How Dark Should we Go to Promote Tourism?

When I heard the term “dark tourism” I assumed it was after-hour’s tours and ghost stories. Reading chronologically, I began with Numinous Objects and I thought, “Oh, relics.” From Privates to Presidents disabused me. Appreciating the respect shown by curators, seeing the value derived from collection, (DNA for example) and understanding the historic significance of collection, did not keep me from being mortified that any of it was put on public display or that contents are photographed for family members.

Shades of Dark Tourism showed me that, from an academic standpoint at least, there is a debate about “The curious connection between the sad and the bad and their touristic representations has generated academic and ethical debate about the ways in which leisure and pleasure are mixed with tragedy.”[1]

Swinging between the macabre and the academic, the remaining articles disturbed me so much that I struggled. Are we actually debating “shades of darkness?”  This is just another manifestation of our fascination with death and brutality. We watch Jihadi John behead victims, or the execution murder of Robert Godwin, Sr. in Cleveland or the brutalization of an impaired young man by four people in Chicago streamed live on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. We are fetishizing violence and making money, too. Are we learning about the penal system or penal reform, or just having fun getting our pictures taken inside open cells or in front of gallows? Yeah, you can do both, but that sounds like a rationalization.

10 Feb 2004, Cambodia --- A child looks at the piles of skulls, victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, displayed at a memorial to the victims at the Choeung Ek killing fields. --- Image by © Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis
10 Feb 2004, Cambodia — A child looks at the piles of skulls, victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, displayed at a memorial to the victims at the Choeung Ek killing fields. — Image by © Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

Yes, displaying artifacts for scientific or educational purposes can useful.  “Bodies: The Exhibition” was educational, but I could barely tolerate being in the presence of these specimens and was shocked to see the lack of respect shown by many attending the exhibition.

Auschwitz may remind us of past atrocities, Robben Island of the indomitability of the human spirit, or the Bastille of revolution, but many such sites only serve to celebrate humanities ability to humiliate, brutalize or dehumanize one another.  I saw the interest in dark tourism in opposition to sites like Mount Vernon or Monticello where history is sanitized; slaves are referred to as servants and slave quarters are not displayed because of what they represent. Apparently, that is now seen as a way to attract a new group of visitors. This is exploiting, not honoring the past.

[1] Carolyn Strange and Michael Kempa, “Shades of Dark Tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island,” Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 30, No. 2, (April 2002), 387

Stopping Bureaucratic Inertia

After reading the first and last chapters of Our Unprotected Environment by Thomas F. King, I moved on to the rest of the book. Tequila shots were a suitable addition to my study methods by the time I arrived at the Chapter Three section entitled “Bombing Boise.” The book was, ironically, a sobering read. In exposing the failure of our legislative and regulatory practices, and the resultant breakdown of the review process, King reveals agencies and regulations that are at odds with their intended purpose.  Catch-22’s Captain Yossarian would understand this world all too well. It would be beneficial to understand how an agency, and the regulations that govern it, evolved from being advocates of  protection to protagonists.  King’s examples also show us how officials use obfuscation and double-speak to wear down those trying to protect their heritage. Many eventually give up the fight, and their heritage in the process. In the end, unable to resolve his own conflicts, Yossarian, too, simply walked away.

B-25J Mitchell, 12th Air Force Over Italy, info(at)

In Chapter Eight, King puts forward Caldwell’s Prescription, Lynton K. Caldwell’s seven suggestions for fixing NEPA. King expands on those suggestions, applies them to NHPA, and finishes the chapter with his own suggestions for fixing the problems with how agencies address preservation and protection of our heritage and environment. While I appreciate his ideas, his Memo to President Obama seems quaint in the light of the current political environment.

Since Our Unprotected Environment was written during the presidency of George W. Bush and published at the beginning of Barack Obama’s term as president, I thought it might be useful explore King’s blog at and see whether there were improvements in the realm of either NEPA or NHPA.  I became even more depressed. Looking at various blog posts from the beginning of the Obama administration, through today showed me that despite a few hopeful signs, little has changed and some things appear to have gotten worse. Who would have thought?

