Week 9 Reading Response

Readings:

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz – Chapters 1-7

Organization of American Historians, Imperiled Promise  – Sections: “Framing the Challenges: A Brief History of History in the NPS,” “Gaining the High Ground: Reinterpreting Slavery and the Civil War,” and “Transporting Visitors to the Open-Ended Past: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield.”

Vestal, Whites-only covenants still exist in many mid-century Spokane …

There is a contradictory sentiment regarding the past in the United States, try to have public discussion about the Civil War and its legacy people object stating “It happened so long ago and we should let the past be” but try to get people to stop flying the battle flag of the Confederacy and some of those very same people lose their minds, saying that it represents their “heritage” and not hate. The Civil War and slavery is the specter that haunts American history and society, no matter how much we deny it for many Americans its presence is always in the background of their lives. Of course these legacies are felt very differently across the United States and its people.

As a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest I thought of the Civil War as a event that happened in the far past and very far away in relation to where I live. Spokane literally did not exist when it occurred, the region was sparsely populated and would not get connected by rail to the eastern US for another 15-20 years. So when I read Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz I finally feel as if I have insight to the complexity of how Southerners feel about it and how they grapple with its legacy. Written during the 1990s this book is an account by Tony Horwitz, a journalist who had done conflict reporting in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the first Gulf War, who decides to after a run in with hardcore Confederate Civil War reenactors to tour the South and see how Southerners live with its legacy. The portrait that he paints of how regular white Southerners get obsessed with the war was fascinating, for instance I knew about the the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy but I never knew just how prevalent it seems to still be in the modern day.

I think chapter 5, Kentucky: Dying for Dixie in which he describes the impact of the murder of Michael Westerman has on the small town of Guthrie is an encapsulation of how the legacy of the Civil War is a real tangible wound in Southern society. The whole incident of his death seems very murky but Westerman flew the Stars and Bars from his truck and while on a date night with his wife who had just given birth to twins, there was some kind of altercation with a group of black teenagers concerning the flag which had the ultimate result of Westerman being shot and killed by one of those teenagers. His death divides the white and black community, Michael is transformed into a neo-confederate martyr, the KKK shows up and passes out racist literature, a school meeting to decide whether to change the Confederate Mascot becomes a very charged display of whites asserting their “heritage” and Freddie Morrow, a black teenager is convicted of Michael’s death in a bench trail and sentenced to life in prison.

The National Parks Service handles in addition to many other holdings, the battlegrounds of the Civil War and how to handle historical interpretations for visitors has been a challenge. The Organization of American Historians produced a report detailing how the Parks Service is carrying out that duty and also talks about how the Service has been and not been successful in developing historical interpretations and approaches incorporating modern historical scholarship. The report details how since the Service has been greatly expanded in terms of the sites it had to manage, from National Parks to historical sites they had to develop a historical interpretative branch but they also had to preserve these sites. The preservation side of the service dominates while leaving the historical interpretation static and rooted to a historical program that was very rarely updated in terms of its analysis. This report examines various efforts by the Service to change and update its programs and visitor approaches, like taking tour groups to the Sunken road at the Antietam National Battleground and describing how Confederates got caught in a flanking maneuver by Union units, trapped in a murderous crossfire that felled so many that fleeing Confederates stepped only on bodies, feeling no ground underneath their feet. It will be interesting to see if they can comprehensively reform their whole historical program throughout the whole service.

WHISPERS OF ANTIETAM NOW TO THEN
The infamous Sunken Road at the Battle of Antietam (Baltimore Sun’s Darkroom, Whispers of Antietam http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2013/09/whispers-of-antietam-then-and-now-2/#1)

The last reading is really the comment thread of an recently posted article from the Spokesman Review about how many deeds in Spokane had whites only covenants and attempts to get these covenants formally stricken. Of course many of the same sort objections about talking about the Civil War are made by commentators on this article, stop trying to divide us or this happened in the past get over it. We like to pretend that we are not racist in the Pacific Northwest but as this article and  comments show that is a lie. People want to only remember the Civil War for its battles, antebellum South for its plantations and ignore the underlying reason for their existence, slavery. They want to remember Dixie and forget the lynchings, the degradation of a people held in bondage for centuries. However these things are inseparable and deserve to be told to future generations, to show how far we come and how far we still have to go.

