Change is Gonna Come

Oh my, my, my. What a difference a day makes.

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

Rainbows in New York City. #LoveWins (Instagram Filter) | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Twenty-four hours ago while, on a bus to New York City, I wrote a blog post which I probably will never share beyond my family. Incredibly pessimistic, the post reflected on heritage, hate, and deflection born out of frustration and my own anger at another tragic series of deaths.

Then today happened. Not only did we see that #lovewins, but we heard President Obama, in his eulogy to Reverend Pinckney, proclaim:

Continue reading “Change is Gonna Come”

Finding What We Need: Native American Heroines and the Creation of Historical Myths

This post originally appeared on the FANgirl blog.

The Corps of Discovery in Kansas City, MO, which features Sacagawea
The Corps of Discovery in Kansas City, MO, which features Sacagawea | Credit: Kristina Downs

On FANgirl we talk a lot about heroines – who they are, what makes them strong, how they represent and influence the culture we live in. Often these discussions involve looking at the process of myth-making and storytelling; stereotypes and archetypes – and how they reflect real world needs and ideas. These ideas specifically are rooted in our historical narrative.

For a long time the history we learned was told from a singular perspective: the white male, the victors, the overseers, the husbands. Since the 1960s historians have worked to fill that gap looking at the same history from additional viewpoints including African-American, immigrants, Native-Americans, and women. While we have some primary sources written by members of this specific groups, sometimes our understanding of these lives come from folklore: stories, myths, music, and literature.

Folklore gives us a sense of iconic figures and representations that reflect the age in which they were written. These historical mythologies are transitional and ever shifting from decade to decade, just as our heroes and heroines in science fiction have changed based on where we were in time.

About a month ago I sat down with a friend of mine, Kristina Downs, to talk about her dissertation on Native American heroines. We’ve known each other for about ten years through a mutual love of Shakespeare and science fiction at the College of William and Mary, but it was only recently through a random post on Facebook that I realized she was in the process of getting her Ph.D. in folklore. Continue reading “Finding What We Need: Native American Heroines and the Creation of Historical Myths”

Stand Up, Speak Up, Speak Out and…Get in the Way

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. -Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (August 28, 1963).

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I’d like to say that I spent my day at the edge of my seat watching the news coverage and the live streaming…but I didn’t. I spent most of my day watching my three week old niece cry, sleep and overall just be adorable.

While the television wasn’t on I did follow my Twitter feed, read reactions on Facebook, and read transcripts of the speeches by Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama. This morning I listened to the short remarks by the only still living speaker from that day in 1963: Representative John Lewis.

Continue reading “Stand Up, Speak Up, Speak Out and…Get in the Way”

Context Matters

A few weeks ago I went to see the movie Argo. It’s one of those historical movies where we already know the ending–that a group of Americans who had escaped being held hostage by the Iranians had hidden in the Canadian Ambassador’s house before being rescued. In 1981 the rescue came from the Canadians themselves, in 2012, once the mission was declassified by the CIA, we learned the true story. That an American Intelligence Officer had entered the country as part of a fake film crew and had led those individuals to safety.

The film is great both for reasons you might expect (intense, suspenseful, heroic), but also because of the first five minutes in which we are given context. In those five minutes we are told in wide brush strokes the key elements of Persian/Iranian geo-political history…and the active role of the United States and Britain in that history, emphasizing, that nothing happens without a precipitating action.

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The Revolution in 1865

A common image of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s Assassin. From the Library of Congress collection.

For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.

–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt

When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.

Continue reading “The Revolution in 1865”

Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity

In an article between the Civil War Trust and James Percoco (one that includes some great images of him in action), my high school history teacher, stated “I think what will serve as my legacy is the numbers of young people who found their calling for life through their experiences in my classroom. The American historian, journalist, and educator Henry Adams once wrote, ‘A teacher effects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.’ ”

At his retirement party yesterday that influence was self-evident as former students (including me), family members, and colleagues stood up to talk about his accomplishments.

I know I’ve talked about Jim’s influence on my love of history (last year in a piece on the day of his induction into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame) , and so I thought I would reflect on Percoco’s remarks at the gathering last night.

Continue reading “Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity”

Finding Preservation and Accessible History at the 2012 Webby Awards

Re-posted from

Everyone’s heard of the Grammys, the Oscars, and the Emmys. But last night was an awards show of a different kind. The 2012 Webby Awards, held at Manhattan’s historic Hammerstein Ballroom, celebrated people, companies, and organizations that have done something especially intriguing, impactful, and engaging online.

