Category Archives: Public History

Should Fredericksburg Lecture Orange County on Historic Preservation?

No surprise that The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg decided to comment on this past weeks decision in Orange County to allow Walmart to build just off of the Wilderness Battlefield.  The editorial comes down hard on both the four Orange County supervisors who voted in favor of Walmart as well as Walmart’s business practices.  The editor accuses the supervisors of engaging in “ornery provincialism against the forces of decent compromise” and characterizes Walmart as motivated by an “insatiable hunger for world retail conquest” as well as other corrupt business practices.

What I fail to see is how such an editorial is even possible given the reality of commercial development and urban sprawl that can be found all along Rt. 3, outside Fredericksburg. Does Fredericksburg really have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to developing historically significant ground?  More importantly, what I would like to know is how many of those large outlets on Rt. 3 contain commercial chains whose business practices rival or even outpace those of Walmart’s.   It seems to me that the values that led to the decision of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to grant Walmart its petition are the very same that can be found along Rt. 3 in Fredericksburg.  In fact, one could easily argue that it is the people of Fredericksburg who paved the way for Walmart.

A Civil War Museum of Facts and Not Beliefs

24804848EAre you tired of the continued attack on American culture by liberal academic and public historians who present history in a way that conflicts with your cherished notions of the Civil War and Southern history?  Well, head on down to Jacksonville, Florida to the Museum of Southern History.  Although it claims to be a museum of Southern history, from the looks of the photographs there is nothing on display beyond the Civil War years.  What you will find, however, are exhibits that just present the facts with no accompanying interpretation.  Incoming board president, Ben Willingham, put it this way: “We’ve been fed political correctness[.]  We’ve dumbed down society. It’s all in the Congressional Record. The facts are there. It’s not about beliefs.”  Although it is not attributed to Willingham, it looks like he also suggested:  “The men said the Civil War was about money, not slavery, and that African-Americans owned slaves. The first slave owner was a black man in Virginia.”

Well, I am pleased to see that some of the most important questions within the fields of Civil War and Southern history have been put to rest.  Given that the Sons of Confederate Veterans hold their meetings in the museum, I have no doubt that other important questions will also be answered.

By the way, is that a little black Confederate doll in the display case next to what appears to be a naked Confederate soldier?  What’s that about?

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Anne_FrankI do not consider myself to be a religious person.  Yes, I was raised in a reformed Jewish household, but following my Bar Mitzvah I made a conscious decision to forgo further religious education; this suited my parents just fine.  I didn’t particularly enjoy my Wednesday afternoon Hebrew classes; in fact, it would be more accurate to say that I loathed these sessions.  Like most kids at that age I was much more interested in sports and hanging out with friends on the beach or the arcades on the Atlantic City boardwalk.  I’ve stepped into a synagogue on a handful of occasions since my thirteenth birthday for the weddings of friends and family.  Still, the time spent in synagogue did instill a sense in me that I am a Jew, despite the fact that I do not practice any formal aspect of the religion.   This self-identification was instilled, in part, through a heavy emphasis on the history of antisemitism and profound suffering as well as the redemptive power of good deeds and the hope of better times for Jews around the world.  It should come as no surprise than that I learned quite a bit about the Holocaust.  We discussed the relevant history as well as the nature of evil and the moral responsibility that was both embraced by all too few at the time as well as the countless numbers who turned a blind eye or who took part in the murder of 6 million Jews.  Looking back I see much more clearly just how close we were (growing up in the 1970s) to the event itself.  We had a number of Holocaust survivors in our congregation who spent time with us to talk about their experiences.  At about that time I learned that most of my family on my mother’s side was lost in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I first read Anne Frank’s diary at the age of 10 and than again in high school.  Like millions of children around the world who continue to read it, I was moved by her story and forced to measure my own struggles and fears against those faced in that tiny attic room at 263 Prinsengratz in Amsterdam.   To this day it is the Holocaust that serves to remind me of my Jewish identity, but it is Frank’s diary that will forever serve as the face of that tragic and sad time.

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Thomas Jefferson’s New Digs

MonticelloYesterday my wife and I spent a couple of hours at Monticello’s new visitor center, which opened only a few weeks ago. Those of you who have visited Monticello in the past know that the old facility was too far removed from the actual home and the structure itself was in serious need of repair. The new complex sits right below Jefferson’s home and is accessible either by bus or a short walk.  The structure itself is spread out and the various attractions are easily accessible from a very pretty and spacious courtyard.  This makes for easy access to the movie theater, bookstore, restaurant, and exhibits.  The layout is apparently designed to control the flood of visitors that travel to Monticello each year and it does so effectively judging by the size of the crowd.