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It took nearly 50 years for interracial marriage to get above 50% in national polling. (Gallup, http://www.gallup.com/poll/163697/approve-marriage-blacks-whites.aspx)

Week 8 Reading Response

Readings this week:

Cauvin: Chapter 11 and 12

Presence of the Past: Chapter 3, 5 and Afterthoughts

Are public historians arbiters of what constitutes history? Are they wise curators who select a particular interpretation of history to present to an uninformed public? Is the public just a collection of ignorant rubes who absorb what they were taught about history passively? Do historians have a duty to act as social activists? The readings this week grapple with these sorts of questions, the two chapters in Cauvin are on public participation in sharing interpretations of the past with historians and the role that public historians play in civic engagement and social activism. While in Presence of the Past the two chapters are on how respondents to the survey use, connect, and relate to the past to understand their present and their futures while also coming to an understanding of how they relate to larger narratives and communities.

It is very easy to see just influential the 1995-7 survey on how Americans understand the past is by reading Cauvin after reading Presence of the Past. Chapters 11 and 12 are very much based on the conclusions drawn from the survey, particularly in how much emphasis is placed on making the audience an integral part of the interpretive process, Cauvin labels this process of collaborative interpretation between historians and audiences, Shared Authority. Of course this practice has definite limits particularly on subjects whose interpretations are varied and extremely polarizing, where discussion in of itself is still taboo. Cauvin provides concentration camps in Germany, European responsibility in the consequences of colonization in Africa, and Native American history as the type of subjects that are still emotionally charged. I think that the point Cauvin makes about the ultimate purpose of shared authority is that “not to make history more opinion-based, but to make public understanding of the past more critical” (p. 226) is a very important guiding principle. A bad outcome of shared authority would be the enshrinement of historical interpretations that merely confirmed instead of challenge a visitors understanding of the past.

I found Cauvin’s chapter on Historians as social activists interesting if only it severely cuts against academic expectations of the proper place of historians. Maintaining a certain distance from the subjects you are writing about in order to have “objectivity” is 180 degrees from what Cauvin advocates. I understand the evolution from civic engagement to social activism especially for subjects and peoples who have been ignored by traditional historical narratives. However I think there is a danger for the historian as social activist, if only that their advocacy would appear to the public as partisan and personal. I think Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial is an instructive episode.

Indeed I ended up thinking a lot about the state of contemporary America while reading through the Presence of the Past. The reveal that most Americans are interested in history but not through their exposure in school and the classroom, they experience the past personally through intimate and familial links. The finding that “white” Americans tended to view their past through their family and then somewhat nebulously to wider national narratives in comparison to Latino, Black and Native Americans who tried to connect their families to a larger community to more or less degrees. I also found it interesting that for whites they seemed to view the present as being in a state of decline compared to their past. A lot of the baby boomers in the survey seemed to also lack trust in the national government and its institutions, it is sort of natural to expect this feeling from this generation when this survey was taken however I could not help but think that if this survey was done now then almost everyone would express that belief. The general erosion of trust in institutions is a major issue and perhaps one that can be combated through shared authority and increased visitor participation in interpretations.

Reading Response Week 7

Readings this week:

Cauvin:  pp 107-126

Rosenzweig and Thelen: The Presence of the Past, Introduction, Chapter 1

How do regular people interact with history? What is the amount of time an average person spends in their personal life thinking about the past? What is the extent to which the past features in someone’s sense of self and identity? These types of questions are important ones to answer for public historians, to bring the past to the present, to make it relevant to people’s presently lived experiences and to democratize historical interpretations on subjects.

