Archive | March, 2016

Review of Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery; The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842, by Nathaniel Philbrick

29 Mar

Owing in large part to his epic accounts of seafaring adventures in early America such as In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, historian Nathaniel Philbrick has emerged as one of the most popular contemporary non-fiction authors. Philbrick has actually carved out a rather unique domain for himself as a bard of our nation’s “watery wildnerness” (in the words of his publisher) and through his writing has brought some largely forgotten chapters of American history to the attention of a rather large audience. Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery is the first of his books I have had the pleasure to read, but it certainly will not be the last.

Philbrick Sea of Glory

In it, Philbrick unearths the remarkable but unheralded journey of one of America’s most significant exploratory undertakings, the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. Dubbed the “Ex Ex,” this nearly four-year long voyage had as its mission nothing less than the first thorough scientific documentation of the entire Pacific realm, stretching from Antarctica to the islands of southeast Asia, and from Hawaii to the western United States. In much the same way as Lewis and Clark had explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase a generation earlier, the “Ex Ex” undertook to bring an entire quadrant of the globe into focus. It was a Herculean undertaking which in final analysis could lay claim to having charted innumerable islands, documented a slew of little-understood weather phenomena, mapped the Pacific Coast of the United States, and is credited with the discovery of Antarctica. The expedition brought back thousands of specimens bringing numerous plant and animal species to the attention of scientists everywhere, and in the process helped lay the foundation for the formation of the Smithsonian Institution. It even managed to get entangled in combat with tribesmen in Fiji along the way.

Even with all this as a foundation, crafting an intriguing narrative from the mountains of routine daily journal entries of its one hundred or so man crew requires skill. Philbrick delivers by weaving into his story the stun and awe with which the adventurers beheld some of the sights few men had ever witnessed as they made their way through treacherous iceflows and sailed through harrowing storms. He makes the story all the more real by transforming key individuals into actual characters, none more so than the dedicated but vain and at times petty captain of the expedition, Charles Wilkes. Wilkes is at once protagonist and villain in Philbrick’s account, simultaneously a persevering leader and an intensely insecure and demeaning man whose jealousy threatened more than once to derail the entire effort. One cannot help but come away with an appreciation for the author’s talent in giving life to the men he chronicles regardless of their character as he takes you into the storm-tossed holds of the expedition’s ships.

Sea of Glory is not destined to eclipse Philbrick’s previous award-winning scholarship and will almost as certainly be remembered in the long run as one of his lesser-celebrated works. Perhaps this is somehow appropriate, as the “Ex Ex” itself returned to a deafening silence after its grand journey back in 1842. The book is nonetheless a stirring chronicle of an important event in American history that will stand as its definitive account for a very long time.


Historic Sites and Museums as Enhancers

22 Mar

Last week we featured Mike’s blog concerning how historians are often confronted with the need to have one sentence answers to complicated questions ready for a distracted and sadly uninformed public. It reminded me of another important issue facing historic sites and museums. It has always been my opinion that our historic sites and museums serve as an enhancement to a student’s educational knowledge. We expect students to already have a foundation of the basic history and our institutions build upon that foundation with additional detail and clarity. I do not think historic site/museum staff can, in a quick field trip, provide the entire story. There simply is not that much time available to explain the complex issues surrounding an event/topic. And yet, I am more and more fearful that is what is happening today.

school tour of museum

In his blog, Mike mentioned a student asking “How did the Civil War start?” What a difficult and complex question for a guide to answer succinctly! I am sure staff at other institutions can relate similar issues. At the Old Capitol Museum, we share with students the space where Mississippi seceded from the Union. It is hard to emphasize the importance of that event when students have limited or no knowledge of the Civil War in the first place. And yet, I have seen this problem again and again.

