Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 2 – Yorktown

Two new museums devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution opened within a month of each other in Spring 2017. What are the odds? Philadelphia and Yorktown, Virginia both seemed like obvious places for such a museum. The museums are about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from each other. It took me a while, but I finally  managed to visit both of them. This isn’t a review, but some observations about them. Bottom line: they are both worth visiting.

IMG_0042Both museums have embraced social and cultural history and seek to tell the stories of previously unheard voices – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Both include local flavor to a national story. In Philadelphia it’ s the Battle of Brandywine, in Virginia, it’s the siege of Yorktown. And both include a hall of photographs of the revolutionary generation in their older years – a powerful way to personalize a story that pre-dates the invention of photography.

Where the Philly museum sits blocks from Independence Hall, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown sits at the edge of the Yorktown battlefield where in October, 1781, British forces were trapped and surrendered, essentially bringing an end to the War. The museum opened April 1, 2017.

Similar to the Philadelphia museum, settings with life-sized figures add to a dramatic effect and media sprinkled throughout offer video in creative ways. The film “Liberty Fever,” an orientation film of sorts at the entrance utilizes a creative approach, set in 1830 or 1840, with a bit of whimsy, to tell a story with big themes. The Siege Theater features experiential theater to take you to the Yorktown battlefield. With dazzling lights, deafening cannon, shaking seats, blowing wind and the smoke of battle, this 4-D effect theater tries to engage the senses. It works pretty well.

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Along the way are impressive objects, a stunning huge portrait of King George III, a reproduction cannon, and a rare broadside of the Declaration of Independence. Like the Philadelphia museum, almost 500 objects fill the space. 

The exhibition pays special homage to Virginia’s native sons such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. But other voices certainly enter the story, from women to enslaved people who must make tough decisions about whether or not to run to the British.

The exhibit labels offer many stories and include multiple voices, however they are long and it often seemed like the curator was writing a book instead of exhibition text. I wish the designers had presented the text in smaller chunks and incorporated questions to provoke thought.

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enlisted soldier tents

Yorktown includes something the Philadelphia museum can only accomplish with its reproduction Privateer hands-on area: a large outside hands-on area that includes a Revolution-era farmsite, a Continental Army encampment, and best of all, an artillery amphitheater where people of all ages can fire a cannon or rifle while an audience watches. Ever wonder how many men it took to fire a cannon, how far the recoil moved the cannon, or how they managed not to go deaf? I really enjoyed exploring the different tents from the officer’s tent to the medical tent. The kitchen area was not at all what I expected.

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officer’s tent

Like Philadelphia, Yorktown includes a special exhibition gallery. During my visit it featured a display about artillery, Blast from the Past.   It goes in-depth about the physics of the large guns, but uses creative approaches, such as a whimsical film, to provide explanations.

Of course the museum is no substitution for a visit to the actual preserved battlefield a few miles away. But in order to get a solid context, the museum is well worth a visit. Even better, add a visit to Jamestown and Williamsburg the other sides of Virgnia’s Historic Triangle.

Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 1 (Philadelphia)

Jamestown’s foothold in the new-world 

A place of history inspiration: Williamsburg 

Posted in 18th century, American Revolution, military, President | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 1 – Philadelphia

Two new museums devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution opened within a month of each other in Spring 2017. What are the odds? Philadelphia and Yorktown, Virginia both seemed like obvious places for such a museum. The museums are about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from each other. It took me a while, but I finally  managed to visit both of them. This isn’t a review, but some observations about them. Bottom line: they are both worth visiting.

Both museums have embraced social and cultural history and seek to tell the stories of previously unheard voices – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Both include local flavor to a national story. In Philadelphia it’ s the Battle of Brandywine, in Virginia, it’s the siege of Yorktown. And both include a hall of photographs of the revolutionary generation in their older years – a powerful way to personalize a story that pre-dates the invention of photography.

photo wall of the revolutionary generation

photo wall of the revolutionary generation courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

Having spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, I eagerly anticipated the new Museum of the American Revolution which opened April 19, 2017. I think it’s a good addition to the city’s cultural attractions. It sits a few blocks east of Independence Hall, the city’s star attraction, and complements that building and other history sites in the city. And let’s face it, international visitors and even most Americans are fuzzy on the story. A ranger-led tour of Independence Hall cannot possibly provide enough context to give most visitors an understanding of the events that changed the course of history.

