“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

The fundamental crux of the conundrum King outlines, is that those who are hired to perform environmental impact work and cultural resource reviews, have a self-interest in conforming as much as possible to their employers’ vision.  A company or contractor is being paid to, ostensible, independently evaluate a proposed project to see if it conforms to the law.  The business who has proposed the project is paying another business to evaluate its project.  This system incentivizes cronyism of a sort, or what others may call good business practice or even plain old common sense.  In this situation, how can a company “possibly do a responsible, even semi-objective job of analyzing its impact?” (34).  As the old saws go, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and don’t bite the hand that feeds you.  Throughout our history, humankind has proved that the promise of lucre will often override the best intentions or the noblest aims.  So how do you put the incentive on the other side, on the side of an honest impartial environmental review?  An obvious answer is to have the government perform the review, or be the one, who does the contracting, and bill the project proposer, or have the proposer pay for the evaluation up-front.  This way the government would choose the contractor and be the contractor’s employer, in contrast to the situation King describes.  Admittedly, the likelihood of such a system coming to fruition is an era of hostility to “big government” is unlikely.  Certainly one could poke many holes in this proposal, such as it could succumb to corruption and abuse through outright malfeasance, or through the revolving door from government regulator to working for those formerly overseen, but it seems that anything is better than the current situation.

The second major issue that King raises is lax enforcement by government agencies that seem to check boxes rather than complying with the spirit and intent of the law.  In one case of blatant bias we are told that “agency advocacy of projects whose impacts they are supposed to analyze objectively is usually more subtly expressed than this….  But it’s there” (49).  The nature of bureaucracy appears to be one where its mission, its raison d’etre, becomes subservient to the bureaucracy’s survival.  Large bureaucracies begin life as a benign limb of an organism, but somehow evolve into their own organic being, naturally believing their existence is at least coequal to their supposed objectives.  Moreover “taking care of the human environment is marginal to the missions of most government agencies” (71).  So how do you make bureaucracy/agencies involved in enforcing environmental and cultural resource management more likely to observe the intent of a regulation?  Do you try to incentivize agency employees towards critical evaluation of projects rather than rubber stamping them?  Could you imagine a situation where cash incentives or promotions were based on the amount of the environment, or quantities of cultural resources protected?  How do you quantify the amount protected?  By the amount of projects denied?  How political feasible is that?

The work of the staff involved in such an agency is necessarily going to be adversarial and contentious.  I think one way to encourage, inspire, and insulate them from demoralization, negativity and tendencies toward being coopted or swaying under pressure is to train them for those situations.  Have part of their training be simulated situations where employees come under pressure from entities advocating for their project, or from the browbeating executive or the angry landowner who wants to fill the wetland.  Though, as King suggests, change has to start at the top with leadership, so how do you ensure leaders are going to be independent and insulated from political machinations?  Make the head of the EPA a ten or twenty year appointee instead of a regular cabinet term?  But what if the “wrong” person gets the job?  And isn’t political pressure on agencies a double-edged sword.  If we like that the Obama Administration ordered the Drug Enforcement Agency to deprioritize laws outlawing marijuana use, or Governor Brown’s order not to involve federal authorities in the legal status of those arrested for minor crimes, don’t we have to be accepting of a Bush Administration that deemphasizes enforcement of environmental laws?  In a related theme, doesn’t leadership have to be evident at the highest level of our government?  Could you imagine a scenario where a sitting congressman illegally fills in federally protected wetlands, initially refuses to pay the fine, eventually begrudgingly pays a reduced fine, and then the citizens of the state elect him governor.  Imagine!

King does allow that as much as he points the finger at Bush, he saw the trend away from protection start under Clinton, so maybe our government, on the whole, reflects what the majority wants?  A smoke screen of concern and decency, an alleged adherence to some moral standard in our environmental conscience while in reality, once our economic welfare isn’t overtly threatened, we will continue to overconsume, under reuse and reject renewable energy. Environmental and heritage protection are public goods and we care more about our individual goods, therefore we won’t act effectively until our individual immediate welfare is affected.  Just as we found when the price of gas hovered around $4 a gallon, consumption went down, sales of large vehicles declined and investment in renewable energy increased.

It was interesting to note the cultural difference between government agencies and Native Americans, who see the land itself and not necessarily items manufactured by humans as important.  According to King “the tribe said that the Bureau of Land Management was missing the point.  It’s the whole landscape that’s significant to us, you see, not just these individual locations that the archeologists like” (78).  Likewise, consultation “is not something that most agencies or project proponents do willingly or well,” making me wonder if it isn’t so much the path of least resistance in play here, but a Western ethos of supposed efficiency in getting things done, action over talking (110).  In this mindset talking is seen as an impediment to progress, perhaps even a weakness.  Not only do “Real Men” not reconsider, they also do not consult.  They just fill the damn wetlands in.

“Not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.”

