I liked Nancy Proctor’s characterization of museums like the Smithsonian as “social networks.” I think that this was originally an important function of museums which unfortunately has been lost as exhibits have stopped encouraging museum-goers to tour in “herds” and instead have adjusted to focus on individual engagement. That is one aspect of the current museum culture (and indeed modern culture overall) that I don’t think mobile devices are going to solve; they seem to continue to promote individual isolation rather than interaction, although perhaps apps like Foursquare, etc. will change that.

Proctor’s advice that “profit should not be the imperative” in adapting mobile technology for museums was right-on. Since it has been shown that most apps do not generate even enough to cover developing costs, using mobile apps in museums (which already do not generate sufficient income) must be done purely out of good will towards the endeavors of education and visitor experience. Hopefully, as Proctor notes, the end of this will eventually be worth the means as visitors leave the museum “happier” and more willing to contribute financially to the institution.

The advantages to using mobile devices in museums and other public history projects are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, they allow visitors to control their own museum experience; they can tour at their own pace, choosing to learn more about what truly interests them rather than becoming bored with what does not. In this manner, mobile devices are an optimal format for other public history projects, and particularly useful for projects like my own, which is a walking tour. Walking tour participants can obtain all of the information they could possibly want using a mobile device rather than paper brochures or interpretive signs, because the mobile format can provide easy access to further information and research–an advantage that these other two formats lack. However, I am pessimistic about the value of using mobile devices in other venues such as college classes. While visitors to museums, etc. are generally voluntary visitors, students sitting in class do not always want to be there, so mobile devices more often than not provide an easy distraction rather than an educational aid. I do not think that mobile “learning” overall has the potential to provide a better educational experience than a talented teacher or professor…but perhaps that is just the Luddite in me speaking.

Our Overprotected Bureaucracy

The Main Point (MP) that I gathered from This Week’s Reading (TWR) is how hopeless any attempt at historic/environmental/cultural preservation seems amid all of the red tape restricting such attempts. There are so many loopholes that federal agencies and private businesses can use to get out of being held to whatever wishy-washy standards the “light green laws” encourage that it seems like it would be almost impossible to win a case for preservation if you did not have a significant amount of money, time, and connections to help you out. (Even the Rosas, who must have had a fair amount of these resources to be able to take their fight as far as they did, gave up in the end.)

That being said, I wonder if there were no positive examples of cases that have been won by average citizens, or examples where federal agencies have acted admirably, that King could have illustrated. Like Luke, he used only negative examples, so I was left with an overwhelmingly pessimistic feeling by the end of the book. Thus, King’s suggestions in the last chapter for resolving the problem struck me as vague and fruitless. Sure, it would be great for Obama to be able to tell all federal agencies to “clean up their acts” and see instant compliance. However, the reality is that this would involve even more bureaucracy with the appointment of task forces to analyze cases further and “monitor performance,” more training for agencies, etc. I wish that King had left us with an example of a reason to hope, or at least with a more tangible way to challenge the system.

History: For the People…By the People?

After grading 85 essays over Spring Break about the issue of bias in representations of slavery, it was all I could do to read more about it. However, as the article on the “Founding Fathers” class illustrates, this is such a relevant issue today with the rise of the Tea Party, etc. that it is hard to escape.

The “They Have Blood on Their Hands” post would have received a B from me for some unnecessarily inflammatory editorializing, but it did raise an important point about how the “pro-South” advocates make slavery out to be a minor issue when discussing the Civil War and its memory. My students were assigned to read a web page run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in order to write their essays, and I was surprised that many of them did not seem to question the source’s bias at all (to re-emphasize last week’s point about how easy “lying about the past” is, especially on the web). I agree with LauriAnn that peer review is crucial to the accuracy of the text and integrity of the author. However, when the general public does not place a high value on the integrity of the source (it was a professor who discovered the error in the textbook), it is hard to see how more peer review will solve the greater issue at hand.

Another obstacle to promoting general historical literacy is the lack of resources that those with scholarly integrity are equipped with to pursue this goal. One of the comments to the Munchausen blog post noted that museum interpreters are often volunteers, and historic sites can not always afford to hire experts in the field. The power of public history is that it puts historical interpretation into the hands of the public; this can be either an asset or a detriment to the study of history.

But why is the rum gone?

I have to admit that I wasn’t all that surprised by the Last American Pirate hoax. Maybe it’s because I sensed something was fishy by the overly exuberant blog entries, but the existence of such a fascinating topic (previously undiscovered by the plethora of Virginia historians, at that!) seemed suspect from the beginning. Maybe I am just cynical. Nevertheless, it was a good example of how easy it is to lie about the past.

