Sunday, February 13, 2011

RIP Critical Thinking: A Field Report

More news of weak links in American higher education has made the rounds in recent weeks. Researchers tell us that thirty percent of college seniors are no better at writing or thinking critically than they were as freshmen. This revelation probably doesn't surprise many of us who work in the academy. Nonetheless, it's not easy to hear, especially if you care about teaching. And I do. A lot.

It’s because I care about teaching, in fact, that I recently partnered with a school district north of Philadelphia to apply for a Teaching American History (TAH) grant. For those of you who don't know, TAH grants are competitively awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help K-12 teachers fine tune their history chops. Big wads of Federal cash support partnerships between school districts and organizations with "content expertise" (e.g. a university history department or a professional association like the NCPH) that, together, work toward improving our kids' ability to--this is the important part--think critically about history. It's a crucial program that, of course, is in imminent danger of being cut.

In any event, I offered Temple's Center for Public History as a vehicle through which to launch what I thought was a pretty smart three-year course of TAH seminars and summer institutes for about 30 high school teachers. Imagine my surprise, however, when I arrived at our first planning meeting to discover that my partner had asked a third party, a professional TAH grant getter, to join our meeting. This had evidently been a last-minute request, born of fears that my partner's own grant writer and the Center's collateral expertise might not be enough to get the proposal in on time.

Some background. Almost as soon as the TAH program began in 2001, professional TAH hacks started popping up everywhere. These businesses, with official sounding names like the "American Institute for History and so and so," are parasitic in the same way tha
t test prep companies like Kaplan are. The test prep folks feed off of the demand created by educational standards that American schools are perpetually unable to achieve by themselves. The TAH hacks feed off of K-12 educators' inability (perceived rather than real, I'd argue) to gather the time and resources necessary to wade through a cumbersome grant application. The hack makes money by taking a cut of the grant in trade for assembling the application materials and contracting with university faculty who sign on as talking heads.

In other words, TAH hacks write TAH grants and they do it fast and reliably. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that even hacks have to make a living. Here's where we get into trouble...

Hacks are good at getting grants because: 1) they've got the manpower; 2) they're fluent in gra
nteese (and regional dialects therein); 3) they assemble reliable pools of cash-hungry faculty, er, content expertise; and, 4) they dress their proposals up with a lot of spiffy extras like client-ready websites with, and this is key in K-12 circles, lots of "free" course materials (e.g. handouts about Ben Franklin and stuff). The hacks are good at getting grants because they've put together a strong business model.

There are at least four very big problems, however, with this particular business model. First, it is a business model. In other words, what these folks do is motivated not so much by a commitment to critical thinking (remember the purpose of the TAH grant?) as it is a commitment to, well, staying in business. Second, when a school district partners with a hack, it partners with a business, not a community of historians. This is a bad recipe for ongoing partnerships between school districts and regional colleges and universities. Third, toward improving their odds of securing the grant, hacks design safe programs that emulate past successes. So much
for innovative pedagogy. And finally, in our case at least, the hack’s business model demanded a closed shop. If my partner chose to work with the hack, then I and my plan would be...history.

Faced with a choice between convenience and vision, and even tho
ugh the teachers preferred my plan, my partner chose the hack.

I’m mad about this. I’m mad that my partner sold me out so easily. I’m mad that I invested so much time in developing a proposal that, at best, will be ignored and, at worst, will be co-opted by the hack. I’m mad that the Center, whose interest in this project was primarily intellectual, got outmaneuvered by a hack whose interest was primarily pecuniary. But what really irks me is knowing what my partner will get if the hack's plan is funded.

An example. I proposed using the grant to help teachers and students curate their own digital (and 100% free, by the way) local history archive in cooperation with several regional museums and historical societies. We even had a cool tie-in lined up with This was going to be a fun, cheap, and fairly innovative way to confront students with hard questions about which parts of our past get remembered, and which do not.

The hack countered with his company's canned WEB resource. An "award-winning" website packed full of freebies and with all the javaesque glitz of the internet a la 1997. Granted, a crummy WEB site isn't necessarily the end of the world. It's how you use it. The hack showed us how to use his. Pointing to a digital reproduction of Emanuel Leutze's iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the hack demonstrated
an interactive feature that revealed flaws in the artist's rendering. He made a game of it:

"O.k., everyone, what's wrong with this painting?"

"The sun is shining," someone offered.

"Good!," said the hack, "Remember that Washington crossed at night."

Another someone: "Why's he standing?"

"Ha," the hack snorted, "would somebody as smart as George Washington really stand up in a rickety old boat!?"

And so forth. We never got to juicier questions about why Leutze painted this scene seventy-five years after the fact (and in Europe, no less) or why Americans have come to cherish such a "flawed" painting. What’s more, the hack’s larger vision for the TAH grant was as generic as the Leutze exercise—a big one-size-fits-all themes-and-issues-in-American-history routine, even though the school district had specifically requested an emphasis on local history that might help young folks understand the devastating poverty that had overcome its rural coal-mining community during the last generation.