In “They Have Blood on Their Hands,” Chauncey DeVega takes issue with those who would celebrate the 150th anniversary of the South’s secession from the Union.  The celebrants make the well-rehearsed claim that the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights with slavery being an incidental factor.  For the author this is history that “does political work,” untruthfully presenting the Civil War in the tradition of great debates over political liberty rather than what most reputable scholars deem it was, the South’s attempt to maintain white supremacy and economic prosperity through the enslavement of African-Americans.  Furthermore, those who would obviate slavery as the fundamental issue use “selective forgetting, and intentional remembering to advance certain ends in the here and now,” as Devega says.  Those ends serve a mainly older, white and conservative demographic, who struggle to cope with the dissonance of the inaccurate history they learned and the reality of a country becoming browner, where those who have been typically marginalized, increasingly decry the whitewashing of history.  The dominant version of US history, that many of us learned, was packaged as white, male, Christian, and as David Blight says in the Atlantic Monthly online, its gloss was a “romanticizing and sentimentalism” that allowed the defeated South to rewrite the history of the Civil War in exculpatory tones.  This Lost Cause made secession an easy history pill to swallow because the unpleasant truth was excised in favor of a sugarcoat that masked a willingness to treat people as property.  As Blight’s quote, used in the title of this week’s post informs us, the Civil War is still being fought and it is not a forgone conclusion that truth will overcome lies.

That a Virginia textbook states thousands of black people fought for the South, quoted in The Washington Post online, reminds us that there is a constant battle amongst some to either insert dishonesty, or perhaps more disturbingly, an effort by those who have been taught lies and wish to “correct” what they see as the distortions of others.  Am I naïve to be shocked that a school text book is not written by “a trained historian” but by someone who “has written several books.”  Or that the author’s examination of the subject was derived “primarily through Internet research.”  How did it get passed reviewers?  I can understand how it might seem innocuous to some to say ‘Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson,’ but wouldn’t someone on a review panel be either politically or historically astute enough to question that?

Larry Cebula’s post about his visit to the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home, and the subsequent reply from its director was reminiscent of earlier readings from Slavery and Public History.  Again, we read of someone defending slavery’s omission from history in deference to the feeling of black people/students.  This speaks to the difficulty we have in discussing our past, particularly on those issues involving race or shameful actions.  I can understand how slavery might make an African-American feel angry or shameful, or uncomfortable and be painful to hear about.  However, if we avoid the conversation through euphemisms like “maid” or “servant” we perpetuate the lies that encumber our present.  And while we shouldn’t forget the positive aspects of our history—we have come a long way from Jim Crow—the director’s advice to stop focusing on negatives is a common complaint from those who want to believe an Emancipation Proclamation or Civil Rights Act cured overnight, as David Blight terms it, “the nation’s persistent racism.”

The Washington Post online story, “Conservative class on Founding Fathers’ answers to current woes gain popularity” describes a manifestation of white Christian conservative economic insecurity.  Because of the traditional hagiographical treatment of the Founding Fathers, they make ideal role models for those drowning in a sea of doubt.  Additionally, it is reassuring that they were white, wealthy grandfatherly types who were always on the cusp of banning slavery, but just could not figure out how to do it.  Or at least that is what some on the right would have us believe.  Ironically, the economic policies supported by conservative politicians and pundits have encouraged the widening wealth-gap that pushes lower or middle income people to scramble for answers in a world of uncertainty.  Rather than questioning the causes of their financial distress, many are happy to accept the scapegoating of immigrants, people of color and those who do not subscribe to their procrustean religious views.  So the snake oil salesperson’s tells us to learn from the Founding Fathers, whose feet of clay have been sanitized, their deism has been defenestrated, their elitism leveled and their slaves freed.  Of course, the snake oil salesman has to be careful, because after all, the Founding Fathers did rebel when they felt their economic interest was threatened to a particular degree.

Jeff Robinson asks, “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?” in his Public History Commons post.  Can those who decry fracking use the lands’ history as a tool to persuade their neighbors to resist selling their property to oil and gas companies?   Seriously, if someone offered you five million for your fifty acres could you resist?  Apparently many do, and in this Robinson sees the power of history harnessed to the yoke of public activism.  He also theorizes about getting people of opposing views to sit down together, to talk through their point of view, in order to reach compromise.  This made me wonder about the nature of compromise.  Is compromise always a good thing?  Or is it just the best that we can expect in an imperfect world?  If some places are saved isn’t that better than none?  If some human rights are respected isn’t that better than none?  Perhaps compromise is not always the best route.  Maybe reframing the question and removing false dichotomies are a better place to start before compromise is attempted.

Public History Consultancy

It was somewhat dispiriting to find that historical consulting is a growing field because organizations can’t afford, or have other priorities, than employing full time historians. It appears that the reality is, as it is for many Americans, that a job no longer comes with benefits and retirement plans. And with government agencies relying more on contract workers, what was once a secure method of entry to the middle-class will continue to shrink. So whereas in the past a national or state public history agency may have hired a full-time staff member the push now is to pay for piece-work. Perhaps, as some would argue this increases productivity and creativity in a competitive market, winnowing out the chaff from the wheat, but it also denies a stable and secure work environment for many who are committed to history. Likewise, in “Crafting a New Historian,” T.R. Putman writing in the Chronical of Higher Education online, “wondered whether history was becoming a world of outworkers” where a career now means a life of short-term contracts and adjunct faculty positions. He also wonders what this means to the craft of history by analogy to his tailoring, in a world where the apprentice has no master craftsperson to mentor him.

