Line of Sight Part Deux

When I was in graduate school I spent a lot of time reading about the technological sublime. That feeling of overwhelming fullness, sensory overload, you get when standing beneath awe-inspiring feats of human engineering. Crafted and designed by human hands these structures stand as a counterpart to the natural sublime that comes when beholding formations like the Grand Canyon and Chimney Rock.

When I stand at the edge of a city, I perform the same action, over, and over again. I close my eyes, open them and let my gaze sweep along the horizon, pinpointing the tallest structure I can see.

Then click. Snap. I take a picture.

Continue reading “Line of Sight Part Deux”


Milwaukee’s Best: The 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Conference

Many of my posts on this blog are often connected more often than not to my thoughts about the past through books, movies, exhibits, and travel. Seeing the reflection of the past in the “stuff” we consume, produce, and leave behind.

However, sometimes I like to look past the “why” and to the “how,” to the practice of public historians — what we do well, what we should be doing, and how I can engage in this broader conversation.

This year’s annual conference for the National Council on Public History involved a convergence and a merging of ideas with the Organization of American Historians. As expected the five days in Wisconsin were filled with networking and sessions which integrated your typical academic style paper(s) with the more hands on, interpretive style of the public historian presentations.

So I thought that I would use this, my first of three [the second will come in a few days, the third on food will post in June] posts on my trips to talk about methodology — providing examples of different (or not so different) conversations through the lens of the meetings and sessions I attended.

Continue reading “Milwaukee’s Best: The 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Conference”

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.

Flinging Ourselves into the Unknown: The Preservation Lesson of Buffalo

Delay. Delay. Delay. I’m going to be honest—this post has been a challenge to conceive and write. Not because I had nothing to say, but because I didn’t know how to frame my lessons from the 2011 National Preservation Conference. Much of this has to do with the fact that I wasn’t able to see the closing plenary—which serves not only as an end cap to a week of knowledge sharing, and networking, but as a launching point for where we are going.

Thankfully, that changed with the magic of the internet. First, the usual acknowledgement: I wasn’t a normal attendee of the conference. My daily job was to serve as conference staff—sitting in on sessions, passing out evaluations, taking tickets, which meant that with the exception of a session or two (and the major plenaries) what I saw and heard was often confined to the room in which I was assigned (or the Twitterverse), but what I did hear and learn afforded a glimpse into the future.

In closing her speech (and the conference), Isabel Wilkerson, author of a book about the migration of African Americans from Jim Crow South, quoted Richard Wright re his decision to migrate to New York City.

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

This may be an awkward analogy but preservation is, has been, migrating. In the last ten years alone, the way we do business, the way we interact with others has changed dramatically. And it all started by sticking our toe, and in some places, jumping right headlong, into the unknown. We’ve seen how important our work is in regards to community development, we’ve stepped up about the importance of character, and how where we live, how we live, and why we live there matters. We’ve also spoken out about the importance of existing buildings in the sustainability movement. We are getting involved, making partners in ways that those outside the movement don’t expect.

But we are a reflection of events in the larger, broader world—where we as a country, as a global system have to re-think the way we’ve always done business or else run ourselves into the ground. We have to change the way we live in order to survive. Everything will not just work out “in the long run.”

That’s a pretty awful phrase, “the long run.” Often a justification to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, because in “the long run” everything will work out the way it was meant to. It isn’t a phrase we can depend on anymore. As preservationists—heck, as historians—we have the ability to see where we’ve been and embrace change—bucking perception of our work. This conference showed me this. That all around this country there are preservation professionals taking risks, and finding new ways to meet the challenges of the coming years. So perhaps that is the biggest preservation lesson of Buffalo—that change is going to come, whether we want it to or not—but that we as a movement are prepared to meet it, to take our ethic, and transplant it in new directions, to cultivate it to respond to the the warmth of other suns…and bloom.

There are a few ways to catch some of the sessions from this National Preservation Conference. Visit for more information.

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.