Underwhelming website and limited vision notwithstanding, the brutal reality of this unfortunate episode is that what passes as "critical thinking" among our nation's TAH hacks and their various educational products seems to be, in this case at least, a vacuous true-and-false game in the myth buster tradition. Difficult questions are traded for platitudes. Teachable moments are lost to content experts whose expertise doesn’t necessarily pertain to the places where school kids struggle to make sense of their own worlds. Teachers never realize that the classroom freebies offered by hacks are freely available elsewhere and that co-authoring new and free digital tools with students requires little more than a few days training. It’s not hard to see, in this light, how long-term gains in critical thinking loose out to short-term profits.

And the American education system stumbles along on its path to oblivion…

So, who is to blame for this problem? The hack? Maybe the Fed’s byzantine grant apparatus? What about all those professors who cash in on TAH gigs without really understanding how the money works, or doesn’t work? The list could go on since, in one way or the other, all of us with a hand in the education game are implicated. My concern, however, is not to point fingers or even to beat up too much on the hack. All of us, after all, are trying to make a living. I’m more worried about how to make my colleagues aware of the impact they have, even if unwittingly, at every level of the American education system. If it’s critical thinking that we want, then all of us must ensure that it’s critical thinking we get. Talk to K-12 teachers, learn what they’re dealing with, leverage your university resources, and create partnerships with these folks that prevent them from having to choose between innovative vision and the promise of convenience.

And, perhaps most importantly, show your advisees that doing history well requires an ethical commitment to doing the best work possible, no matter what the context. We can’t get rid of the hacks, but we can encourage a new generation of entrepreneurial historians to find a better balance between profit and professionalism.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

A Tea Party in Colonial Williamsburg

In a recent Washington Post story, staff reporter Amy Gardner reminds us that history museums play a vital role in ongoing debates about nation and citizenship. Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg has witnessed a recent wave of Tea Party activists who’ve come to cheer on Patrick Henry and follow George Washington to battle. These Tea Partiers find in Williamsburg’s story a historical parallel to their own struggle against high taxes and big government. Gardner reports that the Tea Party worries that the nation has drifted from its founders’ ideals. Those who’ve “forgotten about America,” proclaims a retired plumber from New York, “should come here [Colonial Williamsburg] and listen.”

Novel as it may seem, this episode recalls an earlier moment in the history of American museums. Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, the kind that mingle history lessons with restored buildings and costumed guides, became wildly popular in this country at the turn of the last century. They appealed especially to middle and upper class white Americans who were concerned that decades of labor unrest, combined with an onslaught of foreign immigrants, and the lingering complexities of Reconstruction threatened to obscure what really mattered in America. Colonial Williamsburg was born amid and of these worries during the late 1920s. Americans marveled at the new museum in a dramatic color photo essay printed in a 1937 issue of The National Geographic Magazine. One picture featured two black children flanked by British Redcoats and “up to their ears in watermelon.” “There is one custom,” the caption continued, “that time has not changed.”

Much has changed, fortunately, in the intervening decades. Colonial Williamsburg has worked hard to ensure that the jingoism at play during its early years is kept at bay—and even scrutinized from time to time—by serious hard-won critical history. As Gardner reports, Tea Partiers are sometimes rebuffed by a George Washington who is neither as religious nor as quick to revolt as they expect. Keeping the record straight, however, is a constant challenge in a nation where public memory and politics are synonymous. Consider, for instance, the anti-immigration VDARE Foundation that takes its name from Virginia Dare, the celebrated first English (read: white) child born in America. VDARE, like the North Carolinians who opposed suffrage for Black women during the 1920s “in the name of Virginia Dare,” offers just one more example of change-fearing Americans looking to history for constancy and affirmation—precisely what the Tea Partiers expect to find at Colonial Williamsburg.

The persistence of that expectation is bad news for historians because it shows us that we have largely failed to educate the public that change is, in fact, the essence of history. Although Colonial Williamsburg’s president hopes that visitors leave “having learned something about the nuance and messiness of history,” the influx of Tea Partiers suggests that Americans who distrust change still seek solace there. Museums have become much better in recent years at challenging our expectations of the past. I wonder, though, when the rest of our nation’s historians will join the effort in earnest. With important exceptions, I’m shocked by how few credentialed historians share their expertise with local museums. I’m surprised even more by how many fewer initiate those conversations. Why is it that more of us don’t introduce ourselves to the good people who run our local museums? Why are there so few professional historians on the boards of small museums? Is it that we expect to be asked? To be paid?