Continue reading “Finding Preservation and Accessible History at the 2012 Webby Awards”

Smelling the Flowers and Taking in Tech in Milwaukee

The Mitchell Park Conservatory

Earlier yesterday, this post went up on the blog.

In the next two weeks I will find myself in Milwaukee, WI (where I am right now) and Ft. Worth Texas. Both trips are professional in focus, the first for my annual pilgrimage to a new US city for the National Council on Public History. This is a conference that every year introduces me to new people and new conversations.

Mentally, the historian in me battles with my inner foodie and urbanist. I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what to see, what to eat, and what makes these cities tick.

We hit the ground running here in Milwaukee. Not only did I get to stay at the historic Ambassador Hotel the first night, I also got to visit the Domes, three modernist greenhouses that are a part of the Marshall Park Conservatory. If you think the exterior looks cool, check out the inside….the three domes had flowers and plants from a tropical ecosystem, a desert ecosystem, and the final one, which demonstrated the human effect on landscapes and flowers.

Then we had the second annual THATCamp NCPH. If you remember from last year this is an unconference, an informal learning experience having to do with digital and new media in the humanities. The sessions I attended had to do with the future of blogging, the issues surrounding bringing scholarly publications to the digital realm, and a closer examination of branding and promotion for organizations and projects. I walked away, as usual, with a plethora of really cool websites and links.

I’m hoping to do a more analytical post about content at the end of the conference but I wanted to emphasize my goal for the next two weeks as I experience Milwaukee and travel to Texas:

I’m feeling the pull — that urge to make sure that I don’t miss a minute, a site, or a story, and to walk away from both these places seeing them as more than just a meeting room space.

Breaking it Down: A Museum of News, Going Undercover, A Celebration, and Splashes of Color

From time to time, I like to put in my two cents on exhibitions I have seen. However, like any museum goer I bring of baggage: expectations, assumptions. This coupled with my understanding of narrative and story effects what I see presented—especially when it comes to how objects and technology are used to tell a story. In the last two months I’ve seen two museums and two exhibitions: the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Ralls Collection in Georgetown.

The History of the News

The Berlin Wall @ the Newseum By on Flickr

Here in DC we are spoiled. The Smithsonian Institution allows us free access to some excellent exhibitions, art and performances. Consequently it takes a lot of convincing for me to pay for a museum, especially one seemingly as large as the Newseum. The traditional adult ticket price for the museum is a $20 pass that will let you in the museum for two days. It is a price clearly meant for tourists, and implies that there are enough activities and exhibits to fill two days at the museum. (Though it feels a little bit unrealistic because if I only had a few days in a particular city I wouldn’t want to go back to the same museum two days in a row). A few months ago a Groupon came up essentially cutting the cost of the museum in half, and so off I went.

The mission of the Newseum is to “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tell the stories of the world’s important events in unique and engaging ways.” And it does. In seven floors the museum addresses the history of the press (from newspapers to radio to television), to the press during pivotal moments of history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also deals with the first amendment to the Constitution, highlighting its importance in American history.

We went through the museum in about four hours, spending more time in the main gallery with its original books and newspapers showing the progression in headlines and type. While I did appreciate this gallery, I’ve heard that when the museum gets crowded it’s impossible to actually spend any actual time in this space.

They also have a section of the museum dedicated to the tragedy of 9/11. Headlines and broadcast reports document that day. When the ten year anniversary happened a few months ago I realized that I wasn’t quite ready for it, and chose to avoid the documentaries and discussions that evaluated our live since the attack. In this gallery I felt much the same way. My friend and I talked about where we were when it happened, and how vivid some of the details still are. It’s pretty powerful to see everything pulled together in one space, a reminder (as if we need it) of just how insane everything was.

The thing the Newseum does well is to look at current events to show the place of free speech in society. If anything its array of daily newspapers emphasizes the differences in this country, but also, very much highlights some of our similarities. It’s true that good, credible, news tries to be unbiased, but each is reflective of a certain subtle direction – and you can see that by a brief scan of headlines from each state in the country. I also appreciated how the Newseum made the connections between communication platforms from a century ago, to the different ways that we get news today.

