A Tea Party in Colonial Williamsburg

In a recent Washington Post story, staff reporter Amy Gardner reminds us that history museums play a vital role in ongoing debates about nation and citizenship. Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg has witnessed a recent wave of Tea Party activists who’ve come to cheer on Patrick Henry and follow George Washington to battle. These Tea Partiers find in Williamsburg’s story a historical parallel to their own struggle against high taxes and big government. Gardner reports that the Tea Party worries that the nation has drifted from its founders’ ideals. Those who’ve “forgotten about America,” proclaims a retired plumber from New York, “should come here [Colonial Williamsburg] and listen.”

Novel as it may seem, this episode recalls an earlier moment in the history of American museums. Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, the kind that mingle history lessons with restored buildings and costumed guides, became wildly popular in this country at the turn of the last century. They appealed especially to middle and upper class white Americans who were concerned that decades of labor unrest, combined with an onslaught of foreign immigrants, and the lingering complexities of Reconstruction threatened to obscure what really mattered in America. Colonial Williamsburg was born amid and of these worries during the late 1920s. Americans marveled at the new museum in a dramatic color photo essay printed in a 1937 issue of The National Geographic Magazine. One picture featured two black children flanked by British Redcoats and “up to their ears in watermelon.” “There is one custom,” the caption continued, “that time has not changed.”


Much has changed, fortunately, in the intervening decades. Colonial Williamsburg has worked hard to ensure that the jingoism at play during its early years is kept at bay—and even scrutinized from time to time—by serious hard-won critical history. As Gardner reports, Tea Partiers are sometimes rebuffed by a George Washington who is neither as religious nor as quick to revolt as they expect. Keeping the record straight, however, is a constant challenge in a nation where public memory and politics are synonymous. Consider, for instance, the anti-immigration VDARE Foundation that takes its name from Virginia Dare, the celebrated first English (read: white) child born in America. VDARE, like the North Carolinians who opposed suffrage for Black women during the 1920s “in the name of Virginia Dare,” offers just one more example of change-fearing Americans looking to history for constancy and affirmation—precisely what the Tea Partiers expect to find at Colonial Williamsburg.

The persistence of that expectation is bad news for historians because it shows us that we have largely failed to educate the public that change is, in fact, the essence of history. Although Colonial Williamsburg’s president hopes that visitors leave “having learned something about the nuance and messiness of history,” the influx of Tea Partiers suggests that Americans who distrust change still seek solace there. Museums have become much better in recent years at challenging our expectations of the past. I wonder, though, when the rest of our nation’s historians will join the effort in earnest. With important exceptions, I’m shocked by how few credentialed historians share their expertise with local museums. I’m surprised even more by how many fewer initiate those conversations. Why is it that more of us don’t introduce ourselves to the good people who run our local museums? Why are there so few professional historians on the boards of small museums? Is it that we expect to be asked? To be paid?

Colonial Williamsburg already has its share of historians. The audience that needs us most is waiting at those of our small community museums that can barely pay the bills, let alone respond to the most complicated political questions of our time. Because they can’t afford to come find us, it’s up to us to take the first step. George Washington didn’t win as many battles as we’d like to think. He’ll lose this one too without some help.

America’s “Best Idea” a Good Idea for Today’s History Sites

Ken Burns has done it again. His latest series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has bloggers abuzz with paeans to Steven Mather, Shelton Johnson, and other unsung heroes of our national park system. And, like any Burns docudrama, The National Parks will surely agitate a few historians. In this rich visual dreamscape, political and social discord melts away into the soothing hum of acoustic Americana. And although the parks are certainly a great idea, I’ve heard colleagues quip about the possibility that, say, universal suffrage was pretty good too.

Criticism aside, there is an important lesson in Burns’s latest success for historians working in museums and historic sites. Burns shows us that people—at least the people in his audience—may be as interested in how places like national parks get made as they are in visiting those places on summer vacations. He’s certainly not the first to tell these stories. The National Park Service has been churning out histories of its various units—“administrative histories” in bureau parlance—for a very long time. And although administrative historians don’t deliver dramatic monologues in The National Parks, their work is evident throughout. It is also available free of charge and cinematic mediation at www.nps.gov/history/history.