Pursuing Pensacola: Final Thoughts

Wordle Map of the NCPH 2011 Conference by Cathy Stanton

In the last week I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about Pensacola….

NCPH 2011: Shared Authority, Creating a Commons–Another Day at THAT Camp
NCPH 2011: A Public History “Spring” Break (
History that is Difficult to Do (NCPH Conference Blog)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 1)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 2)

…and this one is the last. As always NCPH brought with it a meeting of minds, and a reminder of why I love history so much. The commitment and passion that comes with this yearly gathering forces me to look at how I work, and how I see the past with different tools and audiences. Often, I leave with a lot of great ideas, without enough time to bring them to fruition–and I would love for this year to be different. Specifically, I am excited about the next five years and what the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this morning with shots being fired at Fort Sumter) will mean for the growth of historical discourse and memory in this country. How can we look to and learn from other commemorations to make sure that this volatile and game-changing period of America’s past is understood to  its full measure?

It’s an exciting time for public history–and I am proud and exhilarated to be a part of it.

Food. Food. Food.

What would a blog post about my travels be without a conversation about food. While I did eat at various places in the Historic Pensacola Village, there are three that I wanted to highlight

Dolce in Historic Pensacola Village: I really should only have to type out the following words–home made ice cream. With chocolate flavored with beer, or vanilla with fig each of the flavors at this store were great to eat. Especially in the lovely spring weather. The fact that it is located inside one of the Village’s restored homes makes it even better.

Five Sisters Blues Cafe: The marquee at the left may give you an idea of what the ambiance of this cafe was like. With live blues music, and perfect fried chicken and macaroni I was left in a puddle of southern home cooking goodness. I ate far too much for my own good, but would tell you that even if you eat until you can’t eat any more, you must try the mashed potatoes.

Nacho Daddies: I know the name is slightly ridiculous, but I loved the pineapple-mango salsa on my vegetarian/chicken tacos. It’s a great, independent fast food place with an excellent vibe. The sopapilla‘s were flaky and sweet and complimented the light nature of the tacos.

Everyone ate ate at least one Fried Green Tomatoes while in Florida. Yum!


Go Go Goa….and Endings

The third part of my trip involved a long needed vacation within my vacation. At this point my sisters and I had shopped for six days straight and it was time to kick up our feet. So we traveled (a quick 1 hour flight) to South Goa, but because it was right before the start of peak season everything was fairly quiet…so we took it in stride and did a whole lot of nothing.

First, let’s clear  up some confusion. Before deciding to go on this trip I had concocted a vision of Goa—one smallish city filled with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. I was half right. One side of Goa is covered with beaches, but it is actually a small state in India with many localities. An allusion to the state’s history can be seen in the name of its largest city “Vasco de Gama.” While the area has an ancient history, it was colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and was annexed by the Indian government in 1961. Consequently, this state is filled with historical sites that range from the ancient to the modern.

Here are a few of the places we traveled to during our stay:

Vargota Beach: The infamous rocky beach. The pictures speak for themselves.

Fort Aguada: Built in the sixteenth century, the fort was meant as a way to guard the Portuguese from attacks by sea. While the lower part of the fort is now a beach resort, the upper part provided some awesome vistas.

Bom Jesus Basilica: A World Heritage Site, this basilica is also the site of Saint Francis Xavier’s body. A friend of Ignatius Loyola, Xavier was also a co-founder of the Jesuits. I couldn’t get any pictures of the actual casket (and couldn’t see the body), but from others who have seen it before its apparently extra creepy.

