March 2008

I’m decamping for the city of the straits this weekend, and may or may not do things of historical interest.  So, to tide you over, here’s historic preservation news: resources on the 1953 Marcel Breuer-designed Grosse Pointe Central Library, which was slated for demolition but now seems to be saved, with a renovation in the works.  This is a great story of web organizing, primarily by architects concerned about the future of this modernist library.  Calling themselves the Modern Architecture Protection Agency or mapa, they organized a design charette among architects from all over the world to brainstorm solutions for the library’s future.  Historic preservation ftw!

But already mapa had been successful in achieving their original goals. Internal emails early in the process had acknowledged that no member of the group was really intending to be the architect or designer of what the library would eventually build. The group’s agenda was simply to brainstorm, to show that there were other options to razing the Breuer building and, toward that end, their objective had been to make a lot of noise in the community of Grosse Pointe Farms and initiate a public discussion of what kind of library the community wanted as it proceeded into the 21st century: a well-loved landmark linked to a famed architect and an important community philanthropist; a suitably-enlarged facility; or both.

Library to be spared?  (Architectural Record)

Central Library redesign spotlight (Grosse Pointe News)

 The building committee’s blog


Last week (or was it the week before?) I spent a number of pleasant hours over several days judging exhibits for Minnesota History Day.  History Day is a national contest, sort of a science fair for history, where kids grades 6-12 make exhibits, documentary films, performances, research papers, and (new this year) websites around a yearly theme, and compete at school, regional, state and national levels.  History Day is a big deal here in Minnesota, thanks to the combined behemoths of the U and the MHS, and Minnesotan kids regularly place at nationals.  (I never heard of History Day till I came to Minnesota.  I poked around to see when Michigan started having History Day, since it seems inconceivable that the teachers at my high school wouldn’t have pushed us to do it, but I couldn’t discover the date.)  Anyway, it’s a great program, pushing kids to really learn how to do research and learn how rewarding it is to be an expert on something.  Apparently the MHS’s research has showed that visiting an academic library, particularly, was a transformative educational experience for the junior historians.  I’m generally not super interested in K-12 education, so enjoying judging History Day so much was a transformative experience for me too!

This year’s theme was Conflict and Compromise in History, which meant lots of World War II projects.  I judged Juniors Exhibits, which means three-fold posterboards, and some were excellent, and some were less so.  (The judging forms have only three categories, good, excellent, and superior, so all the projects were ‘good.’)

Since History Day focuses on use of primary sources, there were lots of recent American history projects.  It was terrific to hear a student exclaim over going to the library and holding the real copies of Time Magazine from the 1970s.  With increased digitization of print resources, it’s becoming more exciting to be in the presence of authenticity–which is of course what museums and special collections will continue to offer.  (Of course, I’m a little jaded from spending my last however-many years reading pamphlets from the 1890s about syphilis.)  Here I thought it was charming.

Some projects were rather lacking in contextualization (like the project on a particular famous person from WW2 that mentioned “some guy named Hitler”) and some projects were entirely amazing (for instance, a project on the war in the Aleutians) and would stand up to anything a professional historian produces.  We should be recruiting these kids for our museums and our public history graduate programs!  Having a history-literate population helps everyone.  History Day proves to both kids and jaded judges that it can also be fun and even exciting to be a historian.

Up next!

Just a heads up for things due to happen here on PH.  (In the meantime, I’ve been writing brilliant exhibit text for our sesquicentennial exhibit, working on the neverending revisions, doing the usual job search stuff, and having houseguests.)  There will be:  a review of Afloat in a Wireless Pond (since there were no other bloggers there, I don’t mind posting about it so late), something curmudgeonly about the most recent Isis, something enthusiastic about Omeka since I’m going to an workshop on it at the MHS today, and, since I’m a History Day judge, several History Day posts.  Stay tuned!

If you’re planning to be in DC in the next few months, (for instance if you’re going to THATcamp, and should read this information), go see this great-sounding exhibit curated by Mike Sappol.

