Tag Archives: museums

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

When scientific specimens become historic artifacts

In the summer of 1909, just after vacating the White House, Theodore Roosevelt killed a lion in Kenya as part of a collecting expedition for the Smithsonian.  Now the mounted cat is going back on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History after spending twenty years in mothballs.  Here’s Sarah Kaplan’s fascinating piece at The Washington Post:

The past century has taken a toll on the majestic creature. The lion’s tawny fur is crushed in places, and his rumpled mane gives him the appearance of having bed head. A portion of his ear is clipped, chunks of fur are missing, and his glass eyes have gone foggy with age.

Conservator Ron Harvey surveyed the mount, assessing the damage, deciding what to repair and what to leave as is.

“I want him to look his best,” he explained. “But it is 100 years old. I want to maintain that sense of history too.”

The job of a natural history conservator goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Harvey must maintain the specimen’s scientific usefulness, ensuring that it can be studied by future generations. He also wants to preserve it as a historical artifact — an object that can tell us about our past and its own. When museum visitors look at this mount in six months, Harvey hopes they’ll get a sense of how it got to the museum, what it meant when they arrived, what it stills mean today.

“What story did this lion and Roosevelt want to tell us?” Harvey wondered. That’s what he aims to conserve.…

After consulting with museum conservation specialist Cathy Hawks, he decided to leave the lion’s glass eyes — which are cloudy and crizzled from a phenomenon called glass disease — as they are. They’re historic artifacts too, after all, and they’re suggestive of the lion’s old age and impressive backstory. On top of which, it would probably cause more damage to try to take them out.

“What we’re trying to do in conservation is preserve and extend the life of . . . this body that has not been sapped of all its knowledge,” Harvey said.

He noted that the specimen has been cited in scientific journal articles as recently as 2010, and that scientists are developing new tools for research all the time. There may be other stories — about lion biology, East African ecosystems, 20th century taxidermy methods — buried inside this specimen, waiting for someone with the right question and the right tools to answer it.

Roosevelt’s lion is a working scientific research specimen, but it’s also a historic artifact.  It reminds us that science is a human process embedded in the time and culture in which it takes place.  The National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the Natural History Museum don’t just preserve the record of life on earth, but also the record of how we’ve come to understand it.

Mounted lions from Roosevelt's Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

Mounted lions from Roosevelt’s Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the things that makes a visit to venerable old natural history museums so special.  As I’ve said before, a stroll through the fossil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History is almost like a tour of milestones in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Seeing any real dinosaur fossil is a treat, but at the AMNH you’re also seeing the life’s work of legendary figures like Barnum Brown, Henry F. Osborn, Charles H. Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews.  You’re standing in the presence of giants in a dual sense, both the remains of long-dead creatures and the ghosts of those who brought them to light.

If you’re planning a trip to the AMNH, I heartily recommend reading Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History before your visit.  It’s an engrossing reminder that natural history and human history are intertwined, and that museums house stories as well as specimens.  Thousands of stories, millions of stories—stories behind every pair of glass eyes, mounted on every metal armature, locked away in every drawer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Illinois calls “finders, keepers” on Santa Anna’s leg

I guess this story is sort of Halloween-appropriate, since it involves a severed body part.  It’s a fake body part, but still.

A history professor from Texas believes there’s an appropriate place for Mexican general and president Santa Anna’s artificial leg and it isn’t the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

Teresa Van Hoy thinks it should be returned to Mexico, where he headed the Mexican government 11 times.

The state says it is staying right here.

“To us it’s non-negotiable,” said Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. “They say they want to start a conversation. That conversation has been made before. We’re not interested in a conversation. The answer is no. The leg is where it belongs and it’s staying here.”

Van Hoy is a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, which also is home to the Alamo, the mission famous for its 13-day stand against Santa Anna’s army in 1836.

