Archive | September, 2013

Technology and Interpretation

30 Sep

Museums and historic sites are caught up in the technology craze as they try to determine the best way to utilize the latest technological enhancement to enrich their interpretation. Everyone can agree that technology can and has improved interpretation by providing different formats to relay information and that technology allows the dispersion of additional material not possible in regular exhibits and text panels. Visitors, especially those age thirty and younger, nowadays expect to utilize their portable devices as they tour museums.

However, I feel cultural institutions might have gone too far in this desire to embrace technology and lost their original purpose for existence. I recently read an interesting article that stated, in effect, if the technological enhancement is more of an attraction than the attraction itself, then it needs to be toned down.  I work in the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. This Greek Revival masterpiece built in 1839 recently underwent a dramatic restoration and contains spectacular views of its stunning rotunda dome, massive portico, majestic spiral staircases, and giant legislative chambers. The museum does contain some technological elements such as videos and touchscreen monitors which help explain the building’s rich and fascinating history, but I am often reminded that the vast majority of our visitors enjoy the more traditional visit to the museum. They admire the fine architecture and also gain an acute understanding of how Mississippi’s history unfolded within its walls. On a regular basis, I am reminded how the building can be awe-inspiring when I see a child twirl in circles as he stares up in wonder at the 94 foot rotunda dome with its elaborate plasterwork. It is those moments when we have truly reached a visitor. And to think, those moments happened without the latest technology.

Photo by Chuck Kelly

Photo by Chuck Kelly

Old Capitol

Museums and historic sites need to emphasize that we contain the real and authentic. That needs to be the focus. If we lose sight of that, then we are moving away from what makes us unique in the first place. If everything can be accessed on your I-Pad or Smart phone, then why bother visiting the actual location in the first place?


History as Art

25 Sep

I will admit I have never had much an affinity for art. Paintings, watercolor, and sculpture have just never been my thing. I’ve come to see a profound connection of sorts between my interest in history and art though, that in some way defines a major portion of my personal fascination with the past. Allow me to explain.

Illuminated manuscript

An effective historian is persuasive in communicating important information about past events that is relevant to people today through a variety of mediums. This is demonstrated in the expert arrangement of words that tell a compelling a story, the careful placement of an interpretive panel in a scenic and historic landscape, the moving interpretation of a poignant historic photograph, the exacting restoration of a venerable historic structure, or the thoughtful layout of an informative exhibit. Through original work, the historian’s craft is transformed from merely relating information into an art in my opinion. All these things are not just educational, but beautiful to me when well done. They inform, inspire, and encourage learning in a way nothing else can do. They require a rare combination of passion and objectivity balanced by knowledge and curiosity to do well. Above all, they require a unique sort of creativity.

There is definitely an art to “doing history” in a way that resonates, and I have come to appreciate that fact more than ever because it is so rare.


Review of The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida, by James Cusick

17 Sep

The “Patriot War,” an ambitious and haphazardly conceived filibustering effort aimed at acquiring the Spanish province of East Florida for the United States during the War of 1812, has long been a footnote, at most, in histories of the war. This is a shame, because the colorful story essentially serves as the counterpart to the relatively more well-known but very similar effort in Spanish West Florida that became known as the West Florida Rebellion (most recently chronicled by William C. Davis in The Rogue Republic). James Cusick’s recent study of the Patriot invasion of East Florida finally gives the affair the recounting it deserves, in the process shedding light on a contentious era in U.S. foreign relations that shaped Gulf South, and national, history.

The attempt of Georgia citizens and militia — implicitly abetted and encouraged by the federal government to the degree propriety allowed — was about as bold a play for the acquisition of foreign territory as the United States has been engaged. Unlike similar efforts in West Florida which resulted in the cession of that province by the Spanish, the spurious and personal affair along the Georgia-Florida border dissolved into a farce in which outnumbered liberators (invaders) claimed to free oppressed citizens who were actually rather happy where they were. In the middle of all this, the Patriots managed to incur the anger of the Seminoles, initiating what would become nearly five decades of warfare on the Florida peninsula.

Cusick’s research uncovers the reasons for the attempted annexation, relates the story behind its failure, demonstrates its connection to the eventual cession of East Florida less than a decade later, and perhaps most importantly of all, places the saga in the context of the broader aims of American diplomacy as it related to both European powers and Native American nations. The Other War of 1812 fills a longstanding gap in literature on the War of 1812 and is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the American South. It is a well-written, even if not wholly engrossing, narrative accompanied by adequate, even if not efficiently placed, maps. If you are interested the War of 1812 in the South, it should nevertheless be on your bookshelf.


