Nostalgia can be an emotion that gets people interested in the past and that draws them back to their own and their family’s history. But it’s a distorting force. It puts a scrim of sentimentalization over real events and real people and recasts challenging, uncomfortable stories as quaint and harmless. Nostalgia robs history of its ability to surprise, shock, amaze, replacing all stories with a generic one of how people sure were different in the old days. It erases the stories of people who didn’t appear in charming advertisements. It ignores specificity. It’s ahistorical.
December 6, 2012
Friends, since last we spoke I packed everything I owned, drove across most of the country with a yowling cat companion, and arrived safely in the Bay Area, where I am now a curator at the Oakland Museum of California. My remit is “contemporary history,” and I am excited to think through what it means for museums to be places that collect, exhibit and facilitate the contemporary. I’m also delighted to be at a multidisciplinary museum and one with an exemplary commitment to visitor voices and new ways of doing museum work. New horizons, indeed–I may even start blogging regularly again.
July 30, 2012
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!
July 6, 2012
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.
May 1, 2012
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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!
April 16, 2012
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.
March 26, 2012
I’m sure, dear readers, that you are familiar with our only public history professional organization, the National Council on Public History.
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.