Julia Harrison: On Looking

Click here to hear Harrison discuss imagery in her work.

Look long enough at Julia Harrison’s work and you may feel like you’re staring. That is, in fact, precisely the point. Harrison explains that “the act of looking really hard at another person to try to figure out what the hell they are thinking or feeling or talking about is a universal thing.” It’s a theme most immediately evident in the pursed lips and oblique eyes that appear specimen-like in Harrison’s hand-carved brooches and wall sculptures. Though these pieces invite our gaze, the ambiguity of their expressions unsettle us into considering what it means to look and to be looked at. “The specifics are different,” she adds, but “the grasping for understanding is everywhere.”

The playful reflexivity of Harrison’s fanciful body parts reveals a mingling of art and anthropology. Professionally, Harrison wears both hats. She was inspired early on to study the anthropology of craft, but was frustrated by the tendency of ethnographers to ignore processes by which objects get made. A two-year stint studying traditional needlework among Minnesota’s Hmong refugees allowed Harrison to explore linkages between craft technique and the rhythms of daily life. The experience was formative, and it encouraged Harrison to turn her anthropological lens on another favorite topic: sweets. In recent years, she has blogged, mapped, and exhibited research into the complex web of cultural forces that sustain our global appetite for sugary foods and fantastic confections.

Click here to hear Harrison discuss looking.

Looking also figured prominently in Harrison’s path to wood art. Although formally trained as a metal artist, Harrison warmed to carving wood while studying conservation science in England. Previous experiences with basswood had been unsatisfying, but carving small objects from aged boxwood was different: “I could get it to hold all of these tiny details.” Harrison next traveled to Japan, boxwood in tow, and acquired tools suitable for working in a small apartment. She recalls being surrounded by Japanese wood art. “My first teacher was just going and looking at things … and trying to imagine, if this is what the carving looks like now, what kind of shaped block would it have come out of.” Learning by looking enabled Harrison to engage Japanese artisans through careful acts of observation.

Click here to hear Harrison discuss materials.

Years of travel explain the prevalence of small objects in Harrison’s body of work. “I had to have things that were really really small, really durable [and] I had to figure out ways of making things more engineered than they look.” Even more significantly, Harrison explains, she had to learn to work “subtractively.” “Even if I was having a bad day … I could look at those wood chips and think … at the very least it’s getting more portable.” The press of travel, however, has preserved within Harrison’s work a material record of the artist’s journey. Bits of wood gathered here and there “become part of the story,” she says. And new places invite new techniques. Turned paintbrushes and miniature dirigibles highlight Harrison’s run with the lathe in Philadelphia. New directions for an artist who is always looking.

Grant Vaughan: On Place

“When I’m thinking about things to do,” explains Grant Vaughan, “I’ll go for a walk in the bush.” He doesn’t have far to walk. Vaughan hails from New South Wales, Australia, where he lives on eighty-five acres of bushland. Although his work has shifted over the years, variously between sculpture and furniture making, all of it in someway bears the imprint of Vaughan’s love for the landscape that surrounds him. Most telling in this regard are the loping spheres and crisp edges that unfold like leaves from his carvings.



Vaughan grew up amid the scattering of small towns west of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Though he briefly studied engineering and architecture at the University of Sydney during the 1970s, the swirl of excitement surrounding Australia’s burgeoning youth counterculture lured Vaughan away from school and deep into the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It was there that he first experimented with wood carving and furniture making, despite having no formal training. “I had my plane blade in upside down for twelve months!” But with time, and guidance from an early mentor, Vaughn began hand-carving organic forms in tables and mirrors, all inspired by his fascination with nature and a taste for Art Nouveau.

All the while, a revival of interest in hand-crafted furniture had created new opportunities for wood artists in Australia. Vaughan joined the Woodworkers Group of New South Wales and began showing his work regularly throughout Sydney, including at a landmark show in the Sydney Opera House. “That went really well,” he recalls, “I was getting so much work, I couldn’t keep up with it.” Vaughan’s success inspired new creative directions, including a bowl he carved for the Opera House show that prompted a flurry of interest throughout the international woodworking community. Furniture, however, remained Vaughan’s mainstay for many years and sustained him with commissions, including for an elaborate set of exhibit cases showcased in Austrailia’s Parliament House.

