Lest we forget?

Over this last summer, my family and I drove from one end of the continent to another. Along the way we stopped at the Little Big Horn, where some of my children (and Lacey) had no idea as to what had happened there. It added 16 hours to our trip.

While driving across Missouri I detoured us two hours out of the way to drive through the small speck of a town called Centralia. image image imageWhy did I subject my family to another two hours on the road when they had already been in the car for twice that long? Because I had written a paper on the event, and I wanted to see the landscape for myself.

And that is what I think is the difference between the various kinds of dark tourism. If you go to gawk at the death and mutilation, the horror and the death, then you’re a terrible person, and you probably deserve to have bad things happen to you. The same goes for tourist companies who promote that sort of ghoulish entertainment (like the people who say “come to Tombstone and watch the gunfight at the O.K. Corral”). But if you are interested in an event, or the history of a place, or any of those other “good” reasons Walter mentioned in his article (information, remembrance, education, memento mori) then it is my belief that visiting the place is, in some ways, the same as any other primary source.

“This is what I’m always on about…”

This book should be required reading for every political science and history majors. It should also be included in any class discussing the Gilded Age, or the Industrial Revolution. Because the destruction caused by the capitalist pig-dogs of those ages will certainly be continued. It is a scathing indictment against laissez-faire economics and policies. I found it interesting that the author included examples from both the east and the west. Being a westerner I would have thought that this was just a western problem. But then again that would just be me being naive. This is “the violence inherent in the system” to again quote Dennis the anarcho-syndicalist. Capitalists will strip, and destroy in their pursuit of their drug of choice: money. And nothing, not regulations, not people, not history will stand in their way. It also shows the duplicity of a system in which the watchmen are paid (in part) by those who they are supposed to be watching.

But as for Dr. Madsen-Brooks’ description that this book was a downer, I would disagree. This book felt more like a call to arms, a voice crying I the wilderness, asking me to do something to try and change the way things are, make things better. Hopefully that is not the same sort of lost cause as anarcho-syndicalism.

Hat in hand?

Perusing the applications for the Digital Projects for the Public grant, and the Digital Humanities Advancement grant I found the similarities between them illuminating. In some sections the wording are exactly the same. But the differences are striking. Striking in what each of the grants is intended to take care of, and what they are not able to take care of.

In order to be awarded the DHAG you have to be focused on a digital project that creates or enhances “experimental, computationally-based methods or techniques that contribute to the humanities … examines the history, criticism, and philosophy of digital culture and its impact on society.” Now this sounds fine, but then you look at what you can’t use the grant for… No digitizing records, unless you’re pioneering a new method for digitizing, no converting a scholarly journal, no undertaking political, religious, or social actions. But that’s all well and good. We can’t expect the National Endowment for the Humanities to just pay out money to just anything for any one. This one feels like “let’s tie STEM to the Humanities and see what we can shake out.”

The DPPG is supposed to fund digital projects that are supposed to “attract a broad, general, nonspecialist audience, either online or in person at venues such as museums, libraries or other cultural institutions.” These grants can be used to conduct research, storyboard, and design. But again these funds can’t be used to archive things, purchase art, artifacts or collections, or renovating production facilities.  But one could spend the money to create a game concerning the American Civil War, or first person tours of Mayan sites, or the app we are “thinking of making” for River Street.

In both cases they are supposed to be used to protect our cultural heritage, which is what I understand we are supposed to be discussing next week…

And so it has come to this…

It has been a trying week. Due to events that occurred during class last week I have been unable to focus on anything school related. My partner even went so far as to conclude that had I not been at class I would have been able to head off this particular disaster. This has caused me to rethink my commitment to continuing my education, forcing me to explore the viability of what I am doing, and whether or not it is in the best interest of my family to continue with this course of action.

We’ve talked of moving, relocating to somewhere else where no one knows our name, a place with a fresh start, for us and the kids. And what to my wondering eyes did appear than a list of places where the U.S. Navy needed historians. Businesses need historical consultants, law firms need researchers for cases with historical ramifications. All sorts of jobs in all sorts of places that have all sorts of pay-scales. Most of these jobs required only a BA in history, and many of these positions were available to be filled. Immediately.

So why stay and finish things? Out of a sense of duty for the members of this class. But other than that, im not sure. We shall see.

