Public Historian on Vacation Series: Final Stop – Louisiana

Finally coming to the end of my Public Historian on Vacation series. I spent so much time writing about San Antonio even though we were only there for 2 days because we packed a lot into 2 days, it was our first time visiting, and it was so beautiful and interesting. After we visited the Missions we also checked out the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden, went back to the River Walk and ate at Casa Rio, the oldest restaurant on the River (1946)–(another example of commercialization of history, drawing on the past to create a certain atmosphere, and to substantiate the quality of the restaurant. Which was pretty yummy Mexican.)

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After San Antonio, we drove back towards the East and stopped over in New Iberia, Louisiana, an adorable small town and home to my wonderful friend and graduate school support person, Jayd. It is also home to the historic site Jayd works at, the Shadows-on-the-Teche, a historic house museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We visited Jayd at the Shadows and took a tour from one of the regular guides.

Built along the Bayou Teche, the Shadows was constructed in 1834 for sugarcane planter David Weeks and his wife Mary Conrad Weeks. To be honest, house museums are not my favorite kind of museum as their tours are often formulaic, focused a great deal more on architectural and design history than social history (my personal interest) and I often have a difficult time keeping the various generations of the family and all of the family names organized in my mind as we go through the house. But this house and this tour are interesting for the various ways that the house’s origins and its more recent history are alongside one another.

The house stayed in the same family for a very long time, from its construction through 1958, creating the opportunity to trace one family over several generations. The house has mostly been restored to the antebellum time period in which it was built, but one section of the house interprets more the life and times of the house’s last private owner, William Weeks Hall. His life stood out to me as the most interesting. He was an accomplished artist and knew many other artists and visionaries of his time, including Walt Disney, Henry Miller, Emily Post and more. Visitors to the Shadows during William Weeks Hall’s time were asked to sign an old door that remains on display.

Like most plantation homes today, the interpretation included something about the enslaved people who lived and worked both in the home and in the fields and other properties owned by the Weeks family, though like most historic house museums today that interpretation could use a little something more. We were told that the family depended on and supported slavery, secession, and the South in the Civil War, but less is known about the enslaved people and as such less is shared about them than the white plantation family. But I know more research is being done with the intentions of adding more about the enslaved African Americans at the site. And more information about slavery at the Shadows is available on their website. Overall, well worth a visit and they do some really interesting educational and special programming as well. I may be biased, but Jayd is a passionate public historian and educator who is doing some great work there.

After our tour we went to dinner with Jayd and Graig for some local Cajun food at Pelicans on the Bayou. We had poboys and Crawfish Kickers (a fried crawfish appetizer, kind of like a hushpuppy). And awesome Magic Dust (Cajun seasoning) french fries. And then we set off with Jayd to New Orleans for the rest of the weekend.

We went to New Orleans last year as well and we love NOLA. This year’s foray was with a native Louisianan but unfortunately it was also during a monsoon. I’m exaggerating a little. Rain, wind, clouds, and thunder made Saturday rather gloomy. Before it really started pouring we went to Cafe du Monde, the iconic cafe known for their beignets and cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has been in operation since 1862 and is one of few things I find totally worth the line, which, thanks to the staff’s efficiency, moves pretty fast. Delicious beignets, wonderful coffee, and the simplicity of it–that’s quite literally all that’s on the menu–all combine into a warm, fuzzy experience. Cafe du Monde is another example of a restaurant successfully capitalizing on its history and longevity. So much so that it doesn’t have to offer anything else. But even after becoming a must see for any New Orleans tourist, the quality of the food and the experience remain. Because, trust me, there are plenty of other places to get beignets in the French Quarter without the line, but there isn’t a line for a reason–they simply aren’t as good.

After pumping ourselves full of caffeine and sugar we set off without a plan into the French Quarter to find something to do. We considered the Cabildo, but it was closed for an exhibit installation. The weather began to get worse and worse so we stopped off at the 1850 House Museum located in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. This was a unique house museum in that it was more of an apartment building that had had many different residents over the years. It interprets upper-middle-class life of antebellum New Orleans. Most interesting to me is that the building and its mate, the Upper Pontalba Building across Jackson Square, were designed and financed by a woman, Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba. Both buildings were intended to be combinations of residential and retail spaces. The 1850 House is small and it’s a quick tour of the three floors, including going through the back staircase to the slave and servant quarters and working spaces. (Picture on left above shows one of the Pontalba buildings, but on Sunday when the sun came out.)