Not unlike other professions, this field has its own world-view and jargon to ensure most people do not understand it.  Professionals believe the value of their work is self-evident, which it isn’t. This demonstrates a potentially fatal hubris. These doyens are now viewed with suspicion and disdain by much of the public. Heritage professionals need to do a better job of forcefully communicating how both environmental protection and historic preservation benefit us all.

After posting my blog I noticed that I had forgotten to comment on Glenn C. Sutter’s book review of The future of heritage as climates change: loss, adaptation and creativity, edited by David C. Harvey and Jim Perry. I hate to see statements such as ” heritage work needs to be less about preservation, stability and perpetuity, and more about embracing loss and finding creative and empowering ways to adapt.” I understand the thought process that goes into such proposals, but for developers and others, this will lead many to suggest that “[1] experts in the field” agree that we can’t preserve our heritage and instead we should capture it with photos and videos and call it good.

King describes himself as a “cock-eyed optimist” and for that I am grateful, I’m not sure I could have handled the book otherwise.  Well, the tequila’s gone and I am eyeing a bottle of vanilla extract.

Vanilla beans - Hawaiian Vanilla Company

[1]  Glenn C. Sutter (2015) The future of heritage as climates change: loss, adaptation and creativity, Museum Management and Curatorship, 30:4, 359-361, DOI: 10.1080/09647775.2015.1065569

Fear and Loathing – You mean I have to do this, too?

In Digital Humanities Advancement Grants each application I reviewed added Statement of Innovation and a Statement of Humanities Significance paragraphs between the Abstract and Narrative sections of the application. I found no requirement for them, but they are useful. For this grants in this category it was the only difference I found. They were bereft of jargon, but still sufficiently technical to make reading tough. The “A unified approach to preserving cultural software and their development histories” struck me as a great idea but left me wondering how they were going to create a digital method for “winnowing” material prior to archiving it, digitally, isn’t that where the problem begins. On the other hand, “Image Analysis for Archival Discovery” seemed an intriguing idea which would be very useful for a very narrow field of study, poetry in pre-digital publications. I hope they might figure out how to create and then expand their product’s utility.

As a historian, “Networks in History: Data-driven tools for analyzing relationships across time” a Level 3 grant application was the most exciting proposal I reviewed. It was both jargon free and technically oriented, but not as dry as the two previous readings, which were for Level 1 grants. I wanted to know more and found it at .  The nearly $300K grant helped them create Palladio.  Having a tool for analyzing correspondence, authors, recipients across both time AND space is amazing and I hope I have a reason to use it someday and that it can become more comprehensive.

Panorama collage by Michele Graffieti
Panorama collage by Michele Graffieti – Screen grab from Palladio Website

Digital Projects for the Public narratives were much different and also much easier to read. “Exploring the Four Elements: Toward a Digital Environmental History of the Americas” was a Discovery Grant with a very simple concept. I thought more of the preliminary work should have been done before applying for the grant. Also, by the second proposed project meeting they were going to have their first display completed to show meeting attendees. It seemed like a grant application looking for application-sake.

I was a little more excited by the second Discovery Grant application I read, “Participatory Media.” Another simple idea and one whose value was readily apparent from the application. Their goal of centralizing all of this material for accessibility left me feeling like a voyeur raiding someone’s closet to find their home videos, photos and correspondence. I feel equating this to the Depression-era photography and interview collections is a bit of an overreach, I do think it is a valuable project.

“Walden, A Game,”  a Production Grant, is the most ambitious project reviewed. It is potentially a game-changer, pardon the pun, for historians and others who wish to introduce specific historical events to a broader audience. Having received grants from both NEH and NEA indicates that some feel this is an area worth exploring. Further research led me to a review at this site:

As others have noted, both programs require application narratives that are broad and specific, a tough combo. It has also been mentioned, both programs will fund everything from Discovery to Implementation. The published guidelines are a strength for both, as is the variety of research each will consider.