Burns’s latest project does, however, point to (and may be creating) a public audience for administrative history. And if Amazon.com’s sales rankings for the DVD and soundtrack are any indication, that audience has money to spare. This is good news for museums and historic sites at a time when they need it most. Interpreting institutional history can put a fresh spin on old history. The National Park Service has tried it at several sites, including in Brookline, MA where Rose Kennedy’s careful crafting of her son’s story is a key theme at the JFK National Historic Site. Closer to home, Eastern State Penitentiary delights with the shear heft of its institutional history. Cliveden of the National Trust recently made headlines for discussing how history is made there. And we can only hope that the nascent President’s House memorial on Independence Mall will help us understand the controversies that have already gathered in its short shadow.

Pulling back the curtain at these sites demonstrates just how contested our public memory can be. That’s an important story for all of us to hear. In it we find an empowering message about the ability of ordinary individuals to shape the past. But there’s a cautionary tale here too, a reminder that we’re all responsible for being careful consumers of history. In that regard, although Burns’s nationalist hyperbole may not be the best idea in history, The National Parks suggests new possibilities for museums unafraid to look in the mirror.

Broken Budget? Bake Bread!

Amid last weekend’s rising rivers and lightening strikes, Hilary and I fled the city and headed south into the Brandywine River Valley. I wanted Wyeth country, but with the afternoon almost gone, we settled for a quick tour of the John Chads House. John Chads–after whom Chadds Ford, PA is named–built this three-story stone house during the 1720s. It’s a wonderful example of early Pennsylvania architecture that features original woodwork and masonry. The Chadds Ford Historical Society owns the place and offers regular tours although, as our guide indicated, visitation is way down this season. As of 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, we were the day’s first visitors!

How that can be confounds me because, despite hard times for nearly all historic sites, the John Chads House boasts what may very well be the most irresistible souvenir that I’ve encountered anywhere in recent memory: fresh bread! Every year, in the run up to September’s Chadds Ford Days festival, master bread baker Lise Taylor churns thousands of loaves of bread out of the building’s beehive oven. Most of the bread is frozen until September when it’s thawed and sold to festival goers. The rest is gobbled up by house visitors, like us, lucky enough to show up at the end of a baking day. $4 buys you a steamy fresh-baked loaf; $10 buys three. It’s well worth it.

There’s nothing new about house museums selling baked goods out of colonial kitchens. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thing that got Americans excited about historic tourism in the first place. Take for example the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where a “real” colonial kitchen turned out to be a big crowd pleaser. A century later, colonial kitchens–and their wares–remained a staple of living history museums during the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Eating the stuff costumed interpreters make in bygone kitchens has since grown less common. I imagine this has partly to do with health and liability issues. Additionally, big operations like Colonial Williamsburg have learned how to make more money by funneling visitors into centralized stores that sell “authentic” copies of food and other products made throughout the museum.

The John Chads house, however, is a pretty small operation, but all the more charming as a result. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You won’t get a certificate of authenticity with your bread nor promises that it tastes just like it would have two centuries ago. It is, like all good sourvenirs, a charming (and tasty) reminder of an interesting experience. And in this case, charm pays. Charm is a prickly proposition at museums and historic sites. For starters, it’s very diffcult to define. What is charm? How do you budget for it? When done carefully, charm enhances educational missions and keeps visitors coming back. If mishandled, though, charm can quickly turn good history into naive nostalgia or, in extreme cases, heavy-handed ideology. One way or the other, it’s hard to deny that charm makes good business sense. Fresh baked bread may not solve all budget woes, but in these hard times, pehaps modern historic sites can learn a thing or two from their predecessors.

de Maistre’s Revenge

In my last post, I mentioned the remarkable influence of context shift on our relationship to everyday objects. If it’s context shift you’re looking for, check out Microsoft’s Photosynth. This server-side visualization software allows you to translate a slew of still-photographs into a very cool interactive panorama. It’s easy to use (just a few minutes to generate my office synth), lots of fun, but also highly addicitve, so be careful. Thanks to Bill Turkel for the suggestion.

