Tag Archives: public history

Have public history degree, will travel

One of our Marble Springs staff members is moving on to a position at a Civil War-related site, the T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, GA. Cobb was a lawyer who figures prominently in Georgia’s legal history, but he’s best remembered as a member of the Confederate congressional committee responsible for drafting the CSA’s constitution and as the organizer of the Georgia Legion.  His military career didn’t last long; he bled to death from a mortal wound received at Fredericksburg, but the Legion went on to serve in many of the war’s bloodiest battles.  I don’t know if he was any relation to Wilbur Cobb of Ren & Stimpy fame, but I desperately hope so.

Anyway, we had a little send-off for our colleague (who we were very sad to lose) a few days ago, and she mentioned that she’s about to start studying up on Cobb’s life and times for her new job.  After years of working on the Tennessee frontier, it’ll be quite a change.

It occurred to me that this is one of the differences between public historians and their academic counterparts.  Academic historians have the tremendous luxury of specialization.  They spend years immersing themselves in the literature and primary sources of a particular field, and their success depends on how well they can navigate within it.  Of course, they’ll end up teaching courses that fall outside their specialization.  When it’s their turn to teach the survey course, they’ll have to have a working knowledge of a tremendous swath of historical knowledge.  And the academic who can rework his or her specialization to fit a particular department’s strengths and expectations will be at a great advantage on a job search.  But if they’re lucky, academic historians will spend much of their time on whatever it is they’ve chosen to study.

Public historians, on the other hand, have to learn to adapt.  Their reading and research will depend much more heavily on the job they find themselves in than on their own inclinations.  Again, the differences aren’t absolute; some public historians will be fortunate enough to find a position that suits their particular interests and expertise, just as some academic historians will find it necessary to adapt quickly to meet the needs of a department looking to hire new blood.  But adaptation is more likely to be a fact of life for the public historian.

A change of job doesn’t just mean a change of zip code and getting to know a new city.  It also means getting acquainted with a new mental geography: new contexts, new historiographies, new themes.  It might mean a crash course in World War I for your first job, labor history for your second, the antebellum South for your third.  One of my former bosses has worked at museums specializing in subjects as varied as the Trans-Mississippi West, the history of firearms, and Abraham Lincoln.  I know people who have been posted at sites dealing with the pre-Columbian Southwest and the Kentucky frontier, Jacksonian canals and the Civil War, twentieth-century education and eighteenth-century Appalachia.

On top of all this, remember that public historians have to be generalists in another sense, too.  They have to be familiar with the tenets of historical research as well as all the practical know-how required to manage a museum or a site: preservation, exhibits, budgets, pedagogy, and so on.

Adaptability and versatility just might be the two most important qualities for the aspiring public historian.  It’s not a career choice for the faint of heart, but if you like learning new things, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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From women’s history to Ripperology: museum mission creep

From New York magazine:

A former Google diversity head decided he wanted to build a museum dedicated to women’s history in London’s East End, so he submitted a proposal outlining his goals last October. But after the proposal was approved and construction on the museum began, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe promptly switched tactics, and instead decided to build a museum dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who exclusively targeted female sex workers. His excuse? Jack the Ripper is less boring than exploring women’s history and accomplishments.

I’ll grant that Jack the Ripper is “less boring” than the social history of women in England, but holy cow.  This is like setting out to do a documentary on the decline of the American auto industry and making Transformers 5 instead.

Opening a museum entails more than hanging a sign out front with the word “museum” on it.  Not every building with immersive galleries, mannequins, a few artifacts, and a gift shop is actually in the historical interpretation business.  There are museums, and then there are what we might more properly call “historical tourist attractions.”  Such attractions are common at gunfighter-related sites in the American West, and they’re all over the place at Pigeon Forge here in East Tennessee.

The Jack the Ripper Museum opens on Tuesday, and then Londoners will be able to see if the exhibits really do interpret the Whitechapel murders in their historical context, or whether this is another of those museums in name only.

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On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

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Why we need plenty of historic house museums

A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:

Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.

The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”

I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one.  But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.

  • HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience.  People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
  • They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
  • Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles.  Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point.  HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional.  The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara.  It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
  • HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact.  The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum.  That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
  • HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions.  A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM.  When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there.  Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience.  There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.

A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving.  But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd.  What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.

When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession.  It’s a small tragedy.

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Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Keep the doors open

I’m of the opinion that history departments need to be more open to the possibility that students may want to pursue career paths outside academia, so I’m pleased to see that this was one of the subjects of discussion at the AHA.

Professors need to avoid discouraging budding public historians, of course, but they should do more than that—they should be actively encouraging them.  They should familiarize themselves with the career paths open to non-academic historians and equip themselves to guide interested students along those paths.  To assume that all roads originating in higher historical education should end in a tenure-track teaching position is, I submit, irresponsible.  Jobs for history majors are scarce enough without mentors closing possible doors before their students can consider walking through them.

If academic historians are looking for ways to bridge the chasm between the ivory tower and the public, they should remember that  their classrooms are full of potential public historians.

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The changing face of Civil War museums

USA Today looks at the ways Civil War museums are changing with the times:

For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.

Inclusivity, technology, and objectivity have been on the rise in history museums of all kinds, not just those devoted to the Civil War.  What’s interesting is that Civil War museums in the South have a particular hurdle to overcome.

Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., Waite Rawls.

“It’s still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we are all working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately the Confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s.”

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