New Exhibition Opens at NLM…
True crime murder pamphlets in the collection of the National Library of Medicine

The History of Medicine Division (HMD) of the National Library of
Medicine is pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibit, “MOST
HORRIBLE & SHOCKING MURDERS: True crime murder pamphlets in the
collection of the National Library of Medicine.”
It is located in
display cases in the HMD Reading Room, on the first floor of the
National Library of Medicine, Building 38, National Institutes of
Health, Bethesda, Maryland. The exhibit is open Monday through Friday,
8:30am to 5:00pm, and Saturday 8:30am to 2:30pm, through June 15, 2008.

Ever since the mid-1400s, the public’s appetite for tales of shocking
murders-“true crime”-has been one of the most durable facts of the
market for printed material. Murder pamphlets were hawked on street
corners, taverns, coffeehouses, newsstands, and bookshops. Typically,
the pamphlets claimed to be true accounts of a murder, consisting of a
narrative, trial transcript, or written confession of the murderer
before his or her execution. Sometimes they featured medical commentary.
The pamphlets on display in “MOST HORRIBLE & SHOCKING MURDERS” were
printed between 1692 and 1881. Some deal with cases of interest to the
emerging field of forensic medicine. Others deal with cases in which
doctors were accused of-or were victims of-heinous crimes. Still others
have no medical connection whatsoever. Today, murder pamphlets are a
rich source for historians and crime novelists, who mine them to study
the history of medicine, class, gender, the law, the city, religion and
other topics.

The exhibit was curated by Michael Sappol, PhD. For further information
on the exhibit, contact Stephen Greenberg, e-mail,
phone 301-435-4995.  Due to current security measures at NIH, off-campus
visitors are advised to consult the NIH Visitors and Security website

Brains at the HCGH Morgue, 1960s
Morgue, Hennepin County General Hospital, Minneapolis, 1960s

Courtesy Hennepin County Medical Center History Museum

Mike Rhode from the NMNH has a blog called A Repository for Bottled Monsters. It looks like the NMNH is doing some great work with digitizing their collections and finding aids. I’m particularly happy that they’re putting their books up on the Internet Archive.

An interesting post from a tech blog about the rising need for digital curators. And who better to be a digital curator than an IRL curator? (via Museumatic)

The first issue of the Museum History Journal is out!  Check out the ToC. (It’s coedited by my colleague Mary Anne Andrei, who write a fascinating dissertation on the history of taxidermy, and my advisor is on the editorial board.)

An interview with Kage Baker, my favorite writer of time travel books (and an erstwhile historic interpreter)

Corey Everett writes about “the successful combination of history and celebrity gossip.” Not only is gossip one of the most fun things you can do in historical fiction, but in the classroom I remember my students only got interested in Lavoisier when I talked about how he married Laplace’s widow after Laplace got the chop. And have I mentioned recently how much I love the regency romance novels of Georgette Heyer, despite being not super interested in British history?  You might see a longer post on this later.

This is the last weekend for “Peace Crimes,” a play about the “Minnesota Eight,” folks who raided draft offices throughout Minnesota during the Vietnam war.  It’s being produced by History Theater in conjunction with the U, and there are performances all weekend.  A friend of mine knows one of the 8 and has insisted we go, so you’ll see me there on Friday.

The Oberlin College Archives are looking for a new archivist. If you are awesome, as all my readers are, and have a history degree plus an MLS (and maybe a CA), you should apply. Oberlin’s Mudd Library is one of my favorite places in the universe, and you would be able to work on the fourth floor there! managing terrific collections on American history! Living in a charming small town quite near a big city! Also in the near future you would get to help me research my book on Grahamites in the Midwest! I can’t stress enough how wonderful this would be for the right person. Go forth and apply.

From MAM:

Minnesota Association of Museums

MAM Summer Internship Scholarship Program

To support the next generation of museum professionals, the Minnesota
Association of Museums (MAM) offers one $500 scholarship to a summer
intern at any qualifying Minnesota museum/cultural organization. This
stipend supports a student committed to a rewarding, intensive
internship experience as a step towards a career in museums.