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When the weather continued to get worse it drove us from the French Quarter to what we thought would be a safer, drier, and more enjoyable visit to the National World War II Museum.  Well, every other tourist in New Orleans, which was also holding the rained out French Quarter Festival that weekend, had the same idea and we waited in line to get tickets, then to see exhibits, then to eat, only to arrive at the extra experience we had paid for (Final Mission: USS Tang) to find that it was down due to technical difficulties (we were reimbursed, but had walked to that separate building in the rain just for it). Overall, it was a pretty disappointing and frustrating day. It called into mind issues on the visitor experience side of museums. All three of us had been to the WWII Museum before and we knew that it was an impressive, well-done Museum with interactive exhibits, special features, and more. But what if that rainy day had been our first visit? We may have left with a very negative view of the Museum or at least not feeling like it was worth it. Visitor experience and basic qualities of comfort such as benches, crowding, accessibility, etc. really affect visitors’ ability to learn and get the most out of the museum.

It was difficult to focus on what was presented in the exhibits and hard not to feel like you were in someone else’s way. I was pleased to find they had added an immersive exhibit about the home front, often an excellent opportunity to discuss women’s roles during the war, with home interiors set up in 1940s style with places to sit, listen, and read; however, it was also full to the brim and we felt rushed through the space.

Some busy Museums use timed tickets to help control the number of visitors. Independence National Historical Park does so for visitors to Independence Hall, an effort which keeps the small structure from being overcrowded, a preservation necessity that also aids in creating a more positive visitor experience. Visitor caps might also help, keeping the number of visitors allowed in at any one time to a number that allows visitors access to exhibits without too much crowding. Museums have to weigh access, i.e. allowing as many visitors as possible to view the exhibits, with visitor experience, and often with financial concerns as well. Small museums need all of the admission fees they can get to help finance their collection, programs, and often simply operating expenses. However, the World War II Museum likely turns a profit and has been able to invest greatly in new buildings, high quality exhibits, etc. The tickets to the World War II Museum aren’t cheap ($28 for adults), which does give you access to a huge array of exhibits in several buildings, but when your experience is muddled by crowds and ultimately cut short by the exhaustion of dealing with them, you begin to question the value. This coming from two museum professionals (and a good sport of a husband).

Of course, the last time we visited the World War II Museum last year, it was busy without being overly crowded and perhaps we simply caught the unlucky rain-induced visitor onslaught. However, if the Museum finds itself having more and more of those days it may want to institute some sort of control over the number of visitors on forecasted busy days.

After leaving the National World War II Museum wet, tired, and a bit grumpy we went back to our AirBnb, took our host’s suggestion for dinner at the delicious Sassafras, drank the wine left graciously by our host, played cards, and called it a night. The weather cleared and the morning was sunny and breezy. We revisited Cafe du Monde, took a glorious walk around the French Quarter and said our goodbyes.

Our whole trip was full of wonderful times with family and friends, beautiful places, interesting history, and good times. Can’t wait to go back and see family again in Galveston, explore more of San Antonio, visit Jayd and explore more of New Iberia and Southeast Louisiana, and as always, eat more beignets in New Orleans. And of course looking forward to the next trip to anywhere–I always find the history.

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 3 – San Antonio Beyond the Alamo

Our first day in San Antonio included barbecue and a tour of the Alamo, but also a trip to a less traditional kind of museum, Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum.

Yes, toilet seat art. Barney Smith, a former plumber and volunteer firefighter turned artist has collected and decorated hundreds, maybe thousands, of toilet seats. Each has a theme and most are what art galleries would call mixed media. Small objects glued to the seats and then painted and drawn on, each toilet seat tells a story or centers around a theme. Open by appointment, the gallery is Mr. Smith’s garage and the 96-year-old artist himself tells visitors about the highlights of the collection.

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The toilet seats tell Barney Smith’s personal history, with one toilet seat even labeled as his personal toilet seat. Lift the lid and it traces his careers as a fireman, a plumber, and an artist. There are also several toilet seats commemorating his wedding anniversaries, his life with his wife, and his relationships with his children. Some seats tell the history of his art and its reach, with toilet seats for all of the states and countries his visitors have come from.

Other seats though mark important local events such as festivals, the Fiesta Pooch Parade, local civic organizations. And others speak to Mr. Smith’s memories of regional or national historical events. For example, one seat features a piece of the Space Shuttle Challenger, another a piece of the Berlin Wall.

