Politics and Prose, the famous independent bookstore in Washington DC, hosted a booksigning for Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, that attracted seventy-five listeners this past Saturday. It’s not often that museum folks share a stage that recently included Patrick Buchanan, Timothy Geithner, Lynn Sherr, and Michelle Obama. His talk will be aired on C-Span.
A self-professed history geek, Tim shares his love for history in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), a collection of stories from his years working at Colonial Williamsburg, Missouri Historical Society, National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History. Tim wants to improve the public image of history by demonstrating the fun of history and “help history haters change their minds.” To do this requires provoking a deeper thinking about historical programs and activities to better link past and present As he states in his book,
The staff at [Colonial] Williamsburg and other history sites wants visitors to “experience” history. What does this mean? One can visit Yosemite National Park and experience the beauty and grandeur of nature. One can go whitewater rafting and experience the rush of the river and the cold wetness of the water as it splashes the face. But experiencing history? Do you experience history when you walk the hallowed ground of a battlefield or visit a historical house? Experience in verb form implies action. What action is actually taking place?
Tim demonstrates that “action” through a wide assortment of stories, from conquering a high wheel bicycle and questioning the significance of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to navigating the legacy of Lewis and Clark, and yes, unpacking a grizzly bear that arrived in the mail from Alaska. These stories are told from an insider’s perspective, giving readers a chance to see what it’s like to be a curator or educator behind-the-scenes (isn’t handling rare and valuable objects the reason we got into museum work?), so it’s as much about doing history as it is about history itself. As explained by the Washington Post, “Grove’s book is both an inspiration and a template for those who want to kick history out of the attic and put it back where it belongs: in the national living room, slightly to the left of the television.”
Tim continues to share his adventures through his blog at historyplaces and has another book coming out next year on the little-known first flight around the world. It draws heavily from the collections of the National Air and Space Museum and will be aimed at middle schoolers (but I suspect adults will enjoy it, too).