Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Digital Tourist-Shmigital Shmoulrist: On-line Museums are for Research

I attempted to write a post about an article I did not like, but I was not fully aware of why it left me with a sour taste. The article’s basic argument was that museums should digitize their collections, (make them available online) which is a great idea, and their exhibit, which is a nice thing to do….to attract visitors, (ughh).[1]
The last ingredient is what annoyed me, blistered my tongue even. Digital collections help people do research. I understand that tourist could see the collection and pick out what they wanted to see in person, which is great. But arguing that on-line collections and exhibits are for tourists obscures the fact that digital collections help researchers and that museums and their holdings have a lot to offer academics.
I understand if the article was written attempting to sell digitization to museum boards who are concerned with funds and visitors. But when it is written in an academic journal for public historians it sounds like even academics don’t want to associate themselves with academics.
The current climate in this country is unfriendly and at times downright hostile to individuals in higher education, as we saw in the clip of Reza Aslan on Fox.[2]  When this article heralds the emergence of on-line access to museums and collections as tourist attractions it confuses the very action of looking at documents or exhibits on-line.  Here is an example: someone goes on-line and looks up the collection at WXY Museum. What did they do? They just did research.  Why then do we need to confuse this action with tourism? Digital tourism is the same as Arm Chair Tourism. They are both someone reading about a topic that interests them. They are both research. Rejecting the term research in favor of tourism distances museums from academics. And that is generally depressing.
I understand museums need to attract and keep donors to fund their projects and existence. It is important for museums to have a supportive community of funders, but when it comes to not-for-profits, as many museums are, why are we trying to focus on getting people in the museum rather than what the museum does for the people? The museum is a collection, a space to construct meaningful and intriguing exhibits.  A place where people can connect to whatever definitive importance they have with objects, places, or people.  An entity that advances education, thought and knowledge. Everything else should be understood as providing for those ends. When we say that something that is so clearly for academics, for research,  is for attracting tourists or promote donations, it cheapens the relationship that museums and their collections have with the rest of the world.

[1]  Anne Lindsay, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience”, The Public Historian 35, no.1 (February 2013): 67-66
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/31/fox-news-defends-reza-aslan-interview_n_3683736.html

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mediums to The Past

On Monday I spent some time on the 3rd floor of USF’s library in the stack BF. Good Ol’ BF is home to the books the Lib. Of Congress categorizes under the term “Spiritualism,” among others. If you have not heard, let me remind you, I am playing around with 19th Century Spiritualism for my dissertation. I plowed through a number of books and found some possible primary source book length documents as well. All in all it was a great and productive day in the world of note taking and argument hunting. One book in particular included thought provoking quotes that lead me down a fun path of thinking about Public historians as Mediums.
In 1989 Beacon Press, of Boston, published Ann Braude’s book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th century America. The book argues that Spiritualism gave women the power and voice to become radical at the TOT2C. It opens “A historians is a lot like a spirit medium: one’s goal is to allow the dead to speak as clearly as possible.”[1] That quote struck me and sold me, as it aligns with thoughts I have been rolling around, but had been unable pin.   
Historians ARE a lot like mediums. Especially public historians, they speak the language of the people and listen carefully to, or are themselves, (this is where the simile sputters a bit, as most mediums are alive while the ones they speak to are dead) historians. If we understand historians as outlets from which the public gains access, understanding and evaluation of the past from, how can they not them mediums? It is fair to say that any professional acts as a medium to the public, but historians are the ones who speak for the past. And that is an important point to make.
Braude further kindled my though fire when explaining how Spiritualism offered women a legitimacy, a voice from which to speak authoritatively and a comfort. Eric Hobsbawn argues a useful point when addressing the functions of custom, in comparison to “invited traditions.” His definition can be easily applied to the kinds of histories consumed by the public; custom he explains is “a village’s claim to some common land or right ‘by custom from the time immemorial.”[2] Hobsbawn says that this custom, which encompasses tradition in traditional societies, gives “any desired change (or resistance or innovation) the sanction of precedence {authority/legitimacy}, social continuity and natural law as expressed in history {comfort/authority}.”[3] In the case of women using Spiritualism for these ends, it was not so much their ability to speak to the dead, but that they could speak for the past. They were able to communicate with people from respected past to “sanction” precedence. (It also taught them a lot about public speaking…)
So we have:Historians are like Mediums and Public History is like Spiritualism.
This is how I write all of my posts, papers, Christmas cards, ect.

[1] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th Century America (Beacon Press: Boston, 1989), xi. (also 192 in the last full paragraph...footnote issues)
[2]  Eric Hobsbawn “Introduction: Inventing Traditions”, in The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge et all, 1983), 2
[3] Hobsbawn ,2. Notes in {} added.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Colonial Williamsburg P. 2 “Girls Gone Wild: Unhinged Women of the Colonial Era”

If you read my earlier post on Colonial Williamsburg you understand that I was a little disappointed about my lack of child-like wonderment and that I am really into soap. In this post I am going to talk about the ghost tour I went on. If you read some of my posts from last year you will get an idea of how I have been thinking about ghosts and public history. 