Big Boats

I had a surprising run in with an old friend early last month while visiting Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport museum. Last November, Mystic hauled the Charles W. Morgan out of the water and laid it up in dry dock for an extensive overhaul (click here for the full story). This was no small endeavor. At 340 tons and almost 170 years old, the Morgan requires a firm, but gentle hand. She is, after all, a National Historic Landmark and, according to the good folks at Mystic, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. But, beyond all of that, the Morgan is beloved by throngs of people like myself who remember first discovering her on family vacations long ago. And seeing as how tourists have been flocking to the Morgan since 1941, that’s a whole lot of memories.

But what amazed me on my most recent visit was how BIG the Morgan really is. Seeing her out of the water is a remarkable experience. Others agree. One museum staffer recalls an old-timer who quipped, “you don’t know anything about that boat until you’ve seen her out of the water.” Now, before I go on, perhaps it’s worth noting that I am a longstanding maritime history junky. Those early trips to Mystic really worked their magic and I’ll probably drag my own kids there whether they like it or not. I can’t help but imagine though that even someone without my particular obsession with nineteenth-century maritime stuff would be impressed by the Morgan‘s shear girth. Don’t get me wrong, she looks big in the water, but out of her element, the Morgan’s size is really striking. These ships were built broad and deep to accommodate the thousands of barrels of whale oil crews pursued for years on end. As a result, whale ships in dry dock dwarf the buildings that surround them–then and now.

Stumbling upon this particular moment in the Morgan‘s long life was a real treat because it brought me as close as I’ll probably ever get to seeing what a working nineteenth-century shipyard was really like. But it also reminded me just how dramatically our understanding of an object can change with a shift in context. The Morgan is a very different thing out of the water and that difference is worth thinking about in a museum. Everyone who visits Mystic learns about the hardships of life at sea. The Morgan‘s tiny crew quarters make the point well enough. But, from the current vantage point, the ratio of crew space to cargo space is even more evident. Astute museum goers will see in the ship’s remarkable proportions a harsh truth about the cheapness of human labor in the early decades of American industrial capitalism. This is not to say that you can’t know anything about the Morgan while she’s in the water, but her overhaul clearly presents exciting opportunities for reflection as well as repair.

Preservation Prevented

I’ve been involved with historic preservation long enough to know that old buildings can disappear fast no matter who values them nor how much. Even so, I still can’t quite believe how quickly the old Shoemaker House vanished. Wreckers razed the three-hundred year-old building early last week after reports of a fuel oil leak led Upper Dublin Township Fire Marshal Timothy Schuck to the house, which stood on a remote corner of Temple University’s Ambler Campus. A local news report failed to explain why the building was demolished, although rumors suggest that Schuck made the final call. One way or another, it was a significant decision that resulted in the destruction of one of the Delaware Valley’s oldest standing buildings.


There’s certainly nothing unique about this story; this sort of thing happens all the time. The great irony in this case, however, is that I and several other Temple colleagues had recently pooled our resources toward resuscitating the old Shoemaker House. Our plan wasn’t to restore the place, but rather to stabilize it and create there a living classroom where faculty might encourage students to consider the complicated intersections between history, the environment, and a sustainable future. In fact, we had just submitted a grant proposal that I’m fairly confident would have been supported. How we proceed now is unclear. All hope is not lost, but still I can’t help but marvel at the shear scope of miscommunication and historical disregard responsible for the Shoemaker House’s untimely demise.


What follows is a brief history of the Shoemaker House excerpted from the grant proposal we hoped would protect the building. As you can tell by the before-and-after pictures, there remains precious little to protect:

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Temple University’s Ambler College campus, just south of the soccer fields near the corner of Butler Pike and Meetinghouse Road, stands a tumbledown stone building half reclaimed by the overgrowth that surrounds it. The Shoemaker House’s humble façade obscures its rich history. Built nearly three hundred years ago, this building ranks among the oldest surviving structures in Upper Dublin Township, let alone in all of southeastern Pennsylvania. Its story is indelibly linked with the story of Pennsylvania and, consequently, the story of our nation.

