Headed to the archives

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be engaged in some archival work this summer, thanks to the generosity of a couple of funding sources.  The David Library of the American Revolution has awarded me a residential fellowship, so I’ll be headed up to Pennsylvania soon to pore over their incredible microfilm collection.  (Hope I can muster the discipline to get my research done while being in striking distance of so many Rev War sites.)

I was also fortunate to receive an Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society, which will give me an opportunity to examine Revolutionary War records in the Old North State.  I’m very grateful to both the DLAR and the NCS for these research funds; I wouldn’t be able to access materials critical to my dissertation without this support.

Oh, and if you’d like to read a short description of my project and look over my CV, you can now do so at the UT Department of History’s website.

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GDP: Rolling out the new armored dinos

Well, that’s another academic year wrapped up.  It’s been a heck of a news week for armored dinos, so let’s kick off the summer with a Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Scientists just described a brand-new ankylosaur—those walking tanks from the Cretaceous Period—called Zuul crurivastator.  The species name means “destroyer of shins,” which is appropriate for an animal bearing a massive, bony club at the end of its ten-foot tail.  The genus name comes from the dog creature in the original Ghostbusters movie, and there’s indeed a resemblance.  It’s not just a new dino, but one of the most complete ankylosaur specimens ever found.

And as they say on the commercials, “But wait!  There’s more…”

National Geographic is running a piece on another incredible armored dino specimen.  This one’s a nodosaur, a close relative of Zuul and its kin, but without the tail club.  It, too, is stunningly complete, so much so that it looks less like a fossil and more like an animal that just fell asleep and turned to stone.  The keratin sheaths on its spikes, the individual armored plates, scales, tendons—all beautifully preserved.  What’s especially cool is that researchers might be able to use microscopic structures in the skin to reconstruct its coloration.  It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ve got a suggestion…

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Leaders, wars, and the survey course

Last week we administered a survey/quiz in our Western Civ course, asking students which of the topics we’ve covered interested them the most.  The results were a little surprising, at least to me.

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common answers involved subjects that many academic history tend to downplay: wars and leaders.  More students claimed they wanted to learn about strategies, battles, kings, queens, and presidents than anything else.  They wrote that they’d enjoy taking an entire course on the origins of World War I, the major campaigns of World War II, Napoleon, or the Romanovs.  What captivated these young scholars was the same sort of material that many academic historians dismiss as old-fashioned.

What accounts for these students’ responses?  I think it boils down to two factors.  First, political power—especially the relationship between modernity and monarchy—was an organizing theme that undergirded the course as a whole.  Our professor spent quite a bit of time analyzing the ways personalities, institutions, and change intersected, and he did so in such a captivating manner that students couldn’t help but want to explore these questions further.  In other words, good teaching leads to engagement with the subject matter.  It was a valuable lesson for us TAs, who will be thinking about how to organize our own courses in the future.  As I said a few months ago, the opportunity to observe great professors in the classroom is one of the biggest benefits of grad school.

The second reason so many of the students found wars and leaders so engrossing has to do with the subject matter itself.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that battles, alliances, campaigns, and the lives of powerful men and women are pretty darned interesting.  After all, these were the very topics that prompted the first historians of classical antiquity to take up their pens: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, and so on.  And in our own time, the commercial success of military historians and biographers such as Andrew Roberts, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Antony Beevor, and Antonia Fraser speaks to the enduring appeal of this approach.

These were the sort of topics I used to feel guilty about spending time on as an adjunct.  As much as I loved lecturing on Xerxes, Alexander, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and Operation Barbarossa, going into detail on leaders and wars always seemed like an indulgence.  Every semester I chipped away at my coverage of conflicts and great men and women.  Maybe I should’ve let them be.  When we start making those hard choices about what to omit from our survey courses, perhaps we should leave space for these subjects that still take hold of the imagination, even the imagination of Generation Z.

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Enjoy dinner while supporting Knoxville’s history

UPDATE 4/27/17: Marble Springs won the SOUP grant!  It’s going to go a long way toward helping us get materials we need for school group tours.  Thanks to all you folks who turned out and voted for us!

This one’s for you folks in the Knoxville area.  The South Knoxville Alliance is hosting another SOUP fundraiser at Dara’s Garden on Thursday, April 27.

We will open the doors at 6:00 pm, collecting a $5.00 donation from attendees. At 6:30, 4 preselected individuals or groups will present an idea or project they would like to carry out. Each presenter (or group) has 4 minutes to inform, impassion and inspire the audience. They then have 4 minutes to answer questions from the audience. Dinner is then served while attendees digest, discuss and deliberate over the projects presented. They then cast a ballot for the project they would like most to fund.