There are of course many different approaches that a public historian can take and this weeks reading from Cavin focuses on public history writing with an interesting intro section that talks about three issues that pervade the different fields of public history: “interpretation, fiction and sustainability (through protection and fundraising).” (p.107) I found the intro section on historical fiction a really great base on what general principles a public historian should keep in mind when writing or working on a project that is historical fiction. When creating historical fiction know that it is impossible achieve a level of detail about a historical subject or era to the same extent that an academic book would be able to. The goal is to “create a filmic reality that allows the audience to believe a story as if it were true.” (p. 109) On the other hand you have to depict something that is plausible and to do that you need to make it as historically accurate as possible which also requires a lot of historical research on subjects that may not be well documented like common everyday tasks. In addition to these principles Cauvin describes how public historians should write for a mass nonspecialist audience, small words, straight to the point and so on. A important point that Cauvin makes on historical fiction is that this approach calls for creative and entertaining writing which is not exactly easily found in the academy. A important note to mention is that historical fiction is not limited to novels, tv or movies but also includes forms like children’s books, comics, graphic novels and digital public history platforms like wikipedia and blogs.

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Larry David’s daughter is very excited to tour U.S. Civil War battlefields with her father.

The other reading this week deals with the questions at the top of the blog post and how a group of academic historians struggling with how to connect to wider audiences realized that they did not know “how people outside their own circles understood and used the past.” (p.2) From this seed came the idea that a survey of Americans would allow them to find out “how people used the past in their daily lives, to map out patterns and to define starting points for deeper investigations.”(p.3) The book Presence of the Past is the result of that survey and its first chapter is sort of a broad overview of what they learned, with the other chapters focusing on specific themes that emerged. One of the big things that they learned from this survey was that the past features prominently in American’s lives, that what makes them interested in history is less national narratives but rather familial and intimate memories. A common theme from the survey responses, which were conducted through interviews over the phone, was that someone’s entry point in being interested in the past came through those types of connections or events. A relative’s hobby of collecting coins or a family reunion is a common way for people to connect with the past. What was also interesting was how common it was for these same people who in some cases had a very intense interest in the past were bored, not interested or thought it irrelevant when they were taught history in school. To relate a personal example, I basically do not remember at all the contents of my required Pacific Northwest History class that I had to take in high school other than I, and the rest of my classmates, were forced to write and perform a rap song to pass. The larger point still stands however, most people experience things personally and for most people traditional historical narratives seem very far removed. It is the task of the public historians to bridge that gap and engage in a conversion with the public about the past.

 

Reading Response Week 6

Readings

 

 

The History of a Small Town: Cheney, Washington

The story of Cheney as a town is not all that dissimilar to the stories of other small towns throughout the American West.The impetus for its creation was due to the fact that the Northern Pacific railroad decided to locate a depot to service its line at the small springs they found during their initial survey. The process of building and servicing the great rail lines that connected the American East to its West during the late 19th century transferred large populations of people and instantly created settlements throughout the western half of the North American continent. For the town that was to be called Cheney it meant that locating a rail depot at its springs brought a newly created community and real estate speculators  buying up the surrounding lands, betting that Cheney would in the future become a bustling city. The initial explosion of settlers and speculators would only two years after its founding would be enough to forcibly take the county seat away from Spokane, then called Spokane Falls for a brief period of time. Locals from Cheney in the dead of night stole the election ballots, declared Cheney the winner of the referendum on where to locate the county seat and also stole the county records for transfer to Cheney. Cheney’s ascendancy over Spokane would be very brief and by 1886 Spokane would grow enough to take back the county seat.