Food, Glorious Food

In general, I eat a lot of home cooked Indian food when I go to Mumbai, mostly due to our tendency to succumb to what my cousins’ call the “weak American stomach.”  So most days our meal includes the traditional Indian meal, with slight twists that depend on the house we are eating at. This consists of what I call Dhal, Bhat, Rotli, Shak (so Lentils, Rice, Bread, and Vegetable). When we ate out the food included South Indian Dosa’s and Uttapum–and some delicious butter chicken/tandoori and some food in the non-Indian variety. For anyone heading out to Mumbai here are some suggestions:

American Continental: Just Around the Corner (Mumbai–Andheri)

Chinese: China House, Mainland China (Mumbai: Bandra)

In Goa (at the “shacks”): Zeebop, Brittos, Martin’s Corner

The Homestretch

The last three days here were filled with the usual end of vacation running around, but first let’s talk about the verdict. Here in the United States, the one verdict that I remember EVERYONE paying attention to was the OJ Simpson trial.  That was a verdict filled with racial tension and class tension. This was not that kind of verdict.  One week before we were supposed to leave the High Court in India was to give the verdict in the Babri Masjid Case, a sixty year old dispute between Muslims and Hindus that involved the destruction of a Mosque on what Hindu’s believe is the holy birthplace of Lord Rama. I won’t go into detail about the actual case, just that the verdict has been long anticipated, and will probably still go up to the Indian Supreme Court before it is laid to rest.  In talking about what might happen family members reminisced about the riots in the 1990s, when it was too dangerous to even step outside the home. The insanity and the fear, and the worry that the decision in this case might launch the city and the country into another round of craziness.

Postponed to the day before we had to leave, the good news is that the verdict, coming from three different judges, divided the land into three parts for the three disputing parties (1/3 to the Hindus, 1/3 to the Muslims, 1/3 to the wrestling group that used to have property on the land) fair and even. However, since the tension was palatable–you could almost sense the city and the country breathing in relief as the decision was read. And so…business went on as usual.

And by usual I mean last minute visits to relatives, collecting clothing post-alteration, and my favorite activity whenever I visit the other city that never sleeps–bangle shopping! Like fabric shopping the rows and rows of colorful bangles provide so much potential for pretty, and is also a highly valued art form. You walk in, give your price point and the bangle vendors put the set’s together according to the outfit’s they match up with. Super fun. Check out this video at Priya Bangles (Yes, I do think its funny that the store has the same name as me).

My trip ended in the same way it progressed, with a mad rush. My cousin got stuck in traffic so I ended up going to the airport three hours before I needed to for a 1:45 am flight. I ended up getting into a great conversation about World Cup Soccer and American Sports with a South African-Indian family (4th generation South African, whose history in South Africa began with indentured servitude for the British).  I also got to take a quick break in London (six hour layover) to visit some cousins for breakfast (Giraffe in Richmond–two thumbs up).

Back to the story. I did learn something about my family while I was in India. My grandmother told me about her father and how he made his way up in the world–taking care of everyone around him and how to this day his name is respected. I also learned that my family is full of singers, and are talented in many, many, ways that I never expected.  It was a great three weeks–and I came away with more than just clothes. I came back full of memories.

Click here to view the full photo album from the trip.

A Mountain Retreat (with Sari shopping, a Movie and a Play)

One of the great things about India is that it is a place you have to experience. I can describe how we get from one place to another—squeezing into a rickshaw in damp heat, or the terror I have in crossing the street—especially when cars don’t maintain lanes…but it’s not the same as being here. However, the last few days have been a hodgepodge of new experiences, though I will report that I am no closer to getting information out of my grandmother than I was five days ago despite having an excellent birthday party, with some amazing images from her past, present and future (great-grand kids who are absolutely adorable).

Baar baar din ye aaye, baar baar dil ye gaaye
Tu jiye hazaaron saal, ye meri hai aarzoo
Happy Birthday to you

Time And Again, Let This Day Return, Time And Again Let The Heart Sing This
May You Live Thousands Of Years, This Is My Wish
Happy Birthday to you

From Faarz (1967)|Listen to the song here|

The birthday celebrations launched with a trip to Khandala—a mountain retreat about an hour outside of Mumbai. The gaggle of family members that came with me (21 in all) ranged from 80 to 3. It included uncles, aunts, cousins, cousin-in-law’s who came from India and the UAE. Aside from the general family revelry (who doesn’t love 21 people in a room with a Karaoke machine) we visited some waterfalls and had exciting encounters with crabs. The one in the picture here is one that decided it lived in my cousin’s toilet—and sometime in the night crawled out to visit.

