Pondering Public History, Musing on Museums

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Interactive History at the Museum of History and Industry (Seattle,WA)

This past week I had the pleasure of exploring Seattle while attending the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference. I was staying with friend who studies museology at U. Washington, obviously the two of us visited the city’s wonderful museums. The thing that struck me and has stuck with me since I left was the Museum of History and Industries’ (MOHAI, “Moe-high”) employment of hands-on science museum type exhibits (in a history museum! Unheard of!)


Westward Expansion @ MOHAI

One of the problems that history museums suffer under is their comparative lack of interactive exhibits the like that make science museums children’s’ favorite places to go and their parents’ favorite place to leave them. One of the benefits that MOHAI has is its focus on industry, itself a child of science, however the hands on exhibits are not limited to industry.

In fact, the entire museum’s narrative focuses on the awesomeness of Seattle and its people, not necessarily industry (as in how gears work). After spending a few days in the city I think the museum is pretty accurate, not at all grandiose bragging. As a city Seattle is very progressive, they recycle everything very little of what we deem as trash is trash in Seattle, they have a vibrant bike culture; there are bikes, bike lane, bicyclists all over the city, and the air smells amazing. The museum catalogues the city’s rise to this point: the beginning of their social and environmental consciousness as well as their participation in national narratives like the Depression and WWII.

How is the museum interactive?


On that note: notice how this very common mid-century chair features Pacific Northwestern Native American theme. Very Seattle.

This is not your “try and churn butter” kind of interactions; it is button and lever based (linking dexterity with historical learning). The narratives in the exhibit put guests in the period saying things like: “Seattle’s business district just burned, but that gives us the opportunity for urban renewal.” Each exhibit aims at being immersive in narrative content, which works well with the interactive exhibits because they encourage visitors to think about the past in terms of human actions, thus breading empathy which works well for creating a place based historical identity. It does a great job at making history a personal story, and making Seattle a unique place. (A very place-y, place)


Note the floating things, those represent the altered landscape. They move up and down with string, look closely.

My favorite interactive exhibit was in the Early Seattle hall, set aside as an alternative path. Inside the round room guests learn about the environment in Seattle and how people have significantly altered the area. On one wall there was a caged in 3D map of the city with buttons outside of the cage. Each button triggered a pulley system that raised or lowered a piece of landscape onto the map; land was flattened (it is still very hilly there), and bodies of water shifted and shrank. It was a engaging and alarming way to illustrate how human’s changed the landscape. While the majority of the museum spoke with a voice that linked contemporary Seattleites (?) with their ancestors through shared space, this short de-tour exhibit illustrated that the landscape guests know is unique in that moment of history, while each generations DSCN4562experiences Seattle, the land itself, not the city’s character is what changes. This fits in well with the city’s environmental consciousness, and illustrates and understanding of the landscape as both the keeper of character and something that is extremely sensitive to human interactions.

LDSCN4566astly, in the Seattle Fire Theater there was a song and video about the fire which featured singing artifacts. Here is a taste:

It is corny, but corny is memorable. It is something that will bring people back to the museum with friends, because “You have got to see this!”

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What We Can Learn from Historical Homes: The Tiny House Movement and the Historical Home

Those who know me, know I love small homes. I like small spaces because it forces human contact; you are either living on top of your spouse or you leave you house a lot more. Which brings me to the second reason to love tiny homes: your housing costs will drop, you can afford to go out. The cost to heat and cool a home that is less than 1,000 square feet it is much cheaper than the usual American 4k square foot behemoth. The building cost, land rental, cleaning cost, upkeep all drop, not to mention that you can’t buy more stuff than your house and shed can hold. It forces you into a cheaper way of living and makes you to think about your purchases in terms of what you need and what you want, and why. It is a great self-reflection. The third reason to love a tiny home is thoughtful construction. Because construction companies are slow to pick up the tiny house movement many people are building their own homes. This means they are given the opportunity to put thought into home construction. I have been in many homes, in real life and virtually (thank you that are basically boxes filled with boxes, filled with crap, and I have also been in 18th century homes that are constructed to let the most light in and to keep homes cool without air conditioning. The tiny house movement gives people the opportunity to think about how their home works, how it functions within the environment and their lives. This leads us to reason four, environmental sustainability. If more people began building with n their and the environment’s means, and living within those means we can begin seriously walking down the path of environmentally sustainability.