The land that encompasses Ambler College today lay at the periphery of Philadelphia’s rural hinterland by the late seventeenth century. Opportunities abounded there for wealthy investors like Samuel Finney who, sympathetic to William Penn’s liberal policies, purchased land in 1699 and erected a log structure on the present Shoemaker House site. Although we do not know what that first building looked like or what it was used for, we do know that it represented Finney’s success in a burgeoning Atlantic World. Finney, who had been born into a wealthy North West England family, apprenticed at an early age with a West Indian merchant out of London. The merchant trade served Finney well, eventually leading him to Barbados where he built a fortune on the backs of African slaves forced to labor on sugar and cotton plantations. In the meantime, Finney’s ascent within planter society brought him into a wide circle of prominent friends including William Penn.


Penn’s affiliation with a slave-owning planter may seem strange today, but it is precisely in this way that the Shoemaker House preserves our nuanced past. In this case, it reminds us that slavery existed throughout the colonies, and that even Quakers like William Penn were complicit. It was more likely money than morals that bound Finney to Penn. Their bond appears to have been remarkably strong. Not only did Penn travel with Finney to Pennsylvania in 1699, he also appointed him to the colony’s provincial council in 1703 on which Finney served as judge periodically between 1702 and 1706 and for a final term before his death in 1711. All the while, Finney bought thousands of acres of land and played an integral role in the early history of Upper Dublin Township, which was established under his watch in 1701. Consequently, although the Shoemaker House likely began as little more than a log shed on Finney’s property, by linking us to him it brings into focus the heady mix of religion, slavery, and economic mobility underlying our nation’s shared heritage.


But Finney’s story is only one of many we discover by studying the Shoemaker House. For nearly three hundred years the building has changed with each new owner. Cadwallader Ellis, who traveled to Pennsylvania among the first waves of Welsh Quakers inspired by William Penn, purchased the log building from Finney in 1706. Ellis improved Finney’s building, possibly rebuilding it in stone, to provide shelter for his family. Unlike Finney, for whom settling in Pennsylvania capped a long life of achievement, Ellis aspired from humble beginnings to build a new life of faith and prosperity in the New World. By 1725 the Shoemaker House had grown even more, mirroring the accomplishments of Ellis and his successors. In this way, the Shoemaker House passed from one owner to the next, reflecting in its architectural evolution the struggles and achievements of each generation. The house attained roughly its current configuration in the hands of the Shoemaker family who, besides giving it its name, owned the building for an incredible one hundred and fifty years. Their story alone is worth telling and reminds us that, despite appearances, the unassuming Shoemaker House preserves in its crumbling mortar a memory of profound depth.

The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women purchased the old house from the Shoemaker family in a “good state of repair” in 1943. Over the years, however, inappropriate use and misguided additions compromised the building’s structural integrity. Temple University inadvertently acquired the building (and, briefly, its last tenants) in 1958 when Ambler Junior College merged with the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture. Despite the following decades’ embrace of historical preservation, Temple disregarded the Shoemaker House and even threatened to demolish it only months after the Ambler Women’s Committee published a 1972 report demonstrating the building’s significance. Renewed attempts to protect the building in subsequent decades raised awareness, but never secured financial support. Most recently, the Ambler Campus Council for a Sustainable Campus has brought together volunteers to clear the site of overgrowth and hopes to link these activities with a speaker series concerning sustainability and historic preservation. Without substantial support, however, the future of this remarkable building hangs in the balance.

The Windows Remember

From time to time my job leads me to local museums and historic sites. It’s a great gig for a museum junky like myself. And, better yet, I occasionally get to see stuff that doesn’t turn up on the usual tours. Take, for example, this amazing window that I discovered (thanks, Blanche) on a recent visit to Cliveden (rhymes with “lived in”), a National Trust historic site north of downtown Philly in Germantown, PA. For nearly two centuries, Cliveden’s owners encouraged their guests to “sign” the building’s windows with a diamond scribe. Look closely and, in just this single pane, you’ll find nearly one hundred and thirty years worth of names, dates, and well wishes. The window is a guest book in glass, the result of a charming tradition that literally etched family friends into Cliveden’s memory.