That being said, Khandala was beautiful. A tad cooler than the city, it boasted amazing view shed’s of lush greenery, though due to low rainfall the waterfalls had been reduced to a trickle. At one point we found ourselves driving up the windy roadway engulfed in a fog bank, unable to see more than a foot in front or behind. Then there were the monkey’s that hung out on the expressway as we took pictures of the Duke’s nose on our way home.

Silky Saris and Other Shopping Fun

After our trip the shopping for the wedding began in earnest. Its hard to explain the magic of a sari shop which holds rows upon rows of the six yard long garment in varying prices, sizes, and fabrics. Some come in dual tone with nothing but embroidery while others are filled with jari (translation lots and lots of beading and stones, almost like someone ran a muck with a beadazzler). When you step into a shop you sit in front of a table and give one of two things—a price point or a description of what you are looking for. Then the sales clerks pull out product after product trying to gauge your reaction. The fun in all this is seeing the flashing color swirl around you olive greens, deep purples, pinks and lavenders, oranges and blues (sometimes on the same garment) while checking out how the blouse piece contrasts with the actual sari. Then once you decide on the color you have to remember to take a a critical eye to the “palu” the end of the garment that drapes down your back (or in front depending on how you drape the fabric—trust me, there are many, many ways). Click here for a video of how we try on Saris at the store (starring my sister).

Another way that we shop is to take older sari’s of my mothers and take it to a tailor who transforms them into gaghra choli’s (basically a blouse/skirt/scarf) or a punjabi suit (a long top with pants). In order to get those made you have to buy lining which involves a whole other type of shopping—as seen here. I know that fabric shops exist in the United States but the process of making and buying clothes here is a full-service one that uses a different set of skills than one usually uses.

Bollywood & Kaanji

I’m not going to lie. We didn’t spend all our time inside stores, ogling clothing. When we first got back from Khandala we went to see a Hindi movie called Dabaang (Fearless). It stars Salmaan Kahn, an actor who I don’t particularly like but was what we call a timepass movie. Turn off your brain and enjoy….the colors, the fights (which were a combination of Kill Bill and Matrix style feats and acrobatics). Not to mention the song and dance numbers which I still can’t get out of my head. (Click on the link for a music video).

Then on Viserajan— we decided to brave the crowds to go see my cousin’s husband in a Gujarati play, something we’ve always wanted to do but have never had the chance. I know I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a firm grasp on either Hindi or Gujarati, something I always vow to fix, but I was amazed at how much I understood. Entitled Kaanji versus Kaanji (Kaanji being another name for Lord Krishna)it was essentially an adapted piece about a man who loses his lively hood due to an earthquake (“an act of God”)  and upon being turned down for insurance decides to sue god.

It was fantastic. I’m not saying this just because my cousin was in it, but it was funny, serious, and meaningful all at the same time. It dealt with issues of spirituality, ritual, and made some cutting observations about the practice of Hinduism in the modern (and digital) age.

The final part of the play, which dealt with belief, practice, life and death asked the audience to first find god within yourself before looking for him/she/it out in the world.

This is India I suppose, one part spirituality, one part entertainment, and another part full of vivid color and family. A portrait, a rendering of philosophical theory, mixed in with millions of unique stories and lives.

Click here to view more pictures of Khandala and Shopping.

Rome in A Day: An Exhibit Review

Here is the Rome & American exhibition review that I promised a few weeks back.

Context Matters

It was an intensely sweltering July when I traveled up to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA for the exhibition Ancient Rome & America. On the website for the exhibition ( there is the following statement.

Rome, like the United States, overcame a monarchy to become a republic. Long after the fall of ancient Rome, its heroes and legends have continued to influence future generations. From the battlefields of the revolution to the chambers of Congress, Rome became a part of America’s foundation. Through marble sculptures, paintings, jewelry, coins, and ceramics, Ancient Rome & America draws striking comparisons between Roman and American culture, from theories of government to slavery and civil war, to continental expansion and worldwide influence.