As our students are getting less instruction in basic American history in schools, historic sites/museums face more difficult challenges in staying relevant and interesting to students when they visit. Cultural heritage institutions probably need to be thinking proactively of how they prepare for student visitors whose basic knowledge of the subjects they cover seems to be sorely lacking and getting worse every year. If we want to educate our audience, we must realize that we may in fact be the only place they learn about the subjects we interpret.


One Sentence Answers

15 Mar

Not long ago as I was wrapping up a tour of the Civil War battlefield at the park where I work one of the fourth graders I was speaking to asked me a simple but unexpected question—“How did the Civil War start?” The class had not actually studied the war just yet, and the trip was preparatory to their investigation of the topic. Time was short, and most of his classmates’ attention spans were even shorter, so I tried my best to give him a brief answer that would help him understand the complex origins of our most profound national drama realizing that he literally knew almost nothing about the affair.

ranger giving school group tour

As I stumbled through whether trying to explain slavery, state rights, and the nature of the Union in my mind, desperately searching for terms that I felt would communicate these concepts he could grasp in a twenty-second soundbyte, I realized two things. One—giving such an answer is impossible without some understanding of context and there is no way it could be edifying, and two—as much as I may regret it, there is sometimes a real need for simplistic, pat answers to complex questions that manage to pack a lot of meaning into a few words. Indeed, explaining succinctly and in laymen’s terms complex historical developments in a way that makes them quickly comprehensible is really the essence of the historians’ craft. The truth is, public historians are lucky to have the attention of their audience for even a short time. We either communicate information quickly or not at all. Of course we would like to have a chance to explain in detail important historical events, but we may never get the chance if we fail to make a convincing first impression. Thankfully, we aren’t often asked to condense some of the defining events in American history into single-sentence answers, but we should be thinking in those terms rather than in lengthy orations if we want to actually have an impact.







Review of Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, by Gore Vidal

8 Mar

Although I have long known about the writing of iconoclastic author, essayist, and playwright Gore Vidal (1925-2012), Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson was the first book of his I read cover to cover. In truth I suppose I should say I listened to an audiobook recording of it “cover to cover” on a recent road trip. I had glanced at reviews of the book in a few places before selecting it from my local library, wanting to make sure that it was generally considered worthwhile by readers. What I found was that, true to Vidal’s reputation, people seemed to love it or hate it. Some praised it as a fresh, if skeptical, take on America’s founders, while others derided its many asides and the author’s overt assertion of his opinion in the narrative. Realizing I too would probably reach a conclusion on one of the two extremes, I nevertheless decided to take the chance and discover this accomplished author’s take on the founding of our republic.


In Inventing a Nation, Vidal attempts to interpret the philosophical underpinning of our nation as arrived at through the machinations of flawed but at times ingenious men such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, each who came to the task with his own biases, shortcomings, and foibles that could not help but be foisted onto the political life of the country. I personally found it refreshing to read this well-known narrative as anything but a predestined story of development, instead hinging on real ideas and deeds of real people. In place of the usual veneration of our founders as selfless patriots, Vidal urges us to contemplate a new nation that was, in fact, a messy, tenuous experiment, consistently teetering on the brink even as it attempted to live up to lofty and at times competing notions of what government could and should be to the people it served. Indeed, Vidal seems to relish showing how it might have all taken very different turns, and points out how dearly we seem today to hold to the myth, admittedly not always consciously, of the predestined greatness and near infallibility of the founders. He is sarcastic, opinionated, and at times genuinely humorous in his biting commentary, but if nothing else his writing should force readers to think.

