Archive | April, 2014

What’s In a Name?

29 Apr

I recently read that the Ohio Historical Society is changing its name to the “Ohio History Connection” in an effort to appear more inclusive, accessible, and less “stodgy.” Its director, Burt Logan, was quoted in an article about the name change summing up the rationale for the change thusly: “The name change is not a panacea, but it sends a signal to a broad audience that we have entered a new day.”

name change

I hope for their sake that the name indeed sends the signal they are wishing to communicate and engages new audiences. Certainly there is a lot of meaning attached to a name, and perhaps it is time cultural heritage organizations take a closer look at how the public they are attempting to serve views those names. I will not criticize name changes that are designed to reflect contemporary service organizations that are saddled with antiquated titles in general, (see The Society for the Preservation of New England’s Antiquities becoming Historic New England) but the pessimist in me sees these moves as somewhat akin to a church changing its name to a “Life Center.” Is it the name or the product that people are not finding compelling? I admit that I am troubled by the fact that names like “Historical Society” are so dimly viewed by much of the populace.

I don’t believe it is necessarily issues of accessibility that are at the root of the less than stellar image of many historical organizations, and tend to think more blame lies in the “stodginess” associated with study of the past in our fast-moving modern society. Some of that is our fault as historians for not paying adequate attention to the public in our work. If a tweak of institutional title will make history cool to people, though, more power to the “Connections,” “Experiences,” and other amorphous organizations that will soon populate the cultural landscape. But despite all the right reasons being given, moves like the Ohio Historical Society’s feels more like desperation than inspiration to me. We’ll all be watching with interest to see if mere semantics will actually cause people to become more involved with cultural heritage organizations.

In the meantime, I would encourage us all to pay more attention to what people actually want from us and remind everyone that basic awareness of what we do and the role it plays in a healthy society is the key to the future of our profession. After all, if antiquated or confusing names were the only barrier to success I don’t think we’d still have a United Negro College Fund, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or even an East Carolina University. Clearly, a name is only part of the problem, and a tangential one at that.


Review of Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

22 Apr

I thought George Washington would never die. I’ve been listening to an audiobook recording of Ron Chernow’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our first president—the printed book weighs in at a doorstopping 928 pages—for several weeks now during my travels. Though lengthy, I found Washington: A Life to be one of the most engrossing books I have come across in quite a while. It is nothing less than the new standard work on this “indispensable” founding father, and well worth your time.


Naturally, Chernow’s work is inclusive of just about everything one would want to know about the remarkable life of Washington, alleged wooden teeth (they were not!) and all. But this book is no dry recitation of facts. Despite its length, Chernow’s narrative provides consistent, fresh, and well-placed insight into the true character of Washington that places in context what might otherwise be a mere chronicle of events in our nation’s formative years. The Washington that emerges from these pages is a complex man consumed by appearances, steadfast in observing formalities, plagued by physical ailments that might have weakened the resolve of other men, and although remembered as stoic, possessed of a fiery emotional temperament.

Washington, Chernow demonstrates, lived a life worth knowing about, and not just because he played such a central role in so many events in America’s founding. Not only do some of his exploits have the ring of legend, he managed to rise above faction and party in an era in which the country desperately needed a visionary and resolute statesman. Scrupulous almost to a fault, he became the very embodiment of a cause and a government which could have easily gone astray had he sought personal gain from his fame, and his opportunities to do so were more abundant than most today realize. Chernow’s book is certainly not hagiography, but it does demonstrate that despite his inadequacies Washington’s personal makeup uniquely qualified him to lead America in a war for independence, in the formation of a government, and even in a reluctant but consequential personal statement on the incapatibility of slavery with the nation’s professed guiding principles.

Washington was not perfect, but Chernow proves he is still relevant. Of even more interest for historians, he has made this famously elusive and distant figure come alive as never before. Washington: A Life will surely stand as the best portrait of its subject for our time.


Review of Bushwacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863, by William Lee White

15 Apr

I recently had a chance to visit Chickamauga National Military Park during a trip to attend a conference for work. Since it was the first time I had been there in many years, I thought I would quickly browse to see what, if anything, had recently been published about the battle since my last tour before I left. When I discovered that last year park ranger William Lee White had written an acclaimed brief history and guide to Chickamauga, I decided to purchase a copy. I am glad I did.

Layout 1


White’s book is brief, compelling, fast-moving, and richly illustrated. (Some of those illustrations are some detailed and easy-to-read maps by the way) He provides an overview of the complicated battle as the fighting unfolded over the course of three of the bloodiest days of the Civil War in September of 1863, enabling the reader to use the book as a battlefield guide as well as a general history. The writing is not dry or overly technical, and in fact is quite emotional in its interpretation of the brutal fighting that took place and the individual dramas that played out during the contest. I found the personal stories to be what I remembered most, in fact, ranging from the saga of the tragic death of Richard Rowland Kirkland (The “Angel of Marye’s Heights”) to the plight of the families whose homes were swept up in the carnage and are today a part of the battlefield’s unique story (the Brotherton’s, the Poe’s, the Snodgrass family, and the widow Eliza Glenn, etc…).


I guess I should have expected as much from a man quite literally born on the battlefield—in a nearby hospital that stands in an area over which the contending armies marched. White has not written the most comprehensive narrative of the battle, but neither did he intend to. He has written perhaps the most informative, accessible, and touching account of a curiously overlooked chapter in our most famous national drama, however. Anyone with an interest in the battle would do well to consult this slim volume before touring Chickamauga’s hallowed grounds. And if you visit, you may very well encounter him at his post, as I did, and get a copy of this splendid book autographed. Well done, Mr. White.