Cheney would settle on its name on September 1880, taking the namesake of Benjamin P. Cheney a prominent director of the Northern Pacific railroad and he would in turn provide $10,000 for the creation of an Academy also named after him which would eventually develop into Eastern Washington University. After the contest with Spokane resulted in Cheney languishing as Spokane was becoming the regional metropolis, its fortune’s became tied with the University. The Benjamin P. Cheney Academy would close its doors by 1890 but the new Washington State Legislature decided to locate one of its three “normal” schools, schools for the purpose of training school teachers for the state, in Cheney. This basically secured Cheney’s future and its growth is directly tied to the fortunes of the University. Up until the Second World War the school was primarily a teachers college and the majority of the student body were women. The post war boom after the Second World War in which returning veterans used their G.I. bills to get a college education has marked a period of constant growth for the institution. Over the course of the twentieth century it became Eastern Washington College of Education in 1937, Eastern Washington State College in 1961 and Eastern Washington University in 1977. Cheney’s current population is around 10,000 permanent residents, and the University has a current enrollment of similar size.

Crime in Spokane: A view from the Past

One of the perks of going to EWU is that the eastern Washington branch of the Washington State Archives is located on campus. In addition to being one of the first  archives built ground up to store digital records it also stores state, city and county paper records of the eastern most counties in Washington. We toured the paper archives this past week and afterwards we examined an interesting excerpt from the archives.

What we looked at were some random pages taken from the city of Spokane’s Prison Registry from 1896-1900 which sheds some light on criminal activity during this period. The page that I saw was from February 2nd to the 26th  of 1900. The most common charges were larceny, grand larceny, carrying a concealed weapon or assault/battery. Most of those arrested seem to be from working or lower class, common occupations are laborer, blacksmiths, messenger, machinists, salesman, cooks, and tramps. Almost every person who was arrested was male, typically aged from their late teens to their late thirties. Charges usually resulted in fines which were then either paid, commuted or dismissed. A minority of required a transfer to Superior Court or to the county Sheriff. Spokane during this period seems rowdy where everyone was packing and out to take what was not theirs.

Reading Response Week 5

Readings for this week:

The theme this week is archives and the people who maintain them, archivists. I am sure to the regular person when someone mentions archives they see an image in their mind of rows and rows of shelves filled with moldy books while the image of an archivist may bring to mind an old maid with severe features obsessively collecting and cataloging an ever increasing hoard of documents. Perhaps that those images reside only in my mind when I think of archives but in truth archives and archivists play a vital role in collecting, maintaining, and cataloging important documents and materials with the ultimate goal of making sure the materials they maintain can be of use to the public now and to future generations.

Even after death, an archivist carries on their duty…

Cauvin in chapter 1 makes the point that collection mangers which includes archivists and museum mangers have to be very selective in what they will choose to keep. Principally archives usually are repositories of records generated by their sponsoring agency, a good example would be the Washington State Digital Archive which maintains records generated by Washington’s state, county and city agencies and they usually have a clearly stated legal responsibility to maintain those records. This is not always the case and frequently archives and museums have to be carefully selective in what they decide to ultimately add to their collections. Space, time, money and effort are finite so mission statements “serve as a roadmap for strategic planning and collection to fulfill the needs of the given institution.”(32) Archivists have to be judicious in what they collect, how they arrange a collection, preservation of sensitive materials and in how they make materials available to the public and researchers. A important factor that archivist have to include about material descriptions is the metadata about the object. Cauvin defines metadata as “data about data: they describe the attributes of items and give them meaning, context and organization.”(33) This activity is described as being as a core function of these institutions on par with any other core activity such as preservation, collecting, or cataloging. The role of the public historian is defined by Cauvin as being intermediaries between archivists and communities, to help in managing the tension between “Use (Access) and Storage (Restriction).”(43) Managing conflicts of interest and adhering to a strict ethics policy for historians working at archives and archivists themselves is a tightrope. Ideally the goal for archives is to make their records or objects available to the public as broadly as possible but the challenges in preserving those items along with restrictions to their availability due to things like copyright requires a deft balancing act. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s theft of classified material from the National Archives is a good case study on the challenges archivists face in maintaining control of sensitive materials. In short archives are not merely collections of disparate objects obsessively collected by archivists who are undiagnosed hoarders but carefully curated catalogs of items with the ultimate goal of making their collections available to the public and for their preservation for future generations. For more information about the core values and ethics for archivist can be found here.