Tumbleweed is one of my favorite tiny house builders. They encourage creativity and offer classes. This is there “Cypress” model.

While reason 1 & 2 are great, today I am going to talk about reason 3 “thoughtful construction” (& eventually #4) and how historical homes can help develop the tiny house movement and put us on a path to sustainably. When house museums began popping up across the country in the late 19th and early 20th c they had two basic goals, first to function as a shrine to X or Y historical person and second to illustrate the life styles (in a strictly material sense) of the colonial and antebellum elite. Today, as my previous post called for, we need new and innovative ways to narrate house museums. One of those ways is by developing an educational program that focuses on the possibility of building contemporary homes in the same fashion. This is not a call for a revival of colonial-revival, I am calling for something much more structural, “walls not wall paper”. Now, accepting the fact that we cannot make contemporary homes out of the same materials due to climate change and unfixable damage we have done to the environment, we can still learn to adopt 18th century practices for today’s use.

2 years ago I joined my professor on a field trip with his Archaeology field school students in Maryland. As the sun became unbearable we eventually took refuge in recreated ordinary. While there we had the pleasure of hearing a number of tour guides come through and explain the site to fussy and excitable school children, as they left, group by group, we discussed how each narrative was different, how each tour guide employed different objects in the ordinary to tell various details from the same master narrative, which was essential “What is an ordinary?.” After a while we realized that each narrative made the ordinary sound barbaric and impossible for contemporary people to handle. “Not, true!” we thought, it is this ostracizing of the past that we are so use to in our “progressive” focus narrative that allows us to forget or ignore the valuable lessons from the past.

Less than two years ago I read an article with my professor and a young visiting professor by Mark Levin. Levin asked historians how they would function at the end of times. My professor brought up the idea that historical sites can teach people things they can then use in their lives; telling us a story about his French buddies learning how to make a lathe that they then implemented on their property. After a spell the young professor asked if this was cultural appropriation. The answer is no, it is not cultural appropriation in the way that young women at electronic music concerts wear feather head dresses and take peyote. Adopting the information at a historical site, like how to build a lathe or a how to build a home that works within the environment, does not necessitate that you believe you are becoming closer to or gaining a better understanding of that culture. You can understand the logic and utility of the thing (for lack of a better word), but your understanding of its necessity will be slightly different than an 18thc person.

What can be done?

1#: In Virginia on the Battle of Wilderness site there is a home called “Historic Elwood.” This house museum is one of my favorites, (its wall paper is my background), it is lovely, it is informative, it talks about slaves and recognizes that they we skilled craftsmen and it has a cutaway wall that exposes what the house is made of! We need more of this, guests are tried of seeing perfectly recreated interior décor (I like it, but there is more than can be done), it is time historical homes talk more about their construction; the material, the processes and the home’s upkeep. Naturally this will be a narrative that focuses on the work of slaves, I believe there is great value in celebrating the craftsmanship of enslaved peoples. Yes, slavery is awful, soul destroying, and wrong, but we do not need to ignore the skill and art created by these enslaved people (& lets be real, what was NOT a product of slavery in our slave society?). If we talk about the houses in terms of their construction and upkeep and speak truthfully about how it can be recreated today, the historical house museums becomes a place of inspiration for the diy tiny home builder and sustainability conscious person. Why not host a tiny-home build, (Many of them are on wheels now-a-days), invite interested parties to learn about how 18thc home construction can influence contemporary builders beyond wall paper and color schemes.