Application Criteria:

* Applicant must be a currently enrolled college/university
student who is either a graduate student, or an undergraduate entering
their junior or senior year

* Acceptance as an intern for summer 2008 by a museum or
cultural organization located in Minnesota which maintains exhibits
and/or collections as part of its program

* Internship commitment is for a minimum eight weeks at an
average of 20 hours per week or more

* Internship site supervisor is a current member of Minnesota
Association of Museums

Required Application Materials:

* Completed application form (found at <http://www.minnesota/&gt;

* Letter from applicant of no more than 2 pages describing the
internship plan and summarizing the applicant’s professional and
academic background and goals

* Letter of support (no more than one page) from the internship
site supervisor describing the purpose of the internship for the
organization, and outlining the terms of the internship (duration,
number of hours per week)

* 1-2 letter/s of recommendation from a person not related to
the applicant and not associated with the museum hosting the internship.
Recommendation(s) must be submitted sealed in envelope with
recommender’s signature on seal.

* Official college transcript

* CV or resume


Recipients will submit a one page final report at the end, accompanied
by a letter signed by the supervisor that affirms that the intern
fulfilled their commitment.

Recipients will be invited to give a short presentation at the Minnesota
Association of Museums Annual Meeting that follows the internship

Application deadline: May 15

March 1 to May 15- Applications will be accepted

May- Application are reviewed by MAM scholarship committee

June 10- Applicants are notified of the award decision

The award will be presented in two payments, $250 in mid-June and $250
upon receipt of the final internship report.

Mail completed application materials to:


P.O. Box 14825

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414

Attn: Scholarship

Remember how I was planning to go to this ghost hunting seminar at the John H. Stevens House, birthplace of Minneapolis?   That was this Sunday, March 2, an unseasonably dreary, rainy day (and thus good for ghosts).  This is the third year Stevens House has done ghost seminars, and apparently it’s been a moneymaking program for them (3 seminars a year for $10 per person and 15 people per seminar=$450/year).  The presenter, Rick Hagen, is a professional ghosthunter and is incidentally on the Stevens House board.  He gave a long presentation with slides about his ghosthunting in England and Norway and was very commensensical and earnest about the presence of spirits.

Three things I learned:

  1. If you’re dealing with a poltergeist, don’t get out the Ouija board, since that lets low-level spirits into the house.
  2. Always wear a hooded sweatshirt when ghosthunting, so you have pockets to put your instruments in and a hood to put up when encountering cobwebs in catacombs.
  3. Spirits have to learn over time how to appear fully; I think there’s a lecture series on the other side.

In general, it was interesting, but pretty devoid of local history content, or even any discussion of American ghosts.  I’ve finally pinpointed, though, what I as a historian don’t like about ghost stories:  it’s the vagueness, the lack of specificity about what exactly happened and when, combined with the attribution of motives to the ghosts.  As historians, we “talk to ghosts” through archives and material culture, but we are careful to acknowledge our sources, and to accept an ultimate uncertainty about people’s emotions, motives, and intentions.  When we have an anecdotal source, we evaluate it differently than a well-documented source.  Unfortunately, ghosthunting is all anecdotal.  When we write on the history of spiritualism (for instance), it’s important to write from the perspective of our sources, report what folks who kept diaries said they saw at seances while fighting the urge to say that it was a miracle or a hoax, no matter what we might think.  But saying that several people saw a woman wearing old clothes and it must be the lady of the manor is not history.  That said, I might have been less critical if there was a discussion of Midwest ghosts, since anglophilia (things are so old over there!) bores me.

There was an opportunity to walk around Stevens House taking measurements, but we wouldn’t learn how to analyze the measurements till the next ghosthunting seminar, so we left early.  But I do think ghosthunting seminars can be a creative programming idea for a historic house museum if they don’t take themselves too seriously.