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.

Telling the (Hi)story of Jim Crow

There is a moment when you settle into your seats at a movie theater where you leave your sense of realism behind. You know that what you are about to see is a construction. A piecing together of someone else’s vision based on a nugget of an idea. For movies based on history that suspension of belief depends on how much you trust the writers, directors and the story you are being presented.

It’s all about interpretation, right?

Sign on a Restaurant in Lancaster, OH (c. 1938) Credit: Ben Shahn, from the Library of Congress (

One of the blogs that I read on a regular basis is called Interpreting Slave Life, which talks about the craft of telling the story of slavery. It is a tough job, requiring nuanced approach and a lot of thought. How can an interpretative approach demonstrate the complexity, the relationships? If you only have ten minutes with a group, what do you want them to walk away learning? The author, Nicole Moore takes the challenge head on and presents a nuanced approach in the telling.

That nuanced approach is also imperative when interpreting any period of history, and recently I’ve found myself looking at the differences between three narratives of Jim Crow. The first is an entirely fictional account of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, the second a recent action movie depicting the lives of the Tuskegee Airman, and finally a history text that narrates the migration of African Americans north during the same period. Each of these uses different storytelling tools (some more problematic than others) to convey the story of Jim Crow.

The Help

When putting together my “best of” list of books, movies etc., from this past year I put The Help in both the book and movie category. In terms of storytelling I found the narrative to be engaging—while also providing a glimpse into the day-to-day indignities to African American’s by Jim Crow.


But it’s not a perfect story—one that has garnered a lot of discussion and anger on a variety of viewers. The Association for Black Women’s Historians released a statement about the movie stating that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” specifically that it resurrects the “mammy” stereotype, misrepresents dialect of African American culture and speech, and “limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness” by “group of attractive, well dressed, society women.”

In contrast, an article in the New Republic by John McWhorter makes the argument that the movie sought by The Help’s critics “might make a kind of sense if American society were actually as resistant to acknowledging racism as we are so often told. One might see the film as a precious opportunity to introduce a forgotten story, and understandably wince to see the focus on living rooms rather than streets, women in the afternoon rather than Klansmen at night, and sprinklings of harmony in a story that should be about gunshots and fire hoses.”

Like any good historian, I recognize that bringing these stories to life often brings with it controversy, which is an important part of ensuring a dialogue, and making sure that no one version dominates the telling of this history. Part of why I found the story so effective was that it parsed down, to a granular level just how specific “separate but equal” became. That the very real danger of Jim Crow was that any given moment, the offense taken by whites in the south could be used as a reason for penalty—even if it was as non-violent losing your job, a consequence of incredible impact when opportunities for African American women were so hard to come by.

I do agree that there is also the problem of agency—that the narrative is on one level about a white woman reaching out to African American women asking them to tell their story rather than a group of African American women acting on it themselves. However, it remains compelling because of the way the book and movie acknowledges how the ugliness, the brutality, and the violence of a time barely fifty years past could have manifested itself in a more insidious nature—where many southern Americans were complicit in perpetuating a system of culture and fear, of power right down to the simple act of going to the restroom.

Red Tails

I had held off on putting together this post because I wanted to wait to see the Anthony Hemingway film (The Wire, Ali) Red Tails. I had heard about this move a few years ago, not because I wanted to learn more about the Tuskegee Airman (I had other avenues for that) but because of my interest in science fiction. As a Star Wars fan, I had read about George Lucas’ interest in having this film made and I recognized how powerful a film this could be with his backing.

The movie is alright. Not great, but good. As a film about fighter pilots it succeeds in drawing you in to the bravery and the difficulties of fighting against German jet planes. It succeeds in showing how the Tuskegee Airman proved themselves, breaking stereotype after stereotype, in a simplistic way. In interviews prior to its release Lucas stated that he wanted to make a movie that showed 14 year old boys want courage was.


But what about how it tells the story of Jim Crow? Like The Help it lacks grit (and as a friend said, if you go in expecting Saving Private Ryan, you’ll be disappointed). It is filmed in a style that feels almost nostalgic and romantic, trying to present the narrative of fighting for your country while being treated as second class citizens.