The galleries pose four questions throughout:

  • How did people become Revolutionaries?
  • How did the Revolution survive its darkest hour?
  • How Revolutionary was the war?
  • What kind of nation did the Revolution create?

While I’ve read some criticisms that the collection isn’t terribly broad, I was impressed with the variety of objects on display — about 500 of them (similar to Yorktown). One particularly memorable object is the tiny pair of red infant shoes supposedly made from the fabric of a British redcoat. The seven tableaus featuring life-like figures are an attempt to personalize and dramatize the exhibition. One depicts a crowd toppling a statue of King George III in New York, another a Hessian soldier, and another highlights a debate within the Oneida nation about which side to take.

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Liberty tree setting, courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

Some of my favorite sections: a comparison wall of war propaganda, a liberty tree setting that includes wood from an actual liberty tree that you can touch, and a recreated privateer ship hands-on area filled with tactile reproduction objects. The Battle of the Brandywine theater is an attempt to give museum visitors a “battlefield” experience. It could have been better executed and comes across as corny.

revolution museum privateer ship

reproduction privateer ship area courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

The films scattered throughout the core exhibition got the serious documentary-style treatment featuring a soaring music soundtrack that was a bit annoying (I wanted a little variety in tone… whimsy perhaps?). A major emphasis is placed on the museum’s key relic: General George Washington’s field tent. Set apart in a separate room, the 12-minute tent “experience” is over-hyped.  I understand that the museum put a lot of work into its restoration and that anything touched by Washington is holy, but a movie ends, the screen rises and there is the glowing tent accompanied by angelic choirs (OK, not quite, but same idea.)

Through it all, the multiple perspectives and variety of kinds of history (political, military, social, cultural, Native American, etc.) support a narrative that provokes thought and gives visitors stories that transcend more traditional presentations of the topic.

The museum also includes a special exhibition gallery and should anticipate an uptick in attendance with its upcoming exhibition Hamilton Was Here: Rising Up in Revolutionary Philadelphia, on display from October 27, 2018-March 17-2019.

Comparing American Revolution Museums – part 2 (Yorktown)

A “new” historic site in Philadelphia

America’s first theater

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Unexpected history in a South Carolina town

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In November 1861, only seven months into the Civil War, Union gunboats captured the sea islands around Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, including the city of Beaufort. The area remained in Union control through the war and the city became a naval station, army headquarters and hospital center. Despite the economic devastation that followed, many historic structures were spared from war’s destruction and today make the city a charming place to see the restored town homes of nineteenth century planters. But the city also boasts rich African American history, especially from the Reconstruction period post-Civil War. A visitor to Beaufort should walk the quiet streets edging tidal marshes and gawk at the beautiful architecture but be sure to soak in the bigger story of life in this sleepy yet complicated city.

I recently visited after work hours, so couldn’t access the city’s museums. Several sites caught my attention.

WP_001577Beaufort National Cemetery was established in 1863. The Civil War propelled the need for a national cemetery system. President Lincoln approved fourteen national cemeteries by 1862. Cemetery sites were chosen based on where troops were concentrated. By 1872 there were 74 national cemeteries. At first only soldiers and sailors who died during the Civil War were allowed to be buried in these cemeteries.

Growing up near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the Civil War battle, I’d often stood in the national cemetery there where Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony. On my trip to Beaufort, I stood in a very different setting, thinking of Civil War soldiers but surrounded by trees weighed down with Spanish moss.

In a prominent spot in this cemetery in a southern town stands the Union Soldiers Monument, a 20-foot tall granite obelisk erected in 1870.

Among the soldiers buried in the cemetery are 1700 soldiers from United States Colored Troops regiments, begun in 1863. The remains of 19 soldiers from the all-black 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, were discovered in the 1980s on Folly Island near Charleston to the north. They were interred here with full military honors in 1989.