Colonial Williamsburg already has its share of historians. The audience that needs us most is waiting at those of our small community museums that can barely pay the bills, let alone respond to the most complicated political questions of our time. Because they can’t afford to come find us, it’s up to us to take the first step. George Washington didn’t win as many battles as we’d like to think. He’ll lose this one too without some help.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

America’s “Best Idea” a Good Idea for Today’s History Sites

Ken Burns has done it again. His latest series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has bloggers abuzz with paeans to Steven Mather, Shelton Johnson, and other unsung heroes of our national park system. And, like any Burns docudrama, The National Parks will surely agitate a few historians. In this rich visual dreamscape, political and social discord melts away into the soothing hum of acoustic Americana. And although the parks are certainly a great idea, I’ve heard colleagues quip about the possibility that, say, universal suffrage was pretty good too.

Criticism aside, there is an important lesson in Burns’s latest success for historians working in museums and historic sites. Burns shows us that people—at least the people in his audience—may be as interested in how places like national parks get made as they are in visiting those places on summer vacations. He’s certainly not the first to tell these stories. The National Park Service has been churning out histories of its various units—“administrative histories” in bureau parlance—for a very long time. And although administrative historians don’t deliver dramatic monologues in The National Parks, their work is evident throughout. It is also available free of charge and cinematic mediation at

Burns’s latest project does, however, point to (and may be creating) a public audience for administrative history. And if’s sales rankings for the DVD and soundtrack are any indication, that audience has money to spare. This is good news for museums and historic sites at a time when they need it most. Interpreting institutional history can put a fresh spin on old history. The National Park Service has tried it at several sites, including in Brookline, MA where Rose Kennedy’s careful crafting of her son’s story is a key theme at the JFK National Historic Site. Closer to home, Eastern State Penitentiary delights with the shear heft of its institutional history. Cliveden of the National Trust recently made headlines for discussing how history is made there. And we can only hope that the nascent President’s House memorial on Independence Mall will help us understand the controversies that have already gathered in its short shadow.

Pulling back the curtain at these sites demonstrates just how contested our public memory can be. That’s an important story for all of us to hear. In it we find an empowering message about the ability of ordinary individuals to shape the past. But there’s a cautionary tale here too, a reminder that we’re all responsible for being careful consumers of history. In that regard, although Burns’s nationalist hyperbole may not be the best idea in history, The National Parks suggests new possibilities for museums unafraid to look in the mirror.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Broken Budget? Bake Bread!

Amid last weekend's rising rivers and lightening strikes, Hilary and I fled the city and headed south into the Brandywine River Valley. I wanted Wyeth country, but with the afternoon almost gone, we settled for a quick tour of the John Chads House. John Chads--after whom Chadds Ford, PA is named--built this three-story stone house during the 1720s. It's a wonderful example of early Pennsylvania architecture that features original woodwork and masonry. The Chadds Ford Historical Society owns the place and offers regular tours although, as our guide indicated, visitation is way down this season. As of 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, we were the day's first visitors!

How that can be confo
unds me because, despite hard times for nearly all historic sites, the John Chads House boasts what may very well be the most irresistible souvenir that I've encountered anywhere in recent memory: fresh bread! Every year, in the run up to September's Chadds Ford Days festival, master bread baker Lise Taylor churns thousands of loaves of bread out of the building's beehive oven. Most of the bread is frozen until September when it's thawed and sold to festival goers. The rest is gobbled up by house visitors, like us, lucky enough to show up at the end of a baking day. $4 buys you a steamy fresh-baked loaf; $10 buys three. It's well worth it.

There's nothing new about house museums selling baked goods out of colonial kitchens. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thing that got Americans excited about historic tourism in the first place. Take for example the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where a "real" colonial kitchen turned out to be a big crowd pleaser. A century later, colonial kitchens--and their wares--remained a staple of living history museums during the nation's 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Eating the stuff costumed interpreters make in bygone kitchens has since grown less common. I imagine this has partly to do with health and liability issues. Additionally, big operations like Colonial Williamsburg have learned how to make more money by funneling visitors into centralized stores that sell "authentic" copies of food and other products made throughout the museum.

The John Chads house, however, is a pretty small operation, but all the more charming as a result. And it doesn't take itself too seriously. You won't get a certificate of authenticity with your bread nor promises that it tastes just like it would have two centuries ago. It is, like all good sourvenirs, a charming (and tasty) reminder of an interesting experience. And in this case, charm pays. Charm is a prickly proposition at museums and historic sites. For starters, it's very diffcult to define. What is charm? How do you budget for it? When done carefully, charm enhances educational missions and keeps visitors coming back. If mishandled, though, charm can quickly turn good history into naive nostalgia or, in extreme cases, heavy-handed ideology. One way or the other, it's hard to deny that charm makes good business sense. Fresh baked bread may not solve all budget woes, but in these hard times, pehaps modern historic sites can learn a thing or two from their predecessors.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

de Maistre's Revenge

In my last post, I mentioned the remarkable influence of context shift on our relationship to everyday objects. If it's context shift you're looking for, check out Microsoft's Photosynth. This server-side visualization software allows you to translate a slew of still-photographs into a very cool interactive panorama. It's easy to use (just a few minutes to generate my office synth), lots of fun, but also highly addicitve, so be careful. Thanks to Bill Turkel for the suggestion.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Big Boats