I think this is part of its difficulty. Where The Help looks at Jim Crow and successfully illustrates its dehumanizing nature, Red Tails (though taking place roughly twenty years earlier) takes it and reduces it to single lines, and single acts that are almost apart from the heroes that it affects.

Yes, the movie tries to show that these men are being underutilized; their skills are marginalized, placing them at an Italian air base where all they do is sit around waiting for the opportunity to do what they were trained for. Yes, it underscores, without any hint of subtly the poor equipment, the crappy supplies and ridiculous missions they were given.

But the moments of overt racism—a single line in a board room in the Pentagon, a use of the n-word in the “whites only” officers club, feel like an obvious attempt to point out racism rather than allowing it to flow seamlessly in the narrative. What the movie lacks, unfortunately is the context—the larger story of the Tuskegee Airman and how they were formed, which would have added further weight (in the movie) to the accomplishments of the 332nd Fighter Group.

One last thought, I recognize that the issues I had with the portrayal in Red Tails can be construed as an argument for the movie to stray away from the singular story that Lucas wanted to tell–the snapshot of the moment where the 332nd was able to prove themselves as more than what was expected of them (and in a modern sense, prove that a big budget action movie can be made with an all African American cast and still be successful). However, I think that as far as telling the (hi)story of Jim Crow it just misses the bull’s-eye.

The Warmth of Other Suns

A few months ago I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson give a speech at the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo, NY. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Wilkerson wrote an incredible book about the great migration of African Americans from Jim Crow called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day (which I found apt) I finished the book, and thought that it offered a great counter point to the other two narratives discussed in this blog. Unlike the two movies (and book), this is a non-fiction, history book. However, simply calling it non-fiction belittles its impact, in that while being a history book, it is very much falls within the realm of popular history—one that tells the story of an important piece of American history in a real and engaging way.


In short, the great migration was a period of American history that started in roughly 1915 and lasted through to the conclusion of Jim Crow in the 1960s. By the 1970s over six million African American’s had left their homes for new cities in the North and the West, and for ten years Isabel Wilkerson sought out their stories becoming, as historian Jill Lepore states in her review “a one-woman W.P.A. project. Her research took more than ten years, and is not unlike another chunk of work done by the Federal Writers’ Project: documenting the history of slavery, before its memory faded altogether.”

What I want to focus on is how Wilkerson tells the hi(story) of Jim Crow. Over the scope of seventy plus years she takes us through the lives of three individuals: Robert Pershing Foster, George Swanson Starling , and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. In a narrative format (as opposed to using the voice of historical authority) Wilkerson allows us into individual lives, while using other sections to pull us out to see the broader context. It is an effective method, making us feel how individual decisions led to different paths out of the South, while telling us about the migration on a grander scale at the same time.

She does not hesitate to show the differences. That for some the decision to leave was a culmination of years of indignity, while for others it was due to a specific threat and fear. In using the individual stories she is able to show the vileness of Jim Crow and how no one was immune to the terror it brought to the African-American community. In the same vein she uses the mechanism to show what happened after—from the struggle to make ends meet in the north (including that all was not rosy and perfect after migration), and that each person chose to fight racism in different ways.

This can be seen through the life of Robert Pershing Foster, a surgeon who was married the daughter of the President of Atlanta University who believed “to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it. So he had no patience for these sit-in displays, at least for his daughters anyway, much less actual violence.” (Wilkerson, 410)

What is great about this book, that movies like The Help and Red Tails cannot do with their limited scope, is that it shows the effect of Jim Crow on American history. That “many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis…and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the great migration and raised in the North or West.” (Wilkerson, 535)

The other piece that I appreciated about the book was how she used quotations from African-American writers like Langston Hughes to frame each chapter’s discussion, to show how these people expressed themselves in song, in poetry, and through literature about the life they had left behind, and the new one they had come to embrace.