The First African Baptist Church, founded in 1865 was built by freed slaves on land they purchased within a few years after the Civil War.  The church housed a school for former enslaved people for many years.

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Robert Smalls house

The Robert Smalls house is not currently open to the public but tells a fascinating story.  Smalls was born enslaved in 1839. He grew up and lived in this house until he was hired out to work in the Charleston area and ended up working on the CSS Planter where he learned the skills necessary to pilot a ship. On May 13, 1862 he commandeered the ship, sailing it to the Union forces where he gained freedom for himself and the crew. Northern news coverage of his heroism brought him attention and a bill enacted by Congress and signed by President Lincoln gave him and his crew the prize money for capturing a Confederate ship. He moved back to Beaufort and purchased his boyhood home from his former master. He even allowed his master’s wife to live there in her declining years. He became a public servant, serving in the SC House and Senate and the US House and even as a major general in the state militia. He founded the Republican Party in SC, authored a bill giving SC the first free and compulsory public school system in the US, and was the second-longest serving African American in the US Congress. He is the first African American to have a US Army ship named for him and his funeral was the largest ever held in Beaufort.

In 2017 President Obama signed a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in the Beaufort area. There is a surprising lack of sites in the National Park Service system that interpret the Reconstruction period story. This is an important step in telling an important chapter in US history. In history, if you scratch past the surface, you often find more complexity and learn that the past holds secrets and tells stories that are almost always better than any fiction.

 

 

 

 

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A historic inn on the Eastern Shore

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Wade’s Point Inn, back view, captain’s walk at the top

I was standing on the roof in bright sun gazing at water on three sides. The view of the Chesapeake Bay was stunning and I could begin to imagine British warships approaching the property. Just over two hundred years ago, that was the scene. The British were headed to attack the nearby town of St. Michaels, Maryland, and damage its shipbuilding industry. It was one of their many raids of towns around the Chesapeake and the Great Bandit himself, as the newspapers dubbed Rear Admiral George Cockburn, was directing.

But my great interest in this property, today called the Wade’s Point Inn, was in its builder, Thomas Kemp. Most Americans have never heard of Kemp, but Kemp had a national reputation in the early 1800’s because his shipyard in Fells Point in Baltimore built some of the most famous ships of the day. And, he is one of the main characters in my upcoming book, Star Spangled. Unfortunately no images of him are known to exist.

Kemp had grown up near St. Michaels, served as an apprentice in a local shipyard, and then moved to Baltimore’s Fells Point to practice the trade. He soon built his own shipyard and was producing ships like the Rossie, the Rolla, the Comet, and the Chasseur (the pride of Baltimore). These privateers were causing great damage to British shipping, one reason why the British found Baltimore such an irresistible target during the War of 1812. Of course the British did attack and the American military repelled the invasion. Kemp’s shipyard was safe. But after the War ended in early 1815, the shipbuilding boom slowed and Kemp moved back to his Wade’s Point property. He began building a house for his growing family and that house eventually became the gracious inn there today.

IMG_1881Kemp, the ship designer, spend much time designing his house and overseeing its construction. Diaries he kept during construction were found under the porch and are held in local archives today.

It seems that Kemp the house builder maintained his strong ties to the shipbuilding industry. The owner took me into a bedroom on the top floor, opened a closet, took out some clothes, and revealed a secret door at the back. Through the open door, ancient steps led up to the lookout, a small room with windows where Kemp could go to watch traffic on the Chesapeake, specifically his ships.

 

IMG_1883Sadly Kemp only enjoyed the house for a few years before he passed away in 1824 at age 45. Only a short walk from the main house, a small family graveyard includes his simple marker.

Sometime after 1876, the Kemp family decided that the traffic coming across the bay from the west shore might merit creating a summer resort.  They built additions onto it and today the property features 26 rooms. At the other end of the house, we climbed another set of steps and opened a large metal door to go onto the captain’s walk, the flat roof area where a group of people could go for the breeze and the view (and get baked in the process!) It has got to be one of the highest views around. In this area of vast water views and wetlands, there are no mountains in sight.