I had a surprising run in with an old friend early last month while visiting Connecticut's Mystic Seaport museum. Last November, Mystic hauled the Charles W. Morgan out of the water and laid it up in dry dock for an extensive overhaul (click here for the full story). This was no small endeavor. At 340 tons and almost 170 years old, the Morgan requires a firm, but gentle hand. She is, after all, a National Historic Landmark and, according to the good folks at Mystic, the world's last remaining wooden whaling ship. But, beyond all of that, the Morgan is beloved by throngs of people like myself who remember first discovering her on family vacations long ago. And seeing as how tourists have been flocking to the Morgan since 1941, that's a whole lot of memories.

But what amazed me on my most recent visit was how BIG the Morgan really is. Seeing her out of the water is a remarkable experience. Others agree. One museum staffer recalls an old-timer who quipped, "you don't know anything about that boat until you've seen her out of the water." Now, before I go on, perhaps it's worth noting that I am a longstanding maritime history junky. Those early trips to Mystic really worked their magic and I'll probably drag my own kids there whether they like it or not. I can't help but imagine though that even someone without my particular obsession with nineteenth-century maritime stuff would be impressed by the Morgan's shear girth. Don't get me wrong, she looks big in the water, but out of her element, the Morgan's size is really striking. These ships were built broad and deep to accommodate the thousands of barrels of whale oil crews pursued for years on end. As a result, whale ships in dry dock dwarf the buildings that surround them--then and now.

Stumbling upon this particular moment in the Morgan's long life was a real treat because it brought me as close as I'll probably ever get to seeing what a working nineteenth-century shipyard was really like. But it also reminded me just how dramatically our understanding of an object can change with a shift in context. The Morgan is a very different thing out of the water and that difference is worth thinking about in a museum. Everyone who visits Mystic learns about the hardships of life at sea. The Morgan's tiny crew quarters make the point well enough. But, from the current vantage point, the ratio of crew space to cargo space is even more evident. Astute museum goers will see in the ship's remarkable proportions a harsh truth about the cheapness of human labor in the early decades of American industrial capitalism. This is not to say that you can’t know anything about the Morgan while she’s in the water, but her overhaul clearly presents exciting opportunities for reflection as well as repair.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

In Search of Birthplaces

In conjunction with a new book project, I'm attempting to compile a comprehensive map of recognized (read: marked and or celebrated) birthplace monuments in the U.S. and beyond. Check out my progress so far and help me fill in the gaps.

View Birthplace Monuments in a larger map

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Preservation Prevented

I've been involved with historic preservation long enough to know that old buildings can disappear fast no matter who values them nor how much. Even so, I still can't quite believe how quickly the old Shoemaker House vanished. Wreckers razed the three-hundred year-old building early last week after reports of a fuel oil leak led Upper Dublin Township Fire Marshal Timothy Schuck to the house, which stood on a remote corner of Temple University's Ambler Campus. A local news report failed to explain why the building was demolished, although rumors suggest that Schuck made the final call. One way or another, it was a significant decision that resulted in the destruction of one of the Delaware Valley's oldest standing buildings.

There's certainly nothing unique about this story; this sort of thing happens all the time. The great irony in this case, however, is that I and several other Temple colleagues had recently pooled our resources toward resuscitating the old Shoemaker House. Our plan wasn't to restore the place, but rather to stabilize it and create there a living classroom where faculty might encourage students to consider the complicated intersections between history, the environment, and a sustainable future. In fact, we had just submitted a grant proposal that I'm fairly confident would have been supported. How we proceed now is unclear. All hope is not lost, but still I can't help but marvel at the shear scope of miscommunication and historical disregard responsible for the Shoemaker House's untimely demise.

What follows is a brief history of the Shoemaker House excerpted from the grant proposal we hoped would protect the building. As you can tell by the before-and-after pictures, there remains precious little to protect:

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Temple University’s Ambler College campus, just south of the soccer fields near the corner of Butler Pike and Meetinghouse Road, stands a tumbledown stone building half reclaimed by the overgrowth that surrounds it. The Shoemaker House’s humble façade obscures its rich history. Built nearly three hundred years ago, this building ranks among the oldest surviving structures in Upper Dublin Township, let alone in all of southeastern Pennsylvania. Its story is indelibly linked with the story of Pennsylvania and, consequently, the story of our nation.