A lot of history books take the chronological approach, looking at a particular period of history through the eyes of many individual stories that are illustrations of a broader historical narrative. In choosing to use three specific stories, ones that she chose for the three “paths” taken by African-Americans to escape the south, you feel more connected, and are able to understand more about why Pershing, Starling, and Gladney chose the road they took.


Official US Army Air Force Training Command photograph of 20 Tuskegee Airmen posing in front of a plane. Robert Glass is in the middle of the 3rd row. His signature, and that of 10 other colleagues are inscribed on the photograph. Credit (including caption):

Near the end of her book Isabelle Wilkerson states that the Great Migration was “if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface. “In the simple process of walking away one by one,” wrote the scholar Lawrence R. Rodgers, “millions of African-American southerners have altered the course of their own, and of all America’s, history.” (Wilkerson, 538)

I also believe strongly that even though some of these narratives miss the mark more than others, that these stories need to continue to be told in a popular mediums, to urge public dialogue and conversations about race in America in a very real way.

Articles of Interest

The Help

Open Statement to the Fans of The Help

‘The Help’ Isn’t Racist. Its Critics Are. (The New Republic)

New York Times movie review

HuffPost review

A Critical Review of the Help (Blog)

Red Tails

National Park Service: Tuskegee Airman

Red Tails on National Public Radio

The Tuskegee Airmen Are for Everyone (Huff Post)

‘Red Tails’ a disservice to Tuskegee Airmen

Also see: The Tuskegee Airman (HBO/PBS)

The Warmth of Other Suns

Book Review on The New York Times

The Uprooted (The New Yorker) by Jill Lepore

Hodge Podge: On Vice, Designations, and Reviewing a Home

Happy Thanksgiving! As we head on into the long weekend I thought it would be nice to think about food and foodways as a lead in to an event I attended at Woodlawn, the importance of our latest National Monument at Fort Monroe, and a review of a book about the evolution of a particular hearth and home.

On Vice and Food

Woodlawn during the 2011 Vices that Made Virginia Event. Image from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group Flickr Page

When I was an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to take a course on foodways. We learned about the sugar and salt trade and their role in global economies while also examining objects from our kitchens to see and understand everyday life.

A few days ago I learned that my professor from this course, Barbara Carson, had passed away, and so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned from her.

Food can tell us a lot of things about the past. On one level we learn about diets—how our ancestors (or grandparents even) got their nutrition. We learn about how advances in canning and preservatives allowed food from California to be eaten in Vermont. And with more and more advances in transportation commodities like tea, sugar, salt, and spices became less of a luxury and more accessible—removing these items as limited only to the rich.

How this food was prepared gives us insight into familial roles—and the role of mealtimes in the cult of domesticity. We learned more about how that expectation changed, and the how advent of TV dinners moved families from the dinner table to the couch.

This was on my mind when I attended the second annual “Vices that Made Virginia” program at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA. A National Trust property, this fund raiser was put on by Arcadia: Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture —a non-profit organization bringing farming back to Woodlawn while educating children and adults on how food comes from the farm to the table.

The program itself was set up to highlight Virginia vices: cigars, bourbon, wine and of course the fresh produce, while introducing visitors to the farm and the historic site where it lay. It was, in one word, delicious.

Thinking about local food, and eating local harvests is a current trend in being sustainable not only economically but also in establishing a healthy lifestyle. It is a matter of looking back into our pasts and recognizing that sometimes the best things to eat is in your backyard.

Professor Carson’s course gave me a foundation to understand the shifts in thinking about how we eat, when we eat, and why we eat…what we eat. She also provided me with the essential underpinnings on how to look at material culture and find meaning. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Designating a National Monument

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. This mini-conference was a brainstorming session, a place for attendees to envision a way to save a piece of history that is not often talked about: the history of the contraband.