Reading Response Week 4

Readings this week:

Cauvin – Chapter 7 Radio and Audio Visual Production and Chapter 8 Digital Public History

Cohen –  “Is Google Good for History?”

Marian – “Stanford Historian looks at US Postal Service…”

Websites:
The theme of this week’s readings is digital history, how the rise of new technologies is transforming the work historian’s do and how new approaches are being developed in order to present their work to the public. To be honest Cauvin’s chapter on Radio and Audio Visual Production reads extremely dated, limited to terrestrial radio, T.V. shows and movies. No mention is made of youtube or other internet streaming platforms or even of podcasting. For a text written in 2016 it is extremely baffling. Leaving aside those omissions I do find the larger point about how all of these programs are being created and produced with typically limited input from historians who typically find themselves in the role of being critics, pointing out historical inaccuracies. So if historians decide to produce these historical programs themselves or to provide their services to the producers what should be their role? There is a tension because for the producers the goal is to create a gripping dramatic story while the historical setting is merely the background in which the story is set and for the historian presumably the goal is to portray the past as accurately as possible while telling the story. Cauvin essentially states that the role for the public historian is to create “films and documentaries to provide a historical understanding of the past”(168) and to “convey a particular message about the event, and not the few historical inaccuracies” (168). These are good principles to stick to and every creative project requires some amount of compromise since time and budgets are always finite.
The next chapter is about digital public history which is the intersection between public history and the transformation of historical work brought about by new digital technology and techniques which can be termed digital history. Cauvin states that digital history is “based on the use of new media and computers in order to analyze and understand historical information and/or to communicate its result” (175). Digital history is distinct from its roots in digital humanities through less emphasis on textual and linguistic analysis being “more connected to cultural issues through oral history and folklore studies” (176). The development of digital history to public digital history seems really based on user engagement, like user generated content and “crowdsourcing”. In order to build an audience user engagement is really important for these digital public projects and the form that it frequently takes is in soliciting user participation in the form of crowdsourcing through the internet. Defined as “the act of taking work once performed within an organization and outsourcing it to the general public through a open call for participants” (179) crowdsourcing is a powerful tool with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Wikipedia is probably is the most well known example of a crowdsourced or rather user contributed encyclopedia. Thousands of users have created and maintained articles but making sure that the information is factually correct instead of opinion and making sure that each page meets a standard quality is a challenge which other crowsourced projects have to deal with. Some interesting examples of digital public history projects can be found in the websites section underneath this weeks reading at the top of this post. A interesting user generated map that includes ICBM, ABM and Nuclear sites of interest during the Cold War in the U.S. that I came across earlier this week can be found here. I never knew that Spokane had some early ICBM sites which the remains of which can still be seen.
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Atlas E 567-9, early Cold War ICBM site near the Spokane River and Long Lake.

 

Reading Response Week 3

Theme: Historic Preservation

Assigned Reading

  • Wallace, Mickey Mouse History pp. 177-221
  • Cauvin, Public History, Chapter 2: Historic Preservation, pp 55-88

The readings this week focuses on an important aspect of work that public historians do outside of museums, that is the historic preservation of buildings, sites and districts. Wallace’s essay entitled “Preserving the Past: Historic Preservation in the United States” is a overview of how the idea of preserving historically important buildings, sites and urban districts developed in the United States beginning in the middle to late 19th century and the constant struggle in trying to get recognition that historically important buildings, places and neighborhoods were things deserving of preservation. Wallace does a great job in capturing the essence of this conflict which has broader implications for historical practice, the fight in trying to get recognition that these historic sites have an intrinsic non-market value deserving of preservation against an economic and political system which maintains the right of property owners to do what they wish and that these places are only valued for their market value or their developmental opportunities. The section of the essay that I think is most relevant to our contemporary times is the section that details how the concept of “adaptive reuse”came into being; a concept developed as a result of a new coalition of interest groups traditional preservationists, middle class professionals and local businesses (p.189). The marrying of profit-motive and preservation set the pattern for later developments, by keeping the outside shell of historical buildings while gutting the inside to create new retail or office space it seemed like a necessary compromise in order to create a demand and an incentive for historical preservation. However and I think that this has become a greater issue since this essay was written is that the incentives have resulted in further entrenching a certain process, that is of gentrification. Which “saves” these historic districts but frequently displaces the working class and immigrant communities which scrubs the unique character that these neighborhood had in the first place, prominent contemporary examples include Harlem, Brooklyn and San Francisco. As Wallace points out, there are many different factors driving this trend but what cannot be denied is that historic preservation has played an important role in driving this process.