Is it Performance Anxiety or are you trying to find a job as a Historian?

In reviewing all of the materials presented for this week I felt compelled to quote President George W. Bush’s comments following the inaugural speech of the current occupant of the White House, “That was some weird shit.” (Please excuse the profanity.)

I hate to throw that quote in, but it kind of captures my thoughts after exploring all of the links and articles. I had no idea just how many options and opportunities there are for historians. Granted, both Tyler Rudd Putman’s article Crafting a New Historian on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the AHA story Historians as Consultants and Contractors point out all of the obstacles and challenges which await newly minted historians. In this vein, the comments by former National Council of Public History President Robert Weyeneth, found on their web site, are probably the most disheartening. The abbreviated summary goes like this, “There are now too many public history programs,…producing record numbers of new MAs, …who can’t find jobs,…in part because they are poorly trained…[or because]…the stodgy curricula haven’t kept up with the realities of the twenty-first-century economy and the digital revolution.” (

Continuing my exploration I was startled by a comment Bob Beatty in his blog about, What employers seek in public history graduates Part 1, “One reason I pulled this session together is that more than anything, I don’t believe it’s the job of history departments to train museum professionals.” Why am I here then? He goes on to make a case that universities should focus on training historians and museums and professional organizations can train history graduates with the “technical skills of museum work.”

Part 2 of What employers seek in public history graduates, written by Scott Stroh provides a list of concrete skills that are useful for history professionals, which I won’t repeat here. In the paragraph that follows that list, he shares what he looks for when he hires someone. It should come as no surprise that virtually every employer looks for the same qualities in their new employees. I can’t say I was impressed by this particular exchange.Deer in the Headlight

All of this left me with both rose-colored glasses and the “deer in the headlights” look. I have over fifty years of experience looking for jobs and I am generally optimistic that I will find something “worth” doing in the field of history.


I’ll end with a fun link I discovered while exploring. It gives me hope that history and historians may not be too dry:

Seems That White Male Privilege Is Alive And Well

I began this blog by thinking of reenactors as people unable to cope with modern-day realities. Then I have an “aha!” moment where I came to see reenactors in the context of those who believe that old buildings are better and more important than new buildings. For me, saving old buildings of historical significance makes sense, but not reenacting. Why? I’m dodging the answer for lack of space, but it is worth exploring.

Reenactors seem to long for a world where their white-male privilege remains intact and where they can equate themselves to people they believe are tougher and untainted by modernity. Kowalczyk and Historiann reinforce this idea when they say reenacting is, “more widespread among white men…Romanticizing the past is a White thing.” While Kowalczyk’s Old Hickory and Captain Titus may be the most extreme examples, they are separated from most reenactors only by degrees.  In the few examples given of women participating, their roles seem to reinforce this image of white-male dominance.

Civil War Reenactments -- Anderson Scott's Photos In 'Whistling Dixie'
Anderson Scott’s Photos of Civil War Reenactments from ‘Whistling Dixie’

Dominant white-males appear to be central to Levin’s article about the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The article also highlights the ambivalence to these re-enactments as fewer reenactors and spectators seem to indicate a backlash against this view of history. Levin notes this may be true, if for no other reason than, “What we do know is that the SCV has done everything in its power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people.” It seems clear that these folks want a whitewashed history so as to maintain their sense of superiority and purity. Dillon Ruth is a reflection of their problem.

I was both disturbed and encouraged by the efforts to make Wikipedia more accurate. The efforts to curate articles were encouraging, but the weighting of articles seems to slow down updating articles with the latest scholarship, as noted in Messer-Kruse’s piece. However, I do feel that Famiglietti made a good case for the current system, which constantly reviews ways to improve. The lack of diversity among content and content-authors is depressing. In this community, I thought there would be more acceptance of women and female-centered content. It would be interesting to know, is this a gender issue or is minority-related content and minority generate content also under-represented? If yes, all of us have work to do.