I’m not sure if I would recommend paying full price, but if you do have time on your hands and want to see some interesting artifacts by all means go.

Going Undercover

The outside of The Spy Museum in Washington, DC at night.
Credit: Sean Rooks on Picasa

My next museum was another half off deal to the International Spy Museum. I will readily admit that I walked into the museum not knowing what to expect, and like the Newseum expected it to be a bit flashy, after all a museum about spies should be all about the spy experience.

When we first got there we were ushered into elevators that took us to the top floor where we were told to memorize an identity in five minutes. It reminded me, on some level, of visiting the Holocaust Museum, where we left the airy lobby space and entered the dank, din horror of the permanent exhibition (via elevator), complete with our own identity cards….but designed to be like a game rather than to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In the Spy Museum we were then sent into an orientation video that walks you through the different faces of being a spy, or a double agent even going so far as to chronicle famous spies and traitors to the United States.

The next stop was outfitting, where were told how to do a dead drop, provide signals, disguise ourselves. We even got to crawl through “ductwork” while listening to bugs placed elsewhere in the exhibition….and that’s where things got less interesting.

I’m not saying that the history of spies through the years wasn’t well done – it just didn’t feel engaging or as dynamic as it is touted to be. The set up is a little confusing, and at times as we hopped from time period to time period, I lost the thread of the over arching narrative for the museum.

And those identities? We were told that we would be quizzed about them—but my friend and I only saw the testing at the end, and we walked away thinking that we had missed some crucial piece along the way. (It was a few questions designed to see if you can travel through customs without arousing suspicion.)

I think I may have expected too much, and instead of seeing through the hype was disappointed when I wasn’t “wowed.”

New York Public Library's Main Inquiry Desk (c.1923). Image from the NYPL Flickr Stream.

A Centennial

I’ve often heard that the architecture of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is a must-see for visitors to the city. So when I had a chance to visit a few weeks ago, I decided to go. It is a beautiful building. Great arches, stonework, what you feel a library should look like. Though there wasn’t time to go through the reading rooms, I did walk through the centennial exhibition “Celebrating 100 Years.”

Not a large exhibition, but it was a very effective one. Dividing the room into Observation, Contemplation, Creativity & Society the objects and books reflect documents of discovery, religion, imagination/fiction, and political/social history. Music scores, Charles Dickens’s letter opener, engravings all pull together a bigger picture the written word.

One of the things I loved about the exhibition was how the architecture features of the building were used to enhance the exhibition. Pre-existing columns and archways mark the section breaks moving visitors in a smooth manner.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Toy Theatre mural opposite the Brewmaster's Castle in Dupont Circle.

Earlier in the month I found myself arrested by color in a mural that had gone up in Dupont Circle. It was fairly magnificent and reminded me of why I find myself in awe of individuals who can put together two seemingly disparate shades of color and make them “pop.”

And so a few days later I visited The Ralls Collection in Georgetown to attend a lecture by two artists about the effect of place (specifically, Japan, Korea, and India) on their work. Once again I found myself drawn into the color and the abstract nature of both of their work.

During their gallery talk, John Blee and David Richardson spoke about how their travels influenced the their color palette. Richardson spoke of how his Expatriate series reflects the reds, gray’s, and blacks of Seoul. That being said, neither individual’s work “screams” Asia, and that subtlety is what makes the paintings strong and imaginative.

Both artists are part of the exhibition “20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection” which is filled with a wide array of fantastic pieces. What I loved about the talk was how passionate both artists were about the process, speaking candidly about how they got started, and how their art comes after the inspiration, but also from a place that is sometimes unexplainable.


While this exhibition is different from the three others I described they each worked to tell a story using color, text, objects in an effective way. If you visit (or have visited) any of these exhibitions let me know what you think in the comments below!

Guest Post: Coming Home for the First Time

Note from Priya: From time to time I like to open my blog up to friends who have had great experiences with public history. One of the most common ways that we connect with the past is through our family. Here is one story of making that connection.

By William Blake

When I was young, I asked my dad where I got my name from. He explained to me that I was not, in fact, named after the poet. I was named after my ninth-great-grandfather who left England and settled in Boston in the 1630s. His son, James, built a house in Dorchester, just outside the city, that still stands to this day. One year for Thanksgiving, my dad took me and my brother to Boston, where we had the chance to see the Blake House and visit a nearby cemetery containing Blakes from many generations ago.