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The gentrification of historic neighborhoods like Harlem has provoked questions about how residents can maintain their community identity when so many are displaced due to rising rents.

Cauvin’s chapter on Historic Preservation outlines the role that public historians play in historic preservation along with the best practices in order add buildings, sites and districts to preservation lists like the National Registrar of Historic Places (NRHP). I think an important concept that this chapter recognizes is that the campaigns to place sites onto the list are frequently organized at the grassroots level and in fact points out that campaigns organized at the last minute in order to save these sites are just the wrong way to approach these situations with an admonishment that these sites should come to the attention of being recognized as a part of an active survey process. The implication that public historians should be active in the community and pay attention to what is going on is important in recognizing their role as advocates on behalf of those communities.

We were also encouraged to listen to a podcast produced by a museum so I listened to the SpyCast produced by the International Spy Museum. The Spycast features in depth interviews of historians, intelligence personnel and officials by the museum’s historians frequently about a particular topic relating to intelligence. The episode I listened to was Pearl Harbor at 75: An Interview with Steve Twomey the author of a new book that takes an in depth look on the intelligence side of the attack on Pearl Harbor titled Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack. Some of the issues that he talks about in this interview and deeper in his book was the underlying assumptions that the American establishment had about the Japanese. Almost everyone expected that the U.S. would go to war with Japan however due to many factors they were totally unprepared to their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code which created a sense of complacency along with frankly very racist thinking about Japanese inferiority. Overall the interview was very interesting and I think I will have to add the book on to my to read list.

Reading Response Week 2

 

  • Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice Chapter 6: Interpreting and Exhibiting the Past
  • Wallace, Mickey Mouse History:
    • Boat People: Immigrant History at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
    • Progress Talk: Museums of Science, Technology, and Industry
    • Industrial Museums and the History of Deindustrialization
    • Museums and Controversy
  • Kennedy: At Museums, the Invasion of the Podcasts
  • Cebula, Cell Phone Tours

Much of Wallace’s essays in the book Mickey Mouse History have an overarching theme which becomes obvious as one reads through the book;  for whom museums are built for, what message they tell and for what purpose? This critical approach that he uses is in my opinion very illuminating such as in the Boat People chapter to describe the development of the restorations of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty along with their attendant museum exhibits which had markedly different approaches to depicting immigration. The American Museum of Immigration had a very nationalistic optimistic point of view conceived in the 1950s that claimed that immigrants came from all over to America and “stressed the contributions of great men (with emphasis on “men”), propounded a discredited “melting pot” thesis, focused excessively on European immigrants and had a distinctly martial tone” pp. 60. Wallace points out in contrast that the restoration of Ellis Island took the direction of presenting immigration in a far more complex and comprehensive way utilizing the contributions of many historians in the process.  The result is to “portray and give voice to immigrants themselves” pp.65 while also displaying the station and the process without sentimentally.

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Ellis Island, a place of opportunity and despair for new arrivals to the United States.