Playing at war

“Embedded with the reenactors” stirred some strong feelings for me. As I’ve said before, I love Old Fort Niagra. Reading Kolwalczyk’s description took me back. Which is why I think reenacting is popular with certain people, a yearning for something that might be missing in their lives at that moment. That’s not to say that everyone who reenacts is missing something in their lives, but the way the “hobby” is portrayed, that’s what it looks like from over here.
Regarding wearing Confederate grey, I think less people wear it these days because no one wants to play on the loosing team. But all joking aside, that article illustrated some of the reasons reenacting is popular with an older whiter crowd. They came of age in the ’60s, when there were three television channels, and nothing much else to do besides play outside. And what better to do than rehash the days of “Cowboys and Indians”, or the Rough Riders up San Juan hill, or Pickett’s charge.
But to me, reenacting, as it is presented in Kolwalczyk’s article, is worshiping at the altar of toxic masculinity. Having just read Kolwalczyk’s piece that Ann Little recommends, I think he might believe it too. And perhaps that’s why there aren’t reenactments of suffragettes. And maybe the wounds are still too fresh to have reenactments of the civil rights struggle, especially in the wake of current “situations”. Reenactments “thumb their noses” at the losers, which is why French-Canadians try to disrupt the reenactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and Northern Irish Catholics get so incensed when Northern Irish Protestants march through their neighborhoods on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
With regards to Wikipedia, I have no words. It is an online encyclopedia, and given the way it is set up there has to be some kind of regulation. But credentials should count for something.

Why is titling this blog post so difficult?

Historic preservation part 2… The problems that were so evident with the last reading have gotten worse, it would seem. The most problematic section of this reading for me was the “Historic Preservation and the ‘Experience Economy'”. And I found it problematic because it equated history, and it’s preservation to a Starbucks coffee. I find it absurd that communities should market themselves as being a white chocolate mocha frappuccino because some people think people don’t like regular coffee any more.
Again I am drawn to my experience in Nampa. There had been a push to renovate, rejuvenate, and revitalize the downtown area, complete with metal signage touting the railroad history of the neighborhood. The city fathers seemed to follow the “Main Street Program’s Four-Point Approach”. They even found private funding to renovate the theatre, which would help increase foot traffic and bring more people downtown.
But because they tried to make downtown a fancy coffee, they lost out on all the people who drink Folgers. Time passed, the returns on investments did not meet forecasted expectations, and the next batch of city administrators decided preservation was not worth the time or treasure. Now the city is minus more historic buildings because (as I said last time) it’s much more expensive to bring old buildings up to code than it is to knock them down and build something new.
Which leads to THE problem of historical preservation here in the West. The vast majority of those in authority believe that historic buildings are only of value if that value can be monetized. Thus the problem with capitalism, and society as a whole.
And I should probably stop now, before I go further down that particular rabbit hole.

It costs less to knock it down than to keep it up…


This is an extremely sensitive topic for me, because the focus of my research (masonry fortifications dating from the colonial period) are something that serve no purpose today. Clem Levine was quoted as saying that preservation was un-American because “America was built on the concept of the frontier. Land was limitless. Resources were never ending. The pioneer way was to use it up, throw it away and move west”(12). This seems to be even worse out here in the West. That list of endangered places in Boise, Lewiston, and Minidoka was heart breaking.
The part of this reading that I found the most thought provoking concerned the different preservation philosophies. A close reading of the ideas of Viollet-de-Duc and Ruskin’s ideas shows problems with both ideas. For one, I like the idea of restoration. I’ve been to “Colonial Williamsburg” and I liked it. That being said, I don’t think it is a model that should be followed everywhere. On the other hand, I can see why Ruskin, writing in the 19th century thought that ruins were “romantic” and “sublime.” It’s how people thought back then, but if nothing’s done about them, ruins tend to stay ruins. And said ruins, by their ruinous nature, are dangerous. And to be fair, some ruins are beautiful and sublime, like mountain ghost towns, or Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast. But it is prohibitively expensive to repair, renovate, restore, or even stabilize some of these sites.
Personally the hardest part of this reading was the portion about urban renewal and historic districts. Urban renewal has a place. When I was younger my father used to call downtown Boise “downtown Beruit” because of how sketchy it was. Then they opened the 8th Street Market place, and I would challenge anyone to compare Boise to Beruit now. And I think Boise did a good job mixing façadomy with new construction, but I think some of the neighboring communities (mostly Nampa) in trying to follow Boise’s lead fell short of the mark.
This talk of Nampa leads to the title of this post. Nampa had a beautiful old city hall. They tore it down and put a fountain where it was. That fountain has since been torn out and there is a library very nearly on the spot of the old city hall. The city hall is very nearly the same size as the library building which begs the question, why not have just used the old building? The answer, it costs less to knock it down than it does to keep it up.

I’m including this collage form my trip to old Fort Niagra because it represents a good compromise between the two discussed preservational styles. I hope you enjoy.


Relevance in museums: Temple or Forum?

It seems that this is another collections of articles which inadvertently raises the question: should museums be temples to the artifacts of the past, or should they be forums for debating issues both past and present. The authors of all of these articles, and it would seem that the majority of people involved in museum studies, believe that they are forums for discussion.
My only concern with this approach is the obsession with “relevance”. Because what is relevant to one is not necessarily relevant to another. I mean if someone were to put up an exhibit describing what happened in Ferguson in the Owyhee Co museum, I believe the locals would burn the building to the ground. Even in Boise I think something like that would draw a lot of fire from those in the community who are a little more “reactionary” in their politics. That being said, if a museum were to highlight historical injustice, like the “white only” water fountains in Canyon Co, or the plight of migrant Hispanic farm workers, or everything the Chinese overcame during the mining days, these (I believe) would be met with less hostility, and if properly curated could still bring attention to current problems.
An alternative, and I think the NEMO memo, and the UN refugee agency both had an idea that I believe would work well in an area like Boise which is relatively homogeneous, culturally speaking, but is struggling with including immigrants and refugees. The idea of using the museum to host conversations, using the space to help these new arrivals become acquainted with local culture, this seems to be a way to help both those who are new to the community, as well as those who might not be as welcoming.
I am one of those who wants to overthrow the existing order, rearrange the way people see the world, but I live in one of the most conservative states in the Union. And as such I think we as public historians need to try to find a way to drag our neighbors into the 21st century, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t make them pull away. Unfortunately I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but there has to be a way.

