Category Archives: Museums

Review: Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory

Book Cover

Slavery and Public History

Public history, history presented in museums, parks and at historical sites, is the sharp end of scholarship. We Americans know our history. We remember what our parents, grandparents, and teachers told us about the way things were. We have seen John Wayne die defending the Alamo, and die again building airstrips in the South Pacific. However, our historical memory is often at odds with historical fact. James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton’s 2009 book “Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory” is a collection of essays examining the causes and outcomes of some controversies that have resulted when memory and fact collide.

All the essays the Hortons chose for the book are readable and easy to follow. Given that a public historian’s job is to present complicated issues and events in a manner acceptable to experts and understandable to school children what else would you expect? In fact, he difference between “historical memory” and “historical fact” a distinction I have stumbled over in the past, is better explained here than in any historiography I have read. In addition to the opening theoretical articles there are several interesting case studies presented, the controversy on the new building for the Liberty Bell and its location on the site of the Presidents House, introducing the stories of bonded servants to tours at historical sites like Monticello and “My Old Kentucky Home” Park, and reinterpreting Richmond Virginia’s public space to encourage historical tourism in the new, New South, are interesting and, for me, somewhat surprising. Edward Linenthal wraps the book up by showing that our disconnect between our “historical memory” and our factual, documented history is not restricted to slavery or even to the United States by pointing out similar disconnects around the world.

If you have ever disagreed with something you read in a museum or on a monument you should enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Keeping Time the history and theory of preservation in America

Keeping Time: the history and theory of preservation in America

Keeping Time: the history and theory of preservation in America

“Keeping time: the history and theory of preservation in America” is a book that I had my eye on for years. When I finally found a copy i was still interested enough to put it at that head of my ‘to read’ pile. It is not a book that I expect most people rush to read even though I found it to be well written, interesting and informative. Unless you have a “thing” for old buildings you are not likely to spend your time reading it. I do have a “thing” for old buildings, old by American standards that is. I grew up in a house 100 years older than I am*. My father grew up in National Register of Historic Places’ largest neighborhood, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. I come by it honestly.

William Murtach, the author was the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. He starts the book in the most useful way I can imagine, defining terms. Preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation are all technical terms. Anyone discussing the preservation of our historic environment should know these terms. They are not interchangeable. By explaining these terms Murtach taught me why when I visited Benjamin Franklin’s home in Philadelphia all I saw was a metal frame outline of the building. I learned how Faneuil Hall in Boston can be both a historic site and a modern money making concern.

The book takes us through the history of America’s preservation efforts. We start by looking at the earliest patriotic efforts to reconstruct Independence Hall and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s efforts to save Washington’s home. Murtagh covers the history of house museums, outdoor museums, and historic districts. There were several topics discussed I did not expect to see. Landscape preservation and the difficulty inherent in maintaining an unchanged collection of living things. Urban sprawl and the consolidation of small farms present a unique set of problems for rural preservation. Murtagh explains what rescue archeology is but if you want a real world example look at the book “Bones in the Basement”.

The book’s epilogue attempts to look into the future by looking at what other nations are doing. There are also several valuable appendices, selected federal legislation dealing with preservation, the National Register’s evaluation criteria, and the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation. This book a treasure of information on the preservation of man made environments.

* Judging by a date found on a door hinge.

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The Taft Museum and Cincinnati’s Conventions

Taft Museum building

Taft Museum

I have lived within fifty miles of Cincinnati my entire life and several years ago, while I was finishing my degree at Miami University, I learned to respect local history. Nothing can put you in the presence of history as fully as being where the history took place. Jill Lepore, Harvard professor and author put it much better than I can, “Studying history is like time travel, that way. It brings you someplace else, some time else. I mostly feel that way—transported—when I’m in the archives, when I open up a box of someone’s papers, pull out a folder, and begin reading something someone wrote, a long time ago, on a piece of paper. I get that feeling in other places, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt closer to the past than when standing at the end of the Long Wharf, in Boston, with my students, looking across the harbor, and across the sea, talking about how many days on board ship it would have taken for a Tory to get home in the last days before the American Revolution began.” (1)

But I have to confess that I haven’t I visited all the local history sites. I can’t say that I don’t know about them, most of them anyway. I have known about the Taft Museum for most of my life but, as much as I enjoy museums of all sorts any reason I might come up with would only be an excuse. My first visit was March 15th of this year and I wish I had not waited so long.

The house, the museum building, was built, as best can be determined, around 1820 by Martin Baum. The next owner was Nicholas Longworth, a man that worked hard to establish a wine industry in the United States. He hired an African-American painter, Robert S. Duncanson, to paint murals in the homes entrance way. This was during the era when Dr. Daniel Drake was working to bring quality medical education to the city and Cincinnati was on the borderlands between slavery and freedom. I am sure Longworth endured criticism for entrusting his home’s appearance to someone not white. Anyone privileged with an invitation into his home would have seen that he made the right choice.

David Sinton was the buildings next owner. His daughter, Anna, married Charles Phelps Taft in 1873 and they lived in her childhood home until their deaths in the 1931 (her) and 1929. (him) They left the house to the city of Cincinnati for use as a museum. It opened a year later in 1932. Today, the museum is rightfully proud of their African American artist in residence program. This has to be in honor of Duncanson whose amazing murals still adorn the entrance way. As it turns out one of the paintings I had been admiring a few weeks earlier in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art was by Duncanson. The Tafts traveled the world as wealthy art collectors during the Gilded Age. They had exquisite taste, by which I mean they loved the same shades of blue as my wife.

In 1908 Charles Taft’s half brother accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States on the Taft Museum’s front porch. A few blocks away the first presidential nominating convention outside the original colonies was held in Cincinnati at the Smith Nixon Piano Company. I have to assume that their building included a performance hall. The convention was an interesting affair with armed men breaking into the hall at one time and insisting they be seated as delegates from Missouri. The Official Proceedings were published and are available on Google Books. Delegates from California participated for the first time in choosing a presidential candidate. Travel was a little different then, they sailed to Nicaragua, took a railroad across to the Gulf, sailed to New Orleans, then took a steamboat to Cincinnati. When they reached their decision Buchanan was notified at his home in New York by the very latest in communications technology, telegraph.

Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated in 1876 by the Republican Party during a convention held in Cincinnati’s Exposition Hall. I am looking for proof that this was the same hall built on what is now Washington Park for the World Industrial Expositions, early international trade fairs which were popular in that time. Four years later the Democrats nominated Winfield S. Hancock in a convention held at our Music Hall. In 1892 it was the Prohibition Party that used Music Hall to hold its convention. They nominated John Bidwell and he got the most votes any Prohibition Party candidate ever earned, 270, 770. When the Progressive Party nominated John La Follette in their 1924 convention held in Cincinnati I can only guess that they also used Music Hall. I understand that the Republican Party is considering Cincinnati for its next convention. It won’t be in Music Hall but it would bring even more history to the city.

 

1. http://teachinghistory.org/issues-and-research/roundtable-response/24063

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