Part II is Worth Reading

As I noted in my previous posts regarding Historic Preservation, I do have some concerns with the broadening definitions of what historically important and about what constitutes “taking.” However, I do not intend to rehash my concerns here. I found the second half of Historic Preservation to be full of useful content on the legal and technical aspects of historic preservation. I appreciated the information about conservation and the four types of intervention, (preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation) and found the text to be an illuminating and thorough-going treatment of these subjects. Conservators in the field have done remarkable research and provided guidelines and solutions for each type of intervention. The Secretary of the Interior standards frequently referred to in the text appeared to be pretty thorough and reviewing the standards on the National Park Service website confirmed that fact.

While I have little interest in being a conservator, I was intrigued by

Sanbron Fire Insurance Map, District of Columbia
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, District of Columbia (1888)

all that was contained in the “Research and Documentation of Historic Properties” section of Historic Preservation.  I love the description, “Researching historic properties is both a craft and art. The craft is in piecing together information on a property from disparate sources; the art is in its interpretation.”[1] I believe that researching the history of a building or district sounds fascinating.

In exploring the National Park Service website I decided to look at two obscure Civil War-era battles, the Bear Creek Massacre in Franklin County, Idaho and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia.  The first was listed by the Civil War Advisory Commission as a site worthy of protection in 1990. Beyond some limited use of the site for interpretation by Shoshone tribal members and a wayside signs, little has been done beyond at the site.  That is why I found the Update to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields, Far Western Battlefields: States of Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico of particular interest. The “Update”, published in 2010, provided a lot of information about what has or has not been done relative to the site, as well as what steps need to be taken to further protect the site.

Ball’s Bluff a relatively well-developed park, but is a little less impressive with regard to NPS provided information. The only readily available NPS document was a one page report by the Civil War Sites Advisory Committee. This dearth of information is offset by a wealth of information provided by other sources, in particular NOVA Parks, an inter-jurisdictional organization in Northern Virgina.

[1] Norman Tyler, Ted J. Ligibel and Ilene R. Tyler, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 202.

At What Cost?

On the back cover of Historic Preservation, the authors’ state, “It is an ideal introduction to the field [preservation] for students, historians, preservationists, property owners, local officials, and community leaders.” I agree, I found it a thorough introduction which answered many questions, often ones I didn’t know I had. I was interested to read how various groups, communities and governmental bodies created and used all manner of laws to achieve their goals. While I am not sure preservation is the area I want to work in, I will keep this book as a reference, just in case.

Production still from Pixar movie, “Up!”

While I generally applaud preservationists’ efforts, and love much of what has been preserved, I am concerned about the increasingly broad definitions of what is historically important. The broader definition, the less historically important the project seems.  In particular, I found that “Heritage Areas” and “Heritage Corridors” stretched credulity.  To paraphrase the authors, are Heritage Areas now preferable to National Parks or National Monuments? I have to ask if economic factors are driving this movement. By this I mean that tourism, tourism-related development and the ability to retain more local control on the appearance, function and activities seem to provide self-interested, economic motivation for applying for this status. I think developing coalitions is useful and I would not want to discourage such efforts, but many of these projects seem questionable.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Manhattan

From a legal perspective, I think of St. Bartholomew Church in New York is an example of another problem.  In disallowing their proposal to build a commercial tower as a way to generate income, the courts ruled that since the church was still able to function as a church and it could still perform its various missions if it sold off some of its stock portfolio, this was not a “taking.” The property owner was not trying to destroy this historic building but they are not given any latitude on how to raise funds and instead are forced to expend resources against their will. Must they maintain this historic property until their resources are gone? Once the parish has emptied their bank account, does it become the responsibility of the Episcopal Diocese of New York to maintain the property? I note this because I am aware of historic churches from various faith communities facing similar demands. What recourse do they have?

