Ghosts, Museums and Spiritual residue

(This was originally from my old blog, written in 2012)

I am very excited about this. Ghosts and talk of them make me very uncomfortable and so do dead bodies, but within the confines of history I find it very interesting.

On page 86 in Handler and Gable’s controversial 1997 book New History in an Old Museum, they share a quote from a  Colonial Williamsburg interpreter- who says “I don’t interpert ghosts. I do nothing with ghosts.” The quote is used to explain how C.W. interpreters used a lack of concrete evidence to not discuss the miscegenation inherent in the 18th century slave/ master relationship. But the quote also addresses the guests’ interest in the spiritual remnants of the historical town. Knowing that spiritualism and séances became popular at the turn of the 20th century as a way to reengage with lost loved ones- I began to think how ghosts allow contemporary people to engage with the past. How ghosts and spiritual culture influence public history.

Now, there is little value in debating whether or not ghosts are real. What I am going to deal with here is what ghosts do for/to history, especially historical homes, and places. I don’t care if they are real, I care that people go to museums thinking about ghosts. Ghosts a part of American culture and the way Americans look at the past.

            As an undergrad I wrote my senior thesis on Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. Before she ran for president, she and her sister, Tennessee-like the state, were traveling “clairvoyants,” meaning they talked to the dead. During that research I also came across the Fox children- not to be confused with feral children. The Fox children were clairvoyants as well, and while Woodhull and her sister worked for Comm. Vanderbilt the Fox children worked with Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln, like many mid 19th century mothers thought reconnecting with their lost youths would ease the pain of loss. Spiritualism, séances, and traveling clairvoyants became popular at the turn of the 20th century, no doubt in response to the huge loss of life from the Civil War, and undeveloped germ and medical science which took many lovers and children.

            In the same way turn of the 20th cenutry Americans sought out clairvoyants to connect them with their past loved one, contemporary Americans seek out historical places hoping to reconnect with American heroes through the spiritual residue left in their objects and homes. [2]

            The argument taking place in my mind is whether museum guests are reading objects for their historical information or reaching out to these items to gain a closeness to their hero’s spiritual residue. I’ve argued for both, if you look in Conn’s book Museums and American Intellectual Life  you get an idea of how museums and the organization of the objects there in created knowledge. The guests who went there needed to be able to understand how to read the “visual sentences” museums presented them. On the other hand you have places like house museums, which take historical characters homes and recreate them as if they never died and time never moved on. Not unlike Great Expectations’s Miss. Havishm electing to keep her house, and dress the same as the day her groom left her.

               Is it simply a difference between the constructed museums, like the Smithsonian’s’ National American History Museum and house/place museums, Mt. Vernon? What about battle sites? What is left of them but the assumption of spiritual residue and the ability to connect to them? Do the objects behind glass at constructed museums have less spiritual residue? What sort of filter does the glass case present? OR Do cases keep in a kind of ghostly freshness? Would Lincoln’s Hat behind class have more spiritual residue and power then saw a pair of 18th century pants laid on a bed at Mt. Vernon?

            What is the connection between museum curators’ ability to create knowledge by organization and display and the spiritual residue experienced by guests?

If you are interested in reading up on old dead bodies, check out Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering- one of my personal favorites.

I swear I am not obsessed with Lincoln, but here is an image for an exhibit at his Presidential Library and Museum which incorporates ghosts. Which I snagged from an article their cite.[3]  ImageThey use “Holavision,” (their word not mine) which allows guests to see ghostly figures. This created museum uses the power of ghost to bring their guests closer their loved ones. Lincoln being a lost love one for, I would argue, everyone. Again, not obsessed, just from Illinois.

“In a mysterious way, these original objects connect us to the people and events of history and make them real. It is almost as if we can momentarily see their world, as though they were here”

Great Stuff!


[2] Unlike, Ghost Buster ectoplasm, I would argue there is very little to no physical spiritual residue view able at museums. http://ghostbusters.wikia.com/wiki/Ectoplasm

[3] http://www.alplm.org/museum/ghosts.html

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