Tag Archives: museums

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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Across the Delaware

The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride.  Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.

Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing.  Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.

Washington’s army made it across without mishap.  I haven’t been so lucky.  A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is.  There went my passenger side mirror.  Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.

Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.

Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.

WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.

If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing.  They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.

If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats.  Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing.  It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate.  (Well, that and the sunlight.)

The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn.  I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here.  It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see.  Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776.  The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790.  Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement.  Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.

A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section.  Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill.  There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story.  Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.

An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.

This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House.  Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in.  William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here.  So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.

Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop.  He’s buried not far from the house…

…alongside comrades whose names are unknown.  Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.

The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s.  Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B?  Here’s your answer.  Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water.  The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.

Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park.  If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum.  The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries.  The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty.  (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)

While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey.  The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.

Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.

While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.

The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.

Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.

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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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And killing IMLS is a terrible idea, too

Check out that whole thread of tweets, if you haven’t already.  If you care about history—and since you’re reading this blog, I assume you do—this should terrify you.

Eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services would be devastating to institutions that preserve the past and make it accessible.  These grants are critical to the maintenance of important historical collections, the technology that ensures their availability, and the programs that allow us to share them.

Now would be a very good time to contact your representative.


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