Thinking is evidently not something Vidal takes for granted, either. He points out throughout the book and in his conclusion—a summary of a conversation he had with John F. Kennedy about what motivated America’s founders which allegedly was the inspiration for the book—how the very act of seriously pondering the merits of political philosophy lay at the heart of the Revolutionary experience. The gentlemen he chronicles were not men prone to knee-jerk reactions; they thought deeply about the courses they should take and conducted their lives according to codes and standards they deemed appropriate. In fact, their adherence to these in hindsight often gives those of us who read about their lives the impression they consciously acted as if they knew would later be held up to scrutiny. They all wanted to get their way and were not always right or as noble as we might perhaps want them to be, but they all had very well informed opinions of what the correct path should be for the young nation. They read Locke, Montesquieu, and Hume, knew Greek and Roman history thoroughly, and as a group were as aware of current events in America and abroad as any men of their day. They occasionally retreated to rural seclusion to contemplate and refresh themselves mentally. We don’t have their like in today’s fast-paced political world, Vidal notes with disdain. He does not hold these men in awed reverence and clearly wishes to have them brought down off their pedestals to be evaluated as fallible men, but he cannot help but communicate an admiration for their commitment to idealism, imperfections and all.

Vidal enters into a number of short asides to make his secondary point that current leaders are intellectually shadows of our founders, clumsily attempting to clothe their often misguided actions in the mantle of Revolutionary Era legitimacy, and have often strayed far indeed from the principles on which the nation was founded. Some date the book by being perhaps a little too specific to late 1990s and early 2000s political battles, and a few reveal a partisan bent that colors his narrative, but it is his prerogative to draw on examples he thinks most relevant. On the whole, I rather enjoyed this rather different take on the laying of the foundation of our nation’s guiding political ideology and its relevance to us today. In absolutely captivating, if acerbic, prose, and with a novelists’ flair for plot and character development, Vidal succeeds in at least making readers think in Inventing a Nation. I would suppose that was precisely one of his major goals.


A Square Peg in a Round Hole—Marketing Cultural Heritage Attractions

1 Mar

Marketing has never been my primary job within the cultural heritage institutions I have served. It has, though, always been a prominent part of my job duties whether official or unofficial, and it has always been on my mind. I want to bring as much attention as I can to the institutions with which I work. Entirely separate from that selfish interest, I love visiting historic sites and travel often, so I’ve naturally been attuned to noticing how other museums, parks, assorted institutions market the experiences they offer.

square peg round hole

It seems to me that most of us (cultural heritage institutions) have traditionally struggled to find our niche in describing how and why people should visit us. We don’t fit easily in most of the website page tabs on convention and visitors bureau sites—which commonly offer some combination of listings under the headings of “attractions” “lodging,” “dining,” and or the more trendy “play,” “stay,” and “eat.” Neither do we usually fit comfortably alongside the usual listing of attractions many communities offer, since it is commonly only the larger ones that have a robust enough list of “arts and culture” venues for us to really have peers in promotional literature. But where to place historic sites in a visitor’s guide is really just a sidelight compared to the real struggle we seem collectively to have with defining what exactly it is we offer visitors.

Our constant efforts to encourage folks to “discover,” “experience” or “explore” has always felt just a little strained and at times disingenuous to me. This is not because those buzzwords are necessarily inaccurate or misleading, it’s just that they have already been co-opted and used much more successfully by other attractions with which we have little in common—theme parks, shopping malls, and zip lines, for example. And while I’ve always asserted entertainment is a big part of what we do, entertainment for its own sake is certainly not our primary function; few historic sites and museums can successfully market themselves purely as “fun for the whole family,” after all.

I really don’t have a solution to the dilemma about how to best attract an audience. But sometimes I do wonder if we might not be just as well off if we chose to market ourselves with brutal and transparent honesty rather than try to fit into conventional publicity models. We encourage reflection, provide opportunities for contemplation, facilitate intellectual and spiritual connections to those who have gone before us, and help satisfy a thirst for knowledge. Most people know this inherently, but you sort of need to like learning to enjoy what we offer. I’m not sure that by burying this stark truth in slick marketing, whether inadvertently or not, we ever really gain much of anything in the way of audience or attention. In other words, we probably aren’t really fooling anyone by describing ourselves in the same terms as theme parks; people know what they are getting. When we are successful, it is usually not due to sophisticated marketing as much to having quality content, excellent programs and presentations, and a high level of professionalism.