Tag Archives: museums

GDP: A couple of Carolina dinosaurs

Well, it was supposed to be a working trip—no prehistoric shenanigans allowed.  But it turns out the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is practically right across the street from the state archives.  I took it as a sign.

A most welcome sign, too, because the NCMNS has two dinosaur specimens I’d wanted to see in person for a long time.  The first is “Willo,” a remarkable Thescelosaurus from South Dakota.

This guy (gal?) was all over the news back in 2000 due to a claim that the stony mass under the shoulder blade was actually a petrified heart.  Other researchers have argued that it’s just a concretion.  Either way, Willo is a really neat fossil.

The other dino I wanted to check out was the world’s largest and most complete Acrocanthosaurus, a massive Early Cretaceous meat-eater famous for the spines along its neck and back.

Note that some of the bones are missing.  I think the museum is replacing the original fossils in the mount with replicas because of the preservation conditions in the exhibit space, so if you want to see the genuine article, you’d better do it sooner rather than later.

The original skull is in a case nearby, and it’s a beauty.

 

The acro shares its gallery with an Astrodon.  Those wicked teeth have already ripped a chunk out of the sauropod’s hindquarters, and it looks like the acro is going to make another lunge.

 

The dinos alone were well worth the stroll over from the archives, but this ginormous ground sloth is one of the most impressive fossil mammals I’ve ever seen.

Even more ginormous are the whale skeletons looming over the Coastal North Carolina exhibit.  My faves were the blue whale…

 

…and “Trouble,” the skeleton of a sperm whale that washed up on the Carolina coast in 1928.  The name came from the ordeal museum personnel had getting the bones back to Raleigh.

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Bypassing books in museum gift shops

History people tend to be book people.  The first place I hit up when I visit a museum or historic site is the gift shop, so I can scope out the book selection.  It’s a great chance to find titles I might not be aware of, and since I’m OCD, I have to get a sense of what I’ll be buying on the way out before I can settle down and enjoy the exhibits.

That’s why this tweet caught my eye the other day:

Books’ aren’t top sellers at the ALLM’s gift shop, either.  The only exception is a history title that LMU publishes in-house, meaning our shop is one of the few places you can buy a copy.  Our most popular items are inexpensive souvenirs: facsimile Gettysburg Addresses (we sell a lot of those), novelty Lincoln items, mugs, pencils, postcards, and plastic Civil War soldiers.

It’s a little frustrating.  If you want your gift shop to contribute directly your institution’s mission—if you want it to be something besides a simple income generator—offering your visitors edifying books seems like a good way to make it happen.  But if visitors don’t buy them, there seems little point in stocking them.  A lot of gift shops thus end up contributing to the site’s mission only indirectly, by defraying the costs associated with other areas of operations.  (Of course, a lot of visitors who scout out good books at museum and site shops might be trying to save some money by waiting until they return home to order them online.)

Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing.  Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them.  Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them.  Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.

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Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

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ETHS goes into the trenches and in search of Sgt. York

I highly recommend you visit In the Footsteps of Sergeant York, the new special exhibit from the Museum of the American Military Experience at the East Tennessee Historical Society.  It strikes a neat balance between an intimate portrait of York himself and a broader examination of Tennesseans’ mobilization in the Great War as a whole, and takes you from York’s rural Fentress County home…

…to the trenches of the Western Front.

The exhibition also chronicles the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition’s use of GIS and archaeology to pinpoint the precise location of his famous attack at Hill 223 near Chatel-Chéhéry.  (You may recall that the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch hosted this part of the exhibit a few years ago, although ETHS has augmented it with additional material.)  The machine gun below is reportedly one of the weapons York captured, while the rounds in front of the helmet are among the artifacts the SYDE recovered from the battleground.

Fire from the machine gun nest York took out cut down six of his comrades, and artifacts excavated from their original burial site are also on display.

As fascinating as the Chatel-Chéhéry items are, though, the object that struck me the most is this canteen carried by Fred O. Stone.  Like my great-grandfather, he was a Claiborne County, TN native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial University’s old medical school in Knoxville.

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What determines which objects you see in history museums?

Here’s an interesting piece by Jack Ashby on the human factors that determine what we see—and what we don’t see—in natural history museums.  “Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in,” Ashby notes.  “They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality.”

In other words, the exhibits aren’t pure reflections of the natural world they purport to show us.  They tend to overrepresent megafauna and male specimens, since large animals with impressive headgear pack a bigger visual wallop.  Species from the colonial possessions of an institution’s home country usually get overrepresentation, too.  And you’re far more likely to see taxidermy mounts than specimens preserved in fluids.  As Ashby writes, “I suspect that one reason is that—unlike taxidermy—fluid preservation cannot hide the fact that the animal is obviously dead. It is likely that museums shy away from displaying mammals in jars—which are very common in their storerooms—because visitors find them more disturbing and cruel than the alternatives.”

Buffalo Bill Center of the West. By Paul Hermans (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I read Ashby’s piece, it occurred to me that the same sort of selection bias affects exhibits in history museums.  In the same way that natural history exhibits overrepresent big animals, historical museums tend to showcase larger objects while keeping the majority of their smaller items in storage.  An intact stagecoach or an artillery piece has a wow factor that you’re not necessarily going to get with a ceramic fragment.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, like most museums, only has gallery space for a fraction of what we possess, and much of that space is devoted to big, impressive pieces like firearms, carriages, life-size portraits, and large statuary works. It’s not a cross-section of what we keep in our vaults. Many of the objects we have are small, and while they posses considerable historical value, they’re not the sort of thing that stops a visitor in their tracks: commemorative medallions, books, CDVs, and so on. And some of our most captivating and precious items rarely go on display, simply because they’re in manuscript form and very susceptible to damage by light and exposure.

The nature of an object itself has a big impact on whether or not it’s suitable for incorporation into an exhibit. Maybe this isn’t as big a deal for history museums as it is for natural history institutions.  We don’t purport to show nature in all its variety.  But perhaps history museums should try to find ways to convey a sense of the overall composition of their collections when they plan exhibits.  It might be useful for visitors to learn not only the subject matter, but something about what sort of things constitute museum collections in the first place, and what determines the types of objects they get to see as opposed to those they don’t.

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Help for museums and historic sites in Harvey’s wake

If you’d like to help museums and historic sites around the Gulf Coast of Texas recover from this catastrophe, the American Association for State and Local History has put together some great resources.

One thing we can all do right now is donate to the AASLH Hurricane Harvey Cultural Relief Fund.  Every cent will go to museums, sites, and other cultural institutions hit by the storm.

If you’ve got expertise in collections care, restoration, insurance, mold removal, or any other aspect of disaster recovery that might be useful to museum and site personnel, you can sign up online to serve as a point of contact and referral.

And if you’re a curator or site administrator, this is a good time to make sure your institution or organization is prepared for a disaster.  (For additional information, check out the AAM’s website.)

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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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