Against the Grain

I will preface my comments by saying that I recently had an argument with a family member that may be coloring my perspective of this material. In reading these articles I found myself wanting to go against the grain, to question some of the assumptions I think are being made. In particular the ones surrounding Black Lives Matter. I accept the premise that the issue isn’t one only for African American Museums and African Americans to address. I also accept the premise that museums should challenge the status quo. Having said that I need to ask, “Are the limits to museum’s responsibilities?” Should all museums spend time looking for ways to address issues of race, or other discriminated groups such as LBGT? If I go the Historic Roseberry Museum in Donnelly, Idaho, should I expect something on Black Lives Matter? Should there be exhibits at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West about sexual identity and gender-related issues? My point is that not all museums have materials with which to connect to current events and, outside of major metropolitan areas, most museums don’t have a clientele interested in these topics. Should they be presented anyway?Grinch image


Of the articles I read, the LaBlond article resonated with me the most. Museum Island has amazing collections and to have refugees from the origin sites of some of their collection provides a perspective that would be informative and amazing. For those from the worn torn regions, this is clearly a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with their heritage. As Kefah Ali Deeb notes in the UNHCR video, there is also an opportunity to see a community that was rebuilt after an all-out war destroyed it.  If the guides make that connection for museum visitors it could indeed give them hope for the future of their own countries. As an American, I would love to have an English-language tour of the museums with the same presenters. That would give me an opportunity to connect with their homelands and their heritage in a way that would be unique and very meaningful.

In closing, I want to ask the question I posed at the beginning, “What are the limits to museum’s responsibilities?” As a follow up to that question, who is responsible for determining those limits? Curators? Directors? Donors? Visitors?

Let’s Talk, A Conversation with Troy Reeves, Head, UW-Madison Oral History Program

Photo – Zoom, Model H4n Digital Voice Recorder

I originally met Mr. Reeves through an oral history class taught at the Nampa Public Library in February 2016, courtesy of the Idaho Humanities Council. The two-hour class introduced us to the work of an oral historian and was a wonderful starting point for those interested in oral history either as a hobby or a profession.

To begin it is worth noting some of Mr. Reeves’ bona fides. The following information is drawn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison staff directory. Mr. Reeves manages collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history in both Wisconsin and Idaho. He is responsible for twenty oral history projects in both states covering such topics as cultural, political, and environmental history. He has been published in such journals as the Western Historical Quarterly, the Public Historian and the Oral History Review. He is also the managing editor of the Oral History Review overseeing day-to-day operations, including its social media initiative. He also works with the editorial team to add multimedia (both audio and audio/visual) content into the journal’s articles.  Finally, Reeves has held various leadership roles in the national Oral History Association.

Mr. Reeves near twenty-year career began with a part-time, six-month project for the City of Boise in 1997. From 1999 until 2007 he served as Idaho State Oral Historian, Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). He left that position to become the head of the oral history program at the General Library System at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which encompasses forty libraries on campus.

Mr. Reeves’ educational path typifies oral historians. He received a Bachelor of Arts, History from Idaho State University and a Masters of Arts, History from Utah State University.  In both programs he selected projects that allowed him to do oral interviews in conjunction with other research he was conducting. Reeves stated that the few full-time jobs in oral history require at least a master’s degree, typically in history, folklore, library sciences, or journalism. Recently Columbia University began offering an Oral History Master of Arts.

Interpersonal skills are of paramount importance, being a good if not a great listener. He quoted a friend, Sarah White, who says, “Being a good listener requires not only the ear, but the brain and sometimes the heart.” Being a good researcher is essential so you know the person or people you are interviewing and the topic being discussed. Finally, perseverance is vital. People will back out of interviews leaving you stranded. Finding funds for different projects is frustrating. Knowing you have a good idea and the interest in the topic is not enough, it takes perseverance to get the project done.