 

The property has been an inn since the 1870s, purchased from the Kemp family by the current owners in the 1980s. It is a bucolic retreat for sure, and I think Thomas Kemp would be happy that the place he enjoyed so much has been welcoming guests for over one hundred years. I wonder how many British guests have stayed there!

[When I began writing Star Spangled, I had no idea that Kemp’s home was an inn.]

 

 

 

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Bob Beatty: My favorite history site(s)

Cannon Idaho SpringsBob Beatty is founder and President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction. Previously he was Chief of Engagement at the American Association for State and Local History and Director of Education at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center. He is author of Florida’s Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapesco-editor of Zen and the Art of Local Historyand author of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?

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Other than the House of Refuge in my hometown of Stuart, Florida, the first sites that really captured my imagination were Civil War era forts. Florida has several of them that I visited as a youngster: Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach and Fort Pickens in Pensacola. I was just enthralled by their size and scope (and, of course, the cannons*!). I dragged my family to Forts Pulaski and Jackson near Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. We also visited the non-Civil War site of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. Then there is Gettysburg. General John Buford is an ancestor of mine so the site has always had a special place in my mind’s eye and in my memory.

Two more come to mind, both from my first trip across the pond. The first is Green Castle, a 14th-century castle in Greencastle, County Donegal, in Ireland.

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Talk about stirring the imagination of a history geek! The ruins predated Columbian contact in the U.S. by nearly 200 years! Later on that same trip, we visited the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. Its earliest buildings were from the 12th century. Cashel is the reputed site of an Irish king’s conversion by St. Patrick in the 5th century.What I loved was that there was a very tangible aspect to them. History came alive for me in the spaces.

*BTW, the cannons are somewhat of a running joke with me and Erin Carlson Mast of President Lincoln’s Cottage. When we were talking about our own experiences at sites as kids, we noticed how many photos we had standing with cannons. Now whenever I’m visiting somewhere and see a cannon (or any type of artillery), I snap a photo and send it to her by text. I post them on Facebook now too.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? 

 

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?

There are two things that I’ve always been intrigued by both as a visitor and as a student and practitioner of history/public history.

The first is that not all historic sites are truly “as they were, when.” They are often fascinating examples of change over time, which is the bedrock of the discipline of history. Watching how sites grapple with the original vs. the updated, changing floor plans (or in the case of the Civil War forts, coastal defense systems), etc. is very interesting to me. Unfortunately I’ve observed it’s somewhat devolved into tours full of pointing out “this is original, that is original” rather than what the site means or stands for which takes so much of the power out of visiting sites.

Second is how not all sites mean the same thing to everyone who visits. Way back in 2007, David Blight addressed the AASLH conference (here’s the audio) and talked about the differences between “memory” and “history.” It’s a concept I’d long grappled with, but had never articulated as clearly as Blight had. This was/is especially true for sites that have conflicting or complex histories: plantation homes, battlefields, and the 1927 Orange County courthouse.

Thinking about this is part of my own journey to a better understanding of diversity and inclusion in our profession that I referenced in my book An AASLH Guide to Making Public History. I’m comfortable at nearly every historic site, because my narrative is typically featured very prominently within it but that’s just not the case for everyone. And it’s important for history organizations and historic sites to not only acknowledge this, but to act with intentionality to be more accessible to more than just me.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Mercer University does with the old Capricorn Studio in Macon, Georgia, mainly because the site is such a key part of the story of my recently completed dissertation: “You Wanna Play in My Band, You’d Better Come to Pick” Duane Allman and American Music.

One place I’ve never been, but will get to eventually is Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the Woodstock festival. My friend Wade Lawrence runs the museum there, called Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

I’d also like to go back to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and do some more digging around about my family history. My great-grandfather Bob Beatty, was captain of the HMS Lyndhurst, which was based out of Belfast. My middle name is Lyndhurst, after my grandfather who was born on the ship and it inspired the name of my business, the Lyndhurst Group.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

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This is my wife and me on the deck of the USS Missouri in Hawaii, posing with a “cannon.”