Folks who, like myself, spend a lot of time doing history with things know full well that objects seldom speak so clearly of their pasts. This window owes its remarkable prolixity to Benjamin Chew and his progeny. Chew, a lapsed Quaker who made big money managing the Penn family’s legal affairs, built Cliveden as a summer home in the 1760s. The house is most famous for sheltering a handful of British soldiers who, garrisoned behind the building’s three-foot thick stone walls, managed to stall General Washington’s advance toward Philadelphia in October 1777 during the Battle of Germantown. Chew sold the place after the Revolution, but reacquired it shortly before his death. The home passed from generation to generation until 1972 when the Chew family presented Cliveden to the National Trust. That they did speaks strongly to the family’s awareness of its own significant historical legacy.

Cliveden’s windows are, in this light, striking evidence of one family’s desire to commemorate itself. And what a striking commemoration it is. To look through this window is to see one’s self reflected in the deep memory of a building, and a landscape beyond, that witnessed the unfolding of our national story. And, at the same time, the window is itself a unique kind of historic text. It chronicles the comings and goings of some of this country’s most prominent people over a remarkable span of time. The absence of less prominent names reminds us that not even objects have perfect memories. In any event, much could be made of this by a historian with an ear for objects. How one footnotes a window is another matter entirely.

Don’t Sugar Coat the Hershey Experience

I was saddened to learn recently that the seventy-five year old Hershey Museum will be trading its musty old corner of the Hershey Park Arena complex for a new high profile location on West Chocolate Avenue. The news comes late to me. Although I grew up near Hershey and cherish childhood memories of the museum, I’ve long since moved away and only recently had opportunity to visit the place after a long hiatus.

Things were pretty much as I remembered them, save for an exhibit concerning Hershey Park that included an employee uniform worn in 1990—roughly the same year I held my first summer job at the park. Despite the unease that comes with discovering one’s self in a history museum, I enjoyed revisiting Milton Hershey’s old collection of Indian artifacts and delighted in John Fiester’s miraculous apostolic clock.

I’ll miss the old Hershey Museum, but I also know that nostalgia is not reason enough to sustain it. In fact, nostalgia can be a kind of death knell in the life cycle of a history museum. We study the past toward understanding how change over time has shaped our own historical moment. A museum that fails to convey the complexity of historical change or does not make that lesson relevant to a broad public risks becoming an artifact itself. As much as I’ll miss it, I think the old Hershey Museum may have been headed in precisely that direction.

How exciting then that the M.S. Hershey Foundation is opening a new multi-million dollar museum this January. The so-called Hershey Experience promises to educate upwards of 300,000 visitors every year about the life and legacy of its famous namesake. And, with over ten thousand square feet of modern exhibit space at their disposal, I imagine that the museum’s curators are sparing no effort in making the fascinating story of Milton S. Hershey’s twentieth-century enterprise meaningful to his twenty-first century admirers.

Doing that however will take a lot of hard work and a whole lot of tact. The old Hershey Museum never really wrangled with tough issues like American economic imperialism. Milton Hershey was a committed philanthropist and truly concerned about his employees’ wellbeing. But his success also owed to a murky American foreign policy that permitted, among other transgressions, an undue hand in Cuba where Hershey owned sprawling sugar plantations. That’s a hard story to sell at a place that’s supposed to be all about fun.

But it’s an important story, one of many the Hershey Experience must tell if it is to avoid its predecessor’s fate. History museums provide a safe harbor for working out difficult issues. Confronting imperialism or, similarly difficult, remembering those Americans who were not included in Hershey’s utopian dream does not degrade our memory of the man. Rather it helps us put our own complicated times into context.

And for the millions of us struggling with rising fuel prices, corporate outsourcing, the credit crisis, or any other symptom of our nation’s ever perilous geopolitical milieu, that context reaches all the way back to the collective enterprise of Hershey and his early-twentieth-century industrial brethren. We’re lucky to have a hometown hero like Milton Hershey. But the Hershey Experience must remind us that even a little bar of chocolate carries with it global responsibilities.

Hard Time

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–more than usual, at least–about what to do with historic sites where the primary attraction has all but vanished. This all started a few weeks ago after I read John R. Maass‘s response to my Ferry Farm op-ed wherein he dismissed my concerns as “silly.” Inelegance notwithstanding, Maass’s criticism is worth thinking about. He argues that no mater what we academics think or say about it, constructing replicas of long lost buildings like the house that George Washington grew up in is really all about “luring people off I-95 and capturing tourism dollars. Most tourists want to see *something.*” He’s right, of course, and historic site managers are necessarily far too busy balancing visitor demands and shoestring budgets to worry much about the so-called “theoretical issues.”