News on that front: I am thinking about people’s interactions with the past through spiritual encounters. This includes things like ghost stories, the awe people may feel in the presence of historical objects, buildings or landscapes. This idealized concept of being able to connect spiritually with the past harkens back to turn-of-the-20th century Spiritualism. Though some people debate me, The Spiritualist movement gained its wide spread popularity AFTER the Civil War. It can be said however that it gained steam beforehand if you look to The Fox Sisters and stirrings across the Burned Over District (Upstate New York). I would argue these are unique cases –it was not until after the Civil War that séances became parlor tricks. 

(And I mean literally parlor- as in the room in the house where you entertain guests and tricks- as in fun things to scare your friends. So it’s 1899 you invited some friends over, you have finished up dinner and drinks, and now it is time to contact the dead. It sounds similar to a modern slumber party, even more so considering someone will probably cry and end up being taken home early. You can’t please everyone.) 

So we have the popularity of Spiritualism and séances on the rise, due in part to the massive loss of life in Civil War. Right. Large amounts of people experience unresolved death (Billy never came home, I hope he had a proper Christian burial in Virginia, and his spirit is at rest yadayada) and have a desire for closure.
 I recently read Gary Laderman’s Sacred Remains.[1] He makes the argument that the conceptual understanding of funerals changed after the Civil War from being about a community or united experience of mourning where the body was rarely seen or necessary to a more personal/spiritual experience which involved a personal viewing of the body. Laderman compares the funeral procession that took place across the Northern United States after Washington’s death to the funeral train and numerous (what we today would call..) wakes after Lincoln’s death. People wanted/needed to see Lincoln’s body, but when Washington died they did not. The body becomes an important part of the spiritual experience. The importance he sees in gazing on the body, I argue, is transferable to the objects, lands, and building associated with the dead. This would be the case in situations where the body is unable to be seen, like how we can’t see Washington or Lincoln’s body today. The inclusion of spiritual encounters pushes material objects to the side in favor of a personal experience with the past. What am I saying? People like the idea of encountering ghosts at historical sites because they desire to have a spiritual/personal relationship with the character from the past. (sound familiar…?)
So back to C.W!
It was 6:45pm and my friend and I were entirely too early for the 7:30 ghost tour. We passed the time by watching the William and Mary students jog down Duke of Gloucester Street. We debated whether the W&M students ran funny and did not understand that by running down, a not only public, but tourist laced street we would all watch and judge them as they ran like little T-Rexes, or they were putting on a very effective show.
The tour took us in two different houses, one of which we entered twice. Fashioned like a theater, seats were set-up on one side of the room leaving an open space on the other. After the entire tour group took our respective seat a women in colonial clothes would come in and perform the ghost story. Sounds weird? Performing a ghost story –your right it was. Those of us who were once children recognize a ghost story as something someone tells you (Do you see that bent up part of the cemetery gate? That is where so-and-so tried to escape” Ep!), not someone in period garb describing their encounter with a ghosts, or their being a ghosts, or…well the last one was alright more on that later.
So, its weird. The first woman comes out frantic and theater-scared. She tells us about a guy in town who killed a black boy because he had demon in him, and then she saw the demon, “now” (that would be a C.W. now) she is crazy. I am very easy to scare—the parenthetical description of the ghost story I JUST wrote freaked me out a little. This ghost story did not give me any sort of willies. Why not? It was not a 21st (or 20th) century ghost story. Interesting choice C.W. It was an 18th century ghost story lifted from court records. Which is pretty interesting. This story illustrates an 18thc understanding of women’s susceptibility to the feared spiritual world, the danger black people were in, (on top of being enslaved, the white people might think you are full of the devil and kill you), and the existence of paranormal activity in court records which tells us that the people in C.W. were uncomfortable with the mysteries of their own world (not to say we, today, are not). Neat, okay. Next.
On the second stop the C.W. actor was a ghost. Blerg. Great story though. Socially strange women gets put in “The Hospital” (see my last post on C.W.) then haunts her old house because she was locked out and very unhappy about it. Again, crazy ladies of the colonial era. That aside this woman, real life woman, use to invite people over to her house, have them hop in her carriage, and have her slaves push the carriage back and forth, jump on it, ect to simulate a ride through London. Oh, and she thought she was the Queen, used to steal her friends clothes, and then put multiple hats on and parade around town. What fun!
Last stop, featured a Scottish maid telling us a story about cannibalism in Scotland. It ended saying that she might be a cannibal whose family teaches their kin to eat people –so there might still be people eaters in C.W. (So when you go to bed at night in your C.W. hotel remember the bus boy might try and eat you…. “What’s for dinner?”… “Susan”) It was a really good work of storytelling and attempted to tie in the recent discoveries of cannibalism at Jamestown.[2]
What we learned: There were three types of women in Colonial Williamsburg: The scared, the crazy, and the hungry (who would, of course, argue for a fourth category “delicious”)
These ghost stories were, in some way or another, linked back to 18thc sources and tell us how 18thc people interacted with or understood as paranormal. These stories intended to be 18thc scary. They tell us more about the ever persistence desire of C.W. to be historically authentic. (Oh I see what you did there, you noticed the popularity of ghost stories on historical landscapes and decided to do it to, but Surprise it is C.W.! So it has to be done as if it were the 18thc).
So what does this have to do with Spiritualism at the turn-of-the 20th century? And what does this have to do with how people interact with the past through ghosts? Well you see the C.W. ghost stories were 18thc century because the concept of ghosts as we know them did not exist back then. It emerged around the TOT20C, coinciding with the emergence of spiritualism.[3] This complicates colonial ghost stories because the colonials did not believe in that sort of conceptualization of the dead in the living world. The existence of such tales is a desire to interact with the past on a spiritual level and a post Civil War construction. People want there to be colonial ghosts because they want to experience George Washington or Thomas Jefferson in person. People want them to stay; they want to reach out to their dearly departed historical figures, learn from them and become better for it.
Or not…who knows I’m working on it, I have a lot more to read.

