This is a post for my friends in the three-county metro Detroit region, before our primary elections next Tuesday, August 7.

On the primary ballot this year in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties is a millage proposal to help fund the Detroit Institute of Arts, our amazing local art museum. The DIA has been suffering from the strangling of public funding, and this millage proposal will support DIA operations for 10 years as they fundraise for a more robust endowment.  For those 10 years museum admission will be free to residents of those counties.  If the millage is not passed, the DIA will severely cut its programming and exhibits and perhaps consequences more dire (more layoffs?  eating the endowment?  closure?).  Regional museum funding works, and it can help the DIA get on firmer financial funding.

The ballot proposal language is pretty opaque–funding for an “art institute authority”–but please look for it on August 7 and vote for the DIA!

 

History doesn’t have to have a news peg. Our historical work can be important, compelling, moving, and relevant without making thumpingly explicit connections to today’s news cycle.  Both historical characters and events and our contemporary readers are ill-served by extravagant pleading for relevance.  I’m not saying, of course, that journalists shouldn’t be writing history; on the contrary,  I insist on public history as a big tent where everyone doing the work is welcome, including journalists and the writers of popular history books.  But sometimes a journalistic lens can distort the real meaning of the story.

The newly released Snow-Storm in August, by Jefferson Morley, seems to me to encapsulate much of the good, as well as the problematic, about telling history in a newsy way.

The book is about the 1835 race riots in Washington, DC and the criminal trials, prosecuted by Francis Scott Key, that followed.   It  is an interesting story interestingly told, cutting between several major viewpoint characters including Key, Anna Thornton (an alleged assault on whom was an origin of the riots), abolitionist Reuben Crandall, who was charged with inciting the riot by distributing anti-slavery pamphlets, and Beverly Snow, whose restaurant was destroyed in the riot.  It’s very useful to history work to have big splashy popular history books with actual marketing budgets (for example, I received an ARC from the publishers) that not only illuminate lesser-known incidents in American history but do it from a cultural history and African-American history lens, not just a political history perspective.

Given the ongoing War of 1812 commemorations and the concomitant anthem discussions, it was a delight to see a non-hagiographic portrait of Key, who is portrayed as a cranky and dogmatic political animal with a troubled family life.

Snow, a freed African-American restauranteur, is the real hero of the story.  He started an “epicurean” restaurant, with menu, individual tables, fancy food, a multiracial clientele, and many of the features of contemporary restaurants.  If only he had left more of a paper trail!  Morley reads deeply into Snow’s newspaper advertisements and few surviving letters (from jail, where he was held for his own protection, and from Toronto, where he eventually settled.)  We learn a good deal about Jacksonian-era food culture.

So, a little-told story about antebellum American racial politics.  Sounds great, yes?  But it can’t just be that—it has to be the riot that uncovered deep-seated racial tensions! the trials that would change the nation!  This kind of hyperbole is par for the course by now, and props to Morley for not including this kind of language in his subtitle (it’s the descriptive “Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.”)

But what drove me crazy was at the very end of the book, where Morley claims that because there was political polarization in 1836, it is the same political polarization we see today, specifically the (questionably accurate, even for today) “red” and “blue” divisions.  Contemporary liberals are just like 1830s abolitionists, he says, advocates of “multiracial citizenship” and limitable property rights, and contemporary conservatives, just like the mainstream politicos of the 1830s, advocate for property rights and more limited citizenship,  though he generously admits that “conservatives no longer believe in slavery.”  Is he really saying that Francis Scott Key’s politics (he was a pal of Jackson and fan of  African repatriation) are analogous to those of contemporary conservatives?  Readers deserve more than this ahistorical and simplistic collapse of the past into the present.  I wish Snow-Storm in August had focused more on the fascinating story and less on pegging the story to contemporary politics.

It is a testament to the quality and high level of engagement of this year’s NCPH conference that the web is already full of conference reports; here’s mine. The NCPH/OAH meeting in Milwaukee was full of interesting sessions on vital work in the field, passionate people doing good history, free wifi, and excellent beer. I’m clearly biased as a native rustbelter, but Milwaukee was a fine place for 2000+ historians to gather—friendly, compact, and with its own history to explore.

The conference began with a THATCamp with the usual quotient of inquiry and energy. After the conference had officially opened, our session on contemporary DIY movements and public history institutions (which, thanks to Kate Freedman’s presentation, became known as “the steampunk panel”) was on Thursday morning. The presentations were followed by a challenging discussion, and we’ll be putting some version of the panel online.

I also heard a great panel about interpreting women’s history at unlikely places. “Assume women were there,” said Heather Huyck of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, capping off the session after a surprising presentation about interpreting Julia Dent Grant and enslaved women at the US Grant Historic Site in St Louis. Many posts on other sessions can be found at History @Work, as well as discussions of some of the organizational issues at stake, in particular the still-up-in-the-air fate of The Public Historian journal.