But, then, where does that leave us? Maybe I am silly to think that Ferry Farm visitors will settle for anything less than a “replica” approximating what Washington’s house might have possibly looked like during roughly those years when George wasn’t chopping down cherry trees. Does that mean, however, that we can’t come up with an alternative to replica building that, while still earning a few bucks for the good folks at Ferry Farm, is less apt to perpetuate the kind of myths and misunderstandings that we in the academy have been working hard to destabilize for the last thirty years? What other kinds of *somethings* might we offer up?

Preservationists have been wrangling with this one for a long time and have come up with some creative responses over the years. Consider, for example, the representational strategy called “ghosting.” Ghosting involves creating a kind of three-dimensional life-sized sketch of a bygone building right on the spot where it once stood. The hope is to pique the onlooker’s imagination without eclipsing it. Ben Franklin’s house and print shop were famously ghosted right here in Philadelphia during the 1976 bicentennial celebration. Whether or not ghosting is any more or less effective than building replicas is a whole other question. Ghosting is, however, certainly a viable alternative.

So is arrested decay. In those fortunate cases where a historic structure remains in whole or in part, but is dilapidated beyond ready repair, simply stabilizing the thing in situ can have remarkable results. This is the strategy, for instance, at the Bodie State Historic Park in California. Bodie, like many western mining towns, boomed and busted during the second half of the nineteenth century leaving nothing today but an abandoned ghost town. Park operators keep Bodie in a state of perpetual decay while preventing it’s collapse so that visitors might be impressed by the the legacy of economic caprice.

Hilary and I recently witnessed a stunning example of arrested decay at what definitely ranks among the coolest historic sites I’ve experienced: Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern state looms like a castle (it was built to look like one) above the otherwise subdued row homes just northeast of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the original penitentiary. When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the only prison in the world intentionally designed to induce penitence. The idea was to keep prisoners constantly occupied in silent solitary labor until Eastern State’s edificial magnitude cracked their criminal tendencies. Overcrowding trumped isolation in fairly short order, but Eastern State stayed in business for a long time and wasn’t completely shut down until 1970. During its long life, the prison hosted thousands of inmates–including, of course, Al Capone–and fundamentally influenced the architecture and theory of incarceration throughout the world. If you’ve ever seen an old prison movie (or 12 Monkeys which was filmed there in 1995), you’ve seen shades of Eastern State.

Today the place stands in a state of semi-ruin. Visitors stroll through tumbledown cell blocks pierced by persistent weeds and an occasional errant sunbeam. A self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (who is, by the way, inexplicably perfect for this) weaves together a host of clever exhibits and points of interest where additional recordings address topics ranging from preservation to sex and sexuality behind bars. But, even more compelling than the history of this place is its aesthetic onslaught. Perhaps it has to do with the weird juxtaposition of impenetrability and collapse, but there is something overwhelming about this place. It’s a real sensory tour de force that creates a unique opportunity to witness bygone objects in various states of meaning. Each crumbling cell is at once relic, art, and exhibit. We are forced here to recognize that historical meaning, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder. Both join in stunning harmony at Eastern State.

Whatever it is that makes this place so interesting evidently speaks to a broad public. In fact, it’s worth noting that Eastern State is staffed by a throng of hip city kids who are as enthusiastic about their work as any costumed interpreter you might find strolling around Independence Hall or, for that matter, Colonial Williamsburg. Scenesters forging common ground with history buffs! That’s an impressive accomplishment for any historic site and I can’t help but think it owes in most part to the museum’s honesty. This is a place, after all, that can’t–and couldn’t even if it wanted to–claim many heroes or make patriotic appeals. It is, rather, a place that makes palpable the slow yet irresistible power of passing time. At Eastern State, we learn that history is change and change, by in large, is good. That is a vitally important lesson and one, incidentally, that is very difficult to convey against a backdrop of unchanging replicas.