Another thing that the blog made me doubt was the value of blogs detailing an academic research project. I knew several people in college who kept blogs about their undergraduate theses, but any interest I may have had in these blogs was merely because they were authored by my friends. I feel like, for historians in particular, people are already uninterested enough in the final product of your research (the book or article, etc.), so why would anyone want to read your narcissistic (and probably boring) account of how you conducted that research?

Reading Recommendations

I am not quite sure if we are supposed to post links regarding public history, historic preservation, or history in general, so here is an odd selection of history-related links that I have found interesting lately (or for a while):

1) Preservation Nation’s Places That Matter

–> This is not really a reading, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation website has a map where you can plug in your location and find local preservation projects that are ongoing or in need of being started. A drawback is that even though you may plug in a specific zip code, the lists seem to be clustered around more general geographic areas, so you have to really search to find city-specific projects. (Here is one I found for Boise:

2) “A Summary View”: Blog of the Jefferson Library

–> I will admit that I am a bit obsessed with Thomas Jefferson (I may or may not have an historical crush on him…) so I find this blog administered by Monticello’s Jefferson Library interesting. The contributors do things such as comment on current Jefferson-related topics of interest and debunk the rampantly circulating myths about our third president ( Monticello of course has vast resources to be able to support all types of projects, but I think that a blog is a great idea that other historical associations could adopt to add to their current projects and increase their publicity.

3) “Times to Remember, Places to Forget” by Daniel Gilbert of the NewYork Times

–> Finally, here is a short article that I love which reminds me why I care about remembering history and preserving places. It laments the rise of the shopping mall and simultaneous demise of unique localities in classic “grumpy-old-woman” fashion, of which I find myself increasingly supportive.

Prayerful Preservation

This week’s reading on the details of preservation was informative and thought provoking. I find that I have not yet completely worked out my own preservation philosophy, however. I am still debating controversial questions such as which buildings are worthy of preservation and how the preservation of those buildings should be funded.

On that note, the book’s discussion of the debate behind preservation of churches and other religious buildings particularly intrigued me. I like to think of myself as a strong First Amendment supporter, so at first something about the thought of taxpayer money supporting the upkeep/conservation/restoration/reconstruction/preservation/whatever of a building used for a specifically religious purpose made me uncomfortable. However, I firmly believe in the historical integrity and significance of many of these types of buildings, so my inner preservationist wanted to cast those misgivings aside. (Not to mention that the architecture of churches like the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston is just awesome!) I still don’t know how I feel about the St. Bartholomew’s case (which “established that religious organizations are subject to historic preservation ordinances of local government, and that such regulations are not a violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state” [130]). By the end of the book, however, I became more convinced of the legal legitimacy of preserving religious buildings, as they seem to comply with several of the “eight points” of the “historic context framework” discussed in chapter 5 (namely the first three: “peopling places,” “creating social institutions and movements,” and “expressing cultural values”). American history is bursting with religious themes, and the preservation of sites with historic religious integrity must certainly be justified; it only must be done so cautiously.

Progress vs. Preservation

I enjoyed reading about the history of preservation this week. As many people who have already posted have mentioned, the details of different architectural styles have always eluded me (and will probably continue to do so despite Tyler’s valiant efforts at making me more architecturally literate). Thus far, though, the book has focused on preservation of buildings. I would like to know more about views and approaches towards preservation of historic sites that do not include buildings.

The infamous “Wilderness Wal-Mart” is a situation that I have been following for the last few years, since Wal-Mart proposed to build a supercenter on or next to the Wilderness (Civil War) Battlefield in Virginia. The corporation was granted permission to build (albeit with certain restrictions) back in the summer of 2009, but the battle by preservationists raged on, and Wal-Mart finally renounced its plans just a few months ago. (See

This twenty-first century battle over a nineteenth-century battle brings up issues that were mentioned in the book regarding what should be preserved and to what extent. (Somehow I don’t think that Wal-Mart would apply a Contextualist approach to its building plans.) Space is often scarce in cities, and thus some historic buildings must be renovated to accommodate modern functions; likewise, land is becoming a precious commodity in our increasingly urbanized and suburbanized nation–even if it has historical significance.  Preservationists can ask, “Do we really need another Wal-Mart?” But on the other hand, proponents of commercial “progress” can question–probably with reason, though I am loath to admit it–just how much of an expansive battlefield really needs to be used to exhibit its historical significance. Is land equally as worthy of preservation as buildings?

(Here is an interesting article about the “development versus preservation” debate. Apparently it is going on at other battlefields and historic sites as well:

Luke Loves Museums?

For things he deems so important to contemporary American culture, Luke certainly doesn’t seem to find many strong points in the museums he cites as examples in this book. I have no trouble agreeing with his basic premises of the book that he reinforces in his conclusion–essentially, that museums are educational (and re-educational) tools that depict biased or politically influenced narratives of history, culture, etc. I do, however, have some issues with the hyperbolic criticisms that he inflicts on the museums he has chosen to examine.