The land that encompasses Ambler College today lay at the periphery of Philadelphia’s rural hinterland by the late seventeenth century. Opportunities abounded there for wealthy investors like Samuel Finney who, sympathetic to William Penn’s liberal policies, purchased land in 1699 and erected a log structure on the present Shoemaker House site. Although we do not know what that first building looked like or what it was used for, we do know that it represented Finney’s success in a burgeoning Atlantic World. Finney, who had been born into a wealthy North West England family, apprenticed at an early age with a West Indian merchant out of London. The merchant trade served Finney well, eventually leading him to Barbados where he built a fortune on the backs of African slaves forced to labor on sugar and cotton plantations. In the meantime, Finney’s ascent within planter society brought him into a wide circle of prominent friends including William Penn.

Penn’s affiliation with a slave-owning planter may seem strange today, but it is precisely in this way that the Shoemaker House preserves our nuanced past. In this case, it reminds us that slavery existed throughout the colonies, and that even Quakers like William Penn were complicit. It was more likely money than morals that bound Finney to Penn. Their bond appears to have been remarkably strong. Not only did Penn travel with Finney to Pennsylvania in 1699, he also appointed him to the colony’s provincial council in 1703 on which Finney served as judge periodically between 1702 and 1706 and for a final term before his death in 1711. All the while, Finney bought thousands of acres of land and played an integral role in the early history of Upper Dublin Township, which was established under his watch in 1701. Consequently, although the Shoemaker House likely began as little more than a log shed on Finney’s property, by linking us to him it brings into focus the heady mix of religion, slavery, and economic mobility underlying our nation’s shared heritage.

But Finney’s story is only one of many we discover by studying the Shoemaker House. For nearly three hundred years the building has changed with each new owner. Cadwallader Ellis, who traveled to Pennsylvania among the first waves of Welsh Quakers inspired by William Penn, purchased the log building from Finney in 1706. Ellis improved Finney’s building, possibly rebuilding it in stone, to provide shelter for his family. Unlike Finney, for whom settling in Pennsylvania capped a long life of achievement, Ellis aspired from humble beginnings to build a new life of faith and prosperity in the New World. By 1725 the Shoemaker House had grown even more, mirroring the accomplishments of Ellis and his successors. In this way, the Shoemaker House passed from one owner to the next, reflecting in its architectural evolution the struggles and achievements of each generation. The house attained roughly its current configuration in the hands of the Shoemaker family who, besides giving it its name, owned the building for an incredible one hundred and fifty years. Their story alone is worth telling and reminds us that, despite appearances, the unassuming Shoemaker House preserves in its crumbling mortar a memory of profound depth.

The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women purchased the old house from the Shoemaker family in a “good state of repair” in 1943. Over the years, however, inappropriate use and misguided additions compromised the building’s structural integrity. Temple University inadvertently acquired the building (and, briefly, its last tenants) in 1958 when Ambler Junior College merged with the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture. Despite the following decades’ embrace of historical preservation, Temple disregarded the Shoemaker House and even threatened to demolish it only months after the Ambler Women’s Committee published a 1972 report demonstrating the building’s significance. Renewed attempts to protect the building in subsequent decades raised awareness, but never secured financial support. Most recently, the Ambler Campus Council for a Sustainable Campus has brought together volunteers to clear the site of overgrowth and hopes to link these activities with a speaker series concerning sustainability and historic preservation. Without substantial support, however, the future of this remarkable building hangs in the balance.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Windows Remember

From time to time my job leads me to local museums and historic sites. It's a great gig for a museum junky like myself. And, better yet, I occasionally get to see stuff that doesn't turn up on the usual tours. Take, for example, this amazing window that I discovered (thanks, Blanche) on a recent visit to Cliveden (rhymes with "lived in"), a National Trust historic site north of downtown Philly in Germantown, PA. For nearly two centuries, Cliveden’s owners encouraged their guests to “sign” the building’s windows with a diamond scribe. Look closely and, in just this single pane, you’ll find nearly one hundred and thirty years worth of names, dates, and well wishes. The window is a guest book in glass, the result of a charming tradition that literally etched family friends into Cliveden’s memory.

Folks who, like myself, spend a lot of time doing history with things know full well that objects seldom speak so clearly of their pasts. This window owes its remarkable prolixity to Benjamin Chew and his progeny. Chew, a lapsed Quaker who made big money managing the Penn family's legal affairs, built Cliveden as a summer home in the 1760s. The house is most famous for sheltering a handful of British soldiers who, garrisoned behind the building's three-foot thick stone walls, managed to stall General Washington's advance toward Philadelphia in October 1777 during the Battle of Germantown. Chew sold the place after the Revolution, but reacquired it shortly before his death. The home passed from generation to generation until 1972 when the Chew family presented Cliveden to the National Trust. That they did speaks strongly to the family’s awareness of its own significant historical legacy.