A Note on Personal Interpretation

10 Apr

Our job and volunteer activities allow us opportunities to engage with individuals and groups at several types of institutions and situations—outdoor historic sites, museums, historic homes, lectures, book signings, etc… That work is, in our opinion, at the very core of what we do as historians. There are many ways to interpret the past for an audience, but old fashioned one-on-one conversation is among the most effectual. We admit that we don’t have a magic formula for delivering a great presentation. In fact, the more we do this the more we are reminded of the old maxim of “the more you know the more you realize you don’t know,” but we have through trial and error come to an understanding of what seems to work for us. We follow some basic personal rules of thumb:

Tour guide sign

1) We first take into account what we believe our audience expects. Do they have the time or inclination to listen to a long involved spiel or a brief overview? What background knowledge does it appear they bring to the table? What information will be most helpful to them? Know your audience!

2) We try to make sure to incorporate some logistics at the outset. How much of their time are we going to take? What is the scope of our presentation? We keep in mind that in some scenarios, the most important logistical information may simply be where the bathroom is.

3) We try to never confuse the number of minutes of blabbering or the amount of questions or conversation with actual impact. We know that we and the audience and have arrived at that moment with varying goals, expectations, and levels of both energy and interest. We simply want these two sets of circumstances to meet as closely as possible at that moment so that what we do say has meaning and is helpful. In our way of thinking, if we bring passion and knowledge to every interaction with the public, they’ll inevitably be back for more.

4) Engaging with the public is crucial. We must never read too much from a podium and/or drone on with too many statistics and facts. It is a presentation, but we feel the more interactive and give-and-take a presentation has regardless of format, the more meaningful it will be. Nothing sucks the life out of a program than listening to a speaker read his paper or notes for thirty minutes. People come to hear an expert speak on a subject they know, not read their paper.

5) We find that humor is a great way to connect with the public. A witty comment here and there seems to put the audience at ease and lets them know this will be an entertaining conversation, not an academic lecture.


Review of Mayflower: The Voyage from Hell, by Kevin Jackson

8 Apr

As evidenced in some of the book reviews posted recently in this blog, I have become increasingly interested in early American colonial history. I think it is a natural thing for historians to be intrigued by the beginnings of things, and I find America’s origins to among the most fascinating topics I have investigated. It can be an eye-opening experience to read about the roughly 200 years of sustained colonial efforts that predate the United States’ independence, and it is time well spent. The diversity of America’s founders in terms of geography, culture, experience, and dreams is itself a critical component in understanding our shared heritage. When I ran across Kevin Jackson’s recent short volume (published as a Kindle Single), Mayflower: The Voyage From Hell, I immediately decided it was time to continue that intellectual journey.


The book is fast-moving, and, despite the title, focused more on the hardships of establishing a settlement in the New World than the trip from Europe itself. It provides enlightening insight into one of the most celebrated dramas in American history while making the personal experiences of those who lived it visceral and tangible. It is a tale of lofty goals and miserable circumstances, of nearsighted ambition with far-reaching consequences, of happenstance encounters and established precedent. I will refrain from recounting the oft-told story of the arrival on Plymouth Rock by a band of surprisingly worldly-focused religious dissenters and the consequences pertaining to the narrative of American history contained in the book. Rather, I will simply point out that this book provides an overview of the reasons for their migration, what they endured to get here, and what they did once arrived with balance and purpose. Make no mistake, this short study is not the most comprehensive on the Mayflower and its passengers, but it is among the most accessible introductions to an important event in our nation’s past that has become so entangled in legend that its actual facts are often lost. In other words, it is the type of thing we sorely need.


Give Me a Sign!

4 Apr

I travel a lot, and I always make a point of visiting any historic sites and museums I can when on the road. I am struck at how pivotal a role simple directional signage, a basic but often sorely overlooked part of the visitor experience, plays in one’s overall impression of an attraction.

A case in point is my recent visit to a state park while attending a seminar. The park was beautiful, situated in rolling hills along a scenic river and featuring miles of hiking trails, intriguing and well-interpreted ruins of an antebellum mill destroyed during the Civil War, a modern visitor center with state of the art exhibits, and friendly and helpful staff:

Copy of Sweetwater Creek


Copy of Manchester Mill ruins

I almost didn’t find any of this, though.

Upon arrival, I drove in past the unoccupied attendant booth and followed the signs toward the visitor’s center only to be greeted about a mile in by this rather unclear welcome: 

Sweetwater sign 2

Due to some construction, it appeared the road was blocked, but there was just enough room for vehicles to drive around, which some were doing. Was I to drive on or not? Were the drivers of these vehicles visitors, staff, or construction workers? The signs said the visitor’s center was open, but where was it? Was I to walk along the existing road to get there? I decided to park my car right there and set out on foot in search of this place, assuming it was ok to leave my car where it was. Turns out it was about a quarter mile down the road, situated between a construction site and a maintenance shed on the side of a hill and totally hidden from view until you passed these places, with no clear path of entrance at all from the direction I had to approach.

I wondered how many other people drove up to where I was and, unsure where they were to go, simply turned around and left. The moral of the story is that you can never assume visitors have any familiarity with a site. I’ve encountered a whole lot worse scenarios than the one recounted here in other parks, and will give this one a little bit of slack because they were undergoing some construction. But anyone involved in running a historic site, park, or museum should put themselves in the position of their visitors and make sure that upon arrival their guests know where to go and what to do. It’s pretty basic stuff, but I’m constantly surprised how often these details are overlooked. They can make or break an entire visit and leave a lasting impression.