Hard to even put this into words, honestly. There’s something very real about historic sites. They can convey so much history and really stir imagination. Having watched my internal focus group of museum attendees (my wife and two daughters), I’ve noticed that sites are particularly engaging for people less inclined than I to enjoy history and history museums.

How can people get in touch with you?

Twitter is where nearly all of my history-related business happens: @Lyndhurst_Group. I’m also on LinkedIn.

Thanks, Bob!

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

 

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My break is over

Flag

me wrestling with one ginormous flag

Dear Readers,

I’ve taken a long break from blogging to work on a new book. Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and a Song, is due out next year and targets ages 10-14, but will be of interest to adults as well. It looks at the story of the Star-Spangled Banner and the Battle of Baltimore from six different characters who lived it. Plus, some might consider Baltimore a character as well. Yes, Francis Scott Key is included, but there is much more to the story and I learned so much from my research. From the Great Bandit (British Rear Admiral George Cockburn) to the Colonial Marines (former slaves who became a fighting force for the British), and of course, savvy businesswoman Mary Pickersgill,  I’ll be writing more about it in this space in the coming months. The book will feature a variety of history sites that are preserved and open to the public today. Here are just a few photos from my research trips. Enjoy!

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From Home to Harpers Ferry (and Antietam) by Bicycle

This gallery contains 7 photos.

Originally posted on Bike Walk Drive:
I have taken many long-distance cycling trips since I became interested in bicycle travel. But I hadn’t done the one thing I’d really wanted to do all along: roll my bicycle out of my…

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City of Ships

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On a recent vacation in Maine, I asked a native of the state what her favorite Maine small town is. She lives in Blue Hill and works in Castine, two quaint and beautiful towns. I was a little surprised when she proclaimed Bath her favorite town. I’d always whizzed through Bath on Route 1, looking at the shipyard and assuming the town was less historic and quaint than others I’d spent time in. Clearly I had not done my research! On this trip, my friend and I stopped in Bath to form our own judgement. We explored the historic city blocks next to the Kennebec River and spent several hours at the Maine Maritime Museum. I love a good maritime museum, and this one did not fail, especially because it’s a museum and historic site rolled into one package.

This impressive museum sits on 20 acres along the Kennebec River on the site of the last surviving wooden hull shipyard in the country, the Percy and Small Shipyard. This is where huge four, five and six masted schooners were built between 1897 and 1920. Bath was known as the City of Ships. There were over 200 shipyards on the Kennebec River in the past, and 22 at one time. In the period after the Civil War, Maine was building more than half of America’s wooden ocean-going sailing ships, and half of those originated in Bath.

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Dominating the entire site is New England’s largest sculpture, a full size representation of the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built. (The height of its masts which had to be reduced for safety reasons). The 329 ft. long white frame depicting the six-masted schooner Wyoming sits on the very site where the original was built and launched in 1909. Breathtaking in its scale, it towers above the landscape drawing a visitor’s eyes upward. One can’t help but gaze at the installation. It’s brilliant in its inception and purpose. It clearly communicates the site’s main story with one glance in its direction.

While the exhibitions in the museum’s main building feature fascinating artifacts and explain the shipbuilding industry in Maine, the site’s five original 19th century buildings plus a few reproduction buildings, provide insight into the shipbuilding process.

The Mould Loft where designers laid out patterns and defined the ship’s shape, the blacksmith shop, the paint and treenail building, the caulker’s shed, a ship launching demonstration and even a Victorian-era shipyard owner’s home. All told a piece of the story. But the great wooden ship story came to a rather sudden end by 1921, replaced by steel steamships.

Shipyard employees

Shipyard employees

As I gazed at a photo of the shipyard’s employees gathered for one moment in time, I looked at these sturdy men (no women allowed in the yard) and wondered what their lives were really like. It can’t have been an easy job, but to see the product of many days of labor finally launched must have been a time of great celebration. Even today, a working shipyard, the Bath Iron Works, sits within eyesight of the museum and produces destroyers for the American Navy. The City of Ships may not be as busy as it once was, but Bath’s ties to the shipbuilding industry remain strong.