She was in Springfield Friday with about two dozen students who constructed a “Day of the Dead” memorial at the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the state Capitol grounds. The memorial is intended to recognize Lincoln’s “career-long solidarity with Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” the university said in an announcement of the trip.

They were accompanied by a crew producing a film called “Santa Anna in the Land of Lincoln,” which is part of a project of the class.

“(Lincoln) was the most outspoken critic of the Mexican War,” Van Hoy said. “It seems to us logical that it does not honor Abraham Lincoln to hold on display a leg captured in that war less than a mile from his tomb.”

The leg is housed at the military museum at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. It is currently not on public display as part of the museum’s practice of putting some artifacts in storage periodically.

It is in the Illinois museum because soldiers from Illinois captured the leg during the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, also known simply as the Mexican War.

I just want to note that if I’d known the State Military Museum had Santa Anna’s wooden leg when I was in Springfield, I would’ve skipped the ALPLM and gone there instead.

Santa Anna was eating in his carriage and had removed his artificial leg when the Illinois soldiers surprised him. Santa Anna escaped, but he left the leg behind. The captured leg, which was made in New York out of cork, is probably the most famous artifact in the military museum.

Van Hoy said the history goes beyond just Santa Anna’s leg.

“There is a really rich history here and unfortunately, so far in my view, it has been reduced to a freak show exhibit which doesn’t do full honor to the people of Illinois or the veterans of Illinois,” she said.

Leighton said the leg is a tribute to the 68 Illinois soldiers who died during the battle of Cerro Gordo and the 98 who died during the war.

“We paid for that leg with Illinois blood,” Leighton said. “It honors our soldiers; it honors their service, and it was put in our public trust by our troops to keep in perpetuity. And that’s where it’s going to stay.”…

Van Hoy said she wants people to understand that “hating Santa Anna is toxic.”

“It’s toxic for Mexican-Americans, it’s toxic for the United States where we’re fetishizing a body part,” she said. “It’s toxic for Mexico where their treasures are just held as a freak show exhibit. We can do better than this.”

I think it’s interesting that neither Van Hoy nor Leighton base their arguments on whether or not the leg serves any educational or interpretive function.  Leighton wants to keep it because it “honors our soldiers,” while Van Hoy wants to send it back because it’s “toxic” for Americans and people of Mexican descent.

From a curatorial standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral or “toxic” about putting the leg on display.  Museums are full of items that were captured as war trophies—weapons, flags, bits of uniforms—and remain on exhibit because of their historical significance.  If Van Hoy wants to make a case that Santa Anna’s leg isn’t a proper subject for an exhibition, she has her work cut out for her.

If I was a curator, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit such a compelling object.  With proper contextualization, you could use it to teach visitors something about why Illinois troops would claim such an object as a trophy, how nineteenth-century Americans understood Mexico and the war, and so on.

At the same time, however, I’m not totally on board with Lt. Col. Leighton’s argument for keeping the leg in the museum, either.  Rather than invoking the object’s interpretive or educational utility, he argues that it was bought with “Illinois blood” and that it honors the service of Illinoisans.  Both of those statements may be true, but they fail to take into account some of the nuances surrounding the repatriation of historical artifacts.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m bringing my own inclinations and biases to bear on this question.  As a museum guy, I see the object in terms of its historical and educational significance.  As a soldier, Leighton sees it as a validation of the military sacrifices of his comrades, past and present.  And as someone concerned with the history of Mexican-U.S. relations, Van Hoy sees it as a symbol of the long, troubled relationship between the two nations.

In other words, people engage the past from many different perspectives, and not all of them are detached and academic.

Anyway, if you want to see the leg for yourself, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.  The museum has temporarily taken it off exhibit for a little TLC.  Sounds like they’re taking better care of it than Santa Anna did.

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

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.

Version 2

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.

Version 2

 

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.

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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

img_1998

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.

 

img_2004

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

Version 2

…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.

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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…

Version 2

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

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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.

Version 2

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History