In Praise of Hallowed Ground, the Magazine of the Civil War Trust

13 Sep

Pardon me if this reads as an advertisement, but I believe the Civil War Trust is doing a lot of things right as an organization. Consistently ranked as among the most effective and ethical nonprofit organizations, the Trust is involved in preserving and interpreting our nation’s Civil War heritage nationwide. They buy land on which battles occurred in order that it might be saved from development, educate those who want to learn about the war through special programs, assist travelers through innovative mobile device applications, distribute a series of easily-understandable battlefield maps showing both historical events and modern encroachment, and engage their audience through special photography contests that produces some of the most stunning images of battlefields ever created, just to name a few of its activities. The Trust is diligent, passionate, and in touch with its membership.

Perhaps in no other area does the Trust shine more than in its revamped membership magazine, Hallowed Ground. Every issue is packed with useful updates on battlefield preservation issues, informative and readable articles on aspects of Civil War history, and news on a wide variety of developments related to parks, museums, and other institutions engaged in interpreting Civil War history. What will strike readers most, though, is the photography featured in each issue.

CWPT night CWPT image CWPT digital CWPT cover CWPT Big Black River Bridge CWPT 3d

Hallowed Ground is simply a beautiful magazine, filled with evocative images and expert design that captures the essence of the emotion attached with the “hallowed ground” the organization advocates for in rare form. I have not seen another similar publication so adept at communicating a mission through imagery, and only rarely I have seen it done this effectively even in special book projects. The last issue I received not only had stunning, artful photographs; it actually had 3-D imagery. The Trust has long been a leader in its field for what it does. Now it is a clear leader in the field for the way it communicates its mission to its audience. Well, done, CWT.


Review of The War of 1812: Official NPS Handbook

9 Sep

The National Park Service has published its official handbook for the War of 1812, just in time for our “Forgotten War’s” bicentennial. This 160 page booklet contains ten brief essays written by the established experts in the field dealing with various aspects of the conflict and serves as a general overview of the war and time period. Essays cover topics such as the global context of the war, the American Indians in the war, the war at sea and at land, the African American experience during the war, and the legacy of the war in the United States and Canada. All of the essays are well-done although a few stood out as deserving special attention. For example, Alan Taylor’s “From the American Revolution to the War of 1812” is an excellent piece that does as good a job of summarizing the years between the conflicts as any I have seen in a mere eleven pages and does so in a prose that is worthy of praise.

War of 1812 handbook

This book begins with a helpful timeline of the war’s events and concludes with a listing of related historic sites. These sections serve as excellent bookends to the essays themselves. This book does not provide a concise, chronological summary of the war, but simply serves as an introduction to the conflict. Its essays are thought-provoking and lead the reader to seek out more information. Unfortunately, the book does not contain a bibliography that would assist the reader in this manner. This quibble aside, this is quality handbook that should sell nicely in NPS bookstores and is a worthy addition in any War of 1812 historian’s library.


Visiting Our Past

4 Sep

I recently ran across a passage by the renowned historian Daniel J. Boorstin which so eloquently addresses the transcendent importance of visiting our nation’s historic sites that I felt it deserved posting here. It appeared in his introduction to the National Geographic Society’s Visiting Our Past: America’s Historylands, originally published in 1977.


The copyright may be over thirty years old, but the content is perhaps more prescient than ever. Our nation’s historic sites are chronically underfunded, underutilized, and imperiled. Boorstin’s words are a vision and a call to action. He acknowledges that while books are our primary source for knowledge of the past, in order to truly understand all the things that the past can teach us, we need to go further:

“These we must experience in our landscape. This landscape includes, or course, the enduring features of our continent—oceans and lakes and mountains—as well as all the human relics which we find about us: trails and roads, canals and railroad tracks, streetcars and cog railways, monuments and cemeteries, churches and houses and public buildings, furniture and paintings, and countless other items which exist only because they were put there by our ancestors. They speak to us from the past in a language that all of us can learn. The more we become familiar with them, the more they tell us……Visiting our past by exploring our landscape requires a very different sort of effort. This requires the energy to go places, the vehicles to get us there, the time to look and wander and reflect on where we are, where we have been, and what we have seen…It can be costly and troublesome, but it can also be convivial and refreshing…Our landscape bears the marks of mixing peoples and cultures, of a standard of living never before seen…The adventure of visiting our past, then, is not only the opportunity to find what we were already looking for, but the chance to encounter what we had never expected to find. In this way we discover clues to a past which speaks to you or to me. There is no substitute for going.”