Tag Archives: museums

Yet another federal attempt to gut libraries, museums, and humanities

It’s becoming an annual ritual.  This is the fourth time the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would eviscerate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

As I’ve said on previous occasions when this idiotic idea has been put forward, if you think you don’t benefit from these programs, think again.  Ever been to a history museum?  Researched your genealogy?  Read a biography?  Listened to a talk by a prominent historian?  If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve made use of programs or institutions that depend on NEH and/or IMLS support.

What’s really obscene about this is the fact that cutting NEH and IMLS wouldn’t even make a dent in the federal budget.  Sure, the money allocated to NEH last year might sound like a lot—but it’s barely a blip when you’re talking about the trillions of dollars that make up expenditures on the federal level.

Fortunately, these guys are 0-4 in trying to kill NEH and IMLS.  Contact your representatives and let’s make sure that track record holds up.

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Support fire recovery at the Museum of Chinese in America

Perhaps you’ve heard about the awful damage to MOCA’s archive in a three-alarm fire.  Here’s a GoFundMe link for donations toward the recovery effort.  They’ve already raised more than $100,000 in just five days, and I encourage all readers to pitch in.

You can also email them with inquiries about other ways to help: firerecovery@mocanyc.org.

MOCA’s main museum building is intact and open for tours.  If you’re in the NYC area, get some family and friends together and pay them a visit.   You’ll be supporting them financially while also enjoying a few edifying hours.

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Peale’s mastodon is headed back to America

While we’re on the subject of moving really big museum artifacts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is bringing the Peale mastodon from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt back to the U.S. for a special exhibit.

By the time Charles Wilson Peale—artist, museum entrepreneur, and Rev War veteran—was excavating mastodon bones near present-day Montgomery, NY in 1801, the fossils of massive, elephantine creatures had been turning up in America for almost a century.  But Peale was the first to mount a mastodon skeleton for exhibition.  (Indeed, he was among the first to articulate any fossil skeleton for display.)  It became a star attraction at his Philadelphia museum, alongside his taxidermied birds and portraits of Revolutionary notables.

The mastodon figures in two of Peale’s artistic works.  He painted the scene of its exhumation in 1806…

…while its bones are visible beneath the curtain in the 1822 self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum.

Since mastodons became an emblem of the young American republic’s vitality—and since Peale himself was so caught up in the intellectual currents of the founding era—it’ll be nice to have this specimen back in the U.S., at least for a while.

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The plane, boss!

Moving everything out of the ALLM to make way for our big renovation project has been a labor of herculean proportions.  But hey, at least we didn’t have to disassemble an entire DC-3 and haul it across town, like the folks at the Smithsonian.

The biggest items we had to take apart and move were a 3-inch Ordnance rifle, an ambulance wagon, and William Seward’s carriage.  Seems pretty easy compared to a 17,000-lb. aircraft, although we weren’t thinking it at the time.

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When we said the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum was getting a total renovation, we weren’t kidding

We meant total—from the roof down to the floor.

The only thing we haven’t moved is our plaster copy of Paul Manship’s Hoosier Youth statue.  It’s too darn big to pack up.  Instead, the construction crew built a crate around it to keep it safe and sound while the work’s going on.

Outside, the new elevator shaft is taking shape.  On either side will be the new galleries, learning lab, collections processing room, and restrooms.

As for exhibits, we’re hard at work on those, too.  The Kincaid Gallery we opened last year will be back, but all the other galleries will have new stuff.  The National Constitution Center exhibit Lincoln, the Constitution, and the Civil War will be moving downstairs, this time with some fantastic objects from our own permanent collection.  Upstairs will be a new display of Civil War weapons, uniforms, and medical artifacts.  We’re also developing a new exhibit on Lincoln’s final days.  And, of course, we’ll roll out brand new permanent exhibits in the spaces that are under construction—one on the ways Americans have remembered Lincoln, and another on the history of our parent institution.

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Museum conferences vs. academic conferences

Some co-workers and I were talking about conferences recently—namely, how enjoyable and beneficial museum conferences are.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend both academic history conferences and conferences aimed at museum professionals, mostly because my own professional background has straddled the divide between academic and public history.  My training has followed the route usually taken by academics, but a lot of my work experience has been in public history.

Here are some of the differences between academic history conferences and museum conferences that I’ve found most striking:

  • Museum conferences are far more collaborative.  You get the sense that you’re part of a group of people who are all engaged in the same enterprise, and they’re getting together to help each other out.  It’s not about listening to individual presenters report on the results of their separate investigations. It’s about sharing hard-won experiential knowledge that attendees can reapply to their own situations.
  • On a related note, museum conferences are far more practical. In most sessions, practitioners discuss how they’ve tackled problems that are common to the profession, and they explain what worked and what didn’t. You leave armed with stuff you can use.
  • Museum conference presentations are far more engaging.  You’re unlikely to hear a single paper read verbatim.  Even single-presenter sessions are geared more toward facilitating a conversation than conveying information from presenter to recipients.
  • Museum conferences tend to be less cliquish.  I don’t mean “cliquish” to come across as pejorative as it sounds.  I just mean that I’ve noticed more cross-pollination between different groups at museum conferences than at academic ones.  I should note that there are exceptions to this.  I once attended a large conference for presidential history sites, and it was interesting to see how the various sub-groups coalesced.  Folks from the big Founders’ homes tended to hang out together, as did people from the Gilded Age presidential sites, people from the twentieth-century presidents’ libraries, etc.  But I don’t see as much self-sorting of this kind at museum conferences as I do at academic conferences of comparable size.
  • For what it’s worth—and, again, this is a totally unscientific conclusion drawn solely from personal observation—museum conferences I’ve attended have been more gender-balanced. Not long ago I went to a museum conference with a session aimed specifically at site directors—that is, people in positions of executive leadership at their respective institutions.  I’d say the audience was at least 85% women, and the panel itself consisted solely of women.  Now, I should stress that I’m not saying the museum profession doesn’t have problems with gender inequities in promotions, pay, and hiring.  It does, even though women make up a majority of U.S. museum employees.  But let me ask you this: If a regional academic history conference offered a session specifically for full tenured professors, what would be the odds that women would make up 80% or more of the attendees?

Not to put too fine a point on anything, but I think the world of academia could learn a thing or two about conferences from museum people.

Michigan History Museum. Photo by Michael Barera [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

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The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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