When asked about salary, Mr. Reeves chuckled and said, “In the humanities there is never a poverty of ideas, only a poverty of everything else.”  As the State Historian for the Idaho State Historical Society his starting wage was $13.50.  No oral historian positions were found on National Council of Public History jobs board, however other entry level jobs on the site started at $15-$19.

“Oral history is what I do and who I am,” said Reeves.  His position is funded by the library to promote oral history on the campus, especially focusing on capturing the history of the university. His projects fall into two “buckets,” campus life stories and project or topic-based oral histories.  As an example of the first he cited a recent interview conducted with a wildlife biologist who talked about his work and the history of the university over the last nearly forty years. Reeves would like to do more such interviews, but as a one-person operation he typically can only do a few each year.

Front page of Wisconsin State Journal Oct 67 Riots
In 1967, University of Wisconsin students and police clashed when an anti-war protest – Pinterest

A project or topic-based project can be found in the interviews he is conducting around the 2011 protests which occurred at the state capital and on campus regarding changes Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature were trying to implement. Since summer of 2011 he has been interviewing graduate students and some faculty and staff who were deeply involved in those protests. Another hot period for protests on campus occurred between October 1967, when there was an anti-war riot on campus, and August 1970 when there was a bombing on campus. These interviews continue with people who were actually on campus at that time.

Mr. Reeves also does off-campus work for the Wisconsin State Historical Society. He does training and workshops for them around Wisconsin, at their annual meeting and out of state such as the one in Nampa. He also works with different people who aren’t paid historians but who do oral history work ancillary to their jobs. Finally, he works closely with the full-time oral historian archivist at the vets’ museum. All of this exemplifies the campus ethos to get outside of campus and help others.

“Oral History Now and Tomorrow” was the topic of a panel discussion at the 50th Anniversary conference of the Oral History Association. Some current issues are:

  • Now that you can put digital audio online, should you? What are the ethics of doing so?
  • In an organization that prides itself on being egalitarian, who gets left out when there is a focus on degrees and professional development?
  • Oral history in crisis or contemporary settings, when is it okay to start doing oral histories?
  • Are there differences in the way a feminist may conduct an oral history project as opposed to someone not imbued with feminist history or feminist studies.

The oral historian techniques and methodologies should be in every historians’ toolkit.  Hearing and not just reading the words of those who witness history provides a bonus of information that may be otherwise missed by any student of history.

Tell the Whole Story

In watching many of the iconic events of the civil rights era on television; James Meredith enrolling in the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers’ murder; the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls, they became part of my own story. Slavery and Public History showed me the shortcomings of my public education, succumbing to the trap of thinking of slavery as an antebellum, pre-Civil War institution. The dichotomy of John Michael Vlach’s story captures the dilemma of public history with the dramatically different responses to “Back of the Big House.” Opposition and support for the project were not divided along racial lines. Neither were the emotional responses. The dialogue that took place from beginning to end demonstrated the best tool for treating such volatile topics.

I personally connected to Edward Linenthal’s epilogue.  Whether Linenthal was talking about Jim Carrier’s A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement or Richard Rubin’s Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, I saw my own experiences in their stories of the ordinariness of the places where extraordinary things occurred. I lived in Memphis in 1971, three years after Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. I drove by the motel on a couple of occasions. In a dumpy part of town, it was so incredibly ordinary. While on a run around the old city of Charleston I stopped at plaques and historical markers, such as looking out Fort Sumter, or interesting looking antebellum homes. I unexpectedly came across a section of cobblestone street. Looking around I was startled to see a building labeled “The Old Slave Mart.” My first reaction was one of disgust, but when I saw that it was a museum, I looked in the windows and grabbed a piece of literature from the display outside.  This former slave auction house, in an otherwise nondescript location, was now a museum.

Old Slave Mart - Charleston, SCScreen shot from Google Earth, 2017

Not every event in history needs to become a NPS site, a museum or have a plaque. However, things which are recognized as important must have the whole story uncompromisingly told. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the “law and order” rhetoric, the events of the past year highlight our need to address this story, whether we want to or not.