The article, “Historians as Consultants and Contractors,” on the AHA website, stresses gaining as much knowledge as possible outside your specialty to enhance your utility for a potential employer. This advice make practical sense as evidenced by the person who can say “not only can I build exhibits, instruct educational programs, lead a group project, but I also have experience in accessions, storage, and as a docent,” versus a one dimensional applicant. We are informed that interning is the path to build a diverse skill set, while “writing, research, and communication are essential components,” for anyone aspiring to a successful career in public history. Additionally, knowledge of the rules and regulations concerning cultural resources, land use and preservation is helpful.

Bob Beatty’s advice in “What employers seek in public history graduates (Part 1),” is to join professional organizations, regularly attend conferences, read the latest publications online and take onsite workshops and training. Basically, he says be attuned to the career field, be part of it and don’t underestimate the importance of collaborative work experience. The second part of the post has Scott Stroh exhorting us to go beyond our discipline and expertise for a “personal, societal and organizational advancement within the context of historical understanding, an awareness of place, and a relationship with humanity.” He lists eight steps that mix common sense (hone public speaking skills, get involved with a civic organization, get a mentor, continually evaluate your intentions/goals) and idealism (annotate everything that inspires, raise money outside your organization for a cause you care about, and “be relentlessly positive”). I doubt I could ever be relentlessly positive, but I agree with Stroh that “professional development, however, is a life-long commitment.” His comment that there is an “unbreakable link between mission and money,” was epitomized by the History Factory’s website’s sales pitch for their consultancy. I have to admit to finding something sleazy about it, despite its haut monde patina. Maybe it affronted my Western US sense of polite self-effacement, or my naive view of history as something grand and noble. It made me feel dirty, to be in the business of history, as opposed to the vocation of History, of having to sell history like it is common wares in a haberdashery. I suppose this makes me guilty of romanticizing history, while also crediting it with something that lifts it above the pedestrian, in an elitist claim to avoid the market place of ideas and public support. As Putnam, mentioned above, says “historians need to spend less time in the library and more time confronting the rigorously critical world of the nonacademic public.”

However, I did like the statistic presented on the History Factory site, informing us that people are ‘twenty-two times more likely to remember and internalize a “story” as opposed to a series of facts or bullet-points.’

I enjoyed learning about The Arrow Rock Group which now is owned by two sisters with an office in Boise. They are a local company making it in the history consultancy business, showing that it is possible to make a living in history outside of teaching. They, as the AHA post did, stressed the importance of knowing how to run a business and having basic knowledge of the finances, regulations and procedures to be a viable concern. Their website sparked a debate amongst my friends over the sisters’ US Department of Transportation (DOT) classification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). According to the Idaho DOT website, a DBE must be at least “51% owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” a category that automatically includes women, once their “adjusted personal net worth is no more than $1.32 million.” Some friends thought it was insulting to women because it assumed they were disadvantaged without looking at an individual’s situation. Others wanted to know why a woman whose net worth might be $1.2 million, just under the cap, qualifies to be an “economically disadvantaged” person, and presumably would get preference for contracts over a man whose net worth might only be $100,000. All reasonable questions but on the whole the answer is to be found in historic patterns of discrimination be it overt societal norms (“women’s work”) or covert institutional practices (not lending money to women). In the Idaho Statesman’s May 30, 2013, Business Review website it was reported that women are least represented as business owners in construction (8%), and in the insurance and finance fields at 20%. Furthermore, the businesses women are most likely to own are in the health and education arenas, in part because these fields are more amenable to childcare, a responsibility that primarily falls to women. It was noteworthy that two of the women owners of construction businesses in Idaho, were quoted as saying they had grown up helping their fathers, in one case work on engines and in the other, he had taught her to weld.

Clio’ website has an interesting presentation on “Antipictorialism,” and the emergence of visual literacy in the early 1800s. Prior to this date illustrations and pictures were seen as a corrupting influence, bringing undue emotionality to serious topics. It made me wonder in what ways the past is interpreted differently when words and pictures are used versus words alone. The piece also delves into the relationship between the writer, illustrator and editors of early illustrated American histories highlighting the tensions in the process of presenting a history. On a further note of interest, we are told that one writer used “unabashed nationalism” as a theme to unite his narrative, while he also generalized slavery “by universalizing” it as an experience. It seems to me that this skewed version of history is still quite popular today.


Reenactors Rampant and Wicked Wikipedia.

