Category Archives: Public History

Denmark Vesey – Trayvon Martin – Jordan Davis

A new monument to Denmark Vesey was recently unveiled in Charleston, South Carolina. The unveiling placed Vesey back in the news over the past two weeks with recent editorials by Douglas Egerton appearing in The New York Times and Honor Sachs at the Huffington Post. The two writers seem to disagree over whether there is sufficient evidence that Vesey intended to carry out a slave insurrection. That difference is reflected in how they frame the meaning/significance of Vesey’s legacy. Continue reading

Sentinels in Bronze and Granite

Martin Millmore Soldier Monument

Millmore’s Roxbury Soldier

One of the nice surprises in the special issue of Common-place that I edited with Megan Kate Nelson is an essay that we had nothing to do with. Sarah Beetham’s “Object Lesson” on Civil War monuments and cemeteries is a wonderful introduction to the subject that was submitted independently from those that we commissioned. It fits perfectly into the issue given our overall theme. She begins with a description of Martin Millmore’s Roxbury Solider Monument in Forrest Hills Cemetery, which is five minutes from my house. It’s a beautiful place and one that I regularly visit. Millmore himself is buried close to the entrance. I am going to use it this week in class.

In a quiet glade amid the trees and lawns of Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery, a bronze soldier of the American Civil War stands on a low plinth clutching his rifle (fig. 1). His posture is reminiscent of parade rest, a pose often assumed by soldiers on ceremonial occasions, but he gazes downward and to his right with a wistful air (fig. 2). He wears the standard overcoat and forage cap issued to soldiers of the Union Army for winter service, and his finely modeled, unbearded face reflects the youth of the typical Civil War volunteer. The base of the statue declares that it was “Erected by the City of Roxbury in honor of Her Soldiers, who died for their Country in the Rebellion of 1861-1865.” Its grassy clearing is enclosed with a low stone fence inscribed with the names, units, and dates of death of the Civil War soldiers of the Boston suburb of Roxbury (fig. 3). Amid the rolling hills and screening vegetation of the cemetery, the stone fence demarcates a space for quiet reflection. Overall, the monument is part gravestone and part triumph, mourning the deaths of the young soldiers of Roxbury while honoring their valorous deeds in the successful Union war effort.

Read the rest of the essay.

@HistoryinPics Does It Better Than You

@historyinpics followersI first came across the controversy surrounding the highly successful @HistoryinPics Twitter account after reading Alex Madrigal at the Atlantic. What’s all the fuss? Two teenagers have leveraged a Twitter account based entirely on images from history to the tune of roughly $50,000. In a matter of a few months they’ve attracted over 1 million followers. In a guest post at the National Council of Public History’s blog, Jason Steinhauer weighs in on a host of issues that he finds problematic.  Unfortunately, Steinhauer pretty much misses the mark.

They spot trends on social media, exploit them to gain massive followings, then monetize the traffic. It’s a business model, not an attempt at serious research.

And therein lies the discomfort: while museums, archives, and libraries worldwide are starved for funding, fighting for relevancy, and arguing daily for the value of serious historical research, two teenagers come along, grab a bunch of old images without permission, throw them up online without context, and suddenly they are social media superstars. Is that “right”? Does that contribute to the public good? Are we jealous?

The last question may be a bit jarring, but I believe we may feel a tinge of jealousy—and I write that knowing it causes me discomfort to think so. When any of us—academic and public historians alike—posts to social media, we want followers to click, or “engage.” We want people to interact with our collections and ideas, to learn, and to be excited. Why else would we post? Public history organizations have invested resources and commissioned studies in order to attain the level of engagement these teenagers reached in two months. The duo have cracked the code—but cheated in the process, by relying on other people’s work and embellishing it for effect. While we detest their methods, it’s permissible to admit we would accept their results if they were achieved differently.

It’s hard not to see the academic elitism in this comment, but just below is a naivete about how social media works. There is a sense of entitlement at work here and a defensiveness surrounding who has the right to share history on the Internet. I commend Steinhauer’s emphasis on wanting to encourage learning and meaningful online interaction, but that has absolutely no value until you are able to sell it. No, “Playing for the click on social media is not a sin”; in fact, it is the only thing that matters. If you use social media to build an audience or highlight a product than you are engaged in marketing. Some institutions and individuals happen to be better at it than others, but ultimately the click is what matters. Continue reading

“My Great-Great Grandfather Didn’t Own Slaves” (So What)

I’ve said it before, but I don’t mind repeating that no one has taught me more about the challenges of interpreting the Civil War at America’s battlefields than John Hennessy. John’s contribution to Common-place explores some of the more recent sticking points that have arisen as a result of shifts in battlefield interpretation away from the original intention behind the creation of or national battlefield parks. National Park Service historians have fully embraced an expansive interpretation of the events that transpired on their landscapes that go beyond the experience of the soldiers without any reference to causes and consequences. Continue reading

Common-place Marks the Civil War 150 with Special Issue

I couldn’t be more excited to share Common-place’s latest issue on the Civil War sesquicentennial that I had the pleasure to edit with Megan Kate Nelson. We are confident that each of you will find something of interest in this issue. The essays cover a wide range of topics and will hopefully both enlighten and entertain. Special thanks to all the contributors to this issue. We had the pleasure to work with an incredibly talented group of historians and educators, who were both committed to producing their best work and patient with our suggestions and numerous emails. Thanks also to the wonderful editorial staff at Common-place, especially Paul Erickson and Trudy Powers. Continue reading