Ellwood Manor/Historic Ellwood. I couldn’t find a photo of the cutaway, but this is the wall opposite it. From: They also have cool restoration photos, check them out:

#2 Build your site.
It is not uncommon for historical sites to have an archaeological excavation to find the location of old buildings and homes, and it is not uncommon for them to build a recreation of the home on the same or adjacent site, and it is not my original idea to build the house in the same manor it was when first built, by costumed professionals. At (beloved) Kenmore, they had painters paint the walls with period paint in the period style, very cool. There is an idea to have costumed builders construct historical homes with the same idea in mind, which is great, but I want to add a bit more Bob Vila to the mix. I would like to turn this into a learning experience, (admittedly, hands-on might get too dangerous) but there is a value in having the builders, historians, historical architects, and archaeologists make themselves available to discuss the build with idea that is it doable today in mind.

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Digital Humanities and William Byrd

Digital humanities are hard to miss (if you don’t know what I’m talking about then shame on you!) At the moment USF has a number of Digital Humanities groups and initiatives: Tampa/USF Digital Humanities Group, the History department offers a 400 level course called “Introduction to Digital Humanities” and I believe the library is creating a group too. There is no doubt that the future of history and other humanities fields includes digital components.


William Bryd II

One example of how digital humanities works is my friend Michelle Davison‘s William Byrd project. William Byrd wrote a diary, and Michelle digitized it here and twitter-fied it here (Byrd tweets about as much as any other celebrity, which is to say hilariously often. Get off your phone William Byrd, don’t you have dancing to do!)

The web page features a daily dose of Byrd and a search function that allows visitors to hunt for the needed document by word. (Ex: you want to read what Byrd says about letters, search “letters” easy peasy)

A while back I had a fit about on-line museums (Digital tourist, shmigital shmoulrist on-line museums are for research,) because people were not recognizing the diverse benefits digital humanities, archives, and exhibits had for researchers and the public alike. Digital humanities offers new ways to interact with the past,through documents. The William Bryd twitter feed reminds us of our human commonalities and difference with past peoples and the web page offers Bryd’s journal in an accessible format.

It is important to recognize that digital humanities are not limited to museum exhibits, they offer an endless opportunity for researchers to create interactive and accessible outlets and for visitors to start interacting with documents.

Take a moment to check out and explore what Digital humanities has to offer!

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How to Reinvigorate House Museums

This week I came across a Boston Globe article that reiterated the question , “Are there too many house Museums.” The article argues that museums (the traditional “stuff and exhibit space” museums) are experiencing new found popularity and are stepping-up their game with new exhibits, wings and architectural wonders. House museums, on the other hand, lag behind focusing more on preservation (staying the same).

Lets not be so negative, there is some hope yet for house museums! Case in point, Arcadia Farms.

Arcadia Farms is an agricultural project that teaches child about sustainable farming and brings organically grown produce into D.C. food desserts. Produce food trucks give D.C. shoppers the opportunity to have the kinds of foods all people deserve (fresh and chemical free)  AND Arcadia’s food truck accept food stamps, so the food is accessible. (I really like this project, so excuse me if I turn this post into a love letter to Arcadia Farms)

Here is their blurb:

“Arcadia Farm is located just a few short miles from downtown Washington, DC, on the historic grounds of Woodlawn Estate.  Arcadia’s demonstration farm and educational children’s garden currently encompasses four acres, providing a sustainable model of agriculture to new farmers, students and the public through hands-on community engagement. “

Arcadia Farms works out of Woodlawn Estate, a historical Washington family plantation. (Once an 18thc farm, now a sustainable community conscience organic educational farm! <3 <3) Instead of allowing the vast land surrounding the house to simply be pastures of grass, Arcadia repurposes the land to do what made it valuable in the first place –GROW STUFF! The project not only feeds people, it gives the house museum a new purpose, new educational opportunities and makes the estate a community investor.

So, are there too many house museums? No, there are too many of them have the same goals. House museums need to diversify their output (educationally, socially, and economically). I want to see house museums with functional wineries, breweries, farms, textile mils. House museums need to embrace the buy local, eat local, drink local (very 18thc btw) movement or like Kenmore in Fredericksburg, really get into theater. We need to ask historical homes, “What makes you so special? What can you DO” In order to compete with other house museums and traditional “stuff and exhibit space” museums, historical homes need to show the world their special talent and single themselves out in a world of preserved plantation homes on picturesque landscapes.