Not understanding the attraction some people have for historical reenactments, I often wondered if Civil War reenactors were manifesting their Confederate desire to rewrite history with them as the victors. Likewise, Kowalczyk’s article alludes to a certain interpretation of history that most reenactors espouse. This version is the traditional one that glosses over the ugly truths of our nation’s origins, to give us a sanitized mono-story of inexorable Euro-American progress toward today’s status quo. Sometimes this narrative is Panglossian in its “not perfect but the best we can expect” outlook, veering toward complete exculpation in the “men of their day” excuse for genocide and slavery. In a similar point on Historiann’s blog, the author comments that reenactors are typically “middle-aged white men” who “romanticize” the past with assiduous detail to petty issues, such as uniforms, while the important historical questions of injustice, dispossession, and murder are conveniently avoided. Wouldn’t a true, or at least more accurate reenactment portray middle age white men as the agents of evil, not as chivalrous pioneers, soldiers, explorers, or forbears who nobly trail-blazed through savage lands? Levine, writing in the Atlantic, intimates that reenactors may be an older demographic which is struggling to retain a comforting traditional narrative that has changed in their lifetime, dispossessing them of their established privilege while threatening those inalienable “truths” that underpin their value system. A system that is, at the very least, uncomfortable with other voices who question many accepted “facts” about our history.

In exploring another reason why reenactors are compelled to engage in, what apparently can be an expensive and time consuming hobby, Kowalczyk’s informant Old Hickory, explains that he gets his ‘credibility’ from reenacting. Moreover, he describes one event as ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of.’ Is this sense of purpose in life, in belonging to something bigger than themselves, in essence being part of history, what motivates them? In a previous course text, Nina Simon quotes an author as saying two of the four things a person needs to be happy are ‘time spent with people we like, and the chance to be part of something bigger.’ I can see how reenacting could fulfil the criteria mentioned for many people, just as it could also be a political statement for people who ‘don’t just take the New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.’

Or is reenactment a chauvinistic restatement of might makes right where male strength reasserts itself over encroaching female power in a modern world that seems to be leveled by brain over brawn. Maybe the whole thing is giant game of ‘“cowboys and Indians’” as Kowalczyk implies, seemingly concurring with Historiann who talks of the “childish nature of the fantasies” conducted by reenactors. In this sense people are having fun, being entertained, on the basis of other’s suffering in a macabre situation where people’s “deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby….” As pointed out by some of the authors it does seem strange to consider future reenactments of battles from Iraq or Afghanistan just as there are Civil War and WWII reenactments today.

So is reenactment the adult version of cowboys and Indians, an atavistic expression of human nature, or is it a learned violent behavior? The link to another Kowalczyk article “Manhood, Lorain-style,” seems to suggest it is more nurture than nature while the final lines of the “Embedded” piece implicates nature. But if reenactment can be legitimately questioned why can’t all forms of entertainment, from novels to movies, be questioned? Isn’t there something vicarious about most writing and film work? Are reenactors more indictable than fans of Game of Thrones, or is that sincerely fiction while reenactors are sincere purveyors of one-sided history?

Cohen’s piece in the New York Times on the dearth of women editing/contributing to Wikipedia illustrates the effects of structural constraints and traditionally defined gender roles. As mentioned only about 15% of those who contribute and edit Wikipedia articles are women mirroring the percentage of women in leadership positions as defined by societal norms. Thus, even though there is “no male-dominated executive team favoring men over women,” women appear to be hesitant to join in because their worth is often discounted through marginalization.

The Messer-Kruse and CopyVillian articles raise the always present question of accuracy in history. Is there truth in a historical account, or many truths, or does it always depend on a person’s perspective? Perhaps there is no organic truth in history, but veracity is found in “a larger process of negotiating the truth” as CopyVillian suggests. On a different point but relevant to Wikipedia’s objectivity does it privilege some sources over others? Historically, only elites with education and/or wealth wrote history, advantaging their biases in ignoring or denigrating the masses while defaming their enemies. Does Wikipedia privilege a Western interpretation of history because the rich world has the resources and access to the medium that is unavailable to less well off parts of the world?  


Historic Preservation Part II

In chapter four of our text, I was glad to see that the federal judiciary had granted state, and particularly local government the legal tools necessary to preserve historic building and locations. I had erroneously, as it turned out, believed that a listing on the National Register of Historic Places gave protection to historic buildings and sites. In one sense, local control of designating historic districts and structures is the most democratic means to identifying what is important to a community, what a community supports and is willing to expend resources on. On the other hand, it may allow those with financial power (big business and developers) to deploy their monetary muscle to overpower under resourced grassroots efforts at preservation. Using Boise’s Central Addition as an example, Preservation Idaho, according to their website tried to raise the $450,000 plus needed to buy the land and houses to avoid development, but could only raise about $8,000. Does this show that big money beats local concern, or that in reality the local community is not that concerned? After all, the area is not listed as a historic district, nor are the houses on the National Register of Historic Places. This seems to make the case for preserving the area and the buildings weaker, and conceivably indicates this to developers.

Spurred by the links for this week’s readings I explored Boise’s Historic Districts and discovered that the “castle” on Warm Springs is just outside the Warm Springs Historic District, possibly explaining how it was permitted. Maybe if the site had been inside the Historic District it would not have been built, illustrating the importance of delineating Historic District boundaries as expounded in chapter six. Notwithstanding the aforementioned I do feel sympathy for the property owner in Figarsky vs. Historic District Commission in 1976, where the building itself had been substantially altered, was of no particular historical importance, but blocked the view of encroaching commercial development (122-3). The owner was cited for code violations and decided to demolish the structure. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that it could not be demolished, that it had to be brought up to code and the owner was not entitled to any compensation for repairs to bring the building in to compliance.