Milwaukee’s museums were another highlight of the trip for me. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of America’s great encyclopedia museums. The typewriter was invented by Milwaukee resident Christopher Sholes and the MPM has one of the world’s best typewriter collections, which the curator graciously took me into storage to see.  The exhibitry there is also fascinating; they have an enormous amount of natural history and anthropology content, told through dioramas, including early work by Carl Akeley.  I also visited the art-of-engineering museum and the lovely mid-century conservatory, The Domes.

See you next year in Ottawa!

As perhaps you’ve noticed, I am now a contributor to The Atlantic Technology channel.  I’ve recently written about typewriter nostalgia, shorthand, and Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality.  Do subscribe to the channel; there’s a continuous stream of historically inflected work there, as well as historiography of technology disguised as current tech news analysis.

I’m sure, dear readers, that you are familiar with our only public history professional organization, the National Council on Public History.

You may also be familiar with NCPH’s blog on unexpected exhibit practice, Off the Wall, for which I wrote a few posts about history on the internet.

Now NCPH has upped the ante with the new blog, History@Work, located appropriately at publichistorycommons.org. Edited by the indefatigable Cathy Stanton as well as a host of section editors, the new blog describes itself as follows:

History@Work is a multi-authored, multi-interest blog sponsored by the National Council on Public History as a digital meeting place–a commons–for all those with an interest in the practice and study of history in public.

There is already a ton of great material up there–about the work of consultants and new professionals, exhibit and project spotlights, newsy posts about current issues in history practice, and Off the Wall-type posts on the wider universe of public history. Please visit this great new resource.

A few blog- and Suzanne-related notes:

  • This spring you’ll see me in Milwaukee at the NCPH/OAH conference (for which a hashtag has not yet been determined).  Our panel “Museums and Makers:  Intersections of Public History from Steam Trains to Steampunk” will be Thursday, April 19 at 10:30. Be there.  The conference program is online now.
  • Prompted by Mark Tebeau‘s discussion of museum blogs the other day on twitter, I have revised my blogroll for the first time in years: an updated mix of museum, public history, and history of science/technology/medicine blogs.  Though I personally blog only sporadically these days, my colleagues are doing some excellent thinking and writing.

Library of Congress CIP data for Kraken

While much ink has been spilled on the role of curation and curators writ large in contemporary culture, it’s useful to have a reminder of the power of the curatorial enterprise–to radically revalue objects, to change their contexts and transform them into something else, into artifacts. China Mieville’s Kraken (2010) explores the way curation can literally rewrite the world. An escatological urban fantasy with fluourescing bits of black humor, Kraken follows Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and what follows when the museum’s rare and enormous giant squid specimen suddenly disappears.

“I’m Billy,” he said. “I’m a curator. What that means is that I do a lot of the cataloguing and preserving, stuff like that.” (4)

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Harrow. You’re a curator, I think?” “Yeah.” “Which means what?” “Preserving, cataloguing, that sort of stuff.” Billy fiddled with his glasses so he did not have to meet anyone’s eye. He tried to see which way the woman was looking. “Consulting on displays, keeping stuff in good nick.” (21)

When the protagonist  is asked, twice, in the opening pages of the book, what it is he does as a curator, he’s very vague. But we also learn that he was the staff member who prepared the giant squid specimen when it came it, and he’s known for having a good hand with molluscs–that is, that he is personally responsible for the museumification of the missing cephalopod.

Billy starts out self-effacing, a naïf caught in a bizarre chain of events. But after a journey through a London of competing apocalypses, Billy becomes convinced of the power of all-encompassing metaphors–and in doing so he reminds us of how museums can rename and recategorize.

At a climactic moment in the novel, to save the world from an apocalypse immenatized by a magician made of ink, Billy convinces the universe that a preserved giant squid is not a kraken, a totemic godling, but instead something more pedestrian but no less powerful–a museum artifact.

“Kraken’s a kraken,” Billy said. “Nothing to do with us. That? That’s a specimen. I know. I made it. That’s ours.” (487)

“….It’s not an animal or a god,” Billy said. “It didn’t exist until I curated it. That’s my specimen.”

He had birthed it into consciousness. It was Architeuthis dux. Specimen, pining for preservative. Squid-shaped paradox but not the animal of the ocean. Architeuthis, Billy understood for the first time, was not that undefined thing in deep water, which was only ever itself. Architeuthis was a human term.

“It’s ours,” he said.

And here’s the clincher:

 “It’s a specimen and it’s in the books,” Billy said, “We’ve written it up.” (488)

For Mieville here, curatorial writing has Adamic power.  Fixing the artifact into writing (and, here, it’s a once-alive artifact, a scientific specimen) changes the artifact as well as the world it inhabits.

This is why “curate” is still a word to conjure by in our culture.  It still promises transformative power.

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