In short, in May 1861, a little over a month following the shots at Fort Sumter a trio of slaves ran away to Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. When they arrived, the general, Benjamin Butler,chose to hold the runaways (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) as “contraband” rather then honor the Fugitive Slave Law and return them to their owner in the Confederacy. By the end of the war half a million formerly enslaved people had looked for freedom in the same way. Their legacy, which included camps in and around Washington, DC hastened Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery. [Learn more]

During the brainstorming session a key suggestion from those attending was to urge President Obama to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act and designate Fort Monroe, or “Freedom’s Fortress”, a national monument.

And guess what. this past month, he did.

Political affiliations aside, this is a “win” for everyone. I know that we are in turmoil—that finding common ground between the left and the right is a place that our politicians can’t seem find. In designating Fort Monroe as a national monument, President Obama (in my opinion, of course) emphasized how important our cultural heritage is in our identity as Americans—not merely as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. That is, finding common ground may involve taking a risk that will make our country stronger.

Forty years ago, historians came together to look at American history through different eyes: the eyes of women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Today, we are still working towards that goal—looking at “the forgotten” and telling their story. This National Monument at Fort Monroe is one more step in the right direction–recognizing the wide breath of stories in the American past

Reviewing At Home


Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s a book that came out a few years ago that looks at a particular home, his home to be exact, and searches for the histories of particular rooms. I’ve read Bryson before (A Walk in the Woods), and have liked his meandering tales. However, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

It’s not that it wasn’t in the same style as his other books. He uses the house—an old rectory in England—as a touchstone in telling broader stories about social changes in European architecture, family life and industry. But I had hoped for something a little bit more….structured.

I know, I know. Having read Bryson before I should have known better—but it was a little disconcerting at times to go from talking about a bedroom or a kitchen to the history of bedbugs and then to a discussion on funerary arrangements and graveyards.

That minor disappointment aside, At Home is one example of how a broader story can be told through a particular structure. Certainly not the first to use this mechanism, however it provides insights into how rooms can spark interest in the unexpected.


And with that I would like to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, (shop local), and live large.

Bring it on Buffalo

It is October! Which means I have been spending a full week here in Buffalo, NY for the National Preservation Conference. Last night I made a decision that instead of trying to write a bunch of posts for each day I would wait until I came home to share my thoughts. It will be a little bit more focused with less summary and more interpretation/reflective than I usually do. So stay tuned!

In the meantime you can follow along with the events in a variety of ways online.

Live Streamed Sessions:
Twitter: #presconf, or follow just me (but where is the fun in that) at @pc_presnation
Flickr: Preservation Nation Flickr stream
Blog: Preservation Nation blog.
Facebook: National Trust Facebook page

And check back here next week for more observation and thoughts.

And the Crowd Goes Wild: Introducing Hall of Famer Jim Percoco!

In high school you know how good a teacher is based on the rumor mill. Sometimes it is because the teacher is an “easy grader,” or someone who never notices that you cut class. Sometimes the teacher is Jim Percoco.

I’m not sure when I first heard about Percoco’s class. I must have been fifteen, a sophomore that had just dumped her computer science class for a course on typing. I can’t remember if I was unhappy, or just finding myself stagnated intellectually, but it was clear, that sometimes I was just bored. The next year I was assigned to Jim Percoco’s course, and from the moment I stepped through that door I could tell I was in a different world.

All the best teachers encourage you to look beyond yourself, to look up from the text book and learn from the world around you. Jim Percoco did more than that–he took a subject that many found stogy, boring, and lacking in relevance (in a generation before social media, blogging the ease of access of the internet on your telephone) and forced kids to willingly step outside and look at the “stuff” of history–to look beyond the words on the page and actually see the people who lived before us.

A lot of this continued into my senior year through his course called Applied History. The first half of the year was coursework, and the second half was spent in an internship (mine was at the Octagon House in Washington, DC). All just another step on my way to an undergrad degree and eventually an M.A. in history concentrating in public history.

The benefit of Percoco’s teaching style did not limit itself to his lesson plans. While the “reel” vs ” real” programs (looking at history on film and in the textbook), or the time we staged our own protest a la’ the Civil Rights movement were great, practical experiences, it was the way he carried and articulated his passion for the past that had the most impact. He wasn’t just a football coach teaching history, he actually cared about the lessons it could teach us–and the inspiration it could bring–Clio style.