In my world there is a lot of talk about sustainability and what it means for Public History and historical sites, this is one way historical sites can take part in sustainability movement. House museums can take the lead teaching future generations the arts/science of sustainable farming. They can teach people about, not the arcane nature, but the possibly and reality of sustainable farming at home. It is not weird to get your food from your lawn it is doable!

Let’s stop this anti-house museum talk and start focusing on how we can use these places to make the world a better, healthier, sustainable place.



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Landscape: The Abandoned and The Haunted

It was recently brought to my attention that “Ruin Porn” is a thing –and a problematic one at that. I am no stranger to the draw of abandoned places, I recently found an abandoned Renaissance Fair, and I never pass up the opportunity to look at photos of defunct amusement parks or detailed architecture made more beautiful by an envelope of lush greens. I understand why critics justifiably rail against the many photographers who lurk around Detroit, capitalizing on the city’s DSCN0246busted economy. It is voyeurism; porn is a strong word, but voyeurism, slumming, insensitive all those work just fine.

This week I read Paul Mullins’s Aug 19, 2012 blog post “The Politics and Archaeology of “Ruin Porn”.” Mullins details the many objections to what has been called “Ruin Porn” and suggests how these photographs can be used to ask compelling archaeological questions. He says “There is tremendous archaeological potential to develop reflective narratives about modernity that weave the decaying ruins of contemporary cities or industrial sites to a complex range of social, political, racist, and class factors that would illuminate how archaeologists, states, and communities value spaces, heritage, and things.” He goes on “We should obey our own fascination with and curiosity in these old spaces—the decayed amusement parks, ruined factories, asylums overtaken by nature—and accept that there is something far more consequential in that curiosity than simply compelling aesthetics. If “ruin porn” helps us see those spaces in new ways, then photography, narratives, and material analysis might collectively provide us an exceptionally powerful way to interpret such places and dissect the concrete social and material forces that create abandonment and ruination.” (Ugh, I love it)

Because I look at ghost stories and rumors of hauntings, as ways that people understand landscape and historicity, I completely understand where Mullin’s is coming from. Reading his post and talking with a fellow researcher, I am left wondering the connection between “abandoned” and “haunted”. Can there two understandings of place co-exist? Are they one in the same? If they diverge, where?


“Abandoned” places are not scary because of ghosts, they are scary because you don’t know who else is there with you.

My answer: They are two totally different concepts of status.

Abandoned places don’t have ghosts; if they did they would be haunted not abandoned. The descriptor “abandoned” means that a place is forsaken, discarded, not thought about anymore. “Abandoned” places become non-places (as odd as that sounds). In order to be a “place” or to exist something needs to be recognized, in order for a place to be a place it needs definition, it needs people to interpret it.

“But” you ask, “what if it is a ruin? Are ruins places? Can ruin’s have ghosts?” Of course ruins are places, they are ruins. They are “ruins”/remains of a former recognized place. I think ruins can have ghost stories or hauntings. I have not read anything about a haunted ruin yet, but I think there is potential simply because ruins are recognized as places. Abandoned places are abandoned places until something thinks about them, then they are ruins, or if there is a ghost story, they are haunted.

Saying “That abandoned house is haunted” is like saying “That yellow dog is cat.” It can’t be both, because they are not arbitrary titles and they mean more than just a description of outside appearance. You can say “That abandoned house looks like it could be haunted.” But you can’t say “The abandoned house is haunted” because once you claim that something is haunted, you are saying that it has 1) a recognizable past and 2) a resident (conceptually).

Abandoned places don’t have a past, because they are recognized as abandoned spaces. Being an abandoned place is a status, and status’ change. In archaeology you could say it is an abandoned landscape until you excavate and find a cellar. Perhaps the phrase “landscape bastard” would be a better, less convoluted, term than “abandoned.”