First of all, I would like to agree with the premise of the exhibition that the comparisons between Rome and America do certainly exist, especially during the early years of our republic. The significance and history of the classical period to our Founding Fathers is evidenced in our Constitution, and through our architecture. The problem with this exhibition isn’t proving that the connection exists, rather it is the way the information is presented that makes the argument seem almost superficial.

The exhibit was divided up into a few different galleries. Three sections smaller in stature, followed by a longer gallery with an alcove, and then a fifth/sixth section that wound its way to a final, exhibit capping video that asked the requisite open ended question: “What does ancient Rome foretell about the fate of America?”

As I walked around I took note of the major section headings that to me, were grouped into these rough sections:

Section Headings:

Building a Republic: Legends and Founding Myths, Tale of 2 Generals (Cincinnatius and George Washington), Military Triumphs-Carthage

By the People for the People: Census, inspiration/Role of Written Law, Oration-Classically Speaking, Comparisons to Caesar

A Classical Revival:
Architecture/Style, Remnants in the Ancient World: Grand Tour/Influences. Pompeii Herculaneum, American Documentation Founding Fathers/Mothers

Classical Style, Architecture/Entertainment, Monumental Cities, Brad and Circuses, Hollywood

Expansion/Empire Establishing Empire, Trade/Treasure,Enduring Legacy

It ends up I was close enough to the actual intended organization for the exhibition: Introduction, Building a Republic, A Classical Revival, and Expansion and Empire, Epilogue, but that didn’t matter much, because the flow from room to room (which incidentally was in a very odd exhibit gallery) broke up the sections in a way that seemed illogical and made the narrative of the exhibition feel sloppy. For example, the first room held a small introductory object/case display, and then hopped immediately into a comparison of the founding myths of Rome (Romulus & Remus) with the founding myths of the United States (George Washington and the Cherry Tree). The section was then broken up into another room that held a description of the role of Cincinnatius in American and Roman history, without any clear connection between the two sections of the story. Each case was color coded to indicate what part of the story was being told—red or blue with a spattering of gray in between. However the colors weren’t used consistently or all the way through the exhibit.

Narrative/Artifact Choices
One of the first things I learned in graduate school (and various internships) was that just putting two pieces of evidence together doesn’t make them connected. This exhibition repeatedly placed two “objects” or “themes” together and tried to point the finger to say “hey! Rome did influence America!” The first one was the two founding myths. While it is true that both nations/empires has myths and stories that surround the founding, they aren’t the only ones. The display tries to make it seem that Rome & America are the only two with grand myths that define/represent the countries ideals.

Additionally each major section began with two quotations….here is one set.

Virtues are held in the highest estimation in the very times which bring them forth. Tacitus
Great necessities call out great virtues. Abigail Adams

Sure, both quotations talk about virtue, a concept rooted in the British foundation of the American nation state, and Rome certainly had its own ideas about honor, virtue and war—but it doesn’t mean that Abigail was talking about the same thing as Tacitus. All through the exhibition these quotations have been isolated and presented without context or even contextual clues. We are to take it on face value that a true connection exists between the two ideas, born hundreds upon hundreds of years apart.

Lastly I’d like to make a note about objects. While it was really great to see the artifacts from Herculaneum and Pompeii there were points in the exhibition where the objects were really just out of place. While I recognize the need to acknowledge modern connects with Hollywood that section seemed like an afterthought (that existed in the middle of the exhibit) rather than incorporated into script. Also, this section was only music, and a variety of movie posters without much explanation or analysis of what those movies may say about 20th century America. Then there are the Super Bowl tickets.

At one point in the second to last section of the exhibit the designers presented two Super Bowl tickets (actually to the first Super Bowl I believe). The description starts to talk about how our sports arenas are reminiscent of gladiator arenas (though less brutal), but uses the fact that the Super Bowl still uses roman numerals as a “viola!” connection between modern society and Ancient Rome. Not a strong argument, or even a credible one. My fear is that this entire section of the exhibition was added as a way to create relevance/engage younger visitors. I doubt, that they were very successful.