Cliveden’s windows are, in this light, striking evidence of one family's desire to commemorate itself. And what a striking commemoration it is. To look through this window is to see one’s self reflected in the deep memory of a building, and a landscape beyond, that witnessed the unfolding of our national story. And, at the same time, the window is itself a unique kind of historic text. It chronicles the comings and goings of some of this country's most prominent people over a remarkable span of time. The absence of less prominent names reminds us that not even objects have perfect memories. In any event, much could be made of this by a historian with an ear for objects. How one footnotes a window is another matter entirely.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Don't Sugar Coat the Hershey Experience

I was saddened to learn recently that the seventy-five year old Hershey Museum will be trading its musty old corner of the Hershey Park Arena complex for a new high profile location on West Chocolate Avenue. The news comes late to me. Although I grew up near Hershey and cherish childhood memories of the museum, I’ve long since moved away and only recently had opportunity to visit the place after a long hiatus.

Things were pretty much as I remembered them, save for an exhibit concerning Hershey Park that included an employee uniform worn in 1990—roughly the same year I held my first summer job at the park. Despite the unease that comes with discovering one’s self in a history museum, I enjoyed revisiting Milton Hershey’s old collection of Indian artifacts and delighted in John Fiester’s miraculous apostolic clock.

I’ll miss the old Hershey Museum, but I also know that nostalgia is not reason enough to sustain it. In fact, nostalgia can be a kind of death knell in the life cycle of a history museum. We study the past toward understanding how change over time has shaped our own historical moment. A museum that fails to convey the complexity of historical change or does not make that lesson relevant to a broad public risks becoming an artifact itself. As much as I’ll miss it, I think the old Hershey Museum may have been headed in precisely that direction.

How exciting then that the M.S. Hershey Foundation is opening a new multi-million dollar museum this January. The so-called Hershey Experience promises to educate upwards of 300,000 visitors every year about the life and legacy of its famous namesake. And, with over ten thousand square feet of modern exhibit space at their disposal, I imagine that the museum’s curators are sparing no effort in making the fascinating story of Milton S. Hershey’s twentieth-century enterprise meaningful to his twenty-first century admirers.

Doing that however will take a lot of hard work and a whole lot of tact. The old Hershey Museum never really wrangled with tough issues like American economic imperialism. Milton Hershey was a committed philanthropist and truly concerned about his employees’ wellbeing. But his success also owed to a murky American foreign policy that permitted, among other transgressions, an undue hand in Cuba where Hershey owned sprawling sugar plantations. That’s a hard story to sell at a place that’s supposed to be all about fun.

But it’s an important story, one of many the Hershey Experience must tell if it is to avoid its predecessor’s fate. History museums provide a safe harbor for working out difficult issues. Confronting imperialism or, similarly difficult, remembering those Americans who were not included in Hershey’s utopian dream does not degrade our memory of the man. Rather it helps us put our own complicated times into context.

And for the millions of us struggling with rising fuel prices, corporate outsourcing, the credit crisis, or any other symptom of our nation’s ever perilous geopolitical milieu, that context reaches all the way back to the collective enterprise of Hershey and his early-twentieth-century industrial brethren. We’re lucky to have a hometown hero like Milton Hershey. But the Hershey Experience must remind us that even a little bar of chocolate carries with it global responsibilities.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hard Time

I've been thinking a lot lately--more than usual, at least--about what to do with historic sites where the primary attraction has all but vanished. This all started a few weeks ago after I read John R. Maass's response to my Ferry Farm op-ed wherein he dismissed my concerns as "silly." Inelegance notwithstanding, Maass's criticism is worth thinking about. He argues that no mater what we academics think or say about it, constructing replicas of long lost buildings like the house that George Washington grew up in is really all about "luring people off I-95 and capturing tourism dollars. Most tourists want to see *something.*" He's right, of course, and historic site managers are necessarily far too busy balancing visitor demands and shoestring budgets to worry much about the so-called "theoretical issues."

But, then, where does that leave us? Maybe I am silly to think that Ferry Farm visitors will settle for anything less than a "replica" approximating what Washington's house might have possibly looked like during roughly those years when Ge
orge wasn't chopping down cherry trees. Does that mean, however, that we can't come up with an alternative to replica building that, while still earning a few bucks for the good folks at Ferry Farm, is less apt to perpetuate the kind of myths and misunderstandings that we in the academy have been working hard to destabilize for the last thirty years? What other kinds of *somethings* might we offer up?

Preservationists have been wrangling with this one for a long time and have come up with some creative responses over the years. Consider, for example, the representational strategy called "ghosting." Ghosting involves creating a kind of three-dimensional life-sized sketch of a bygone building right on the spot where it once stood. The hope is to pique the onlooker's imagination without eclipsing it. Ben Franklin's house and print shop were famously ghosted right here in Philadelphia during the 1976 bicentennial celebration. Whether or not ghosting is any more or less effective than building replicas is a whole other question. Ghosting is, however, certainly a viable alternative.

So is arrested decay. In those fortunate cases where a historic structure remains in whole or in part, but is dilapidated beyond ready repair, simply stabilizing the thing in situ can have remarkable results. This is the strategy, for ins
tance, at the Bodie State Historic Park in California. Bodie, like many western mining towns, boomed and busted during the second half of the nineteenth century leaving nothing today but an abandoned ghost town. Park operators keep Bodie in a state of perpetual decay while preventing it's collapse so that visitors might be impressed by the the legacy of economic caprice.

