Ford’s Theater: A Tour of Lincoln’s Assassination

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Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. is an operating theater to this day, but historically it is best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife and Major Henry Rathbone, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate spy, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He died 9 hours later on April 15, 1865 of his injuries across the street at the Petersen House.

This moment in history, just after Lee’s surrender and the ending of the Civil War, but just before Reconstruction, was a pivotal junction.

The tour of Ford’s Theater which includes self-guided tours of exhibits, a ranger talk in the theater, and partially guided tours of the Peterson house, does a wonderful job of contextualizing both Lincoln and Booth as well as providing the context of what Washington, D.C. was like in 1865. All of this context helps the audience to better understand how the assassination was able to take place and why Booth targeted Lincoln.

 

Before entering the actual theater, we toured exhibits that presented Lincoln’s Washington. These exhibits showed what D.C. was like in the 1860s, gave context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance on slavery, the war, and reconstruction. The exhibits also gave background on John Wilkes Booth, his political leanings, his acting career, and more. The exhibits lead up to the night of the assassination and include on display the gun used to kill Lincoln.

 

The next stop was the theater itself where a ranger (since the site is a National Park) walks the audience through the series of events leading up to and immediately after Lincoln was shot. Again, the information provided is clear and does an excellent job of contextualizing the event and not sensationalizing it.

 

The tour follows the series of events, leaving the theater and crossing the street, just as Lincoln’s body did that night, to the Petersen House where the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination is described including Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction, Lincoln’s death, the succession of power, and Lincoln’s funeral procession. More exhibits then detail Lincoln’s legacy and the many ways he has continued to inspire people through the present.

I highly recommend visiting Ford’s Theater and doing the full tour including the museum exhibits, the theater talk, and the Petersen House across the street. Tickets are $3.00 but are timed and it’s recommended to reserve them in advance.

https://www.fords.org/visit/historic-site/

 

National Museum of African American History & Culture: A Rave Review

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!

The Museum

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.

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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.

District Sights: National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.

 

In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.

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The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)

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I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.

Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?

District Sights: The National Air & Space Museum

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.

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.

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Hubble Telescope image of a nebula.

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.

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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…

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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.

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: The Missions of San Antonio

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.