When the evening nears a close, the ballots are counted and the group that has the most votes takes home the money from the door to help fund their project. Democracy meets Charity…

Marble Springs State Historic Site will be making a pitch for funding to support some of our programming.  The more history buffs and supporters we have at the event to vote, the more likely we are to win the door take, so hopefully we’ll see lots of you there!

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Glenn Beck is offering history internships. Seriously.

Ever dreamed of the chance to study history with a guy who thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls are remnants of texts that Constantine suppressed, that Native Americans carved Hebrew inscriptions, and that Parson Weems is a reliable source of information on George Washington?

Well, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, you—yes, friend, YOU!—are eligible for a two-week internship at Beck’s Mercury One library.

You’ll have to apply first, of course.  They’re not just taking any Tom, Dick, or Harry from off the street.  But if you make the cut and fork over $375, you get access to Beck’s collection of original documents and “the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge from our speakers and guest lecturers.”

While you’re there, maybe David Barton will sign your copy of the book his publisher recalled.  Start getting those CVs ready!

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What’s the difference between a historic site and a historical attraction?

I just ran across an MSN listicle on tourist traps to avoid in each of the fifty states.  The entry for Arizona is the town of Tombstone, which surprises me a little.  Tombstone has its tacky, gaudy aspects, but it’s an interesting place to spend a few days.  I’ve always enjoyed my visits to the Town Too Tough to Die, and the folks there are fantastic.

By mia (originally posted to Flickr as USA 247) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I noted a few years ago, I bounced around a lot of old gunslinger haunts with my family when I was a teenager, and many of these places straddle the boundary between public history and the kitschy roadside culture that you’d associate with tourist traps.  It might be more appropriate to term some of them “historical attractions” than historic sites in the usual sense.  I should add that I don’t mean to lump all “Old West” or gunfighter-oriented sites into this category; I’ve visited quite a few that take interpretation and curation as seriously as any museum.  But I think it’s fair to say that you’re more likely to get a tourist trap vibe from a site associated with a gunslinger or bank robber than you are at, say, a Civil War hospital.

Is there a clear demarcation between a museum/historic site and a history-oriented tourist trap/attraction?  When does a site that attracts visitors because of its history become something other than a “real” historic site?

Take Graceland, for example—the Volunteer State’s entry on MSN’s list.  (Personally, I can think of quite a few places in Tennessee that are a much bigger waste of your admission fee, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Does Graceland count as a historic site?  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.  Elvis was undoubtedly a figure of tremendous significance, someone who had a tremendous impact on the history of music and American culture.  Leonard Bernstein called him “the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.”

Of course, he was exceptional in terms of his wealth, fame, and eccentricity.  A visit to his estate isn’t likely to shed any light on the lives of most people of his place and time.  But, as I’ve written elsewhere, that’s true of a lot of “historic” homes.  If exceptional wealth, fame, and eccentricity of a home’s occupant disqualifies it from being a “real” historic site, where would that leave Monticello?

Could be the Jungle Room, or it could be Jefferson’s study. I’ll let you be the judge. By Thomas R Machnitzki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever historians think about what distinguishes a “real” historic site from an attraction, what probably matters more is what the visitors are thinking about the places they go.  I suspect a lot of visitors to historical tourist traps still think of the experience as an encounter with history in the same sense of a trip to Williamsburg or Ford’s Theatre.  Some places give them a bigger bang for their buck, but at the end of the day they’re still paying to kill some time while getting a taste of the past.  And if most visitors to Graceland see the trip as a sort of quasi-religious pilgrimage or a chance to pay homage to a figure they admire rather than a chance to learn about history, the same is probably true of a lot of people who visit Monticello or Lincoln’s home.  Public historians’ aims for visitors are one thing, the meanings visitors attach to their experiences quite another.

I don’t mean to imply that attempts to distinguish serious historic sites from historical tourist attractions are doomed to break down, or that at the end of the day public historians and entertainers are all engaged in the same enterprise.  That’s not true, and it’s a dangerous attitude to cultivate.  But minding the occasional fuzziness of the boundary between historic sites and historical attractions is useful precisely because we need to take the distinct aims of historic sites seriously.  Figuring out just what it is that makes them “real” historic sites can help us do that.

So what are your criteria for distinguishing “real” historic sites from historical attractions?  Authenticity?  Education?  Scholarship?  A 501(c)(3) exemption?

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In James K. Polk news…

Polk’s current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. By Brent Moore from Antioch, TN (President James K. Polk tomb, Nashville) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that Young Hickory has a big news week, but a couple of developments have quite a few people talking about James K. Polk lately.

First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.  Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.

He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office.  Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims.  Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years.  But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself.  It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.

There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN.  Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824.  The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House).  Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.

The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval.  But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.

Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is.  In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place.  Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood.  It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government.  That’s just my take.

The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project.  This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.

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