Hilary and I recently witnessed a stunning example of arrested decay at what definitely ranks among the coolest historic sites I've experienced: Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern state looms like a castle (it was built to look like one) above the otherwise subdued row homes just northeast of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the original penitentiary. When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the only prison in the world intentionally designed to induce penitence. The idea was to keep prisoners constantly occupied in silent solitary labor until Eastern State's edificial magnitude cracked their criminal tendencies. Overcrowding trumped isolation in fairly short order, but Eastern State stayed in business for a long time and wasn't completely shut down until 1970. During its long life, the prison hosted thousands of inmates--including, of course, Al Capone--and fundamentally influenced the architecture and theory of incarceration throughout the world. If you've ever seen an old prison movie (or 12 Monkeys which was filmed there in 1995), you've seen shades of Eastern State.

Today the place stands in a state of semi-ruin. Visitors stroll through tumbledown cell blocks pierced by persistent weeds and an occasional errant sunbeam. A self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (who is, by the way, inexplicably perfect for this) weaves together a host of clever exhibits and points of interest where additional recordings address topics ranging from preservation to sex and sexuality behind bars. But, even more compelling than the history of this place is its aesthetic onslaught. Perhaps it has to do with the weird juxtaposition of impenetrability and collapse, but there is something overwhelming about this place. It's a real sensory tour de force that creates a unique opportunity to witness bygone objects in various states of meaning. Each crumbling cell is at once relic, art, and exhibit. We are forced here to recognize that historical meaning, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder. Both join in stunning harmony at Eastern State.

Whatever it is that makes this place so interesting evidently speaks to a broad public. In fact, it's worth noting that Eastern State is staffed by a throng of hip city kids who are as enthusiastic about their work as any costumed interpreter you might find strolling around Independence Hall or, for that matter, Colonial Williamsburg. Scenesters forging common ground with history buffs! That's an impressive accomplishment for any historic site and I can't help but think it owes in most part to the museum's honesty. This is a place, after all, that can't--and couldn't even if it wanted to--claim many heroes or make patriotic appeals. It is, rather, a place that makes palpable the slow yet irresistible power of passing time. At Eastern State, we learn that history is change and change, by in large, is good. That is a vitally important lesson and one, incidentally, that is very difficult to convey against a backdrop of unchanging replicas.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

George Washington and the Problem with Replicas

Although not necessarily of local concern, the recent announcement that archeologists have discovered George Washington's boyhood home raises important questions about objects and memory. Here is my response, which appeared in the July 25th edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Don't build on a cherry-tree myth--again

July 25, 2008 12:15 am




--Earlier this month The Free Lance-Star joined media outlets across the country in reporting on the discovery of George Washington's boyhood home by archaeologists working at Ferry Farm. This is the iconic home made famous by Parson Weems' ubiquitous cherry-tree mythology.

The George Washington Foundation, which owns the site, has additionally announced its intent to construct a replica of the boyhood home as it would have appeared during the 1740s. This is not, of course, the only Washington boyhood home. In fact, nearly 80 years ago, The New York Times printed a similar story by then-director of the National Park Service Horace Albright. "Washington's Boyhood Homes" (March 29, 1931) reminds us that Washington's youth spanned three homes: Wakefield, Ferry Farm, and Mount Vernon.

Albright wrote specifically to announce the Park Service's plans to erect a replica of Washington's birth house atop its original foundations on the family's old Wakefield plantation in Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula, about 30 miles east of Ferry Farm--the same plan, incidentally, announced by Ferry Farm's owners. Dr. Phil Levy's recent assertion that "what we see at this site [Ferry Farm] is the best available window into the setting that nurtured the father of our country" ("Ferry Farm Yields Secrets," The Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2008) could have just as well been said of Wakefield by Albright eight decades earlier.

And yet, although we all know the cherry-tree story and most of us know something about Mount Vernon, why isn't Wakefield a household name? A little more digging begins to explain why Washington's first boyhood home has long since fallen into obscurity. Only months after heralding the Park Service's work at Wakefield, Albright found himself taking the defensive in "Wakefield Washington Shrine Was Begun After Long Study" (The New York Times, July 19, 1931). Rumors had begun to circulate concerning the location and appearance of the replica birth house. Was it built in the right place? Did it really look like the house Washington was born in? Was it actually a replica?

Albright assured readers that it was, but whether he knew it or not, those in charge of building the replica had uncovered a previously undocumented brick foundation just feet away. Alarmed by the discovery, workers moved quickly to backfill what they called "Building X." Who would know? It was, after all, the eve of Washington's 200th birthday, and Depression-weary Americans were eager to feel good about something. Why disappoint them by not completing the replica in time to celebrate?