A central point in chapters nine and eleven is an emphasis on cooperation amongst public and private entities in historic preservation to forge a win-win outcome for preservation and economic development. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (nation’s first officially designated Heritage Corridor) is not owned or exclusively managed by the NPS, but locally owned with a large degree of autonomy providing a good example of this partnership (333). It makes sense to me that preservation is enhanced by tourism and we are informed that heritage tourists spend more on average than other type of visitors (262, 284). Furthermore, in regards to Heritage Corridors “the economic aspect, particularly … has been critical in the justification of their benefits to Congress in order to obtain Federal designation and funding” (334).

While browsing on the links prescribed by the syllabus I looked at Idaho’s listings on the National Register of Landmarks.  Out of approximately 2500, Idaho has only ten with the Assay Building in Boise and the Cataldo Mission east of Coeur d’Alene being the most recognizable.  On the National Register of Historic Places, many Boise locations are represented.  Under Boise, I noticed that Kuna, historically a small agricultural town about 20 miles SW of Boise that now operates as a bedroom community for Boise, had two listings.  Seeing as my girlfriend Bonnie was born and raised there, I looked at the two listings. It surprised us both to discover that she grew up a few hundred feet from a location on the NRHP, listed in 1999, after she had moved out of her parents’ house and the marker was placed.  It is the visible remnants of a dirt wagon trail, the Boise-Silver City Road, that once linked Idaho City, Boise City and Silver City to “mining communities in Idaho, Nevada, and northern California to San Francisco,” according to the NRHP Registration Form.    In the form’s “Statement of Significance” section, it states the road was part of the “transportation corridor” during the 1860s that reflects the “economic importance of southwestern Idaho gold discoveries to the larger Pacific Northwest region.” 

BoiseSilver CityBonniehouuse

Boise-Silver City Road Interpretive Sign 2015



BoiseSilver City Road 8
Remnants of Boise-Silver City Road 2015


Historic Preservation and Boise

In Historic Preservation’s introduction, the authors’ talk of a movement from “quantitative to the qualitative” in order to “preserve our built heritage because it represents who we are as a people” (15). While recognizing this link between buildings, history and people, I would expound further that part of what makes a building aesthetically important is its symbolism. I am thinking of structures that to the eye are not necessarily grand or imposing, the O’Farrell Cabin or the Pierce Courthouse, but whose fundamental crudeness embody simplicity conjoined with the precariousness of survival in pioneer times, yet simultaneously they also symbolize the advent of Euro-American expansion, subjugation of the indigenous way of life and the exploitation of nature. Europe emptied its “excess” populations into America to observe the biblical injunction to be “fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” And by God we did so.

O’Farrell Cabin (Boise, built 1863) O'Farrell2

Pierce Courthouse (Shoshone County, built 1862)pierce_old

The text also gives an overview of two competing ur-theories of preservation. I understand the criticism of Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration methods that allowed for reconstruction with a lot of artistic license “not based on the original design,” but using what he esteemed appropriate, however I also like the creativity it allows (20). And while agreeing with Ruskin that there is grandeur, a sense of ancient nexus in untouched ruins, perhaps his vision is overly romantic in an unpractical fashion. As the text suggests there is a middle ground in this tension depending upon the building or structure, and the subjective taste of persons and period.

The explanation on page 81 was helpful to me in understanding why, sometime in my life, homes in Boise that had always been described as “Victorian,” suddenly at least to me, began to be described as “Queen Anne.” Apparently, there is little historical link to Queen Anne (R. 1702-14), but the term Victorian is reserved for “the period of Queen Victoria’s reign not a style.” Chastise yourself accordingly.

In Historic Preservation, the authors’ talk of buildings being “links between what came before and what will come in the future” reminding me of the stories in Letting Go? about the house on Hopkins Street and the Eastside Tenement Project (104). It also made me think of the Central Addition section of Boise if it is viewed “only in terms of its current condition,” which is dilapidated (104). As described in Preservation Idaho’s website, the Central Addition (bounded by Front, Myrtle, 2nd & 5th streets) was platted in 1890, was home to many of Boise’s early elite and only has buildings still standing through ‘preservation by neglect.’ When the railroad came to Boise and extended east in 1903, it was only a block from the neighborhood inducing those of means to move out. Illustrating that the wealthy still have options today that others did not, and do not have, a 2013 AP story on NBCNews.com reported that “minorities suffer most from industrial pollution” while the “poor, uneducated breathe the worst air.” Our text’s passage on teardown exactly mirrors the problem for the Central Addition where the land is valued far and above the value of the remaining houses (117). A January 20th, 2015 Idaho Statesman article states that part of the Central Additions is owned by a developer who has planning permission for a seven-story apartment block, with parking and commercial space valued at $24 million. According to the story, the developer and preservationist are on good terms and hope to move three houses built over a hundred years ago. The developer says he will give the houses, and pay to move them, to anyone with a viable plan for their preservation. Prompted by this week’s link in our syllabus, the houses concerned are shown below.

