Category Archives: Museums

Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The Space Shuttle Discovery was moved to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near the Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC. I had a chance to visit the Air & Space Museum in May and thought I would share my photos of the shuttle.

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Museums: Historically Hardcore

I came across this series of posters and thought they were amazing!  They are historically accurate and highlight some of the more bad ass historical figures.  They were created by a two students, Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler, for a school project.  You can read more about their posters and download them at their WEBSITE.  These posters have been very popular online because they were thought to have been created by the Smithsonian.  While they were not made by any museum, they are still fun!  Enjoy!

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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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A Day with the Presidents

Saturday, I was finally able to get away form Harrisonburg for the day and visit some historic sites.  I will describe where I went, give a little history, and share some of my photographs from the day.

1.  James Madison’s Montpelier

Being a student at James Madison University, it almost seems like a requirement to visit his home.  Montpelier is about a hour from Harrisonburg which made for a nice drive over the Blueridge Mountains.  Montpelier was built by James Madison Sr. in the early 18th century.  After James Madison Jr. married Dolley, the house was expanded and converted into a duplex.  James Madison’s parents lived on the South end of the house and Madison, Dolley and Dolley’s young son lived on the North end.  After the death of his father, Madison expanded the house again and made it a single residence home.  Madison’s mother would continue to live in the house in 1826.  Madison died in 1836 and Dolley lived in the house until her death.  The house changed hands several times after Dolley’s death before the duPont family bought it.  The duPont’s added on to the house and nearly tripled the square footage.  The home remained in the duPont family until 1983 when it was turned over The Montpelier Foundation.

Today, the house has been restored to it appearance at Dolley’s death.  The duPont’s additions were torn off and the house project was completed in 2008.  Today, the foundation is working on purchasing the original furnishings of Montpelier.  In addition, they are working on wallpapering the home.  Dolley only wallpapered three rooms and one has been restored.  The dining room was re-wallpapered two weeks ago and they are palling on wallpapering the drawing room in a few weeks.  There are also several archaeological digs taking place and many items have been uncovered that belonged to the Madison family and their slaves.  As the work continues, Montpelier will only become a more popular stop for tourists.

2.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

What is there to say about Monticello?  Everyone knows something about it.  Weather it is the distinct architectural styling or Jefferson’s collections and inventions, Monticello is an extremely popular tourist destination.  Monticello is located atop a 867 feet peak overlooking Charlottesville.  What is not well known is that Jefferson was given an option when his father died.  He was given a choice between land in the valley and the mountain, and he chose the Montpelier.  The views from Monticello are spectacular!

3. James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland

Most people, myself included, do not realize that Jefferson and Monroe were neighbors.   Monroe purchased the land adjacent to Monticello at the request of Jefferson.  Monroe purchased the land as a second home.  Monroe’s primary residence was Oak Hill which was closer to D.C.  Ash Lawn was used as a source of income and operated as a farm with several slaves, however, Monroe left the White House $75,000 in debt.  He placed Ash Lawn-Highland and Oak Hill on the market.  Ash Lawn sold two days after the death of Jefferson.  Ash Lawn is a modest home when compared to Montpelier and Monticello, but Monroe lived in opulence at Oak Hill.

I went to all three homes in one day and learned a lot about each president.  I found it interesting that presidents 3, 4, and 5 lived within 30 miles of each other and their connections go beyond being former Presidents of the United States.  Prior to becoming president, Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State and Monroe was Secretaries of State and War for Madison.  In addition, Monroe was tutored by Jefferson and encouraged by him to become a lawyer.

After visiting all three homes I discovered a few things about each president.  Madison was modest, Jefferson had to have the newest and greatest, and Monroe strived to keep up with both of them.  As a result, Monroe was in deep debt at one point of his life.  Of the three homes, I would prefer Montpelier.  To be fair, Monticello is very impressive, but I could not picture myself living there.  It was more like a laboratory than a home.  It also does not help that there were 100s of people at Monticello and a new tour starts every 5 minutes.  There were only about 40 people at Montpelier which made it feel more comfortable.

I really look forward to visiting Mt. Vernon and other sites in Virginia and will discuss them as I do.  I apologize for not posting anything last week and will start describing my courses next week.  Until then…

-Eric

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