It was, however, too late. Backfilling alone was not enough to hide the long shadow cast by Building X. Over the next 30 years, vested interests battled furiously over the replica's meaning, purpose, and destiny until the Park Service finally managed to officially recognize Building X as the actual foundation of Washington's birth house. That today we don't immediately count the birthplace among Washington's various boyhood homes owes at least in part to the confusion created by our clumsy handling of it.

So what, then, might the proprietors of Ferry Farm learn from the Wakefield story? Ferry Farm has been part of the popular American historical conscience for nearly two centuries now, and is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. What's more, historical archaeology has come a long way since Horace Albright's time, and the work done at Ferry Farm is, by all accounts, top-notch. Even so, I wonder if building a replica of Washington's boyhood home at Ferry Farm is really the best way to interpret its historical meaning for the broadest possible audience. The notion is certainly tantalizing--who wouldn't want to see the house where George chopped down the cherry tree? But, then again, George didn't chop down a cherry tree at Ferry Farm or, as far as we know, anywhere else. Will seeing the replica house really convey that lesson or will it reinforce the myth?

The impulse to build shrines to our national heroes is strong right now, especially as we contend with ongoing military entanglements and a faltering economy. Levy's excitement to study the "the father of our country" resonates today exactly as Albright hoped his patriotic replica would hedge against some of the hardest times this nation has ever known. Unfortunately, Albright failed to anticipate how powerfully Americans react to misrepresentations of their most sacred heroes. And because we all value Washington uniquely, any attempt to solidify his myth inevitably draws criticism.

So, rather than navigate those perilous shoals, perhaps the George Washington Foundation should dispense with its replica and make Ferry Farm a place to learn important lessons about the construction of knowledge and historical meaning. Why do the imagining for us when, after all, it's in learning how to imagine the past responsibly that we develop the ability to think critically about our own world?

Seth C. Bruggeman is an assistant professor of history and American studies at Temple University, and the author of "Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument."

Copyright 2008 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Living History

The phrase "living history" usually invokes visions of chubby guys in funny costumes bent on making you taste their hardtack. There's certainly a lot of that in and around the mid-Atlantic states, but a local news item has me thinking today about another kind of living history. George Economos of Millville, Delaware is fighting to save his century-old sycamore trees from the axe come fall 2010 when Route 26 (aka Atlantic Avenue) is slated for widening. Economos owns the trees, but it's not their property value he's worried about--it's their relic value. He claims that the trees are "almost like a landmark identifying Millville as a town." Project manager Tom Banez, who's been charged with snaking the widened road through fifteen historic properties either listed on or eligible for the National Register, is empathetic but explains that the Delaware Department of Transportation just doesn't recognize historic trees.

And why should they, right? After all, trees are trees and Economos is just another old grump lost in some sepia yesteryear. But look a little deeper and you'll discover that trees hold a special place in the great pantheon of bygone objects. Take, for instance, the story of the Charter Oak. Way back in 1686, King James II sent Sir Edmond Andros across the Atlantic to firm up the crown's authority in the colonies. In the process, Andros demanded that a handful of colonies, including Connecticut, hand over their royal charters as an act of obeisance. When Andros arrived in Hartford, the story goes, a couple of clever colonists duped him by hiding Connecticut's charter deep inside a massive oak tree. Andros (also remembered for irritating a lot of Puritans and fleeing Boston disguised as a woman) is probobly most famous today for his involvement in this oft repeated story of proto-patriotic hijinks which, of course, is almost certainly fallacious.

But even more famous than Andros is the tree that tricked him, the so-called Charter Oak. In fact, the tree had grown so synonymous with American liberty that Connecticotians went bonkers for Charter Oak relics after a storm toppled the thing in 1856. Not only did they carve a fancy chair out of its trunk for their state house, but they also planted a miniature forest with its acorns. This is not an isolated phenomenon. All kinds of folks have been charmed by the reliquary powers of plants and trees for a long time. Here in my neck of the woods (ha...) you can visit the nation's oldest botanical garden where John Bartram gathered together plants from throughout the colonies beginning in the 1720s. Stroll through the grounds and you'll bump into the ancestors of flora fawned over by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. Bartram even named one of his discoveries after the good Dr. Franklin. Although Franklinia Alatamaha might pale in stature to the Charter Oak or even George Economos' sycamore trees, they all convey to those who are looking for it, the presence of the past.

And, if you still doubt the power of historic trees to invoke strong emotion, consider the massive grassroots effort raised of late to save the diseased horse-chestnut tree described fondly by Anne Frank in her famous diary. Outraged onlookers the world wide intervened in 2007 when Amsterdam officials announced their intent to fell the tree. Consequently, a court injunction saved the tree and entrusted its protection to a foundation created just for that purpose. No, I don't think Economos is going to deter DelDOT with threats of a global media campaign. Yet, in the mix of things and trees and memories, his sycamores keep pretty good company. Good luck, George.

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