Clearly I had much to say about the exhibit, but instead of going on about how the Expansion/Empire section may have been stronger if they had extended the idea of the American Empire out beyond the ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, I’m going to let Sarah Fell and Tony Torres let you know what they think.

Sarah Fell

As a classics nerd, I was excited to see the Ancient Rome in America exhibit at the Constitution Center. I think the exhibit started out strong, showing the influence Rome had on the Founding Fathers, the symbols of power America chose to use (eagles!), and the federal-style architecture we used for our seats of power. One of the more interesting points, to me, was the similarity between George Washington and Cincinnatus. I would have liked to see more about how America’s mythologizing about its own origins and heros compares to Rome’s. And I will not forget seeing a slave collar from America side-by-side with a slave collar from Rome. That was chilling.

Soon the exhibit started to lose me, though. As Priya mentions, one of the more perplexing choices was the Super Bowl tickets. Surely most cultures have some form of large sporting event, so apart from the Roman numerals, what makes the Super Bowl especially reminiscent of Roman gladiator games? There was also a wall of movie posters of different American films about Rome. But I left that, too, with more questions. Why the glut of movies about Rome at this point in America’s history? How do the portrayals of Rome in these movies compare or differ from reality? What does each film’s portrayal of Rome reveal about America? Why do we latch on to certain themes–decadence and excess, gladiators, slaves? These were two of the more provocative points in the exhibit so I wished the connections had been unpacked a lot more.

In the end the exhibit showed us a lot of things but didn’t really say anything. The video at the end consisted of a lot of Roman and American historians saying, essentially, that Rome and America are similar in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways they are different. Maybe America will fall, like Rome did, or maybe it won’t. Had the exhibit been pared down to have a specific focus–say, America’s mythologizing about its founding, or American visions of Rome in film and literature–it would have been much more effective.

Tony Torres
I’ve always had a love affair with ancient Rome and with the Founding era of American history due to my once passionate libertarian beliefs.  My passion for both led me to look forward to seeing the Ancient Rome & America exhibit in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, I too came away from the exhibit mostly disappointed.  I thought that the exhibit displayed a lot of great artifacts, but presented very tenuous connections between most of them. Instead of delving in deeply into strong similarities between Rome and America, it chose to focus on superficial similarities. Some areas of the exhibit were stronger than others – the comparison of Washington to Cincinnatus and the comparisons of slavery in Rome and the American South, for example.  Unfortunately, even those comparisons failed to show how they were similar or why Americans emulated Rome.  It also ignored key differences.  It would have been useful for example to discuss why George Washington felt Cincinnatus was a great model to follow as statesman, rather than say Julius Caesar.  When comparing slavery, the exhibit had some great artifacts such as the slave collars that Sarah mentioned.  What I would have liked to see, however, was discussion of the differences.  There was little or no discussion of the fact that slavery had a racial element in the United States, but was based on conquest in Rome.  There was no mention that the son of a freed slave became emperor of Rom Cincinnatus e, while the son of an American slave had zero chance of being president.  Speaking of presidents, the exhibit failed to examine in critical ways the fears early Americans had about executive power and the fear that a president could become an American Caesar.  This failure dovetails nicely with its failure to “go there” on the issue of imperialism.