From where I stand, almost eleven years since I first set foot in that corner room at West Springfield High School, there is no one more worthy of induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame than Jim Percoco. (The induction ceremony is today June 17, 2011, in Emporia, Kansas).

Congratulations Jim!

Preservation in Pop Culture: How I Met Your Mother

As I mention in the description of …and this is what comes next (and perhaps as can be evidenced by my inordinate love of the television show LOST) I am both a historian and a pop culture fanatic. This year one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother had a long running story line about an old hotel and one woman’s fight to save it. There are lots of hijinks along the way, but in the end the way the storyline portrayed preservation wasn’t pretty.

In response, my friend Will (who works at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota) and I wrote this blog post over at the PreservationNation blog where we talked about the plot line and what it says about preservation in pop culture.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

From Mountains to Stones…and Hope

Memory. Symbolism. Knowledge.

It isn’t so often that an opportunity presents itself…an opportunity to gaze upon something that few others have yet to see.

Of course I was by no means the first, the only, and after August 28th I certainly won’t be one of the few–but yesterday I had an opportunity to see the memorial to Martin Luther King prior to dedication.

The tour, made possible by the DC chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, was an hour long journey through the memorial’s creation — which began with a discussion by a group of brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha (the first African American fraternity) about inclusion, and that the lack of recognition of African American contributions to the American story in DC was why African American’s did not come to the National Mall.  After the origin story our guide walked us through design and development–explaining how an international jury of 11 judged 900 projects from 52 countries and brought them down to less than twenty in 3 days…and then to one.

With this Faith….

During the tour we walked through the process of meaning. Who was this for? Why is it being built? Where should we build it? Despite the initial conversation, this memorial is not meant only for African Americans. The foundation sees it as an international monument to a man who advocated for peace across the globe.

Symbolism.  As our guide,  Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. (executive architect), walked us though the Foundation’s intent he also described the path of choosing a sculptor (Master Lei) based on artistic merit, to the quotations (each one following along the themes of love, justice, democracy, and hope) that will edge along the site each revealing a man, though imperfect personally, that saw beyond civil rights to human rights.

The memorial sits along the tidal basin juxtaposed between Jefferson and Lincoln. While the connections between this historical lineage are obvious, it is clear that the memorial is speaking to the individual–emphasizing, as King did time and again that each of us have the potential to ask/demand change. Day or night his face on the largest free standing granite statue serves as a mechanism to encourage and remind visitors of the struggle:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

This is the memorial. Stepping through a narrow passage between two natural rock formations-despair, and coming around to see the relief of Martin Luther King with his message of hope. An image intense in its realism, right down to the veins on his hands.

On Memorials and Meaning:

There are realities to consider when building a memorial on the National Mall. In a post  9/11 world stopping cars from running aground are just as important as determining the symbolism of cherry blossoms that come alive, every year, around the time of MLK’s assassination.  Details matter and I couldn’t help wondering, as we walked around the space, of what meaning visitors will derive from the memorial. Will they sense the work of the architects, historians, the King family? Will they sense all the hands and hearts and minds that brought it to this existence?

Will they see, as I do (and despite this not being a civil rights memorial), the influence of Gandhi and the knowledge that without the work of King and the courageous acts of ordinary people who took a stand during sit ins and freedom rides that my life would have been drastically different.

What meaning will they gain from the visit? The Foundation and all of the others involved in the project have thought long and hard about the message they want to convey, however meaning, like many other elements of the past, are derived from the individual. It is that meaning which will determines the legacy of Martin Luther King and tell us if this memorial will enable that message to withstand the test of time.


Why no pictures? While I did take some there was a request to not post the image online. I will try to post them following the dedication on August 28. In the meantime you can see them on the monument site.  Check out this article about the memorial in the Washington Post.