IMG_4200 copy


Vaughan’s late return to carving owes, in part, to a broadening appreciation of his work in American galleries during the last decade. It’s a shift that he understands within the context of global economies. Sydney’s emergence as Asia Pacific’s financial center has shifted tastes among Australian collectors while raising real threats to the the landscape that nourishes Vaughan’s work. So, though encouraged abroad, working away from home creates real challenges for someone so powerfully influenced by place. “You need to get away,” as he puts it, to “do other things, and come back with a new perspective.” And yet, Vaughan brightens when he speaks about his land and the hundred species of trees he’s discovered there. “Understanding the landscape,” he says, is “about being informed about what you’re looking at.” It’s a conviction that applies just as well to Vaughan’s work and that, in many ways, explains it.

Rex Kalehoff: On Awareness

IMG_4130 Perhaps none of this year’s ITE fellows are more at home in Philadelphia than Rex Kalehoff, who earned a BFA in sculpture from UArts before moving on to RIT’s MFA program in woodworking. As he tells it, Kalehoff’s work is inspired by long travels around the Pacific Rim and a consequent fascination with the power of wood art to connect us with deep pasts and diverse cultures. The prevalence in his work of animal forms and fanciful masks connotes global mythologies and the archetypal Trickster figure.

But Kalehoff draws too on more recent pasts in making sense of his creative vision. “[My] attention to aesthetics,” he explains, “comes from growing up on a boat.” Kalehoff spent much of his early years with his parents, one a musician the other an artist, aboard an elegant fifty-foot wooden sloop. When shoreside, Kalehoff savored his parent’s New York City recording studio, which he recalls being filled with “amazing instruments and amazing musicians.” Within his memory of these two spaces—wherein art, craft, and design coalesced in dazzling arrays of wood—Kalehoff sees the beginning of his artistic journey.


[Click here to hear Kalehoof discuss his artistic vision.]

The journey has not been without its challenges. Kalehoff recalls a long struggle to balance his love of form with a commitment to craft. “There were always those who were telling me … that [my work] wasn’t cutting edge enough, that it wasn’t conceptual.” And yet Kallehoff refused to shift his path, committing himself foremost to creating objects that are well-made and beautiful. Along the way he found inspiration in the work of others, including Ricky Swallow’s meticulously crafted trompe l’oeil wood sculptures, that demonstrated how concept and craft could successfully coexist.


[Clear here to hear Kalehoff discuss awareness.]

If anything, Kalehoff has become even more mindful of method as he’s settled into teaching at Brooklyn’s Makeville Studio. “The teaching I do,” he explains, “is therapeutic because I’m teaching people about awareness … I slow them down.” As Kalehoff sees it, making students aware of shop safety, or even the importance of a square square, promotes self-awareness and a sense of calm. It also encourages innovation. It was just this kind of creative self-awareness that prompted Kalehoff to begin using his bandsaw as a sculpting tool. “I learned it from studying furniture…you can do multiple [small sculptures] the same way you do chair legs.” The proof: a buffet of figurines on Kalehoff’s bench, including six masks, fifteen fish, and as he puts it, “a bunch of hands.”


[Click here to hear Kalehoff discuss tools and technique.]

Chips and Sparks

Today I rejoined my fellow fellows from the Center for Art in Wood residency program, a month since first meeting them.  Only minutes after I arrived, Albert LeCoff–the Center’s director and co-founder–joined us for a studio tour.  Albert asked that everyone browse one another’s work stations and return with an object of particular interest.  We did and for the next hour or so the group discussed what each piece revealed about work processes, artistic goals, choices of material, and other facets of the residency experience thus far.

