The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.
Note on Tickets & Logistics
When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.
We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.
Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!
Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.
The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.
The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds.
I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.
I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.
In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.
Social History’s Influence
Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history. Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.
Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.
This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.
Women’s History in Museums
Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history. Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.
Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.” Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.
Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.
However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.
Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives. This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.
Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework. This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.
While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies. This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”
Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.
The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.
The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.
The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.
Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.
Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites
Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.
Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.
Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history. These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.
Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.” Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.” Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.
Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.
Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.
In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.” However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”
This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.
The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.
Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites. The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.
The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.” Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.
The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home. This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment. Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.
The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.
Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”
The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.
 Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.
Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.
Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346948. Accessed November 22, 2013.
Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.
Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors. Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.
Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.
Miller, Page Putnam, editor. Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.
Reflections of a Public Historian in a Science Museum
My husband and I recently took a long weekend trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother and see the sights. We had both been twice before and seen the monuments and some of the major museums, so this time we had a pretty specific list of things we wanted to see.
As a public historian, I obviously enjoy history museums usually more than science or art, but as a museum professional I also deeply appreciate these spaces and do like to push beyond my usual interests. For our trip to Washington, D.C., my husband specifically requested that we visit the National Air & Space Museum, which is a mixture of science and history. It’s an area of history that I’m less interested in except for where it overlaps with social history (how the space race impacted regular Americans, the struggles for racial and gender equality in the study and exploration of space, etc.), but nonetheless we had a great time.
Look at all the engagement markers!
Though my brother looks a bit skeptical of my husband’s theories…
I enjoyed watching my brother and husband discuss, interact with, and enjoy the science together. They showed all of the major markers of visitor engagement–touching what they were allowed to, pointing at exhibit features, talking about what they were learning, and retaining information from one exhibit to another and relating events and facts together. Unfortunately, many of the exhibit spaces in the museum were closed as they carry out renovations, but we did get to see Explore the Universe, Space Race, Moving Beyond Earth, and Exploring the Planets.
Space Race traced the history of the Cold War-era competition between the USSR and the USA to achieve major feats of space exploration. It was interesting to learn that the science that would fuel the space race began during World War II with German missiles.
We also saw the SkyLab, the precursor to the Space Station, a space for scientists from many nations to live in space for periods of time and conduct research.
Exploring the Universe focused on the history and development of instruments people have used to view space.
I was happy to see some inclusion of women’s accomplishments and contributions to astronomy in this exhibit in the text about William Herschel’s sister Caroline Herschel who assisted him in his work. The exhibit caption describes her as “William’s Essential Assistant” but goes on to say that she was “a fine astronomer in her own right.” She found 8 comets and was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, but is best known for assisting her brother in his observations and telescope building…
Another woman included in this exhibit is Henrietta Swan Leavitt who identified 2,400 variable stars and discovered the link between the brightness and length of brightness cycle of Cepheid variables–basically this discovery is what astronomers needed to measure distances of nebulae.
Exploring the Planets was an interesting exhibit that looked at the properties of each planet in our solar system. It was interesting to learn about the environments and orbits of these planets. It’s crazy to think about just how different these planets are–the red dot on Jupiter is a storm that’s been raging for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Some are made of ice, others have years-long seasons, different lengths of day and night. That was a fun exhibit to walk through and discuss mind-boggling facts together.
All in all, a fun morning spent learning about space with my hubby and brother. I’m interested to see the museum when it’s finished with all of its big renovations and gallery updates. Maybe there will be even more inclusion of women’s and minorities’ roles in air and space.
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.)
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.)
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.
This is part four of my Public Historian on Vacation series, which was originally intended to be a three part series. However, I realized I had more to say about various stops along the way. However, this will be the third and final post about our time in San Antonio before moving on to our stops in Louisiana.
To recap the series so far, this trip took place in April and included stops in Galveston, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; New Iberia, Louisiana; and New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve already described our time in Galveston visiting family and enjoying The Strand Historic District and the Seawall, dipping a little into the commercialization of the past. I have also now written two posts about San Antonio, one about our visit to the Alamo, and one about our visit to Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. This final post about San Antonio will be about our day in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
The park consists of four different missions, from north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission and can be reached by following Mission Road.
The Mission system was devised by the Spanish as they colonized North America and staked their claim on territory. Missions served many different purposes for the Spanish colonizers. They were miniature towns inside stone fortifications, a combination of church, military outpost, school, and living quarters. The work of the Missions was to convert indigenous people not only religiously, but culturally, to make the native people Spanish citizens. These newly converted citizens helped the small number of Spanish priests, soldiers and others to grow in number and be able to maintain and hold their territory.
The mission system in San Antonio is summarized on the park’s website: “After 10,000 years, the people of South Texas found their cultures, their very lives under attack. In the early 1700s Apache raided from the north, deadly diseases traveled from Mexico, and drought lingered. Survival lay in the missions. By entering a mission, they foreswore their traditional life to become Spanish, accepting a new religion and pledging fealty to a distant and unseen king.”
This short introduction to the Missions on the National Park Service website for the park begins to get into why indigenous people would enter a mission–the push and pull reasons. Dangerous conditions pushing and promised food and safety pulling them in. However, within the Missions there was forced conversion and also forced labor, with indigenous people being the very ones who built the stone walls of each of the 4 Missions.