Wallace goes on to bring this critical approach to the subjects of the next two chapters: museums of science, technology and industry. A very valuable point that he makes about these types of museums in which they typically exhibit machines and industrial processes created by engineers is the implicit or even explicit view of history, that it is one of progress defined by the creation of ever more efficient and capable machines and processes. Of course this vision of history runs into a problem when dealing with subjects outside of this view like the topic of deindustrialization as Wallace points out. Of use is also his description of class relations such as when he describes how the emerging engineer class had to figure out were they stood in the class order which again has consequences on how to frame their contributions which leads to the adoption of a progressive view of history.

I thought that Museums and Controversy was a very interesting chapter. I think the section that provoked most thought was on how to handle taboo topics particularly on how at the time this essay was written in the early 1990s was that “there has not been a single substantial museum exhibition on the causes, course, or consequences of the war in Vietnam” pp. 120. Of course the first thing that springs to mind is how the topic of the Global War on Terror which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be handled by museum exhibits or really any number of controversial topics in our recent past like the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party. I think a lot of care has to be given in constructing exhibits but they should not be afraid of challenging base assumptions like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Marine Corps Museum is going to construct an expansion that will focus on Iraq and Afghanistan on the War on Terror due to open after 2020 which will be interesting to see when it is finished.

The articles on museums and their use of new avenues to engage with their visitors like using podcasts and cell phones shows how institutions are responding to the rapid development of new social media platforms to stay relevant to their visitors which Cauvin identifies as a key must for museums since that is a common compliant. Chapter 6 of Cavin is also a great insight in how museums are changing in how they design exhibits and promoting visitor interaction to really engage with them. I think that multimedia displays and designed exhibits that promote visitor interaction is the most likely direction that new museum displays are going to go.

 

Reading Response Week 1

The material assigned this week serves as a introduction to both public history and to the difficulty in presenting history to the public.

In Mike Wallace’s essays “Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States” and “Razor Ribbons, History Museums and Civic Salvation” an overriding theme between the two essays is that traditionally, museums were creations of the elite dominant classes in the United States and thus consequently presented interpretations and narratives that maintained that class’s position.Wallace’s first essay is in his own words “to discuss the kinds of perspectives the museums promote” p. 5. Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg are used as prime examples of how their founders used their vast wealth to create a particular image and narrative about the past. For Ford Greenfield  venerated the traditional white colonialists who valued hard work and honesty, a simpler life before the ills of modern life and scrubbed from the narrative was  the class conflicts of that era.

As an aside it was when I was half way through reading about Greenfield I realized that I have actually been to there when I was a child almost twenty years ago. Unfortunately I do not really remember the visit other than being excited to go to the Wright Brothers home (pictured below) and their workshop.

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Wallace’s essays really hammer in that museums do not exist as neutral presenters of the past, either by the virtue of their origin and founders who created them in the first place or by the nature of the subject they are presenting. Deciding what objects or stories to display to the public is not merely a function of what an institutions inventory has on a given day. As Wallace points out in the second essay on the Museum of the City of New York,  it requires a conscious effort by the curators to decide what to display and how to display it. Much of the controversy over museum exhibits or other historical displays center in on what narratives are those displays highlighting.

Cebula’s open letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchhausen House and that the Directors hostile response to him about the tour guide factual inaccuracies show this in action. It is interesting to see how some criticism would provoke such a venomous response from the director of that institution however I do not know if I should be surprised. After the rise of the New Left and more socially conscious historians in the 1960s onward who have been revising “traditional” historical narratives and highlighted marginalized and previously ignored groups like women, Native Americans, and African Americans it seems like there has been major push back by people who prefer their “traditional” history. I think the debates will continue on but it is nice to see the progress in the inclusion of those narratives and contribution that were previously ignored.

I found the Waanaen-Jones article “Facing History” on the first wife of James Glover whom he divorced and left penniless fascinating. Even though I have lived in the Spokane area for most of my life I am completely ignorant about Spokane’s history and of its “founder” James Glover. The story itself is great and how questions about James Glover divorce has left him in the shadows of Spokane with almost nothing to highlight his centrality in creating the city of Spokane, only a lonely overgrown monument  with a missing plaque in a empty field that bares his name.