 

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The power in a view

I checked into the hotel and walked into my room. It was a room with a view alright — a view south to Canada. Where was I?

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Detroit. Other than thinking it cool that I was maybe the only place the United States where I could look south into Canada, I didn’t realize until the next day what profound historical significance the view has. I was attending the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History and one of my African American history colleagues spoke of an emotional moment she had looking across the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario.  This view had signaled FREEDOM for enslaved people on the journey to escape bondage. The sight of Canada represented the promise of a new life with no fear of slave catchers or the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After traveling many miles and not knowing who to trust along the entire way, slaves came to the river, the last hurdle. It’s hard to fathom the intensity of emotion, of hope, that this view must have triggered for the fugitive. I’d had my own small glimpse of the dehumanizing aspect of slavery when I participated in a program at Conner Prairie in Indiana, but there’s absolutely no way for most people in America today to understand the power of literally seeing freedom on the horizon.

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It is estimated that upwards of 20,000 slaves escaped to freedom through the state of Michigan, and most of those probably through Detroit – codenamed “Midnight” – on the img_04691Underground Railroad. They were headed toward freedom, codenamed “Dawn” (meaning the end of their journey), and would need to cross “Jordan,” as in the Detroit River and a Biblical reference to the river that bordered the Israelites’ Promised Land.

In 2001 for the city’s tercentenary, the city erected the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad.  A sculpture titled “Gateway to Freedom” faces Windsor, Canada and features a cluster of people looking across the river with anticipation. The man pointing toward Canada is George DeBaptist, a resident of Detroit and one of the most notable abolitionists in the Detroit Underground Railroad network. Born a free man in Virginia, he moved to Detroit as an adult and opened several businesses including a barber shop, a bakery, and eventually a steamship line. He used his boat, the T. Whitney, to secretly transport slaves to freedom.

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Gateway to Freedom sculpture, Detroit waterfront

A corresponding statue called the “Tower of Freedom” celebrates emancipation and stands across the river in Windsor.

It’s important to mention that the sculptor was Ed Dwight who has created other notable sculptures around the country. Prior to his artistic career, Dwight served as an Air Force test pilot and was the first African American astronaut trainee.

On my next visit to Detroit, I’ll have to delve more into the sites associated with the Underground Railroad. And maybe I’ll have the time to head across the river and see the other part of the story.

***

Other powerful views I’ve written about:

Lemhi Pass

Pickett’s Charge

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Michelle Moon: My favorite history site

michelle-moon_avatar-230x230Michelle Moon just completed an MA in Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School and 6+ years leading adult programs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Plus, she wrote a book on food interpretation

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?

Only one or two? Boy, was this a hard question! After much consideration, I’m going with a pair of thematically connected sites that mean a lot to me, both in terms of personal biography and national importance: Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. These two very different spaces tell distinct sides of the story of American immigration. One is monumental, large-scale, governmental and institutional. The other is intimate, small-scale, familial and personal.

I first learned about efforts to revive long-disused Ellis Island as a high school student in the 1980s. News photos of the immense unrestored immigration facility showed scenes of ruin: discarded papers, peeling paint, broken window panes. It was hard to understand how this once-impressive site could have become so ignored.

Thankfully, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration opened to the public in 1990, and soon afterward my mother and I made our first visit. At the time, plaques on the Wall of Honor dedicated to memorializing the 22 million immigrants who passed through this facility were not yet installed, but we did see the spot where my great-grandfather, Joseph Patrick O’Gorman, would be remembered for his journey from Ireland to America (Plaque #319).

usa-nyc-ellis_island_cropThe site was and is deeply moving. Its imposing, richly detailed Beaux-Arts edifice, seen from the decks of a passenger ship, must have induced fear, awe, pride, and hope all at once. Wide, echoing, structured interior spaces evoke a strange juxtaposition: the complicated chaos of travelers from all over the world, speaking myriad languages and wearing an astonishing variety of dress styles, alongside the official impulse to organize, rationalize and manage their arrival and Americanization. Small details encourage visitors to imagine ourselves in the shoes of new immigrants, disoriented and excited….and hungry. In her book 97 Orchard, Jane Zeigelman writes of immigrants’ first taste of America: a cup of cider and a hand pie, given out on the barges that ferried passengers into the processing center.

