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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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Historic happenings at Knoxville museums this weekend

There’s plenty for history buffs to do in Knoxville over the next couple of days.

UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a brand new exhibit opening on Friday.  Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age focuses on the proliferation of consumer household goods that accompanied industrialization, trade, and travel in the late nineteenth century.  The McClung’s permanent collection has a ton of fascinating material from this period, so there should be some really neat objects on display.  The museum is hosting a lecture on the era by historian Pat Rutenberg on July 16 at 2:00, so check that out if you’d like to learn more.

On Saturday and Sunday, we’re having our annual Statehood Day Living History Weekend at Marble Springs.  Admission is free, and we’ll have reenactors and interpreters  on hand for demonstrations and talks at the historic buildings.  If you haven’t been to the site, or if you’ve taken the standard tour but have never been to one of our living history events, this is one of the best occasions to visit.

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Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…

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I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.

 

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Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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Object lessons in museums and the humanities

Last week I got an object lesson—quite literally, since it was a lesson with objects—in how valuable university museums and the humanities can be.

As you may recall, this semester I have the tremendous good fortune of doing my graduate assistantship at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.  I’m helping out with the museum’s academic programs, which means I get to work with university classes that use the collection and exhibits as teaching tools.  One of the neat things about working at the McClung is the fact that the collection is so eclectic: Native American archaeology, Egyptian artifacts, fossils, early modern maps, firearms, malacological specimens, decorative arts from every corner of the globe, you name it.  The possibilities for teaching with the museum’s holdings are pretty much endless.

Which brings me to last week’s object lesson.  My supervisor, who’s both an art historian and an extraordinarily gifted museum educator, hosted a group of graduate students for some critical examination of the McClung’s most impressive pieces, like this Buddha statue dating from the Ming Dynasty.

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Now, here’s the cool part.  This wasn’t a class in art history, Chinese civilization, or religion.  It was a nursing class, and the students were there to hone their observational and communication abilities.  A lot of the same skills involved in learning to evaluate works of art and articulate what you observe when you examine an object are the same skills physicians use in diagnosis and other aspects of patient care.

Art museums, it turns out, are great places to train physicians.  When university museums like the McClung or UVa’s Fralin Museum of Art team up with medical schools, the results are both real and measurable:

The Clinician’s Eye Program—using art exposure to help medical students build their observational and diagnostic ‘toolkit’—was launched in 2013 in partnership with U.Va.’s School of Medicine. Based on similar programs at leading medical schools, the program includes interactive tours of objects in the Museum, as well as drawing exercises that strengthen communication skills. Pre- and post-testing demonstrated a measurable impact; 90% of participants reported improved observational skills, increased tolerance for ambiguity, or heightened communication skills, and corresponding testing revealed a marked improvement in these abilities after one 2-hour workshop.

So when the rubber hits the road, when everything is about the bottom line, and when every academic and cultural endeavor must justify its own existence, what good are museums, the humanities, art, and all that other squishy stuff?  Well, for starters, they just might end up saving your life.

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Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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Dino discoveries at the McClung Museum

Did I hit the special dino exhibit at the McClung Museum on opening day?  You better believe I did.

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Our knowledge of dinos has increased almost exponentially in the past decade or two, partly because there are more people engaged in the business than ever before, but also because of new specimens and new techniques for studying them.  New knowledge and new techniques are what the exhibition Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas is all about.  Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it offers a look at some of the things scientists have learned in the past decade or so, and explains how they’ve learned it.  If you developed an interest in dinosaurs back in the heyday of the nineties but fell out of the loop later, or if you were a dino-obsessed kid who hasn’t picked up a paleo book in decades, this exhibit will give you a taste of what’s been going on lately in the world of terrible lizards.

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Take computer modeling, for example.  Dino bones tend to be big, heavy, and fragile, which puts limits on the things you can do with them in a lab.  Researchers can manipulate a virtual skeleton in ways that would be impossible with the genuine article, so they can study, say, the neck vertebrae of a sauropod to get a sense of what the living animal’s posture might have been like.  You know those pictures of long-necked herbivores with their heads held erect like enormous giraffes?  Turns out sauropods might not have been browsing up in the treetops after all.

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Here’s a Mesozoic arsenal: stegosaur plates and a spike, and an ankylosaur tail club.  Or were some of these things intended to win over mates rather than fend off carnivores?

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We’ve all seen images of Triceratops facing off against T. rex.  But as formidable as those horns and that bony frill look…

 

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…the headgear isn’t as impressive on smaller relatives, such as Protoceratops.  That suggests ceratopsians were using their cranial adornment for something besides dueling with predators.

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And speaking of T. rex, one of the most interesting paleontological debates involves whether the tyrant lizard king was a fast runner.  (I think it’s interesting, anyway, and in the event you ever find yourself in the presence of a tyrannosaur, I dare say you’ll take an intense and sudden interest in it, too.)  How do you gauge the top speed of an animal that died tens of millions of years ago?  This exhibit will let you see how scientists crunch the numbers, and where the numbers themselves come from.  And the news is surprisingly not that bad for those of you in the habit of driving jeeps around island theme parks during power outages.

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Some of the most fascinating dino discoveries of the past couple decades have come from the early Cretaceous deposits of Liaoning Province in northeastern China.  Animals and plants either died in or washed into still lakes before volcanic ash buried them, creating a low-oxygen environment that kept the remains intact and preserved the fossils in exquisite detail.  Because of these ideal conditions, we know that some dinosaurs from Liaoning—such as Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Sinornithosaurus—had a feathery covering.  These Chinese finds have shed quite a bit of light on the relationship between birds and extinct dinosaurs and the evolution of flight.

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Dinosaur Discoveries will be at the McClung until August 28.  I definitely recommend a visit for those of you in the Knoxville area.  It’s not an assemblage of original specimens, but the casts and models are lovely, and there are plenty of interactive elements.  I love the idea of an exhibit geared toward teaching not just what scientists know, but how they know it and how much remains to be determined.  It underscores the idea of science as a process—as a set of questions and contested answers—rather than an inert body of facts that just appears out of nowhere in the pages of textbooks and on Wikipedia.

History, too, is a process  of inquiry.  And I think we should more fully exploit this same approach when it comes to history exhibits and other historical media aimed at the public.  One of the big problems historians face when it comes to advocating for the discipline is the fact that so many people don’t really understand what we do or how we go about doing it.  Since exhibits are one of our primary means of communicating with the public, we should be using them not just to convey information about our subject matter, but to give people a sense of how historians go about their work, what constitutes historical thinking, and what the possibilities and limitations of historical investigation are.  We should be using exhibits to convey information, but we should also use them to demonstrate that this information is the result of historians asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and throwing those answers into competition with one another.

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Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas wasn’t a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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