Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Public History Series: Memory

I could not think of a better post to conclude the Public History series with than one on Memory because it plays into EVERY aspect of the discipline.  The key word in public history is “public.”  We create a link between academic history and the public by making history accessible by everyone.  Memory, in this case, is not a singular term, but a collective term.  The term most often used is “American Memory” and it is very important for public historians to understand.  The knowledge that slavery was bad and immoral is pretty common, and it is a negative memory within the American population, but that does not make it, and other controversial topics, easy to display.

Slavery, and other controversial topics are difficult to deal within a museum.  A museum that chooses to ignore the topic tends to enrage a portion of the population, but those that demonize slaveholders anger yet another part of the population.  Presenting such a controversial topic has been done in many ways.  One way, which causes a great amount of publicity, took place a few years ago at Colonial Williamsburg.  They held a mock slave auction in the town square.  This would have been a common occurrence in the Colonial Era, but was not something the public was interested in in the early Twenty-First Century.  It caused a lot of controversy and they have not attempted to do it again.  Slavery is still discussed within Williamsburg and they even offer a tour that focuses specifically on slavery within a colonial town.

Enola Gay

The other, and more famous, example of a controversial museum display was the Enola Gay.  In 2003, the Enola Gay went on display at the Smithsonian and was presented in such a way that angered those who were against the use of the bomb as well as Japanese-Americans.  The Smithsonian did correct the display, but the results upset veterans whose lives were, arguably, saved by the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II.  The Smithsonian solved the dilemma by taking down the display and leaving the aircraft on display with no interpretation.  The Smithsonian took the easy way out.  The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is controversial, but they have not close their doors in response to protests.

The key to remember when it comes to memory is that there are two sides to the same story.  The Civil War is a great example of this.  It is nearly impossible to make everyone happy when displaying any controversial topic in history; therefore, it is important to display the history in a way that is truthful and unbiased.  Allow the visitor to draw his/her own conclusions.

Memory is such a great topic to complete the series because it really does play a key role in how we present the history in all the sub-disciplines of Public History: local/regional history, oral history, historic preservation, documentary editing, museum studies, documentary film and visual arts, historical archaeology, and archival work.

It is important to remember that Public Historians are ultimately working to educate the public and should be wary that some events could be painful or offensive to a portion of the population.  This does not mean, however, that it should be brushed over or ignored.  This is, I believe, where public historians differ from academic historians.  Academic historians write for each other, and there are not many within the public that read academic journals or books.  It is important for public historians to use the academic techniques to present history to the public in a way that is accurate and unbiased.  That is the goal of myself and the goal of Public Historians.

-Eric

NOTE:  This is the tenth and final post 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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What are Sanborn Maps?

I mentioned Sanborn maps briefly in posts for both HIST 696 and HIST 593, but I thought I should expand upon their importance to historians.

Perhaps a little history first!  The Sanborn comapny created maps for insurances purposes from the 1860s until the 1970s.  These maps were created for cities across the country and are very thorough in thier detail.  Their purpose was to map fire hazards which, as you can imagine, would have been important in city planning and determining insurance rates.  These maps were important to city devopers at the time because they provided a detailed sketch of their city.

Sample Key for a full color Sanborn Map

The Sanborn maps were created in full color with extreme detail on a building-by-building basis.  The maps are color codes to expreess the types of building materials, uses of a structure, and potential hazards.  The maps are extremely large and were often kept as part of city or county records.  This detail was key in determining insurance values and rates.

Color Sanborn Map of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan

Sanborns were updated on a regular basis to map growth of cities and changes in use of structures over time.  In Harrisonburg, for example, maps were completed in 1886, 1891, 1897, 1902, 1907, 1912, 1918, 1924, 1930 and 1961.  The detail of the maps tends to suffer as time went by and often the best maps are the earliest. The below map of a block on Liberty street in Harrisonburg (from 1886) shows each building and lists whether the structure was a business or a dwelling.  If a structure was occupied by a business, the name of that business is listed on the map.  Homes are marked with less detail, but on this map lists the occupant’s occupation as a “dressmaker.”  Such details are not common on Sanborn maps, but do sometimes occur on earlier examples.  However, maps from 1961 were still detailed, but primarily for businesses.

Block of Harrisonburg in 1886 – from Microfilm

If you access the Sanborn maps today, you will most likely encounter the microfilm versions that are available in many libraries.  These maps are black and white so much of the detail is lost, but that does not diminish their importance.  The color maps are hard to come by and are large and cumbersome to work with.  For most research projects the black and white maps are  sufficient, but that depends on the research.

