February 2011

Or, you know, two.  In April.  That I’m attending.

Yes, indeed, the beloved unconferences on technology and the humanities are proliferating pleasantly, and I’m pleased to be going to two in the near future. Please try to come to one or both of these below:

First off:  Great Lakes THATCamp was so great last year we’re doing it again.  Same time, same place.  Michigan State, April 30th/May 1st. Please apply by March 11th!  Much respect to our organizational genius Ethan Wattrall.

Also:  at NCPH this year we’ll be having a THATCamp on Wednesday before the conference starts, down in Pensacola on April 6.  You can register for it when you register for NCPH in general (you’re going, right?) and the deadline is March 15.


I’m sure you’ve all seen the Google Art Project, a neat visualization of works of art in 17 big Western art museums.  Official blog announcementBehind-the-scenes blog from the Tate. This post at Curator by Nancy Proctor has comments from lots of smart people thinking about museum/web issues and  is a great overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the project:  the advantages of Street View technology over QTVR, major props for getting big museums to agree to this, the lack of searching across museums, interface issues and the questionable usefulness of the gallery metaphor.  Since this project is all art museums I am also grateful that it is not called the Google Museum Project.

The Brooklyn Museum’s newest experiment is a game called Split Second, which requires you to make quick decisions about artworks to help plan an exhibit on Indian painting.  Go do it now, they need lots of participants. Split Second in the NYT.

Shane Landrum has kicked off a Wikipedia Women’s History Project, in response both to recent reports of a gender gap among wikipedians and the paucity/incompleteness of women’s history articles.  Could this be the straw that finally gets me to edit wikipedia articles?  Maybe. 

Rebekah Higgitt has been fighting the good fight for cultural history of science–contra folks who think that it’s not worthwhile to try to understand any kind of  “pseudoscience” in its cultural context,and that doing so is treachery to a triumphalist vision of contemporary science.  Much respect and gratitude to Becky.  As a historian of quackery and (new project!) of parapsychology, there but for the grace of God go I.

Historic house museums are in trouble. Everybody says so. There are so many of them in North America, and they’re one of the most financially precarious types of museums, but they continue to proliferate. We have conference sessions called “Why are historic house tours so boring?”  Museum folks write practical books about doing something more sustainable with a historic house than starting a house museum.  But they can still provide amazing experiences to visitors–or at least ideas to wrestle with.

We don’t usually think about writers’ houses as a special set of historic house museums, and we don’t usually get a chance to step back and think through the whole enterprise of celebration/memorialization across the field from a visitor perspective.  So Anne Trubek’s Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a travelogue and critique of American writers’ house museums, is a welcome gift to thoughtful public historians.*

Trubek is skeptical that writers’ lives need public memorialization. Their books, she says, should be the way we remember them–and the money we spend to maintain their legacies by running writers’ house museums could buy many copies of their books. And in her travels to writers’ houses, she finds a lot to critique:  hagiography, inaccuracies, commercialization, sugarcoating of  unpleasant details, and wacky interpretive choices that tell the stories inappropriately.   But even the museums she hates for their inauthenticity (like Hannibal, MO and its Twain theme park) are interesting with her as tour guide.

My favorite parts of the book were the most museological.  Trubek visits the historic site commemorating the author Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward, Angel) and talks with its chief interpreter about the confusion about who it is the house is commemorating (not Tom Wolfe with the white suit), why the house was important in his life, and why we should continue to commemorate him.  She laments that the gifted interpreter is working at the Wolfe site and not, say, Colonial Williamsburg.  This section seemed unnecessarily pessimistic to me (it’s worthwhile to preserve some old houses, even if the people who lived there weren’t famous!) but was an interesting way to think about how visitors see less high-profile sites.

The other chapter I liked a great deal was about her visit to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house in Dayton, where an interpreter facilitated an amazing encounter with Dunbar’s life and work (it also helps that Dunbar, of all the writers whose houses she visits, is one of the only ones I actually enjoy reading).  This is a useful perspective on how someone with a passion for a story can communicate that passion to visitors. (Here’s another example from Nina Simon.)   A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses is a funny, smart, critical visitor perspective on some particular house museums and the whole enterprise of  doing history in houses.


*(Full disclosure: Anne is my friend on the internets, as well as a professor at my alma mater, and sent me a prepublication copy of the book, though I didn’t get around to writing about it till now.)

I don’t know enough about Egyptian politics to comment intelligently, but I have been keeping my eye on the welfare of  museums and cultural heritage during this uprising.  And the news has been generally good. In Alexandria, the library was protected by groups of organized youth, as the director of the Biblioteca Alexandrina, Ismail Serageldin, said in two recent statements. In Cairo, thousands formed a human shield to protect the National Museum, which is located next to the national party headquarters, which was set on fire in the early days of the protests.  Some theft and damage did occur at this important museum of antiquities–but conservator Dan Cull has suggested that these seem to be from organized criminal activity rather than looting.  As Dan says:

It’s important for us to show solidarity, but not just with those who are professionally trained to work on material culture, we must show solidarity with all those who struggle so that the material culture will have meaning in the new world they are creating….

And perhaps most of all we should be deeply inspired that ordinary Egyptian people felt strongly enough about their cultural heritage and cultural institutions that they should come out unarmed to protect them against criminal gangs… whilst just next door the political institutions burned.

Do consider donating to the Blue Shield, whose mission is to protect cultural property during armed conflict.

Back at home, a heritage win:  last week, Walmart announced they would not build a store on the site of Wilderness battlefield.  Our Magpie offers her perspective as a historian and a local.