Archive | May, 2012

Come One Come All

29 May

Cultural heritage institutions routinely attempt to find “creative” solutions to lure new audiences, with a pronounced thrust towards attracting younger visitors. Precious resources are going into these ideas that in our opinion, will not solve the problem of attracting more supporters and may be doing more harm than good.


Many institutions are making extra effort to entice people who normally are not interested in what these places have to offer. At best, this is a detriment to the solid interpretation on which they should be focused.  At worst, it reduces historic sites to venues for temporary entertainment with little or no connection to their real mission. For a one-time bump in attendance, these institutions might be sacrificing the forming of meaningful connections with a smaller but ultimately more supportive audience. Sometimes historic attractions are better off making a commitment to serving their core supporters, even if the numbers are not as large as they would like. Consistent supporters, both in terms of attendance and financial contributions, should always be our primary focus in interpretation. Outreach that does not form connections that help institutions better achieve their primary mission is in the long run of little value.


Reaching the Next Generation

24 May

Those of us in the field of history are all well aware that the older generation usually makes up the vast majority of attendees to historic sites. The reasons are multiple, ranging from an educational background which placed a high value on understanding our nation’s heritage to personal life experience and familiarity with landmark events to having the spare time with which to explore interests.

It is abundantly clear that our younger generation do not have these desires or interests. The reasons are equally multiple, but a primary culprit seems to be a fundamental flaw in our current educational system. Our schools overwhelmingly place too high a priority on standardized testing and downplay the value of a broad curriculum that exposes children to a wide array of disciplines to develop well-rounded citizens. While budgetary forces are also at work and have greatly limited the number of field trips that school groups take nowadays, time constraints associated with standardized instruction and testing are a large part of the problem.  This trend bodes ill for the future of historic sites and museums which will be dependent on this younger generation for support. It also bodes ill for our society in general. We are simply not reaching, inspiring, or captivating enough of the next generation to care about our shared heritage.

To remedy the problem will be difficult, but is vital that we work to advocate a major shift in our educational system and place a greater emphasis on appreciating our past and its instructive value for our society both today and tomorrow. The degree to which our society appreciates its heritage will inevitably define its cultural trajectory. A shallow-thinking, present obsessed, culturally unaware society is a very dim vision for the future in our opinion.


Native Americans in American History

21 May

Perhaps no group of people has been more unfairly portrayed in American history than Native Americans. For long depicted as primitive, unenlightened, and unambitious, they frequently have been mentioned in United States historiography merely as one-dimensional victims of American aggression rather than analyzed as individual members of complex and dynamic societies. Whether out of recent grief at awareness of the transgressions against them by American society or a newfound understanding that they are fully human after all, there seems to be today a trend towards the polar opposite portrayal. Much current literature and many public history programs seem overtly to depict Native Americans in a wholly positive light. The results of the latter do as much a disservice to those who seek to understand our nation’s history as the former.

 Native Americans and Americans interacted with each other over several centuries. Through trade, negotiation, alliances, and warfare, they profoundly shaped each other’s societies. Examining Native Americans as “innocents” who were unaffected by the development of the United States is disingenuous, and portraying them as living in idealistic societies is uniformed. Native Americans were individuals with all the same virtues and shortcomings as the Americans with whom they ultimately had defining conflicts. They murdered, scalped, enslaved, tortured, and stole from each other on par with the malignant and greedy deeds of the Americans they encountered. Among them was scandal, depravation, and barbarity equal or exceeding that ascribed to the frontier settlers who schemed for their land. At the same time, they had virtuous, generous, intelligent and altruistic leaders and citizens equal in character to some of the most hallowed American heroes.

 To understand the place of Native Americans in our nation’s history, we must remove the halo of sanctity and virtue that figures in to many modern depictions of their societies as well as the shadow of savageness that so long denied them agency. To treat Native Americans as anything more or less than ordinary people capable of both good and evil in our nation’s historical narrative is a disservice to them and inhibits appreciation of our shared past.


What’s In a Name?

17 May

The past is an inescapable part of the present. It both informs our current situation and sheds light on the future. In a very real sense, it defines who we are as a society and where we are headed. This understanding of the past is a guiding principle of this blog, and elaborations on that maxim will appear in various forms.

Today I’d like to point to one of the most celebratory, and seemingly trivial, manifestations of this point–the world of sports. Think of the names of just a few teams from the professional ranks: Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Milwaukee Brewers. The list could go on and on, but the point is that all of these nicknames draw on distinctive historical events or developments in some manner. They all are associated with specific locations due to their ability to speak to some shared experience or unique aspect of local history that cities, regions, and states point to voluntarily as important in their development.

Is it a profound observation that history sometimes influences even the most current of events in the world of athletics? Probably not. But it is worth pointing out to those who have never pondered how the past helps form identities. The role of history in shaping the present is not a mystery that only trained academics can grasp. Actually, it is frequently so commonly understood that it is perhaps taken for granted.


Is All History Local?

16 May

It is an irony of our modern digital age and its unprecedented interconnectedness that “local” is more important than ever when it comes to understanding history. Numerous and varied groups have in recent decades been created to preserve distinctly local aspects of our nation’s heritage even as we are more than ever aware of our place globally. State, regional, county, and city historical societies and a host of other special topic or project-related groups are doing good work to interpret, preserve, and promote the history of the places and events they hold dear.

 While I believe these developments are overwhelmingly good for our society in the long run, I do wonder if some of the enthusiasm of those who care about history might be unintentionally misplaced. The proliferation of local historic societies should be evidence of a broad base of support for leading, established cultural heritage institutions, but decreasing budgets, reduced hours, and closures of many larger institutions seems to indicate the opposite. While small groups are thriving, some of our leading institutions are struggling. Large institutions cannot be all things to all people, and taking ownership of community heritage by engaged citizens should be encouraged. We must remember, though, that large and small institutions are most effective when they work together to complement each other’s work instead of competing for increasingly limited resources supporting overlapping missions.



15 May

I recently read that between the years of 1880 and 1910, one quarter of federal expenditures were allocated to veteran’s pensions. After being initially shocked over such a high percentage, I thought of those thousands of Civil War veterans who must have been the recipient of such funds.  Naturally, I then wondered what percentage of our federal budget goes to veterans today and I would bet that number is not very large. The past one hundred plus years has seen our national government grow so large and unwieldy that available funds for veterans has surely slipped to paltry numbers.


This nation owes a debt to those in uniform who have sacrificed to allow us at home the opportunity to enjoy our freedoms; such as the freedom to argue over our national budget as well as to debate whether our country should be involved in certain wars in the first place. Teddy Roosevelt said it best. “Anyone who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”  The least we can do is make sure these veterans are taken care of after their service. Doing anything less is unforgivable. 


National Preservation Month

7 May

As director of the Old Capitol Museum, I am honored to oversee the activities of Mississippi’s most historic building. Within its walls in its nearly 175 year history, the Old Capitol has witnessed dynamic events that not only changed the course of the state’s history, but that of the nation as well. Threats to the building’s survival from war, abandonment, severe storms, as well as our good ole’ Yazoo clay have proved challenging, but the Old Capitol still stands; a testament to the state’s resolve and dedication to its democratic principles.  It is only through the hard work and determination of many preservation-minded individuals and organizations that the Old Capitol remains here today. Historic places, such as Mississippi’s Old Capitol, have shaped our national identity, and are vitally important to our communities not only as teaching tools concerning our past, but reminders of how far we have come as a nation and how much further we have to go.  So this May, in honor of National Preservation Month, I salute those dedicated stalwarts of history whose work allows us to tour and experience our nation’s treasured historic landmarks.