 Jones House (built 1893) on 19 February 2015

photo 2  

Fowler House (built 1894) & Beck House (built 1906) on 19 February 2015

photo 1

New Deal programs were responsible for many works in Idaho including what is now termed the Old Ada County Courthouse, a 1939 Public Works Administration Art Deco/ziggurat style building that boasts murals completed under the Works Progress Administration. The building’s future was in doubt until it was announced, in the February 9th, 2015 edition of the Idaho Statesman, that the building will become a University of Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center, in accordance with an agreement between the state and the University of Idaho. At least one of the WPA murals proved controversial when it was uncovered in 2008, because it depicted two white men preparing to hang an American Indian.  Even the wording above can be contentious, are they preparing to hang or lynch the Native American?  Hang may imply some sort of criminal offense, trial or justice (assuming such concepts were afforded to American Indians) whereas lynch conotes a starker reality.

WPA Mural in the Old Ada County Courthouse


Some wanted the mural painted over, as reported by Ann Finley writing in the Boise Weekly (30 July 2008) who quoted Larry McNeil, then and currently a BSU art professor, who said it should be painted over because of its offensive nature. Many Native Americans and others agreed with him, however Idaho’s five federally recognized Native American tribes, in accord with the State of Idaho, agreed to the mural’s continued presence in the courthouse conditioned upon an interpretative plaque which addressed “the bloody clashes between the cultures that occurred as white settlers took over the Boise Valley a century ago” (Betsy Russell, Spokesman-Review, December 12, 2008). The debate over this mural is instructive to all who are interested in how we should deal with artifacts, objects, and depictions of racism in our history. Should we hide them, ignore them, or destroy them in case they encourage further discrimination? Or is it we subconsciously want to erase them because they are reminders of a past that indicts our hallowed version of then, while also accusing us in the present? I believe the tribes and the state made the correct decision in keeping the mural rather than sparing our feelings by destroying a work that hurts today’s sensitivities.

I do believe planning review, design boards and historical preservation districts should be an integral part of any development or existing community.  Though my proviso is that rules should be in place prior to anyone buying property and any proposed change after that needs to be evaluated in a manner sympathetic to property owners.

Boise Art Museum and Participatory Possibilities

Liu Bolin’s work allows for creative ways to gain a certain level of visitor participation.  For instance his “Hiding in the City No. 98 Info Port,” made me wonder if a traditional notice board, as depicted by the artist, could be placed in the center of Gallery 1, or the atrium, where visitors could post comments.  For First Thursdays, maybe the notice board could be worn by a volunteer and could move around the museum, as is almost suggested by Bolin’s work here.

A Top Forty type voting system to rate his pictures by the audience would be easy to organize.  The results could be displayed in the atrium or on the aforementioned “Info Port.” 

Hiding in the City No. 98 Info Port

Liu Bolin 2

Similarly, “Hiding in New York No. 3 Magazine Rack” could give rise to an inexpensive participatory action: place a magazine rack close by the artwork (or in the sculpture court if too disruptive in the current display) and encourage people to photograph themselves as the artist has, and e-mail the photo to a museum website to be displayed and then rated by online voting.  Perhaps it could be made more interactive by allowing guests to choose the magazines to be placed in the rack, rather than having them in the racks already (Guns and Ammo or Cosmopolitan, Harpers or National Review, etc.).

As another classmate remarked, Bolin’s work sometimes has a “Where’s Waldo” quality.  Couldn’t that be used to encourage children to view the pictures: give them a sheet of paper with six of the pictures in black and white and have them find the pictures, search for Bolin and mark on the handout where he is.

Hiding in New York No. 3 Magazine Rack

Liu Bolin 1

Akio Takamori’s “Sleeping Woman in Black Dress” begs for a cot or masseuse table to be placed close by it so visitors could pose like the woman depicted.  Or just to take a nap.  Seriously, it made me want to take a nap and I mean that in a positive sense.

Sleeping Woman in Black Dress

Sleeping woman

I visited the Boise Art Museum in early February and found the best participatory part to be the children’s ARTexperience Gallery, just as a few other of our classmates did.  The two computers in there worked, and quickly responded to input. Based on comments in the comment-book the chalkboard is highly popular (I also cannot resist writing on it!).  There are artistic type puzzles, books, costumes, building blocks, magnetic stickers and a “poem clothes line.”  One of Bolin’s pictures has been cut up and pasted on magnets to create a puzzle.  However, no matter how hard you try you can’t make everybody happy as evidenced below.

Disgruntled 8 YO

Elsewhere in the museum, two computers are available to take a survey, share an opinion, leave a comment or send an e-postcard.  However, neither was working when I visited, and the docent explained that the technology was old and prone to malfunctioning.  At the front desk families can get an interactive pack for younger children that encourages interaction with the exhibits at a level most likely to engage younger children.  Gallery 4 has a video exhibit that showed the artistic process Liu Bolin undergoes to create his works.  Gallery 15 has a VCR/DVD player and several VCRs/DVDs on art that patrons can watch along with many art books for browsing.    A touch screen display in Gallery 13 either was not working properly or was not intended to display information.