I learned a lot; and quickly, at that.  Most significantly, I learned how incredibly facile these folks are with their tools of choice.  For instance, Adrien Segal digitized a form that she modeled by hand in clay so that she could then recreate it, again by hand, in plywood.  The confluence of digital and analog techniques reveal impossibly intricate contours in a material that most folks wouldn’t give a second thought to.  We learned from Zina Manes-Burloiu, a master of traditional Romanian chip carving, that after years of making her own tools, she can discern differences in metal by the type of spark it makes.  I find this type of material knowledge–literally, thinking WITH things–absolutely fascinating, and I intend to explore it more during my residency.

Grant Vaughan, a woodcarver from New South Wales, compares Adrien Segal’s clay and wood forms.
Works in progress by Zina Manesa-Burloiu.

Our micro-charrette also reminded me how useful this kind of exchange is.  It’s a type of conversation that, outside of writing workshops, doesn’t happen enough in humanities classrooms: asking about one another’s methods, proposing new ways of doing things, gently nudging one another to explain why it is we do the things we do.  It’s an incredibly useful exercise; one that helps us learn to be critical without being hostile.  And one that makes us realize that sometimes our peers are our best teachers.

A Return to Things

This summer, I’m finally getting back to things. Literally. After a decade or more of casting my lot almost exclusively with public history, I’m delving back—even if briefly—into the world of material culture studies, which once upon a time was my intellectual home of choice. That I even think of these fields as discrete is evidence of how deeply I’ve fallen into academia’s disciplinary furrows. Realizing this, in fact, was what prompted me to apply for a Windgate ITE Residential Fellowship at Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood. The good news is that I got the fellowship! Now it’s time to consider how a reunion with things, and a stint away from the university, might turn up new directions for my research and teaching.

But first, a few words about the fellowship. The Center for Art in Wood opened in 1986 to promote just that: wood as a medium for artistic expression. Its activities, therefore, are wide ranging, and include gallery exhibits, a permanent research collection, and educational programs. This year will be the twentieth that the Center has hosted fellows for its Windgate ITE Residency. Each year the residency brings five wood artists, one photojournalist, and one scholar to the Center to work and live together for several weeks. The culminating event is an exhibit wherein the group shares with a public audience what they’ve learned and made together over the summer.

As this year’s scholar, my job is to embed with the artists for a week and write about what I discover. Presumably I’ll reflect on their work through my particular scholarly lens, but it’s also the scholar’s job to produce text for the final exhibit and for promotional materials. All in all, it’s a fairly straightforward assignment, though with few parameters. So, how to approach it? My first instinct was to begin by reading, to sift through recent work coming out of material culture studies, arts and crafts scholarship, maker studies, and so on. It occurred to me, though, that the very reason I applied for this gig was to force myself away from these paradigms and to step away from the methodological status quo. I needed a way out of the furrows.

So, instead, I decided to build a retaining wall. By way of context, I confess to being a consummate tinkerer, a decent finish carpenter, and not a bad cabinetmaker. I am not, however, an engineer or a landscape architect, though I did promise my daughter I’d build her a swing set despite not having an inch of flat ground to put it on. We’d need a small retaining wall to make it work. What better way, I thought, than to prepare for my fellowship by creating something that would push the limits of my mechanical skills, force me to use new and unfamiliar materials, and require that I think hard about how what I make intersects with the lives of people I care about. After all, aren’t these exactly the types of challenges that my fellow fellows would be grappling with at the Center for Art in Wood?

Perhaps, though I suspect they’ll be considerably more successful than I was. After several weeks and an unfortunate turn in the weather, my “wall” is still just a couple of trenches, some tamped stone, and about a half course of landscape timbers. But, for my efforts, I did end up with more than just a sore back. The new tools I’ve acquired—especially the 3 lb. hammer I can’t now imagine being without—already have me thinking differently about what kind of work I can do, and how to accomplish it. The time I’ve spent toiling in what I once considered a remote corner of our property has fundamentally reoriented my view of our landscape and its relationship to our neighbors. And, of course, doing this with and for my daughter has created a mnemonic marker of sorts. I’ll likely always recall her fourth summer as the one during which I built that damn wall.