Kitchen of the re-created Baldizzi apartment at the LES Tenement Museum. Source: https://www.tenement.org/media.php

Kitchen of the re-created Baldizzi apartment at the LES Tenement Museum. Source: https://www.tenement.org/media.php

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum brings us into another chapter in the immigrant story. Inside an 1863 tenement building, a set of apartments – each its own immersive world – shares the tale of a single, real-life family as they coped with the challenges of adaptation and hardship in the new world. Based on oral histories, building archaeology, and contextual research, the tours are thick with personal detail, most of it quite moving. Through thoughtful experience design, the museum invites visitors right into the family: you climb the dim stairway into a firetrap of a hall, cluster in tiny rooms where natural light and fresh air are luxuries, and hear family stories told in a personal voice, just as they may be told around your own kitchen table.

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Ellis Island dining hall

Together, these two sites emphasize the central role of diversity and immigration in creating the  American culture we have inherited. Also, they are places that highlight important scholarship contributing to our understanding of immigration issues today. How shall we manage the desire of people to come here for work and family betterment? What kinds of challenges do they face? And how do we balance assimilation and Americanization with remembering and celebrating unique cultural heritage? If I had my wish, every American and would-be American would be able to visit these two sites.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

My very first experience in any museum setting was at Historic Longstreet Farm, a site in a county park in central New Jersey, where I grew up. As a summer youth volunteer, I donned a wool skirt (in July), weeded a beet field, and did embroidery while interpreting an 1890s Dutch-owned house, barn and farm. Later, after a career transition from formal education to museum education, I joined the staff of  Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where I oversaw Ship to Shore, an experiential overnight program for grades 5-12. Students slept aboard a historic ship and used the museum campus to learn about American maritime

history: whaling, fishing, shipbuilding, maritime literature and music, and skills like rigging climbing, rowing and canvaswork. Next, I worked as Director of Education at Strawbery Banke, a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH, that tells stories from 400 years of settlement. Most recently, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, I worked on the interpretation of several historic houses, including the Ropes Mansion, a 2016 Leadership in History award winner for its interpretation of family memories (which also happens to enjoy pop culture fame as the exterior of the “Hocus Pocus House”).

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?

Keeping it lively. No matter how inspiring or significant a site, those who work there every day need to find ways to stay continually enthralled and excited, to challenge ourselves to find new and creative approaches. For our audiences, none of it is old hat , and sometimes we need to use imagination to make connections and reveal what can be curious, compelling, and interesting. The biggest staff challenge is not giving in to routine, resting on past research and assuming all questions have been answered, but to stay engaged and excited about every new moment of learning and experience.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I have a very long list. Since I’m very Northeast-based, one major gap in my exploration of American history sites is that I have not visited any plantation museums in the South. Currently, I hear and see lots of very interesting experiments going on in revising old interpretive narratives and memorializing enslaved people – projects like the reinterpretation of Montpelier and the opening of Whitney Plantation, for example.  I’d like to see the architecture and history in Charleston and Savannah, and Alcatraz and Angel Island in California.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

I might be accused of professional heresy for saying: it’s not mainly for information. You can learn the specific tactics of a battle or the events in a heroine’s life without being on site. Instead, I think the power of historic sites is to bring about attention to and reflection on embodied experiences and the insights they generate – insights that are only available in that place. That includes things beyond the basic historical narrative – angles of light; sounds of waterways or birdsong; the narrowness of a stair hall; uneven floors; scents from cooking fires, gardens or orchards; the scale and materials of industrial machinery. These sites augment intellectual knowledge with the senses, sometimes helping people realize for the first time a physical logic to the way things happened. This takes history out of the abstract, adding a grounded, vivid, sensory and human experience of what it’s like to inhabit that space. That personal experience can become a memory container for the historic events themselves, and increase empathy with the past. People should visit historic sites to feel history, to enrich the vividness and detail of our imaginations and engage our emotions in the stories of the past.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

 

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