Public History Career

I had a conversation with Ken Swanson about a public history career. Ken has been involved in museums for over 41 years and has been a member of the Idaho State Historical Society for 31 years. He has held positions at every level in Idaho, from volunteer to the director of the Idaho State Historical Museum. Ken was the Executive Director of the Idaho Military Museum for five years before he retired, but still fills in as a volunteer when they are shorthanded. We talked about the job of a curator generally, but with an emphasis on smaller non-profit history museums.  Ken considers himself a “backdoor historian” who had a youthful infatuation with museums and artifacts. Because of this, he volunteered at local institutions eventually pursuing a degree in archeology.  He got his master’s at Idaho State University and while there, he also oversaw the university’s archeological collection.

I was impressed, or more correctly, intimidated by the breath of responsibility a curator in a small non-profit museum has.  In this position, you may have responsibility for presenting ideas to the board, fundraising, planning exhibits, building exhibits, publicity events, staging reenactments, bringing exhibits to schools and civic groups.  Furthermore, as the only full-time staff member in a small museum you need to understand museum collections, including conservation, storage techniques/environmental criteria, collections record keeping and how to work with conservators, specialists, technicians, volunteers, interns and obviously the board. Additionally, you have to know something about the legal aspect of accepting donated objects and the law concerning museum governance.  When I told Ken this sounded overwhelming to me and would scare me away from a career in a small museum, his reply was that it is one of the best training opportunities for learning about every job and position a museum has to offer, despite its grueling nature.

The biggest hurdle Ken identified for small museums is probably the same for all history museums—funding—seeing as it is easier for art or science museums to receive patronage than history museums. Art has a cachet for a certain social set and industry sees potential profits in supporting science exhibits. As a 501(c)(3), educational non-profit institution, all the museum’s activities, are entirely funded by charitable donations, gift shop sales and special events.  This is very common except for those organizations that are specifically designated as state or federal museums.  An indirect consequence of school funding cuts, in the last several years, has made it less likely that schools can go to museums. In order to provide children with the opportunity to learn about their exhibits the IMHM has gone to schools to make presentations increasing their workload and expenses.  I wonder how many other museums would be willing or able to go to schools, or what the rules are from a school’s perspective on allowing museum staff/volunteers/exhibits in their schools.  Ken said they even have gone to senior centers.  It seems to me this is a form of outreach, a going to the audience, rather than waiting for them to come to the museum that is participatory in one sense we have talked about in class.

In talking about the push since the 1960s to include voices that previously have been excluded from history, Ken told me that the IMHM had included more women’s exhibits to help bring women’s role in the military more to the fore.  However, he explained that any exhibit costs time, effort and money, resources that your organization wants to see a return on in terms of an audience who comes to see the exhibit, and your area may not have an audience to support such an exhibit.  While understanding Ken’s point of view I still believe it is incumbent upon us to include those voices that may not get a large audience.  And are we sure, say an exhibit on Mexican-American/Hispanic contribution to the military would not garner a large audience?  Or how about an exhibit on Japanese-Americans’ whose families were interned in Idaho, or were from Idaho who served in WWII.  How many people know the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-Americans is the most decorated US military unit ever, and many were recruited from internment camps?  Ken’s experience was that sometimes the board or others would be the active agent for a project, but for the most part, he discovered that if he was proactive and brought ideas to the board, with a rough plan of how to bring a proposed exhibit to fruition, his ideas were endorsed.  Given this possibility, perhaps what might be perceived initially as a low interest event could be birthed with the right kind of preparation.

I saw Ken become most animated and enthused when we talked about the power of the internet to facilitate participation versus seeing an artifact in person.  He told me he still sees himself, even after 41 years in museums as a “carny barker” using an artifact as a “hook” to enthrall visitors with a history story.  His enthusiasm made me think again about how to get artifacts out of the museum and to people if they can’t or won’t go to museums.  Where is the artifact and the passionate storyteller in any museum that could leave the building to go to others and inspire them.

Ken’s advice to anyone interested in a public history career is get as much experience as you can through volunteering and internships. Firstly, this will help you assess whether it is something you really want to do; secondly, it gives you practical experience and knowledge in the field; thirdly, it helps you build your resume and fourthly it earns you recommendations from your supervisors. He also advised getting as broad an experience in all facets of museum work as possible because you never know where a job opportunity might arise.  Based on course readings, class discussion, and life experience this seems like reasonable advice.  In terms of formal education, his opinion is a BA or BS in history or anthropology/archeology is sufficient for entry-level positions,  a master’s degree for more senior positions, but not necessarily anything more advanced as it becomes too specialized, unless you are absolutely sure of your goal.


Museums and Ferguson

I believe a history museum or historical site is a perfect location to discuss Ferguson and race issues in the US.   It is the history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and institutional racism that has created an African American underclass that is daily reminded that their place is still at the back of the bus.  They are bombarded with media images of the wealth, abundance and success that is unattainable to so many people that are marginalized through discrimination.  Is it any wonder that many young African Americans turn to anti-social behavior when the approved path to success and respect is closed to them?  What affect does it have on young African Americans to know they will be followed in stores, are unwelcome outside of their neighborhoods, will be pulled over for DWB, and are generally suspect?  How can a person not internalize at least some aspects of society’s rejection?