This museum is both personal and public. Private but on display. Local but national, even international. Personal reflections on bigger stories. It really reminded me of one of the first books I read for graduate school, Private History in Public, actually written by my professor and adviser, Dr. Tammy Gordon. In it she writes about historical exhibits that “complicate the public/private dichotomy, exhibits that promote individualized perspectives to strangers and cement ties between relatives, friends, colleagues, and community members.” Barney Smith’s toilet seat museum is a prime example of this. Touring it with my husband, my mom, and my grandparents, we were all pointing out various seats to one another, discussing our own remembrances or knowledge about the various events, topics, and places that were depicted on the seats. It was clear that the community of San Antonio was involved with Mr. Smith’s work, with local commendations, awards, and donations to his collection on display with his seats. And being shown around by Barney himself allowed us to see and hear his perspective on his art, on the seats he thought would most interest us, and on the historical events depicted. As Gordon discusses in Private History in Public, these kinds of non-traditional, small museums enable this dialogue. Furthermore, the interest in this museum speaks to people’s interest in individual stories and individualized pasts, a point made in Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s foundational work, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. People are interested in history, in the past, in others’ stories, but more in ways in which they can connect to their own stories and pasts. This may be why historic sites and museums continue to struggle with visitor numbers. People want to see a past that they feel connected to.

At Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, there was something for everyone. Something to feel connected to, and an intimate setting in which to discuss the past, memories, and more.

To read more about Barney Smith’s Toilet Art Museum, visit the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SATXTSAM/. Recently a book of his works was published via crowdfunding: https://www.cattywampuspress.com/shop-1/king-of-the-commode

And a recent article about how Mr. Smith is looking for a buyer of the whole collection: http://www.krqe.com/news/national/the-king-of-the-commode-seeks-an-heir-to-his-thrones/1192867384

Next post will be about the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio & The Alamo – April 11

After leaving Galveston, we drove to San Antonio to meet up with my other set of grandparents (my mother’s mother and husband). We arrived, ate barbecue on the River Walk (because when in Texas…) and then set off to see the Alamo (because again, when in Texas.)

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The County Line – where we ate BBQ.

My mother, having grown up in Texas, had described to me her remembered impression of the Alamo when she went as a child on a school field trip. Having been raised and educated with the messaging of “Remember the Alamo”, she felt actually visiting was a let down. The site itself didn’t live up to the hype in her child’s view. With this conversation in mind, I was interested to see what I thought as an adult who had limited knowledge of the events that took place there beyond a showing of the Dennis Quaid movie somewhere along the way at school.

Of course, I don’t know how the site was interpreted in the 1970s when my mom would have visited, but if similar to today I could see how a child might not be able to get much from the site. The main building, the chapel, is a relatively small structure, lacking in anything “grand” that a child might be expecting given the great importance placed on the site and what happened there, the inside is not furnished in any way–there are no artifacts, no reenactments, displays, etc. It is mostly empty, with just a few signs, which are about the preservation of the structure and a few features to be pointed out, and a memorial in the back listing the names of those who fought and died there. So my mother’s lackluster experience as a child makes some sense. However, my mother told me she got much more out of the site as an adult and I think that is owing to a few factors. One, simply better understanding of the events that took place there, increased ability to imagine and empathize with what happened there on a human level, and the neighboring museum space in the long barracks which does have exhibits, artifacts, and interpretation.

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For adults, I think the power of the site is in its size. A small mission fortification held out for a 13 day siege against a larger army, waiting for reinforcements that never came. The fact that every soldier there died is another grave fact that really resonates when you stand in the space. However, I learned something new while there that also truly resonated with me. Local women, children, and some men who were not soldiers, who were brought into the Alamo for protection as the Mexican army approached and who hunkered down in one particular room, survived the attack and were released by Santa Anna to bear witness to what happened. Often you hear that every single person at the Alamo died, but this is not true. Santa Anna wanted others to know of his victory there. These people who, I’m sure feared for their lives, their children’s lives, for days, witnessed the death of all those around them, and then were set free. What emotions did they feel? What were their lives like afterwards? The site does not go into these questions, though it does speak about these survivors both in the Alamo itself and in the neighboring exhibit hall. These people are a source of history and of what happened there, but they are also just people who experienced something terrible. This I think could have been brought to life a bit more for visitors.