I am fascinated with Latin American history, the history of Latinos in what is now the United States, immigration history, and the colonial era, so I knew as soon as we started planning our trip to San Antonio that I wanted to see the Missions. My poor husband was just along for the ride, but I think he ended up getting more out of our whirlwind tour then he expected.
Having grown up in North Carolina, I was taught much more about the 13 original British colonies than I was about Spanish colonization of territories that would become the U.S. and so the word colonial usually conjures different imagery. To see these 300-year-old Spanish Missions and think about how their presence helped shape the region was a new and eye opening experience.
I was somewhat familiar with the history of Spanish colonization in general, having written my undergraduate seminar paper on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the ways in which women were used by conquistadors to expand Spanish control. I also took a survey course on the history of Latin America which covered the colonial period including the main goals of Spanish conquest, the 3 G’s: God, glory, and gold. Conversion and spread of Christianity, exploration and territorial claims in the name of Spain, and accumulation of wealth were the three main motivators and goals of Spanish conquest.
Armed with this background knowledge, my husband and I set out first thing in the morning in an effort to beat the San Antonio heat, already reaching over 80 degrees in April. We went in geographic order, beginning with Mission Concepcion.
Mission Concepcion was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Like all of the San Antonio Missions (except the Alamo) it is still in use for church services, including English, Spanish, and bilingual services. Also some of the original frescos, murals, and other art is still visible on the walls and ceilings, showing that this grey stone church would have once been colorful and bright.
Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was up next, the largest and most restored Mission in San Antonio. It was largely restored as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Founded in 1720, it was a model for other later missions and was a social and cultural center of colonial Texas. According to the Park’s website, at the height of the San Jose Mission 350 indigenous converts lived within its walls, worked in its fields, and tended cattle. The restored site includes the church, the granary, the convento, and the walls into which was built rooms for the indigenous people who lived at the Mission. More about San Jose, since it was the largest, is available and in more detail on the website. It was definitely the most complete stop on the tour owing to its restored exterior buildings which give a better idea of the more complete life of the inhabitants, not just their religious life. The site also includes a 1794 grist mill, fueled by the acequia and used to process wheat, the preferred grain of the Spanish, that began to replace the indigenous corn.
The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada were less restored than San Juan and at Mission San Juan we could not go inside the church. However, these buildings were the most architecturally beautiful to me. More about each of these are in the links. An interesting tidbit about Mission San Juan though is the incomplete larger church. The project halted as the population declined. Near Mission Espada is the Espada aqueduct used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding the Missions.
These four historic sites were among some of the most interesting, most powerful sites I’ve visited. There was this conflicting feeling between the beauty of the architecture, the romanticized beauty of colonial ruins, and the sacred feeling of religious spaces and the ideas of forced conversion, forced labor, disease, war, fighting, and the upheaval of culture that took place in the walls of each of these missions. Each of these sites left me feeling that conflict and wanting to look deeper into these sites. I’ve done some of that in the process of writing this post, reading more in depth about each site on the park’s website and looking beyond for other resources. I do think the sites themselves could delve deeper into these conflicting narratives and experiences of the Missions and it does seem since we visited that Mission Concepcion has put up a new exhibit, Four Voices, aimed at sharing the divergent points of view at the Missions.
Overall, these sites are so important for understanding the history of San Antonio, Texas, the Southwest and ultimately the United States. As in many other places in time, several cultures converged. Owning up to what that convergence meant for many indigenous people is important for how we move forward.
I currently work as the archivist for a private company. In that position I get to manage a collection, do research for reference requests, manage loans, etc. However, I do not get to do research beyond the company really so I miss researching about more varied historical topics. For that reason I have begun doing consulting work for museums.
My first client has been the Tobacco Farm Life Museum where I used to work. I plan social media content for the Museum, especially Throwback Thursday posts and I started a new series for the Museum’s 35th anniversary this year called #farmingFriday. This series draws on the Museum’s Honors and Memorials program, content that already existed online on the museum’s website. Each week someone who was either involved in the Museum or the community is profiled.
Throwback Thursday posts include historical pictures of farming or rural life and I research how that particular activity fit into farm life and what importance it had in the lives of farmers or community members. Posts are themed to the time of year and to what is currently happening in the farming world. For example a recent post was about topping and suckering tobacco which is going on now in modern farming as well.
Theses posts have increased engagement on social media and in person. The museum’s director reports hearing positive comments and feedback from community members, board members, and others. Social media comments are usually people remembering their own experience working on a farm. Followers offer up stories, memories, and commentary on life on the farm in their time.
The Museum primarily used Facebook in the past but I have now expanded to include Instagram as well which opens the Museum up to another audience.
My role as consultant also includes research and general support. The Museum held its 35th anniversary event recently and invited all previous board members and employees. I was able to attend and help with set up and clean up and enjoy hearing the people who were involved in the Museum’s founding discuss the ups and downs of getting a local history museum off the ground. The local community was devoted to telling it’s own history.
I’ll be continuing to assist with managing the social media while also brainstorming other ideas for the Museum’s future, researching grants, and other tasks; however, I’m also open to consulting on similar types of projects with other institutions. Please let me know if you or your organization have a project that could use an outside public historian’s input.
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.)
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.
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. 🙂 *