According to Adrianne Russell‘s writing in Cabinet of Curiosities (December 11, 2014),  every museum “should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus or mission.”  Writing in Museum Commons (December 16, 2014), Melanie Adams concurs, because for her museums are supposed to be places of learning and therefore should provide educational opportunities for the entire community.  She addresses four points to facilitate successful community engagement: (1) Have inclusive exhibits/programs throughout the year so addressing a current event does not appear reactionary, (2) partner with organizations that have experience and expertise in fostering dialog with diverse groups, (3) communicate with stakeholders and, (4) as much as possible have museum employees at all levels active in the community.  For those who may ask why a museum, whose mission has traditionally been viewed, in a conservative mindset, to collect, preserve and present, should discourse on current events, Deborah F. Schwartz replies in Museum (January 4, 2015) with “history is a vital modality for understanding the dilemmas of contemporary life,” for the past helps us comprehend our now and our tomorrow.

But before museums jump headfirst into issues that may be controversial Rebecca Herz cautions in Museum Questions (December 5, 2014), that museums need to look at their own make up and strive for greater diversity particularly at the senior level and in terms of the museum board’s make up.  If not, communities may perceive so called public engagement as privileged people going through the motions of compassion without really caring.  Moreover, if museums tackle controversial topics they need to have “strategies for facilitating politically loaded conversations” to provide a safe space with conversation that is geared toward learning and empathy rather than one that degenerates to name calling and further misunderstanding.

I think for history museums it is reasonable to host any current event that can be linked to our country’s history.  Therefore, most hot button issues that raise the hackles or cheer the soul, depending on your outlook, are possible topics.  But if a museum does address current issues how does it ensure it isn’t unfairly favoring one point of view over another?  In August 2014 the Missouri History Museum hosted a town hall meeting concerning youth and community in the aftermath of Ferguson.  It was moderated by African American civil rights activist Kevin Powell, whose message is understanding, reconciliation and justice.  By some standards he would be called a “liberal,” so does this mean the MHM should offer a “conservative” speaker the opportunity to talk about the same topics?  If a museum gave space to a group discussing historical discrimination against women and how it relates to disparate pay today, should it have to offer space to a group whose counterpoint is that it was not, and is not discrimination, but divinely assigned gender roles that everybody should embrace?  Should a publically funded science museum have to allow an exhibit on creationism if it has one on evolution?

I asked some conservatively minded friends about the MHM’s town hall meeting and they wanted to know if the Police Officers’ Benevolent Association wanted to use the MHM to present a talk on the difficulties and dangers of policing in an armed society if they would have been given the space to do so.  Others felt that public museums are supposed to be apolitical and any kind of current event dialog is going to engender disputes between extremes taking away from the museums learning agenda.  These were the reasonable comments.   Some, recounted how Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store and assaulted the owner, had a rap sheet as “long as your arm” and either assaulted the police officer or tried to kill him.  I asked, “regardless of the circumstances” doesn’t it seem like law enforcement is institutionalized to “protect and serve” in wealthy or middle class neighborhoods, somewhat indifferent to poor white communities, but focused on “policing” poor African American neighborhoods?  I was told the police go to where the trouble is and if people were obeying the law, they’d have nothing to worry about.  It’s always interesting to note, that poorer white Americans have, on an economic level more in common with poorer black Americans than they have with wealthy white Americans, but seem to be the demographic most stridently opposed to any empathy for African Americans (arguably my own middle class bias or condescension on display here).  Another legacy of slavery perhaps, where even if you were the “lowest of the low” in white society, at least you were not black.  More than one person thought of museums as moribund places where “old stuff” is, and they found it inconceivable that a museum would host something like the MHM had.  They saw an abuse of government funding and assumed the event was designed to inflame passions in another act by race hustlers who refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

In an AP story on January 2, Jim Salter reported that the MHM was collecting artifacts from Ferguson’s public protests after the shooting in order to document history as it occurs.  He reported the MHM Library and Collections director as saying an exhibition is not currently planned, but these are artifacts of a significant political event in our history that should be preserved.   After the AP story appeared several conservative websites, such as Before It’s News and The Black Sphere, misreported this as “creating a museum of Ferguson” and stating “If this guy believes a black guy being a thug, then being killed by the cops is history, then that better be one HUGE museum.”  And you can only imagine the comments on the site in relation to this.

According to ProPublica’s website (October 13, 2014), young black men are twenty-one times more likely to be shot by the police than are young white men.  How many white parents who have “the talk” with their teenage sons are not talking about sex, but how to deal with the police so they are not shot?  As reported in the Boston Globe on November 26 of last year, this rite of passage included one father who took away all his son’s hoodies because he was worried that they invite police attention.   White kids get the benefit of the doubt and black kids get labeled as potential threats to be responded to in a preemptive manner.