Another detail pointed out by the few interpretive signs within the Alamo are the names of later soldiers carved in the walls. The Alamo had a life before the siege (as a Spanish mission) and a life afterward. It was used by later U.S. military installations, many of whom carved their names in the walls, marking that they had been there. The reasoning why is not completely described, nor is it probably definitively known, but I think these men, knowing what happened there, already knew this site would be an important part of history and they wanted to leave their mark on it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the glory of death as a sacrifice for liberty, freedom or another honorable cause. This is the traditional narrative about the Alamo, but of course real life, and as such, history, is more complicated than that. The exhibition space in the long barracks next to the chapel walks through the more complete picture; albeit carefully. Beginning with Mexican independence from Spain, the exhibit explains why US colonists moved to Texas, encouraged by the new Mexican government who wanted to populate the territory as protection against Comanche raids and enticed by economic incentives of land ownership, and the colonists’ reasons for revolting later after Mexico made changes to its immigration policy and constitution. The simple message that the Texans fought for freedom is more complicated when you reexamine the economic reasons that they moved to the Mexican territory, that they had essentially immigrated to another country and yet still felt entitled to US constitutional rights, and that they flouted Mexico’s changing laws concerning slavery, tariffs, and immigration. These reasons certainly do not mean that what happened at the Alamo was “right” or expected, but the struggle was not entirely black and white, good vs. evil. Mexico was attempting to control its territory and enforce its laws, and put an end to Texas’s rebellion. Texans were fighting to preserve a way of life to which they had become accustomed. The ultimate result was Texan independence, later annexation into the United States, and the Mexican-American War.

The exhibit also describes some of the other lesser-known events of the Texas Revolution such as the Goliad Massacre in which a Texan army surrendered to Santa Anna and was subsequently executed. This interesting article describes the disparate ways in which these two related events have been remembered, pointing out that the battle at the Alamo is easier to see as an honorable death because they did not surrender.

All in all, the events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and the aftermath of the Texas Revolution are more complicated than Dennis Quaid, the refrain “Remember the Alamo”, or even my brief, oversimplified summary above would have you believe. Visiting the Alamo has definitely encouraged me to dig a little deeper though. In that sense the exhibits in the long barracks next to the chapel really opened up a new understanding of the events that took place in the Alamo and may be almost more important to visitors’ understanding than the Alamo itself, the preservation of which is important, but is also the reason that these stories are not currently being told within the chapel’s walls. The few signs in the chapel which I mentioned above all reiterated the ongoing preservation efforts taking place there. While the main building (and what most would consider the Alamo itself) is not heavily interpreted, the Alamo’s importance is place-based. It is that feeling of being on the spot where something transformative happened because simple or not, what happened at the Alamo influenced a string of events that has shaped our world today.

*What originally was to be a 3 part series, will now be more–how many depends on how long I decide to rant about the rest of the trip. I felt the Alamo should stand alone though so as to not make this post too long by continuing to discuss the rest of the Missions in San Antonio that we visited. The next blog post will cover the rest of our trip in San Antonio, I think. 🙂 *

Thesis Drafts, Archives, and Conferences – Updates

Since my last post, I’ve been busy at work on my thesis, continuing my work in University Archives, starting a new archivist job, and preparing to attend a couple of conferences in the spring.

First up, my thesis. I have officially drafted a complete thesis, from introduction through conclusion. I am now officially in the revision process, working to make my central argument stronger and clean up my prose. My next post will share a bit of the insights of my thesis, which is about the need for improved interpretation of women’s and gender history in museums. As it is Women’s History Month in March, I will celebrate by sharing more on my thesis in its own post. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, my work in University Archives continues. I recently had the opportunity to curate a small exhibit on the history of the Honors Program at UNCW. I worked with the Archivist, Adina Riggins, and the head of the Honors Program to identify items we could use to tell the story of 50 years of Departmental Honors and 20 years of a cohesive Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit drew on documents and objects representing major milestones, such as the first honors thesis, a photo of the first graduate of the Honors Scholars Program, and the dedication of Honors College, renamed to emphasize the success of the Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit also showcases the various activities and endeavors that students in Honors participate in including a research journal, a literary publication, an award-winning newsletter, research conferences, and field trips. The exhibit is located on the second floor of Randall Library between Honors’ offices and University Archives. You can read more about it in a post I wrote for Archives/Special Collections’ blog, Dub Collections: Honors Exhibit.

