Category Archives: Authenticity

NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch Named a Washingtonian of the Year

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town.  Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles.  I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston.  So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America.  I also know him as a Continue reading

Curated Nutrition Bars Interpret Collections and Earn Income

Curated-Blue-and-Gray-Battle-BarCurated nutrition bars are turning out to be an effective way to interpret collections and earn income for museums and historic sites across the country.  First introduced by the Friends of Gettysburg National Battlefield for the July 2015 re-enactment, the “Blue & Gray Battle Bar” drew inspiration from the historic Civil War battle.  “We knew the kinds of foods soldiers were eating so it was just a matter of coming up with a combination that tasted good and was good for you,” said curator John Rupp, “Hard tack, peas, and coffee had to be in there, of course, but we had to work with food scientists to figure out how to include salt pork.  Quinoa wasn’t my idea, but someone said we had to include it for marketing purposes.”  Fortunately, the curators were also able to have some fun and included minie balls, which also resolves a major deaccessioning challenge because of the thousands that fill their collection.

Other museums and historic sites heard about the success of this venture, especially after it was featured in the fall issue of Museum Business.  Currently under development are:

  • Big Met Bar: It’s so big, you’ll be full before you’re even halfway through.
  • Smithsonian Behring Bar: a sprinkling of stars from a spangled banner, dinosaurs, pandas, air, space, and some wonder. So many flavors you can’t tell what you’re eating.
  • Colonial Williamsburg’s Christiana Campbell Bar:  crab, salet, and corn pudding dipped in heritage chocolate (with zombies!).   It’ll be about 4 inches high and equally thick.

If you know of a museum or historic site that’s developing a Curated bar, please share it in the comments below!

 

National Archives Should Allow Photography in Exhibits IMHO

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States.  I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.”  This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan.  In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright.  If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question.  Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions.  Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference.  If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern).  If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit.  Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives.  Instead, the National Archives should assume that  photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so.  Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.

Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of Continue reading

Openluchtmuseum Requires Mental Gymnastics in Historical Interpretation

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

The Openluchtmuseum, or Open Air Museum, in Arnhem in the Netherlands is one of the oldest outdoor/living history museums in the world. Opened in 1918, it preserves traditional and folk cultures by collecting vernacular buildings, furnishing them to specific periods, and using them to demonstrate historic crafts and skills.  In the last decade, they’ve expanded these approaches by adding multimedia presentations along with interpreting the post-war period as part of an effort to create a national history museum interpreting the “Canon of the Netherlands” (the canon is a divergent idea worth investigating).  In this post, I’ll examine their interpretation of the post-war period and in a later post discuss various unusual exhibition techniques.

At first glance, the Open Air Museum seems to be comprised of distinct clusters of farm buildings from a distinct region and time, where you can wander through houses and barns and watch someone in costume making brooms or working a plow.  But the layering of history is complex and I found myself continually asking, “what time is it?” and “how are these things related?” to make sense of my visit.  There are lots of historical anomalies, such as a 1960s phone booth in front of a 1910s train depot, but perhaps they’re not anomalies if you mentally reinterpret the scene by finding the overlapping period, such as the 1930s.  These intellectual gymnastics don’t always work, but then again, the entire concept shaping the Open Air Museum allows for the artificial juxtaposition of historical places, times, and objects–which is what often happens in art museums and can also be bewildering (ever visit the Robert Lehman Gallery at the Met?)

The experience caused me to think hard about the role and purpose of interpretation Continue reading

Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture?

Sustaining San Francisco's Living History by San Francisco Heritage

Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History by San Francisco Heritage

The fundamental boundaries of historic preservation have been significantly expanded by San Francisco Heritage, one of the country’s leading historic preservation organizations. In Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets, they state that, “Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. . . Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.”   In an effort to conserve San Francisco’s non-architectural heritage, historic preservation must consider “both tangible and intangible [elements] that help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community.” Did you notice the expanded definition?  Here it is again:  “Tangible elements may include a community’s land, buildings, public spaces, or artwork [the traditional domain of historic preservation], while intangible elements may include organizations and institutions, businesses, cultural activities and events, and even people [the unexplored territory].”

With many historic preservation organizations, it’s all about the architecture so protecting landscapes, public spaces, and artwork is already a stretch.  They’re often not aware that Continue reading

Period Rooms at a Modern University

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During a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I visited the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.  At 535 feet, it’s the tallest university building in the nation and dominates the skyline east of downtown.  Despite its name, it’s more skyscraper than cathedral.  It’s also an historical and architectural landmark, built between 1926 and 1937 as an Art Deco “cake” with Gothic Revival “frosting.”  For those of us working at historic house museums, what’s most interesting are the Nationality Rooms, a series of 29 classrooms on the first and third floors designed and furnished to represent different nations and ethnicities.

The classrooms vary in size but each have Continue reading

Cleaning Out My Cabinet of Curious Stories

Like all good museologists, I have a small cabinet of curiosities where I collect things of wonder, inspiration, and imagination.  Mine is virtual and sits in Evernote.  It’s time for a year-end clean-up, so here are a few that didn’t develop into full blog posts but even in their unrefined state, seem sufficiently interesting to share:

Google Maps Historical Society 2013

Google is continually looking for ways to get information to us as quickly and easily as possible. The last couple years it’s been creating quick descriptions of places using five keywords–but I’m not sure how they’re derived. A recent search for “historical society near Maryland” in Google Maps associated the American Historical Association with “symbol” and the Historical Society of Washington DC with “celebrities.” Who doesn’t like attention like that? The most surprising, though, is the description of the DAR National Headquarters with Continue reading

Historic Visitors Help Connect to Today’s Visitors

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Modern visitors encounter historic visitors in Annapolis, Maryland, a clever way to connect people to the past.  In their visitor center on the waterfront, the Historic Annapolis Foundation installed a wall of life-size images of famous and popular celebrities who have visited Annapolis during the past two hundred years.  The main label reads:

Who are these people, and why are they here?

You may recognize a few of them, or perhaps all of them.

Each of these people is famous for one reason or another, and each spent time in Annapolis.  Some were here in the recent past, while others many years ago.  Some passed through the city on a whirlwind tour, and some called Annapolis home.

But what does George Washington have in common with Sarah Jessica Parker?  The Marquis de Lafayette with Mark Twain?  Amelia Earhart with Michelle Obama?

Their common bond is that each of them could return to Annapolis today and recognize downtown because of Historic Annapolis.  Thanks to historic preservation, Annapolitans Continue reading

Sneak Peak at Clara Barton’s Office and Warehouse

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On April 18, I enjoyed a sneak peak of the restoration underway at Clara Barton’s Civil War-era office and warehouse on 7th Street in downtown Washington, DC–where she worked and lived before founding the American Red Cross in 1881.  The historic site opens to the public as a museum in fall 2014.

From the street, you’d never imagine that this was a nationally significant historic site.  It’s a simple three-story brick building surrounded by restaurants, towering condos and offices, popular museums, and a major sports arena.  Indeed, it was overlooked by those who were searching for it because it didn’t fit their image of a warehouse.  Its historical significance was forgotten for most of the century until 1997, when a nightwatchman hired to keep vagrants out of the vacant building noticed a document jutting out from the ceiling.  It turned out to be part of a cache of artifacts belonging to Clara Barton that had been stored in the Continue reading