Why is this and important distinction to make?

As we begin to take seriously both ghost stories/rumors of hauntings and abandoned places we need to recognize them independently. While they both give evidence of time and illustrate a way of thinking about landscape and the past. They are two different statuses.



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Making Small Children Cry at Historical Sites

Like many public historians, I read this season’s copy of The Public Historian with long awaited enthusiasm. What stuck with me was a very small part in Amy Tyson’s interview w/ Azie Mire Dungey, the actor in “Ask A Slave.” The article touched on what it is like for African American women (more specifically Dungey, but it was presented as widely applicable, and I tend to believe that) to perform a slave at historical sites. In the beginning, Dungey mentioned visiting Colonial Williamsburg for the first time as child, after reading The Addy, American Girl Book.(Addy was an escaped slave) Dungey said that as a child she recognized C.W. as so accurate that she was afraid that the colonial whites were going to pick-up her and sell her into slavery.

Whoa guys, Lets think of the children!

I was initially shocked by this, and saddened at the thought of a child being afraid. It is heart breaking. We like to think of our children as innocent and delightfully ignorant of the world. They know nothing, because they are new here, so new. Can we/ should we protect children from the past?

Can we create a place that intends on taking people back in time for educational, social, and emotional amusement, and expect the people who know the very least and visit the most often, (children) not to be terrified. Public historians talk about historical site’s difficulties with presenting slavery alot, but they cite slavery’s general unpleasantness and political implications, perceived by adults. Can we present a “realistic” portrayal of the past to people who do not even recognize the unpleasent realties of contemporary times?

Can we present the past to children, making sure they recognize things like slavery no longer pose them an immediate bodily threat, without closing off further discussion about the long term effects of slavery in contemporary culture? Should we?

This question boils down to: Is it okay to make children cry, if they are going to learn something?

As heart breaking as it is to hear or see a child cry out of fear, it is a rather effective way to teach them about humanity and sympathy. A child crying at a historical site for fear of facing the same unpleasantness (could be slavery, could be the stocks, could be physical reprimand from a boss, ect) has internalized and made real that past. Ideally, they will be unable to separate themselves from the narrative of the past, which is very valuable for understanding the past.

Introducing them to the past before they form ideas of the world as a set given could give them a clearer understanding of the past as possibility not a myth separated from our time by positive progress (something some adults do not even have).

“Yes, Timmy, little kids like you were taken away from their parents to go work for strangers who might want to hurt them. Aw, It is sad, Timmy, it is. And even after slavery was over, people were still mean to Black people, some people are still mean to them today, because they are prejudice and ignorant. Your are right it is awful and scary. Why do people do that? Well, maybe someone was mean to them, or they don’t like themselves or were insecure and lashed out at others.You are right that is not an appropriate way to act, but some people do.” (This is not perfect, but it is an example, that much I say for sure)

Keeping children ignorant of the realities of the past is a selfish preservation of the innocences they have and we wish we could have back. They will not understand everything, but if we “keep it real” so speak, we could see some benefits.

colonial baby

That was a rather depressing, but realist, post. Here is a cute baby who knows nothing about the world. So new.

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The Library of Congress & I (& also ghosts): A Torrid Love Affair

This spring break I decided to temporarily put down Virginia folktales (provided by my past love—The WPA) and give some attention to the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper collections (I am going to make this very obvious, the federal government does great things for my education, WPA, the LOC, the grants and loans I got as a Undergrad, all good things, thanks Uncle Sam). My searches in the LOC have been so productive I feel like I finally got on Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run, and I am running through the isles pulling down newspapers clippings instead of sweet toys and bikes. Its really great. There is so much to read! So much to consider! So much historical hilarity!