A is For Arizona

I can’t believe that April is nearly at an end.  In a month that saw prep work for THE BIG EVENT in less than three weeks, and the NCPH conference in Pensacola I also had a quick, mini-vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona.  While we spent a good amount of time by the pool enjoying the warmth (it was still very chilly in DC, something that is no longer the case) there was an opportunity for some good eats, hiking, and a moment to take in a historic house tour.

I’ll be honest and say that this trip had an agenda–it was my sisters bachelorette party–and the goal was relax, relax, relax. So while we did take a lovely hike up Camelback mountain (you can see me in the slideshow sporting my shirt) the rest of the time pretty much just involved….



While in Scottsdale we ate at a lot of places. I did want to take a second to mention that as great as the food at Deseo was , the private mixology class where we learned how to make three different types of mohitos was fascinating–historically speaking of course. The instructor gave us a brief history of the drink and explained the different variations of rum and how they are developed. From some of the courses I took on foodways I remember thinking about the different regions of the world that make the liquor and how the histories of those nations were affected and transformed by production.  Specifically the history of sugar and the slave trade. If you want a really good book about the subject check out Sydney Mintz’s work Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

Food at Deseo

We also ate at…

Old Town Tortilla Factory

In addition to perfect weather, this restaurant had amazing southwestern/Mexican cuisine.  Built from a 75 year old Adobe, diners at the Old Town Tortilla Factory sit in the open air.  I would recommend getting the green enchiladas.

Hotel Valley Ho–Cafe Zu Zu

French Toast at Cafe Zu Zu

Brunch at Cafe Zu Zu was the perfect way to start our leisure filled Saturday. It also gave me an excuse to visit a very chic modernist hotel (part of the Historic Hotels of America collection). With awesome chandeliers, and a pretty trendy lobby–I thoroughly enjoyed my french toast.  If you love mid-century modernist hotels I recommend visiting the Valley Ho–or just read about its past.

Olive and Ivy

Our first stop when we landed was getting some food at Olive and Ivy. Despite it being the hottest day of the year (so far) in the area, we decided to sit outside. While we tried a lot of different food–the Sweet Corn and Tomato Flatbread was (to me at least) the star of the meal.

And Now for the History: Taliesin West

View from the front of Taliesin West

Earlier this week I posted this post over at PreservationNation about the perfect house tour. It stemmed from my general dissatisfaction of a tour I had received at Taliesin West. I wanted to elaborate on this a little. For me the typical house tour is symbolic of a time when great men dominated our history lessons. So while many tours work very hard to look “downstairs” or interpret slave quarters occasionally you get to a tour that hasn’t quite made the leap.

Now of course, the difference with Taliesin West is its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on American architecture–but the same principals apply. Instead of trying so hard to convince the captive audience of his greatness, the tour may have been better if his concepts and ideas were relayed narratively, using the house and the school to illustrate the points.  Instead, as an audience member, the conversation felt a little condescending. Rather than talk about the school in a way that talked curriculum and how it uses Wright”s vision to train new architects, we got discussions of accreditation and how many students are accepted. It felt, at times, much like an advertisement for applicants rather than a  story of Wright’s legacy–continuing on beyond his lifetime.  I am willing to concede, as I mention in the post above, that the temperature may have contributed to the ineffectiveness of our guide–or that it was a particular off day–but when you feel like the hour long tour could have been concluded in half the time, there is a problem.

Detail of a statue at Taliesin West

The tour aside, if you do have a  chance to visit this masterpiece do so. Every angle produces a new vision — of sky, water, stone against Arizona’s natural landscape. A is for Arizona–which means it was absolutely amazing.

Note: Speaking of historic moments. While we were in AZ, some of the party attendees stayed up all night to watch the final cricket match of the cricket world cup between India and Sri Lanka. At this moment the Indian team was playing against a team that had dominated the series, while they had fought tooth and nail to make it to the end. It was a team that had not made the finals since the year I was born (1982). While very much an important part of Indian culture, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in witnessing the exciting win–and felt like I was a part of a nationwide moment of joy. So I say Bravo India!

View the full album of pictures.