September 11, 2013
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These videos have been making the rounds and I wanted to comment on this all. Yes, they are clever — even very clever. Yes, Dungey is talented and this is an imaginative way to promote herself as an actress and hit some social consciousness bells along the way. I respect her and her project and look forward to seeing how students react. But at the same time, it made me squirm on so many levels and raised some red flags.
The Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre is a staple of museum culture– and as Handler and Gable amongst others have pointed out, that is not always a good thing for either visitors or museum staff. Interpreter-visitor encounters are usually imagined as being a charming educational moment. But often these are in realty tense tug-o-wars with smugness on both sides and a high degree of trying to embarrass as well. At least visitors have the option to ask intentionally stupid questions to make their friends laugh–I suspect that that is in fact what is behind many if not most of these stories–visitors intentionally screwing around with staff. In that way, visitors get a double bang: make friends laugh in the moment and have the more incredulous repeat the feat over and over. Hey presto, a manner of immortality.
On the other hand, for interpreters, encounters are full of risk. Staff may suspect that they are being screwed with, but face employer retaliation if they get too snarky. Interpreters have to treat every question as real and have to be engaging in responding – their continued employment depends on it. Thus, the Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre becomes a sort of spiritual haven for people who are paid poorly, work their asses off in often harsh conditions (being in a blacksmith shop or a recreated eighteenth-century kitchen all day sucks now as it did then) and also will never be granted much intellectual respect or credibility from academe. These folks often see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as permanent second-class citizens in historyland. Most lack the kinds of schooling and publishing records academe cherishes, but do have often very detailed fine- grained knowledge of their fields. On top of that, they often have an intuitive knowledge that comes from experience—-something that is immensely valuable to museums and visitors, but always just a bit suspect to “book learning” historians. Buy an experienced interpreter a drink and they will tell you how irritating visitors are. But buy them a second drink and they will tell you what arrogant exclusive jerks historians can be.
What worries me about these film clips is the stupid visitor story being too public a performance. I see it as only encouraging visitors to play at this even more. But worse still, I worry for how museums (read employers) will see this. They are famous for retaliation and are always deeply concerned about public image. I don’t imagine that Mount Vernon is at all happy about this sort of “unmasking” and I wonder what HR policies may ensue not just there, but elsewhere as well. It is fun to laugh—and Dungey is good at making us do that. But, museums are workplaces and interpreters are staff, often very vulnerable staff at that. These clips viewed that way are so very full of issues of domination and resistance. The very title “Ask a Slave” is far more meaningful than most gleeful watchers might know.
June 19, 2013
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Yesterday the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star’s reporter of record, Clint Schemmer produced a wonderful and considered all out review of Where the Cherry Tree Grew. See it here….
June 17, 2013
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I have a team of graduate students hard at work at the George Washington Birthplace National Shrine in Westmoreland County Va.
Memorial House at the birthplace site of George Washington. The foundation outline in the foreground is believed to be the actual location of Washington’s boyhood home, which burned down in 1779. George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia. 30px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
They are working under the supervision of Ranger Amy Muraca and are being funded by the NPS to make sense out of a series of excavations dating back to the 1930s. We call this sort of work Forensic Archaeology since it involves working with a problematic record we did not create. We might also call this particular project an example of Cold Case Archaeology. Our goal is to try to understand what has long been called “Building X” and is interpreted as being the home where Washington was born. The problems are legion as Joy Beasley outlined in what remains the best piece on the site. To being with, the building is a sort of impossibility—architecture by M.C. Escher, if you can picture that. It seems clear that the outlines of what could be four or five rooms (all that survives are brick cellar footprints and nothing above ground) represent varied building episodes and could not have all stood together at the same time. Yet that is just how the building(s) has been understood—and sometimes quite smugly at that. Our job this summer is to untangle this mess and begin to speak from the data—perhaps for the first time in the site’s life.
Already I have been seeing some problems for the current interpretation. The layers in the cellars’ fill do not point to a single filling episode. Also, a major house fire is a crucial part of the current story and interpretation. The evidence for that fire is fading fast, just as did that of the Ferry Farm house fire. On top of that, the dates of the artifacts are not working either if they are supposed to match the current story. In short, it is a mess. But in a few weeks we will have the beginnings of a whole new and data-centered understanding for “Building X.” I will be presenting a paper on this all at the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec, Canada, but I am also seeing that there is whole book to be done on this fascinating and confusing landscape. For now though, we just need to move slowly ahead and make out charts and spreadsheets and reserve judgment.
English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors’ Center, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One thing that makes this very exciting, is that this is an “inside job,” that is to say that this is the park reassessing itself—we are just the labor in that task. It is great to be part of the park’s ongoing and evolving understanding of itself. It is also great for students to have such an important hands-on role in this sort of research.
 Joy Beasley, “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument” in Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, Paul A. Shackel, ed. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 197-220.
June 17, 2013
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This last few weeks has been all about reading Washington biographies. Not the whole things mind you, and not a total list (close to 400 by one good count), but rather a wonderfully selective handling of the earliest pages from about 70 tomes. I am only interested in how the childhood years are handled, and a few crucial moments later on depending on the book. I mostly took photos of the 30 some odd pages I needed from about four libraries’ collections. That allowed me to sit in relative peace and read with headphones on and hot chocolate at the ready. I arranged them chronologically and then waded in to what began as about 15, but amounted to 70 when I was done with the list. Some were penned by the famous names including Humphries, Marshall, Ramsay, Sparks, Bancroft, Irving, Lodge, Wilson, Hughes, Woodward, Fitzpatrick, Freeman, Flexner and the newer ones as well.
A portrait of Washington Irving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But add to those the more understandably forgettable players such as Wister, Whipple, Hill (twice for the love of Pete!) Thayer, Norwood, and the inexplicable Randall. Of course I also dealt with the fabulists like Weems, Lossing, and the producers of a very odd early 20c genre that created a fictionalized childhood complete with dialogue, all adorned quotation marks. I have more to do before I am ready to finish off the chapter this research supports, but here are some early freebie observations. So much of this is by and large a crap literature. It is derivative, slapdash, and deeply canonical. It all hangs on certain set piece moments (that is what the chapter is arguing) and each of those takes on lives of their own. What is worse, they are desiccated moments—received concerns that even the authors have a hard time getting worked up over. It is a smug literature, filled with a cloying self-satisfied air enabled by the need to navigate “fact” and “fiction.” Nothing makes the historian, or worse, the biographer, more odious or more slap worthy than when they are self-congratulating over their ability to be wiser than those who have repeated “myths” whereas “I” have the real truth at hand. This is made worse—or perhaps made humorous and therefore made this work fun, (read ‘doable’) –by the fact that no sooner does a biographer snark over a myth here and a fable there, than they simply repeat some other cherished canard uncritically. It really is quite remarkable to see unfold over time. It has made me all the more committed to not debunking but discussing.