The most special things in Special Collections


As an undergraduate I embarked on a solo transcription and translation of a portion of Boise State University’s sixteenth century copy of Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, a twelfth century university history textbook. In order to perform a proper textual comparison, I needed to procure another version of this text. My search led me to the University of Iowa Library Special Collections. After a thoroughly enjoyable exchange between myself and the curatorial staff I obtained digital representations of what I needed.
This experience had a real impact on me. I decided I needed to find out how one came to be in a position to be around old texts all the time.
For this purpose I contacted Amy H. Chen, Special Collections Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa. I asked, “What path led you to your current position?”
She replied, “I obtained a PhD in English from Emory in 2013. During my time at Emory, I worked in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL, now Rose Library). That experience allowed me to get a Council on Library and Information Research (CLIR) postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama, where I worked from 2013-2015 as the coordinator of exhibitions, instruction, and online outreach. I then moved to the University of Iowa to serve as the Special Collections Instruction Librarian in June 2015. In October 2016, I became the interim English and American Literature librarian.”
Having no idea as to what a Special Collections librarian does, I asked, “What sort of projects do you work on?”
“I coordinate instruction for our department, which means managing the 250+ classes that book with us on an annual basis. I also do teach, but we all teach here at Iowa. On the side, I do things like develop games (#codexconquest and #markthegame on Twitter if you want to check it out), serve on local and national committees for both English and special collections, and conduct my own research. I publish in the fields of pedagogy and literary collection acquisition; the latter of which I am currently writing an academic book on.”
Intrigued by these opportunities, I asked, “Are you afforded autonomy to pick your own projects, or are projects generally assigned to you by other in your organization or elsewhere?”
“I create my own projects,” she stated, “aside from the general coordination of instruction.”
Knowing so little about the challenges that Special Collections librarians I asked, “What are the current issues in your field?”
“The role of PhDs in libraries, PhD job placement overall, increasing pedagogy in special collections to partner with DH and move beyond show and tells, information literacy standards (especially following the election!), moving toward multiple sessions per class rather than one shot classes, game development in higher education.”
I asked, “How is your position currently funded? Is this typical for positions in your field or organization?”
She answered, “I am salaried through my department, yes, this is normal. I am salaried as a Librarian II (will be a III in June 2017) but many are salaried on a non-librarian level.”
Hoping that she was as enamored with Historia Scholastica as I am, I asked, “Knowing that you prize everything in your care, is there one thing you prize above the others?” I was dismayed when she replied, “Maybe our Babylonian clay tablet, our oldest item in the collection. I also am partial to our medieval manuscripts on paper (especially rare), and the marker drawings of Kurt Vonnegut.”

While medieval text books, clay tablets, ink drawings, and the lot are special, and worthy of the title, it is my humble opinion the most special thing is Special Collections are the librarians charged with their protection.

This seems timely…

I am sure it is no accident that we are reading Slavery and Public History at the beginning of Black History Month. It has always perplexed me as to why the society we live in views rights and recognition as a zero sum game. The Nash article, describing the fight between local Park Service people, and historians highlights this point. It also, again not surprisingly, addresses some of the same issues highlighted in Letting Go? specifically the role of museums (but in this case, it’s a historic site) and whether it should be a shrine to past events, or whether it should be a forum to discuss those past events, and how they effect the present.

I had read “Southern Comfort Levels” previous to this, and it made me as mad then, as it did this time around. I understand the reasons for not punitively punishing the South after the war, but it is my humble opinion that it was the wrong decision. And things like “Monument Street” in Richmond is evidence of this point. No such monuments exist in London for Guido Fawkes, instead he is burnt in effigy every year. There are no statues of Cornwallis, Burgyone, or Benedict Arnold in New York City (which remained firmly in the British camp through the Revolution). Because they lost. For me it’s too close to those fascist $&@#%€£ who claim that everything is the Jews’ fault, or immigrants are a problem, or any of those other things that they say. These people/ideas need to be discussed, but in a way that shows them as they really are, not for what they pretend to be. (And I expect my own ideas and such to be put under the same scrutiny.)

Which brings me back to Black History Month, and the “zero sum game” theory. As historians we need to be willing to wade into these troublesome issues. But as Joanne Melish’s article about the John Brown house pointed out, we need to be able to do it expecting nuance and a more complex narrative.