My dad did not know much about the Blake family in England, but that didn’t bother me. For any young American interested in history, that is an amazing enough story. Many of my friends cannot trace their origins back more than one century. In the last year, I have discovered I can trace my origins back eight centuries, back to the days of Magna Carta. Along the way, I have found connections to a coat of arms, members of parliament, the poet (who is likely a 12th cousin), and a cousin nicknamed the “Father of the Royal Navy,” who is buried at Westminster Abbey.

When my then-fiancée suggested that we spend our honeymoon in England over Christmas, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. After we got married, I spent my summer studying for my grad school comprehensive exams. I broke up the monotony of studying by doing genealogical research (if you have not tried, you should!). I connected with a distant relative in Australia who has been researching the Blake family for years. He opened my eyes to a great deal of information about the early Blakes in England.

I now have a more precise answer as to where my name comes from. Blake is the old English word for black, and years ago I read speculation that the name was applied to an ancestor with black hair or dark skin. Surnames were often adopted to tell two people with the same first name apart. This was not the case with our family. About two hours west of London lies the county of Wiltshire. In 1194, Richard I established the parish of what is known today as Blacklands just outside the market town of Calne in Wiltshire. The parish contains only about 500 acres, and it name refers to the dark forest that once existed there.

The original name of the parish, however, was Blakeland (or Blakelonde). It was a common practice for Norman nobles to adopt surnames based on the location of land they owned – given to them by a Norman king. DNA tests of other Blake descendants reveal Norwegian markers, which could also indicate Norman ancestry. As far as I can tell (and this is a rough estimate), my 24th-great-grandfather was John de Blakeland, born ca. 1200.

Just to the west of Blacklands is Pinhills Farm, a house that dates back to the mid-17th century. It was built, in part, out of materials from a much older manor house that was burned during the English Civil War. The old manor house is listed as the possession of one of Alfred the Great’s grandsons in the 10th century. The Blake family acquired Pinhills sometime in the 14th century and lived there for about four centuries. The Blake family supported Parliament during the Civil War, and Pinhills stood as a garrison for Cromwell’s forces in Wiltshire, and a moat was added to protect the manor. Unfortunately, that area of Wiltshire fell to Royalist forces on December 28, 1643, and Prince Rupert ordered Pinhills to be destroyed.

I was able to get in contact with the current residents of Pinhills Farm, and they graciously gave us permission to visit on our trip. On December 27, we rented a car and set off from London for Wiltshire. It was difficult restraining my excitement, but I had to in order to navigate the hazards of driving on the wrong side of the road. The English countryside was more beautiful than I could imagine, and I think could England could be described as the Emerald Isle just as easily as Ireland. We exited the highway, drove through the town of Calne, and onto Pinhills.

The family currently living at Pinhills could not have been kinder to us. They gave us an expert tour, allowed us to take plenty of photographs, and then invited us in for a proper English tea – complete with China and homemade cake. We had a nice chat about history and politics. Although we did not take pictures inside the house, I did have the chance to touch some very old ceiling beams, which likely were part of the materials salvaged from the original manor house. It was truly awe inspiring to have such a physical connection with a place that has so much history, especially so much history connected with my family.

The grounds of Pinhills have been kept in immaculate condition, including the moat. When originally constructed, the moat was about 15 ft. deep. As a result of erosion, it is only about 5 ft. deep. The area inside the moat, where the original manor house once stood, has been converted into a beautiful garden. I felt such an incredible sense of inner peace being there. Our hosts pointed out one old tree under which George Prothero, an English historian, wrote one of his manuscripts. My reaction was that I would be so much happier to write my dissertation under that same tree than anywhere else on Earth.

As if the family connections on our trip could not get any more enjoyable, the next day we drove back to London and I went to Westminster Abbey. At first it looked like I was not going to be able to go in, as I arrived close to time from the last admission. I told a marshal that there are memorials to two of my cousins in the Abbey – the poet and Admiral Robert Blake. The marshal called her boss, the head marshal, and when he heard my name, I got VIP treatment. I was whisked inside without waiting in line or paying admission. I got to see parts of the Abbey usually out-of-bounds to tourists, which was a good thing because the memorial to Robert Blake is located just off the tourist route.

All-in-all it was a truly magical trip, but I already have a long list of genealogical and historical things I want to do on the next trip.