Retaining wall project, Summer 2015, with June as gauge for measuring trench depth.
June as a living gauge for measuring trench depth, Summer 2015.

From these observations, then, I cull a set of big questions that have long interested me and will be particularly useful, I think, this summer:

1. Modes of Production: How do the ways that we work with things shape our lives, and, vice versa?

2. Thinking with Objects: In what ways do objects expand or curtail (or both) our sense of possibility?

3. Stuff and Memory: What are the processes that bring memory and objects into symbiosis?

These are old questions, and familiar to anyone who studies material culture, but they’re also remarkably durable and useful for getting situated in any new project.

The retaining wall, however, begs one more question that bears particular relevance to the problem of academic furrows: does doing stuff make us better at thinking about stuff? Obviously I think the answer is “yes,” but I’m eager to imagine ways that we might test the hypothesis in college classrooms, where the alleged crisis in the humanities is premised on the notion that people who study English and History and Philosophy can’t actually do anything. The success of the Center’s fellowship program seems to demonstrate the opposite. How, I wonder, might I bring that lesson back to Temple?

So, there it is, my agenda for the summer: get reacquainted with things, spend some time with folks who take them seriously, and see what I can gather from the experience that might reinvigorate what we do in the classroom.

Then, maybe I can finish that damn wall.

RIP Critical Thinking: A Field Report

More news of weak links in American higher education has made the rounds in recent weeks. Researchers tell us that thirty percent of college seniors are no better at writing or thinking critically than they were as freshmen. This revelation probably doesn’t surprise many of us who work in the academy. Nonetheless, it’s not easy to hear, especially if you care about teaching. And I do. A lot.

It’s because I care about teaching, in fact, that I recently partnered with a school district north of Philadelphia to apply for a Teaching American History (TAH) grant. For those of you who don’t know, TAH grants are competitively awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help K-12 teachers fine tune their history chops. Big wads of Federal cash support partnerships between school districts and organizations with “content expertise” (e.g. a university history department or a professional association like the NCPH) that, together, work toward improving our kids’ ability to–this is the important part–think critically about history. It’s a crucial program that, of course, is in imminent danger of being cut.

In any event, I offered Temple’s Center for Public History as a vehicle through which to launch what I thought was a pretty smart three-year course of TAH seminars and summer institutes for about 30 high school teachers. Imagine my surprise, however, when I arrived at our first planning meeting to discover that my partner had asked a third party, a professional TAH grant getter, to join our meeting. This had evidently been a last-minute request, born of fears that my partner’s own grant writer and the Center’s collateral expertise might not be enough to get the proposal in on time.

Some background. Almost as soon as the TAH program began in 2001, professional TAH hacks started popping up everywhere. These businesses, with official sounding names like the “American Institute for History and so and so,” are parasitic in the same way tha
t test prep companies like Kaplan are. The test prep folks feed off of the demand created by educational standards that American schools are perpetually unable to achieve by themselves. The TAH hacks feed off of K-12 educators’ inability (perceived rather than real, I’d argue) to gather the time and resources necessary to wade through a cumbersome grant application. The hack makes money by taking a cut of the grant in trade for assembling the application materials and contracting with university faculty who sign on as talking heads.

In other words, TAH hacks write TAH grants and they do it fast and reliably. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that even hacks have to make a living. Here’s where we get into trouble…

Hacks are good at getting grants because: 1) they’ve got the manpower; 2) they’re fluent in granteese (and regional dialects therein); 3) they assemble reliable pools of cash-hungry faculty, er, content expertise; and, 4) they dress their proposals up with a lot of spiffy extras like client-ready websites with, and this is key in K-12 circles, lots of “free” course materials (e.g. handouts about Ben Franklin and stuff). The hacks are good at getting grants because they’ve put together a strong business model.