[1] Gary Ladermen, Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Towards Death, 1799-1883. (Cambridge: Yale University Press, 1999)
[2] See this for the news on the Jamestown Cannibalism - http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130501-jamestown-cannibalism-archeology-science/
[3] TOT20C –Turn of the Twentieth Century

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The National Museum of the Marine Corps

Last year at the National Museum of American History I was surprised that the museum decided to call the military action at the turn of the twentieth-century “War of Expansion.” I was not surprised because I felt differently, I was surprised that the nationally excepted (which I think we can safely assume because the museum is a NATIONAL museum) story about the turn of the century wars…you know…accurate. Now they did not make a judgment call, they did not say “this was misguided…we probably should not of done this…” but of course if they said that it might bring up issues about our current wars which is another (very very similar) bag of issues.
So flash forward (backwards?) to this afternoon. I expected to see a lot of pomp and celebratory exhibits about how great the Marines are,have been and forever will be. A place that really supported and protected the idea of the brand of masculinity that comes with marine identity and character. BUT I was surprised, for at least half of the exhibits. 
The ones that focused on  (as the Smithsonian called it) the “Wars of Expansion,” tell a story about how American economic, market, and political interests lead to the Spanish-American War,  the Philippines, South America and the like. WHAT! That does not sound so heroic? That sounds like an aggressively violent global policy. The exhibits were, as an undergrad described “a lot of reading,” but if that does not scare you away you would read paragraph length explanations of the events you would find carefully written descriptions of the wars. They explained that the wars were caused by American “envy” over European Empires, or escalated because of “greed” or “pride.” Now, it would be false to say all these terms are used in the same sentence, sign or exhibit, but they are used to describe the reasoning for the use of Marine military force and speak loudly about how we have come to understand these wars…and perhaps give us an idea of what 100 years could do to our understanding of the wars we are in now. Additionally, if you are not into reading..or you know have a “friend” who does not like to read, the paragraphs are surprisingly easy to ignore because there is a lot of gun type-collections, hats, and different kinds of uniforms to distract you.

Like Gas Masks? They got your gas masks right here…
The WWII and more recent war exhibits were more in-line with what I expected; celebratory. But no vet wants to go to a museum and made to feel bad about their service. These exhibits had more personal stories and more artifacts (guns, packs, MREs, ect), they were less intended to educate the public about the issues and more there to aid in grandpa’s stories. (ex: “See Tommy Papa used a gun just like that to shoot the bad guys.” “Oh look at this Sally, I had a pack just like that.” “Lil Jimmy look at this photo—I  use to handsome like this guy.” “Marie, come look at the tank Grandpapa drove in Nam.” You get the idea). They also help promote recruitment, these exhibits tell stories about how the Marines helped people, were brave, good, and just. It should be noted that I am not being negative, these are all necessary elements of recruitment and commemoration- however I want to point out the different ways in which the wars were explained and approached. 
Marines at Harper's Ferry...you know John Brown...

So on to the dioramas--- I don’t see a lot of dioramas used in museums anymore, but wowie were these dioramas great. Life-like wax people running, sweating, making faces, and little tiny scenes of naval battles, forced perception, painted landscape –really nice stuff. If you like dioramas this is the place to be. If overly patriotic versions of military history make you want to pluck your eyes out with the 18th century bayonet, then you’ll be fine here, no worries and if you feel so inclined there ARE bayonets for eye removal... If you want to see a lot of 20th century War paraphernalia, tanks, plains, ect, you will be happy here. If you like seeing Grandparents, again this is the place to go (old men with pin hats..oh ya they are all over the place). 
"Ooo finally something for the ladies.."