about dragons and monsters, and then when mankind had finally outgrown these stories, when we’d begun to master time and space and assumed that we’d peeked in all the world’s dark corners and reassured ourselves that there were no dragons lurking there, we started digging in the ground and found out that the dragons had always been there after all, waiting for us.

A whale skeleton might indeed remind NHM visitors that the world needs good stewardship, but if you want an invitation to wonder and curiosity, to the sort of attitude that museums work so hard to cultivate, you just can’t top a dinosaur.  Carnegie and Edward VII knew that, and I hope the folks at the NHM keep it in mind.

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Why the dramatic license in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is a problem

Most people realize, when they’re watching a dramatic work based on some historical event, that they’re not getting a history lesson.  And by this point, I think it’s dawned on most viewers of The History Channel that their chances of seeing historically edifying programming on that network are comparable to their chances of seeing a beluga whale while vacationing in Montana.  Why, then, is the total disregard for accuracy in Sons of Liberty such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because a heck of a lot of people who watched Sons of Liberty while under the impression that they were having an educational experience.  This is not my assumption.  This is a fact.  I know this is the case because I was scrolling along on Twitter while I watched the miniseries, looking at tweets with the #SonsOfLiberty hashtag.  I saw a lot of tweets decrying the show’s misrepresentations, but I saw as many if not more tweets from people who were totally psyched about how much they were “learning,” about how they wished schools would screen the whole thing for students, about how they were getting more information out of the miniseries than they ever did in their history classes, and so on.

Actually, when I first wrote this post, I’d embedded a few dozen of these tweets to prove how pervasive this sense of the series as an educational experience really was.  Since it occurred to me that your average Twitter user probably doesn’t want some blogger to cite him as an example of somebody who mistakes entertainment for edification, however, I decided to leave them out.  So if you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, just search Twitter for #SonsOfLiberty and the word “learning” or “school” and you’ll find plenty of examples.

It’s worth taking another look at the disclaimer on the series website:

SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please read the Historian’s View section on history.com/sons.

I’m glad for the statement the series is “historical fiction,” but the rest of the disclaimer’s language obscures more than it clarifies.  The series doesn’t “capture the spirit of the time” when it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of British authority in the period leading up to the war.  It doesn’t “convey the personalities of the main characters” when it depicts Hancock as a reluctant dweeb, Gage as a sadistic tyrant, and Sam Adams as a brooding young heartthrob.  And it certainly doesn’t “focus on real events that have shaped our past” when the sequences portraying these iconic events—the destruction of Hutchinson’s house, the Boston Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the firefight at Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill—bear little relation to what actually happened.

In fact, of all the iconic “high points” that figure in the series, I can’t think of a single one depicted accurately enough to be suitable for use even as a visual aid in a classroom.  Some historical films take liberties with chronology and characters, but at least have the virtue of providing a compelling and reasonably useful enactment of particular events.  I’m thinking of the siege of Ft. William Henry in Last of the Mohicans, the O.K. Corral shootout in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, and the final attack sequence in Glory.  But what point would there be in showing your students Sons of Liberty‘s take on Lexington Green when the whole thing seemingly takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, with British officers torturing and executing wounded minutemen?  Or screening Paul Revere’s capture when he takes on a whole group of redcoats who have him at gunpoint, like Chuck Norris in a tricorn hat?  Or the Boston Tea Party scene, with Whigs decked out in Lord-of-the-Rings-style orc war paint?

If anything, the short notices aired during commercial breaks, in which The History Channel reminded viewers to log on to the show’s website for the facts behind the story, might have made the whole thing worse.  Viewers who visited the site might have gotten some useful information, but for the many who didn’t, the mini-commercials for the website only lent the whole thing an air of credibility it didn’t have.  Hey, if there’s a companion website with commentary from historical pundits, the show must be pretty legit, right?

Perhaps the liberties taken with the material wouldn’t trouble me so much if the show ran with a disclaimer at the top of every hour, reminding viewers that what they were seeing was fictionalized and only loosely based on real events and people.

In any case, the fact that so many Twitter users took the show as a learning experience indicates that The History Channel still carries an air of authority and authenticity, whether the network’s brass want it or not.  Since that’s the case, they really need to approach their (increasingly rare) historical programming more seriously.  If you want to be nothing but another TV network, fine.  But don’t pretend to be anything else.

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‘Sons of Liberty': Not much of the Sons, but plenty of liberties

Here’s how The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.”  That’s quite an understatement.  It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.

I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops.  No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart.  Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence.  Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.

The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.”  If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board.  The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.

J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog.  As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs.  The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine.  But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.”  It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.

It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere.  Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show.  There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV.  I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.

Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement.  Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties.  They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities.  When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act.  The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges.  Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.

Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!”  I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction.  You’d be reading Pauline Maier.

You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor.  The chronology is hopelessly mangled.  John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen.  There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s.  Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series.  You get the idea.  For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.

I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.

If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right?  Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film.  It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment.  No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.

“Lllllllladies.” Wikimedia Commons

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A Christian-themed Rev War movie about a masked vigilante trying to clear his name

That seems to be the gist of it, anyway.  Sort of like if you combined Zorro with The Fugitive in 1770s Philadelphia, with some proselytizing thrown in.

The leading mercenary for the British East India Company, Will Reynolds has just been double-crossed and now is on the run in the American Colonies. Working to redeem his name and win back the affections of the woman with whom he’s never been fully truthful, Will now hides behind a new mask in hopes of thwarting his former employer. As his past life closes in on him, Will must somehow gain the trust and the help of his beloved Charlotte – as well as Ben Franklin – while he races against time to defuse a plot of historical proportions. Coming to theaters Spring, 2015, Beyond the Mask is a revolutionary new family film that brings history to life in a faith-filled adventure celebrating grace, liberty, and the true freedom that can only be found in Christ.

Sounds unusual.  Heck, I’ll probably see it.  (Hat tip: Flintlock and Tomahawk)

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen

From NOLA.com:

Two hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans was waged — earning it an eternal place in Louisiana history books and further burnishing Andrew Jackson’s reputation as one of America’s original action heroes — it is getting the Hollywood treatment.

In a ceremony timed to coincide with local bicentennial celebrations of the historic skirmish between American and British troops, fought in January 1814 as one of the closing salvos of the War of 1812, Hollywood producer Ken Atchity and brother Fred unveiled plans Friday (Jan. 9) for a major feature film about the battle’s place in history and Jackson’s role in it.

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

A script for the film has been written, and while it will strive for historical accuracy, it will function as a mainstream Hollywood-style movie, not a “schoolroom movie.”

I’m really excited to see this happening, but as I’ve said before, what I’d really like to see is a sprawling, three-hour, Patton-esque Old Hickory biopic.  I’d start with a brief scene at the American lines on Jan. 8, 1815, zoom in on Jackson’s face as he scans the horizon for signs of the British, and then flashback to his boyhood injury at the hands of a redcoat officer during the Revolution.  Flash forward to the Dickinson duel and the run-up to the War of 1812, cover his Creek campaign, then New Orleans for the big climax.

Time permitting, I’d include the whole 1818 Florida imbroglio, and then cut to James Monroe and John Quincy Adams mulling it over and discussing the fact that the country hasn’t heard the last of Jackson…annnnd roll credits over some rousing military music.

Here’s an earlier Hollywood take on Jackson in New Orleans, with Charlton Heston as Old Hickory and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1958).  Heston was probably used to filling Jackson’s boots at that point, since he’d played the same role in The President’s Lady just a few years earlier.

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