In addition to my position as graduate assistant in University Archives I have begun working as the part-time archivist at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington. This position entails reorganizing the museum’s archival and artifact collections for better use by researchers. Some of the items will be deaccessioned or put on long-term loan to other institutions so that they can be better cared for and more easily accessed by researchers. Also, items not in line with the museum’s mission will be deaccessioned. An archive relating to the museum as an institution and its history will also be organized and set up. So far, I have been taking stock of the various materials and arranging the documents into categories for easier processing, removing damaging attachments, duplicates, and unnecessary materials.

Besides starting a new job, I have a couple of other announcements. First of all, my classmates and co-curators on the Push and Pull exhibit project and I received honorable mention for the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award and we will be traveling to Nashville in April to attend the annual conference and awards breakfast! We are very excited to be acknowledged for our work and so thankful for all of the community members who shared their stories, artifacts, and expertise with us so that we could curate such a wonderful exhibit that has now been shared so widely. It’s amazing the feedback and interest the project has received. The news of our award was shared by UNCW. You can read more about it here: UNCW News – Public History Students’ Project Receives Honorable Mention from National Organization. 

Another project from the UNCW Public History program will be getting some attention at the North Carolina Museums Council conference later this month. My classmates and I will be presenting Still Standing, our visitor evaluation project on the preservation of slave dwellings, at the conference’s poster session, sharing our process and the results of the visitor evaluation. Those still enrolled in courses have used that information to work on an exhibit this semester that will open in April. We look forward to sharing the first part of the project’s insights with the North Carolina museum community.

I’m looking forward to attending the conferences and meeting other public historians, finishing my thesis, and continuing my work in archives.

Interpretive Plans, Home Tours, Newsletters, and Social Justice

The semester is flying by! The Volga to Cape Fear project has moved along smoothly and we now have an official title for the exhibit. Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region will open April 29th in Randall Library’s gallery. Our interpretive plans have been turned in and sent to our Advisory Committee for their review. We (the student curators) will be meeting with the committee this week to hear their comments on the plan and ask them for clarification on any points we are unsure of. Once the interpretive plan is finalized we will move into design.

My section of the exhibit is on immigration from 1991 to the present. I present what life was like in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, why some people decided to emigrate, what the process of immigration to the United States is like both in terms of filing paperwork and leaving behind home, friends, and family, and how new immigrants adjusted (and continue to adjust) to life in the Cape Fear Region. Research on all of these topics was necessary as well as finding photos and choosing objects either from those we collected last semester or by suggesting new acquisitions for flushing out the major concepts. I connected major points from my research to the objects in order to show visitors why immigrants left Russia and Eastern Europe, the difficulties in doing so, and the challenges to adapting and maintaining culture. I can’t wait to translate the interpretive plan into design and finally into a real product.

In other news, my internship has kept me busy as well. I have continued to work on the Home Tour, finishing up the descriptions for the docents by wrapping up research and interviewing the home owners about the renovations they have done to the homes as well as any interesting antiques or heirlooms they have in the home. In the process, I’ve seen many of the beautiful homes that will be on the tour and learned about what draws people to own, restore, or renovate historic homes. The homes all carry with them unique features or interesting stories related to their former owners. These small details are the most interesting to me and I enjoy hearing the current owners talk about these small ties to the past that can still be seen in their homes.

In addition to continuing work on the Home Tour, I have also assisted with preparing the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s spring edition of the News, the organizational newsletter. I have written an article on the Brookwood neighborhood, the latest community to seek National Register district designation, a process now underway thanks to funding acquired through another development’s Section 106 Review. I have learned more about the kinds of situations that spark Section 106 review (through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966) as well as the kinds of results that can come out of mitigation. The newsletter should be out by the end of the month.

I have also worked on numerous other small projects, such as contacting people to seek nominations for Preservation Awards or Most Threatened Historic Places, two initiatives that HWF presents in May as part of National Preservation Month, compiling lists of guides for guided walking tours, contacting potential docents for the Home Tour, and taking photos of properties for inclusion in the newsletter.

The final update comes from my Historic House Museums course in which we have been discussing the role of house museums, particularly how house museums can engage in social justice. We have Skyped with several professional in the field, including Liv Sevchenko who has been involved with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. It is inspiring to learn about sites that use history and historic sites in order to engage people in dialogue about modern issues. This is a goal I think worthy of aspiring to in both house museums as well as other forms of museums and historic sites.

The semester is headed toward crunch time with many upcoming events including a trip to the North Carolina Museums Council Conference next weekend, Historic House Museums course trip to Savannah and Charleston to tour some examples, the Historic Wilmington Foundation Home Tour, and of course, the production and installation of the exhibit.