Monthly Archives: March 2011

Zahi Hawass Reappointed as Antiquities Minister in Egypt

Dr. Zahi Hawass has been reappointed as Antiquities Minister in Egypt thanks in part to calls by UNESCO to Egypt to better protect their history during the turmoil of the revolution.  The move will likely upset some who wanted the entire Ministry removed, but the news is welcome to those in the Art and Historical communities.  Hawass has said he was contacted by the government to return and said, “I cannot live without antiquities, and antiquities cannot live without me.”

Source: New York Times

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Public History Series: Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology is not a complicated subject.  It is much like regular archaeology except it involves digging at historic sites.  The key with historical archaeology is looking for the artifacts left behind by those who occupied the land.

Historical Archaeology can be pretty technical.  Like typical archaeology, digging is done in squares.  Artifacts are carefully removed and documented as to their proximity to buildings and landscape, but also their depth in the ground.  The depth is specifically important because it is possible to use that depth to determine its age.  Stratigraphy is a branch of geology used to determine the age of layers within the soil.

The artifacts found can also help in understanding who was there and when.  One of the most common and widely studied artifacts are pipe stems.  It sound strange, but pipe stems can help date a site to within a few years.  This then brings in another key term: terminus post quem.   This Latin term roughly translate to “the date after which.”  It essentially means that nothing found in a specific layer can be older than the oldest artifact.  While this all sounds complicated, it is rather simple.  If you find three artifacts and Artifact 1 is from 1850, Artifact 2 is from 1870, and Artifacts 3 is from 1905, then we know the site cannot be older than 1850.  This is true for more than historical archaeology.  This is also true when determining the age of a house by looking at the specific building materials and construction techniques.

Archaeology at Montpelier

Historical archaeology is important because it uncovers artifacts of everyday life as well as bones of animals.  Extensive studies have been done on plantations in the South, and James Deetz found, in his book In Small Things Forgotten, that slaves ate different types of meats.  This has been determined by studying the remains of animals near slave cabins.

Historical archaeology is ongoing at many sites within the United States.  One project that I am familiar with takes place at Montpelier.  They are excavating in search for items from the Madison era.  Things have been discovered include: remnants of slave cabins, kitchens, and artifacts once owned by the slaves on the property.  The work is ongoing as the property at Montpelier is quite large.

There is a need for students to work on these projects.  Montpelier has a summer internship program that allows college age students to assist with the archaeological projects.  While not all of them are public historians, several are.  It is a great opportunity to do field work and not spend all the time in an archive or museum.  It is one of the most exciting sub-disciplines within public history.

-Eric

NOTE:  This is the eighth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Harvick Wins at Auto Club Speedway!

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Let’s Go Racing! – F1 Style


Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button with the Mercedes McLaren MP4-26

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Public History Series: Documentary Film

While museums are a very common way for the public to experience history in the field, they experience history in their living rooms by watching historical documentaries.  These are often produced in cooperation with historians and public historians to ensure their accuracy.  There is, however, a very special technique required to take history from a book and put it on PBS or the History Channel.

Historical documentaries can come in two forms.  The first is the traditional “Based on Historical Events” film.  These films are a nightmare for historians because while historical sources are used in the production of the film, there is a creative twist to it that detracts from its accuracy.  In a film about George Washington, for example, he may be depicted talking with the members of his Cabinet.  We have an idea what was discussed, but we do not know the full dialogue, so that is filled in.  Other issues, architecture, costuming, etc. all add up.  If done correctly, everything would be period, but that is not always the case.  This is a popular form of documentary and they are effective at engaging the public.  They encourage a small portion of the audience to do further research, but the majority take the documentary film as fact.