How are these maps helpful to a historian?  There are many uses for these maps today.  Local historans use the maps to note the changes in business and industry in a given city over time. In addition to a block-by-block map, there are also maps of the entire city.  These maps are useful in mapping urban growth as well as changing patterns of industry and settlement patterns.  Sanborns can also be used by urban historians to expalin the growth patterns of cities in a particular period of time, or Cultural historians can use Sanborns to map social classes within a city and map their movements within it.

While those are just a few examples of their uses, I have used Sanborn maps to determine how certain structures have changed over time.  Were there additions? Were sections of the house removed?  Were porches added or removed?  All these questions and more can be answered by spending a few hours alone with a microfilm machine in the library!  The Historic Preservation course, along with the Public History course have really gotten me interested in architectural history and preservation.  The Sanborns are a key tool for preservationists, especially those researching structures for the National Register of Historic Places.  Sanborns are an important resource for my potential career and I am glad they are available in an accessible format.

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COURSES: HIST 593 – Historic Preservation

The final course of the semester is Historic Preservation.  Taught by Mr. Nash, we are learning about the preservation of historic structures.  In order to learn how to preserve the structure, we are first learning how they were constructed.  We have discussed the construction methods for a wood framed house and a brick house.  Next week we are going to start discussing the interiors of the house.

There is A LOT of reading for this class.  In addition to the two text books, Everyday Architecture of Mid-Atlantic (By Dr. Lanier) and Twenty Buildings Every Architect Should Understand, we are also required to read several books on reserve in the library and the National Park Services’ Preservation Briefs.  These are how-to guides for restoring and preserving aspects of historic structures.  There are 47 of these briefs available and we will read them all by the end of the semester.

We have not papers for the class.  We do have weekly presentations, however.  He paired each of us with another student and assigned a book or article important to the art of preservation.  We have to create a presentation to give in class that must last no longer than 30 minutes.  He has several goals with this project.  The first is to expose the class to these important works, but the other is to give each of us experience with presenting information.

“General Jones” House

The most important project of the semester is our “project house.”  The class was divided into two groups and we are each researching a house as if we were going to place it on the National Register of Historic Places.  The grad students are in charge of the group and we work with our group as well as oversee the work of the undergrads.  My group is working on the building that currently houses the Shen-Valley Band Company and is rumored to once be the home of Confederate General William E. Jones, who was killed in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  There is no evidence to support this claim, so it is up to our group to dig through Sanborn maps, deeds, and genealogy records to find out.  I will write more about the house itself at a later date.

This class has really gotten me excited about historic preservation and I think it is something that I might be interested in pursuing after I finish my Master’s Degree.  I am looking into summer internships and would really like to work in the preservation field.  It is a combination of the this course and Dr. Lanier’s Public History course that have led me to this conclusion.

-Eric

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Courses: Spring 2011

I registered or classes back in November, but now I have my books and can give a brief descrption of each course.

HIST 593 – Historic Preservation…Mr. Darryl Nash

From the Graduate Catalog: “An introduction to the philosophy and technique of historic preservation. Course examines the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for restoration, state and national register forms and procedures, historic architecture, structural analysis, restoration techniques as well as the business aspects of historic preservation projects. Students undertake leadership assignments for architectural field assessments and national register nominations.”

BooksEveryday Architecture of Mid-Atlantic (By Dr. Lanier) and Twenty Buildings Every Architect Should Understand

HIST 673 – Graduate Research and Writing Seminar…Dr. Gabrielle Lanier

From the Graduate Catalog: “An intensive research and writing seminar focused on the process of conceptualizing, researching, writing and refining historical research papers grounded in primary sources. Emphasis will be on evaluation of sources, interpretation of evidence, refinement of presentation and development of professional standards of criticism. Required of all first year graduate students.”

BooksA Manual for Writers (We all know this book!!)

HIST 696 – Introduction to Public History…Dr. Gabrielle Lanier

From the Graduate Catalog: “An introduction to the varied and interdisciplinary “field” of public history – such as community/local history, historic preservation, archives, historical archaeology, museum studies, business and policy history, documentary editing and publishing, and documentary films – through readings, class discussions, occasional guest speakers, occasional field trips and an extended public history research project.”

Books: On Doing Local HistoryNew History in an Old MuseumThe Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American MemoryDomesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House MuseumsPublic History: Essays from the Field, and Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory

That is a total of nine books for the semester!  Not too bad.  I have also been given a different TA position for the semester and I will explain that in a post after I get back into the routine.  There is still some information I need to get about that.

Later this week, I will post a outline of my 2010.  It has been a life changing year!  Until then…

Eric

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