The exhibit covered Roman conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean and compared it to the spread of American power across North America.  While I think the comparison has some validity, it missed the point.  America’s founding generation admired Roman republican virtues and institutions and the long stability they provided that civilization.  They actively sought to emulate those admirable aspects of Roman society.  What they feared though, was the darker side of Rome.  America was to be a “New Rome” in republican form that set up institutions to prevent the accumulation of two much power in the hands of a king or emperor.  America was also to be a country that sought peaceful relations and trade with all, but not conflict.  This is most famously represented by John Quincy Adams’ famous statement that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Of course, America would fail to live up to those ideals in many ways over the next century in a half.  Presidents, beginning with Lincoln, and then continuing with Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and every president since accumulated great powers far beyond what the founders intended.  America would seek out its Manifest Destiny and conquer a continent.  Where the exhibit fell short, is that it covered imperialism and Manifest Destiny and tried to link those to Rome.  While the comparison is valid, I think modern American imperialism is a much better point of comparison.  Roman imperialism eventually overextended Rome and caused it to rot from within.  Similarly American adventurism abroad and the rise of our national security state has led to similar results at home.  We’ve just lived through a decade in which Americans watched their standard of living decline, their personal and government debt skyrocket, while we’ve engaged in near permanent wars and continued to garrison the planet…even in places that have questionable value to the country as a whole and to the current wars we’re fighting.

My post is rambling a bit, so I’ll wrap up just by pointing out that while the comparison between Rome and America is tempting to make the two societies are still very different.  Rome was never anywhere near as democratic as the modern United States.  While the United States is one of the least egalitarian modern developed societies in the world today, it is far more equal than Rome.  Education levels and literacy levels are much higher.  Estimates of literacy rates in ancient Rome suggest that about ten percent of the population could read and write. While that was a great achievement compared to other pre-modern societies (including the Greeks who were far less literate), it pales in comparison to the nearly 100% literacy rates in the United States.  America has always been highly literate, from colonial times on down to the present.

If I had designed the exhibit, I would have touched on all these themes in some detail.  I would not have included movie posters without context.  I would not have included super bowl tickets.  I think the most important lesson Rome offers the United States is the following: history does repeat itself in some ways.  The most important of which is a lesson that we fail to heed at our own peril.  Every great power has fallen eventually. Nearly all of them have fallen for similar reasons.  Many of them probably realized they were in decline and knew what needed to change.  None of them made the necessary changes.

We Are One: The National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum

Also posted on the Blog. I’m working on a post of some exhibits I recently attended but wanted to post this here as well.

We are one.

At the end of the first day of the Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum (APIAHPF) I found myself at a banquet hosted by Guam Preservation willingly participating in a group sing-a-long complete with traditional hand motions and live music. For those who attended the two and a half day conference this moment represented everything that the meeting had offered to attendees: camaraderie, energy, synergy and determination – all in a forum to encourage, educate and mobilize Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities that are working to preserve their American story.

About two years in the making, this conference served two distinct purposes. The first was to provide educational sessions that would give attendees basic preservation tools to save their historic communities. Context matters, so the fact that we were at the Kabuki Hotel in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown definitely added to the atmosphere. I moderated a session that gave an introduction to historic preservation, and quickly learned that all of the attendees who had gathered brought with them a particular story and vision for APIA preservation. One of the major components of this session was recognizing that preservation, especially in the case of Asian Americans, is more than just buildings and structures, but also includes the intangible heritage—the folklore, the language, the dance.

The second part of the Forum involved thinking organically as a group about what APIA historic preservation means and consequently what it needs in order to become a broader and successful movement. I mentioned synergy earlier and this is where all of our minds worked together to brainstorm. Every meal was a working meal and breakfast (both days) and lunch were reserved for the task of identifying what tools the APIA community needs to preserve their unique American past. Using the World Café format we looked at three central questions that served as jumping off point for what we as a group wanted for APIA preservation:

  • What inspires and motivates you personally to preserve APIA culture?
  • What does historic preservation mean in an APIA context? What changes?
  • What next steps would you like to see for API cultural preservation?

This allowed us, on the final morning, to develop a series of product-based next steps that ranged from developing a “basics” toolkit from existing materials, developing a social media strategy for the group that includes advocacy alerts and networking, and determining that the conversation needs to continue with others—especially with stake holders who were unable to attend the Forum.

Perhaps the most important piece of this Forum was the recognition that the APIA and historic preservation community needs to work together in order to be successful. That…

We are One
With the Earth
With the Sun
With the Sky
With the Sea
We are One