I do not believe that the purpose of the Holocaust Museum, as Luke defines it, is to stand “forthrightly against all of the far-right or neofascist attempts to deny that the Holocaust even happened.” I think the museum’s purpose is simply to educate the public regarding the facts of what happened, and I don’t think there are truly enough Holocaust deniers in the world to warrant that statement. I also do not agree that the museum is too entertaining; it is shockingly compelling, but not over the top in its efforts to inform. Luke’s criticism of the images displayed there as being too horrific and shown too often so as to make them taken for granted contrasts with his previous criticism of the detractors of the Enola Gay/American West exhibits who wanted the exhibits to be overly politically correct. Luke neglects to suggest what type of balance he believes should be instated for museums exhibiting controversial subjects such as these.

On the other hand, his depictions of how the Museum of Natural History and the Missouri Botanical Garden define discourse and cultural realities seems quite exaggerated. I have no doubt that, upon its establishment, the Museum of Natural History provided an unprecedented and influential glimpse into “the disorder of beings, ordinarily known as ‘life.'” (Make it stop!) However, his implication that “people probably learn much more about art, culture, history, nature, and science from museums” than they do elsewhere is entirely unfounded.

Finally, I found it hard to understand why Luke seemed to be able to accept the Missouri Botanical Garden’s “florapower” narrative while rejecting that of the Sonora Desert Museum. Surely the Botanical Garden must not be completely accurate in its representations either. However, since it seems that Foucault would have absolutely loved the Missouri Botanical Garden, I guess his self-appointed apotheosizer is obligated to do so as well.

“Imagining” Museum (de)Politicomentalitification-ness

This book/work/project/treatise by Luke so enriched my “thinking process” regarding the importance of “museums” to culture–and, indeed, “culture” to museums. While (perhaps) the most practical use I obtained from the selected chapters was the implication that (we as) public historians should not write in Luke’s “style” if we wish our work to appeal to a broad/public demographic/audience-ness, the book does make some important points amidst all of its Andersonian jargon.

I must admit that I have never given much thought to the symbiotic relationship between culture and museums, despite my enthusiastic belief in the importance of museums. This book was valuable to me because Luke articulates (if you can call it that) exactly why they are important and how our cultural and political identities are formed by our museum experiences–and vice versa.

It seems like an impossible task to reconcile what museums feel they need to impart with the differing political views and agendas of the public. I can’t help but think that museums should attempt to remain as neutral as possible in their portrayals of the past. Though it is noble to want to foster an aura of intellectualism among museum-goers (“But I want them to think!” the Smithsonian curator implied during the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit), a simple, balanced presentation may in fact do that better than any number of controversial interpretations which just serve to “induce rage,” as Luke states.

Like it or not, the existence of museums depends on their patrons, and thus they must cater to what the public wants (such as commodified Native American material culture), or doesn’t want (such as reminders of their country’s historical imperfections). As Luke notes, the artifacts themselves are “cenotaphs” of the past; the only way to avoid conflict is to allow the public to interpret the contents themselves. Blatantly advocating certain interpretations of the past–no matter how accurate they may be–seems only to endanger museum attendance (and tax dollars). In the end–though perhaps I am being naive–the public is more likely to be inspired to learn and think critically about an exhibit if the information is presented impartially. Is it possible to create a completely impartial exhibit? Perhaps the cyborgs of the future will be able to do a better job of it than human curators…

Technology and the Historian’s Function

I was fascinated by the Spatial History Project’s website that was assigned for our exploration this week. I suppose it was only a matter of time before technology was joined with landscape studies to reconstruct cultural landscapes of the past. My one hesitation about this new field, however, stems from an uncertainty about how exactly “spatial” history differs from other fields. The endeavor of Richard White to technologically trace how railroads affected the landscape of the American West is enthralling and pedagogically valuable, but is it not just environmental history studied with the aid of technology? Why create a new term to monopolize a method of study that could be applied by all fields?

I also found it interesting how modern technology is changing the role of the historian. Presenting historical data through visual charts and graphs (such as Don Hawkins’ “digital renderings” of D.C.), with little to no written interpretation accompanying it, leaves the intended audience of the project to interpret the data on their own. This seems to be minimizing the historian’s function while granting more agency to the public audience. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it makes history more accessible and relevant to the general public, and will allow them to become more intellectually involved with subjects they might find inaccessible and irrelevant if only presented through a textbook. However, this inevitably brings up the issue of how to maintain historical validity in information interpreted by an untrained public. Is historical interpretation a science—like the practice of medicine—that should be done by trained professionals only? Or is it an art that everyone should have the chance to experiment with?