As many of you know I am researching historical themed hauntings in Virginia. I have read a lot of ghost stories collected by the WPA in the 1930’s that tend to not talk about historical places or people. The 1930’s stories are usually about someone staying in an abandoned or disused house, finding a ghost, asking it “whats up” (in so many words) and finding out the ghost’s mortal body needs to be property buried or their murder needs to be brought to justice, once the protagonist fulfills the ghost’s needs, our spectral friends tells him where the ghost’s human self hid a treasure. The other stories I have read are more recent ones in ghost-tourist-books, there are published in our millennial period and tend to look at historical places. Two things happen here 1) the historical ghost keeps doing what they always did like Fielding Lewis (Kenmore) who walks around worried about his finances or 2) the historical character knows is 2013/14 (whatever) and wants to talk to you.


Now thanks to my LOC findings I have a new category (?). The LOC has newspapers from the 1830s-1922. Here I have found that Virgins love ghost stories, some stories about VA, but mainly stories about other places. Originally I was very disappointed that the VA papers featured so many non-VA ghost stories, but now I realize this illustrates a love of ALL ghost stories, and gives me the idea that VA started celebrating their hauntings later than I thought.

On the other hand, two papers have been especially productive: The Clinch Valley News and The Richmond Dispatch. The Clinch Valley News was published out of Jeffersonville, VA which is now called Tazewell and is located in the south west tail of the state. The Richmond Dispatch is printed in, you guessed it, Richmond Virginia. It is now called Richmond Times-Dispatch.

My favorite from Clinch Valley News is a 1896 story called “Claudius Smith’s Boots” which is about the haunted or cursed boots of a “bloody Tory cowboy who, withhis following of cutthroats and robbers, terrorized the Schunnemuck and surrounding country for years.”[1] Each subsequent wearer of Smith’s boots meet their end by way of a snake bite right through his boots. This is the most historical ghost story I found, which I not saying that it is VERY historical at all. I like this story because it shows how material items are infused with historical and ghostly meaning.

My favorite article from The Richmond Dispatch made me so happy I nearly exploded! This one is called “Virginia Ghosts” (WHAT! Perfect right ?!). What makes this so perfect? This quote:

It has been alleged that Virginia people can tell more ghost stories than those of any other state…“Every neighborhood has its story of the supernatural, its haunted houses, its lonely road, where strange sights and sounds have frightened the nocturnal wayfarer.


The author goes on to explain how African Americans created the ghost story culture in Virginia. He says :

It is difficult to find a negro who does not believe in ghostly visitations. Perhaps therein lies the explanation of the fact that Virginia has more than her share of ghostly tales. The Negros have fed upon stories of local ghosts for generations.

He goes on to explain how black children tell white children ghost stories that they tell their parents and neighbors.Next, In what I am assuming is in true-Virginia fashion he then tells two ghost stories that have nothing to do with Virginia and end by saying “I want to specially tell Dispatch readers about some of haunted houses of the Old Dominion.” Which I have yet to find, but want to.[2] I love this article because it gives evidence to the ideas about Virginia and her relationship to ghost stories and haunting culture that I suspected.

My second favorite  article from The Richmond Dispatch I will save for another time but I’ll give you this these two quotes:

It always struck me that is would eminently appropriate for the Capitol building to have two or three respectable, dignified ghosts in it, who could appear on stated occasions, like the 4th of July and 22nd of February, and get off something appropriate to the occasion.”

“Ghost, as I said, are in great demand among parvenus and “powhite” folks who have recently made money, but are still lacking in genealogy and ancestors…as they buy a handsome mansion, that it should savor of antiquity (just as eggs should when they are to be thrown at offending persons), and so they forthwith proceed to buy up old portraits, and then they try to resurrect a ghost.…”powhite” folks have a hard time coaxing them, and are never successful unless they can purchase some old, historical hall, full of classic memories and cockroaches.

There is a lot here to work with, and I am very excited to cobble together something to present at a conference next year ( I did not present anything anywhere this year, and let me tell you I feel lazy as hell).

[1] “Claudius Smith’s Boots” Clinch Valley News, July 10 1896, Whole No2, 67? (These are messy footnote…I know)

[2] All these quotes are from “Virginia Ghosts,” The Richmond Dispatch, Dec 9 1900


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