After purchasing our tickets [$20 for adults - up from $15] we headed on over to the movie theater.  The film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” has a running time of roughly 20 minutes and attempts to give the viewer the big picture of Jefferson’s life and his love for Monticello.  The producers took full advantage of the beauty of Monticello and the surrounding landscapes, but the overall thrust of the film is on the theme of freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence and on his Bill for Establishing Freedom in the State of Virginia.  The movie gives a nod to slave life and a passing reference to Sally Hemmings, but the bigger problem is the absence of Jefferson, the man.  The final few moments are devoted to the legacy of Jefferson’s vision of freedom, which includes images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela, and, most recently, the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but one wonders whether the time could have been better spent exploring Jefferson’s life as opposed to a legacy that he, arguably, could not have interpreted or even approved.

MonticelloFrom there we headed over to the new exhibit rooms.  I’ve been looking forward to this for some time since I had a hand in the early development of the interactive exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.”  I had wonderful time sketching out ideas for an exhibit that would allow visitors to explore the complexity and implications of Jefferson’s ideas.  Such an exhibit is absolutely essential given our tendency to overlook the fact that the Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment who believed that the power of reason can be harnessed to improve society and government.  I worked with the staff at Monticello for close to a year and watched as our ideas took shape.  We consulted with historians and examined designs by a number of teams who worked to give us a visual image of the actual exhibit. If I could do it all over again I would major in public history and try to carve out a career in a museum or historic site of some kind.  Questions of how to present history to the general public fascinate me.

Upon walking into the exhibit room I immediately recognized the fruits of our labor.  It looked much like I imagined it when I last worked on the project.  It’s an incredibly attractive exhibit that utilizes various sized panels that cover different stages of Jefferson’s career as well as the major events that comprised his public career.  Smaller screens of different heights protrude from the background screens and allow the visitor to explore various aspects of Jefferson’s life.  Categories fall ["drip"] along a touch screen panel that the visitor can explore by touching.  So, for instance you can click on the Boston Tea Party for more information or a concept having to do with the struggle with Parliament.  The screen expands with images and additional text.  It’s incredibly user friendly, but I was a bit disappointed with the range of options available to the visitor.  Our original idea was to implement a web-style interface that would allow the visitor to click through to any number of screens.  For example, clicking on the concept of freedom might take you to John Locke or a panel on the Whig opposition in England, which in turn might take you to something else.  The exploration would be continuous.  Unfortunately, it looks like you are only given one click before having to choose another selection.  At the same time it is difficult to see how a visitor with little understanding of Jefferson and his world is able to piece together a coherent narrative from the screen options.  Yes, the screens along the wall do provide an overview of some of the most important events of Jefferson’s life, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and involves stepping back from the individual touch screens.  Overall, I think this exhibit has quite a bit going for it and I assume that aspects of it can be reprogrammed; perhaps they can tweak it as more visitors leave feedback.

MonticelloThere are additional exhibit halls, the first focuses primarily on the architecture of Monticello, while the second explores various aspects of life at Monticello as well as Jefferson’s travels.  Between the movie and the exhibit hall it is clear that the staff intended to make life at Monticello and the house itself the main focus.  There is nothing wrong with this, given that the home itself is as much an attraction as the man who built it, but this minimizes the amount of attention that can be given to Jefferson’s life and accomplishments.  Visitors will be hard pressed to find anything about Jefferson’s two terms as President of the United States.  Overall, while the exhibits are accessible and engage the visitor I couldn’t help but feel as if Jefferson himself had been lost.  If I were to make one recommendation it is the need for a video/exhibit that explores Jefferson’s public career in more detail, especially his presidency.

It is important to keep in mind that the center must both prepare visitors for their tour of the house and provide an overview of the man himself.  In short, time is of the essence.  Given that the movie is 20 minutes it is easy to imagine a family of four emerging and ready to take the short bus ride to the top of the mountain.  Ultimately, visitors wanting a more detailed overview of Jefferson will have to purchase a book from the gift shop.  Criticisms aside this is a very attractive and well thought out visitor center that is long overdue.  I couldn’t be more pleased to have played a small role in this project.

Monument to South Carolinians Unveiled on Spotsylvania Battlefield

_2MM1779.JPGThis weekend the Sons of Confederate Veterans from South Carolina unveiled a monument to McGowan’s brigade on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  The monument commemorates the fighting that took place at the “Bloody Angle” on May 12, 1864.  New monuments are barred from most battlefields, but the federal legislation creating the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 1927 permits states to continue to place markers on the field.  As of 4/12/09 there were two comments following the article:

1. The McGowan Brigade Monument is a fitting tribute honoring brave soldiers who died in a misguided attempt to subvert the Constitution and attack the United States of America. No one should misinterpret this monument as a tribute to the Confederacy.

2. Thank you for this well writen article. I enjoyed it very much. I realized how far from home our Confederate soldiers traveled in their attempt to preserve our Constitution in their 2nd War for Independence.