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.

President Garfield's front porch

I am not a political historian. I’m proof that it is quite possible to get an advanced degree in American history and know very little about presidents.

James A. Garfield is famous for having been assassinated—and in the history of medicine, he’s famous for having been killed by his doctors rather than his assassin. But I didn’t know what kind of person he was, or what he stood for. Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic went very far toward convincing me that Garfield was the most admirable, honest, intelligent person to ever go into politics. I was so impressed by this portrait (despite suspecting it to be hagiographic) that when I was in Cleveland last week I drove out of my way to visit the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

Millard’s strongly narrative history combines the stories of Garfield’s life and political career with the stories of Charles Guiteau, his eventual assassin, and of Alexander Graham Bell, who basically invented a metal detector while trying to find the bullets in the president’s body. But Garfield’s life story is enormously compelling in itself. The last president raised in a log cabin, he was able to attend school because his widowed mother farmed to support the family. (The ranger at the Garfield Historic Site dismissively referred to this formidable woman, Liza Garfield, as “Grandma” throughout the whole tour.) He was a natural scholar; the school at which he took a janitor position in exchange for tuition hired him as a teacher just a few years later. He served as a college president, farmed, read books aloud with his family, fought in Congress for freedmens’ rights. When he was nominated for president against his will after a contentious balloting at the 1880 Republican convention, he didn’t campaign in the modern sense but went back to Mentor. He would give speeches to the gathered politicians and journalists from his front porch. An opponent of the spoils system, civil service reform was high on his political agenda.

When the disturbed Guiteau shot Garfield just a few months into his presidency, Garfield’s body was placed at the center of the debates over the germ theory and Listerian practices in contemporary surgery. His doctors poked around in the wound in his side, looking for the bullets; he died of sepsis eventually, excruciatingly. I was surprised to learn that even in 1881, after the autopsy, it was widely believed that his doctors had killed him. (I had thought that this was a case of historians looking back with contempt on ineffective medical practice.) Guiteau even offered this widely held opinion in the courtroom as an argument in his defense.

Garfield was mourned extravangantly. His widow, Lucretia, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his legacy, collecting his papers and founding a memorial library at the house in Mentor, a progenitor of the presidential library movement. Though Garfield’s papers are now at the Library of Congress, his books are still in Mentor. What a missed opportunity–the historic site could use his books to help visitors understand his views on modern farming, statecraft, religion (he was a Disciples minister), and science, rather than putting them behind glass and saying how silly the titles of those old books were. I learned so much about Garfield’s life and death from Millard’s compelling book that I wished that the interpretation of his historic house would demonstrate that same sense of the continued importance and power of Garfield’s story.

*Book source: review copy from the publisher.

Last week was the 54th annual SHOT  conference, which was co-located in Cleveland with the History of Science Society and the Society for the Social Studies of Science. I had a lovely time, and wrote up reports on three excellent papers for the Atlantic.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which “aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and math by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.”

Prolific inventor Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973), a self-taught synesthete engineer from North Carolina, received 49 patents but is credited with over 100 inventions.  Her inventions were at first improvements on household technologies–her first patent was for a vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer, in 1912–but she soon became an entrepreneur and consultant.

By the mid-1920s she was living in New York and running a company to manufacture umbrellas and parasols of her own design, including an umbrella with swappable snap-on covers.  She invented business machine improvements for typewriters (aligning feeds for automatic typewriters, for instance) and cash registers, consulting for companies such as Mergenthaler Linotype.  Henry was also involved in sewing machine innovations.  She also consulted and made unique products for doll and toy companies.

Henry was a savvy inventor and businesswoman; the press dubbed her “Lady Edison.” Like Edison, she surrounded herself with a handpicked team to do research and development on her products, and help translate her designs into manufactured products.  It seems like she had an unusually excellent sense of spatial reasoning and became skilled in directing how her products should be machined.  She is one of only a few women in the early 20th C to become a professional inventor who was both recognized for her work and was able to profit from it.

Autumn Stanley quotes Henry as saying that all one needs for inventing “is time, space and freedom.” (Mothers and Daughters of Invention, 422.)  Here’s wishing those to the women inventors of the future.


I posted last year on Nora Stanton Blatch, and in 2009 about women telegraphers.

This year’s MacArthur fellows have been announced, and I was delighted to see that Tiya Miles, a public historian at the University of Michigan whose work on Afro-Cherokee history won an NCPH book award this year, was one of the winners.  (Also, she’s a Minnesota grad.)  Many congratulations!

Another historian was among the winners–Jacob Soll, who does early modern book and political history.

Previous coverage of museum and history MacArthur winners: 2007, 2008.


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