There are at least four very big problems, however, with this particular business model. First, it is a business model. In other words, what these folks do is motivated not so much by a commitment to critical thinking (remember the purpose of the TAH grant?) as it is a commitment to, well, staying in business. Second, when a school district partners with a hack, it partners with a business, not a community of historians. This is a bad recipe for ongoing partnerships between school districts and regional colleges and universities. Third, toward improving their odds of securing the grant, hacks design safe programs that emulate past successes. So much for innovative pedagogy. And finally, in our case at least, the hack’s business model demanded a closed shop. If my partner chose to work with the hack, then I and my plan would be…history.

Faced with a choice between convenience and vision, and even though the teachers preferred my plan, my partner chose the hack.

I’m mad about this. I’m mad that my partner sold me out so easily. I’m mad that I invested so much time in developing a proposal that, at best, will be ignored and, at worst, will be co-opted by the hack. I’m mad that the Center, whose interest in this project was primarily intellectual, got outmaneuvered by a hack whose interest was primarily pecuniary. But what really irks me is knowing what my partner will get if the hack’s plan is funded.

An example. I proposed using the grant to help teachers and students curate their own digital (and 100% free, by the way) local history archive in cooperation with several regional museums and historical societies. We even had a cool tie-in lined up with ExplorePAHistory.com. This was going to be a fun, cheap, and fairly innovative way to confront students with hard questions about which parts of our past get remembered, and which do not.

The hack countered with his company’s canned WEB resource. An “award-winning” website packed full of freebies and with all the javaesque glitz of the internet a la 1997. Granted, a crummy WEB site isn’t necessarily the end of the world. It’s how you use it. The hack showed us how to use his. Pointing to a digital reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the hack demonstrated an interactive feature that revealed flaws in the artist’s rendering. He made a game of it:

“O.k., everyone, what’s wrong with this painting?”

“The sun is shining,” someone offered.

“Good!,” said the hack, “Remember that Washington crossed at night.”

Another someone: “Why’s he standing?”

“Ha,” the hack snorted, “would somebody as smart as George Washington really stand up in a rickety old boat!?”

And so forth. We never got to juicier questions about why Leutze painted this scene seventy-five years after the fact (and in Europe, no less) or why Americans have come to cherish such a “flawed” painting. What’s more, the hack’s larger vision for the TAH grant was as generic as the Leutze exercise—a big one-size-fits-all themes-and-issues-in-American-history routine, even though the school district had specifically requested an emphasis on local history that might help young folks understand the devastating poverty that had overcome its rural coal-mining community during the last generation.

Underwhelming website and limited vision notwithstanding, the brutal reality of this unfortunate episode is that what passes as “critical thinking” among our nation’s TAH hacks and their various educational products seems to be, in this case at least, a vacuous true-and-false game in the myth buster tradition. Difficult questions are traded for platitudes. Teachable moments are lost to content experts whose expertise doesn’t necessarily pertain to the places where school kids struggle to make sense of their own worlds. Teachers never realize that the classroom freebies offered by hacks are freely available elsewhere and that co-authoring new and free digital tools with students requires little more than a few days training. It’s not hard to see, in this light, how long-term gains in critical thinking loose out to short-term profits.

And the American education system stumbles along on its path to oblivion…

So, who is to blame for this problem? The hack? Maybe the Fed’s byzantine grant apparatus? What about all those professors who cash in on TAH gigs without really understanding how the money works, or doesn’t work? The list could go on since, in one way or the other, all of us with a hand in the education game are implicated. My concern, however, is not to point fingers or even to beat up too much on the hack. All of us, after all, are trying to make a living. I’m more worried about how to make my colleagues aware of the impact they have, even if unwittingly, at every level of the American education system. If it’s critical thinking that we want, then all of us must ensure that it’s critical thinking we get. Talk to K-12 teachers, learn what they’re dealing with, leverage your university resources, and create partnerships with these folks that prevent them from having to choose between innovative vision and the promise of convenience.

And, perhaps most importantly, show your advisees that doing history well requires an ethical commitment to doing the best work possible, no matter what the context. We can’t get rid of the hacks, but we can encourage a new generation of entrepreneurial historians to find a better balance between profit and professionalism.

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.