The other type of documentary is the kind you are used to seeing on the History Channel or PBS.  That is the story of an event being told using actual images or videos from the event with historians commentating.  Perhaps one of the most famous filmmakers of this type is Ken Burns.  His series on the Civil War changed the way people thought about documentaries.  He used the right mix of reenactment, interpretation, and historical images to bring the Civil War to life.  That is not to say that every historian loves Burns’s work, in fact, a lot of historians hate him.  However, he does make entertaining films, and does it without sacrificing integrity.

So the next time you are watching a documentary on PBS or the History Channel, pay close attention to how well it is at telling a story and whether or not they are allowing the history to tell itself.  Also, watch the credits and notice how many historians worked on the project.  The History Channel and PBS have historians on staff to review the films before they are aired, but each project will have its own historians involved.  Be aware, all documentaries have some form of bias and that is usually easy to detect.  Once the viewer looks past the bias, there is an important story being told and it is up to historians and public historians to ensure the stories are told accurately.

NOTE:  This is the seventh in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Museum Studies

Many Public Historians choose to work where the public is most likely to encounter history, museums or historic sites (I will use the general term “museum” through out the post, but the same is true for historic sites).  There are a wide variety of positions available in museums from curator to interpreter.  There are also several types of museums from private to those within the National Park Service.  No matter which museum you choose, you present history to a large audience.

The different positions available within a museum is numerous.  Aside from administrative positions, historians often occupy many of the major positions.  At the top is usually  curator and an advanced degree in history usually required.  The curator oversees all tasks within the museum, but most of the front-line work is done by other staff members.  Behind the scenes there are archivists at most museums.  A typical museum has a large collection of artifacts, and it is not possible to display them all at once.  The archivists job is to keep inventory of the museums collection.  There are also collection specialists that work on this as well.  Many museums will also employ preservationists/conservators to ensure the documents and artifacts are properly preserved.

One the front lines within the museum there are those who design the exhibits.  Exhibit designers usually are not employed by a museum, but they are hired by the museum from outside firms.  Smaller museums may have their staff design the exhibits, but this is often done by a group of professionals.  The most important members of a museum are the interpreters.  Most often they serve as a guide for visitors through the museum.  What the visitor remembers will most likely be what they are told by the interpreter.  There are many different kinds of interpreters.  The Park Service uses rangers and many small museums use volunteers to guide visitors.  The museums that get the most attention, however, are the ones that use interpreters and re-enactors.  A great example of this is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.  All the interpreters are in period costume and work to create a living city environment for the visitors.  Williamsburg is not the traditional museum, but it is very effective.

The city street of Colonial Williamsburg

The different types of museums are also important to take into consideration.  Private museums are more common than public museums, but both do well at interpreting history.  The main difference between the two is funding.  Private museums are often funded through donations and that can cause issues with what is displayed in the museum.  As I discussed in the post about Local/Regional History, a local museum relies heavily on donations and if a prominent family gives a substantial amount, they may want their family’s history displayed in the museum or not displayed depending on the family’s past.  Public museums, like the Park Service, do not rely as heavily on donations, but they still have to be concerned about offending the public.

All museums have to be concerned about how they present history.  It is nearly impossible to display artifacts from an event without angering a portion of the population.  This is especially true when displaying artifacts from controversial historical events such as slavery, the Holocaust, or the use of atomic weapons on Japan.  These topics are difficult to begin with, but displaying them in a way that does not offend is nearly impossible.  I will discuss this more in a later post about memory.

Museums are the most important and most common way that the public comes into contact with history.  That is why it is important that the displays be accurate and tell a clear story.  Even if the topic is difficult for the public to deal with, it still needs to be told.  Public Historians often work in museums and many work for the National Park Service.  While in school, museums are a great place to intern and get a feel for life in a museum.  The Park Service has excellent internship opportunities and I interned for them last year.  Museums are important because they tell the story in a way a book cannot.  Bringing the pubic into contact with the artifacts is key to allowing them to understand history.

NOTE:  This is the sixth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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The Super Moon

The moon is the closest to Earth since 1992 or will again until 2029.  This is the “Super Moon” as it appears over Virginia.

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