Reading this scholarly book, I came upon this wonderfully forthright explanation of historical curiosity: “The primary purpose of this monograph is to answer the question, “Man, what’s up with that?””
January 2, 2014
I hope your 2014 is full of museumgoing and critical reflection on history!
In the new year, may I suggest that the NCPH members among my readers vote in the NCPH board elections? You should have received an email in December with voting information. The election closes on Jan 5 and I am running for nominating committee. I’d appreciate your support.
December 3, 2013
It’s important for me to challenge this nostalgic vision of the past, particularly of the early 90s. So many queers now have this nostalgia for something they never experienced. In the early 90s, everyone was dying from AIDS, and drug addiction, and suicide. I came of age watching a generation of people losing all their friends. That’s what being queer meant: it meant everyone was dying. Nostalgia erases the actual experiences.
–From this interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
December 2, 2013
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Robert C. Post, Who Own’s America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Bob Post’s new book is a hybrid account—it covers both the history of cultural history at the Smithsonian and Post’s own career as a curator. He traces the usual story of how Joseph Henry didn’t want to start a museum and so on, but the book really shines in its telling of the genesis of the Museum of History and Technology and its transformation into the National Museum of American History (and the National Air and Space Museum.) I loved the deep dives into exhibit practice and the stories of particular exhibits and their context within the changing currents of the historical profession and those of SI’s internal politics. (Speaking of internal politics, one affective response I had to the book was an appreciation of how difficult—impossible!—it is to work under the political pressures of a national museum.) Post devotes an entire chapter to the Enola Gay incident, but he also gives time to a host of other exhibits in all areas of the museum over the past 50 years—Field to Factory and America on the Move, certainly, but also smaller exhibits on banking, printing, and clockwork, with an emphasis on the consequences of the shift from collections-based to experience-based exhibits and on the outsized role of donors. He also traces the way our fledgling discipline of the history of technology was nurtured by and in turn helped shape a new national museum that put technology in the spotlight (also see this T & C article).
Read the footnotes—that’s where Post puts his most trenchant observations of SI personalities and his notes on such important topics as diversity in curatorial hiring. This book is for the general reader, but those embedded in history museum practice will appreciate the insider perspective and the opportunity to hear about our distinguished colleagues when they were brash young curators.
September 18, 2013
I’ll be at AASLH in Birmingham this week, talking about history practice with the biggest gathering of small history museum professionals there is.
I’m giving a talk Thursday at 1:30 pm:
Vintage or Artifact? Collecting the 20th and 21st Centuries
At what point do we consider an object old enough to be an artifact? Must an item be rare to be worthy of collecting? This panel discussion will explore these questions and make the case for why history museums should be collecting contemporary, even mass-produced items today.
The panelists are me, Veronica Rodriguez from the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park, and Leslie Howard in absentia (we’ll be sharing the results of her survey of small history museums on collecting contemporary artifacts.) Please come and talk about collecting with us.
On Friday night I’ll be at the awards banquet, picking up an award the museum and our partners at Sacramento State won for a collaborative exhibit.
In my down time I hope to visit a zillion museums–there are great history of technology sites there as well as civil rights museums. If you see me around please say hi!
September 6, 2013
I’m working on an exhibit about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1915, and I’ve been struggling to communicate what, experientially, it was like to be in the crowd at an early 20th century Fair. Some of my best attempts:
- They were like the State Fair, but with better architecture.
- They were like the Olympics.
Though World’s Fairs still exist (and are more often called Expos these days), I think for the amount of development, grandeur, and sheer international hoopla, the Olympics are the best contemporary parallel.
- They were like the still extant World’s Fair landscapes, but filled with people and souvenir stands and international pageantry and a sense of awe that this coherent, bustling space was just built.
The real question is how to recreate these experiences immersively in a museum space. I’ll keep you posted.
March 14, 2013
The third weekend in April continues to be excessively popular for conferences in our (dear museum/history-inclined reader!) fields, which this year includes Museums and the Web and NCPH (which looks like a terrific meeting in Ottawa this year.)
I will be attending neither of these, but will instead be attending this conference in Minneapolis, “Practicing Science, Engaging Publics,” in honor of my graduate advisor, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt. It’s a one-day event on April 20th, free and open to the public, and if you’re in the area I highly suggest you stop by!
I will be talking about my research on this guy, and my academic siblings will be talking about other interesting topics around the history of biology, history of anthropology and field work, popularization, and professionalization, all in Sally-inflected ways. Hope to see you there.