Douglass and Anthony

It is just and fitting to celebrate the American Revolution, but one must also remember that, at the start, not everyone partook of its bounty equally. The tacit recognition of slavery is the original sin of the American republic; that women could not vote is now outrageous to us. Where was the “liberty” for these people? As the nineteenth century wore on, the movement to abolish slavery completely grew ever stronger, culminating in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Women’s suffrage took longer – it was guaranteed on a national basis for all types of election with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, although many states had earlier granted the women the right to vote in other elections.

It’s safe to say that the two biggest figures in these movements were Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. They both happen to be buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. We made sure to visit their graves.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and escaped to New York at age 20. He became an anti-slavery activist and was known for his powerful oratory on the subject; his Narrative Life (1845) was a best seller which fueled the abolitionist cause and whose proceeds allowed Douglass to purchase his legal freedom. He was also the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention (1848), which launched the American Women’s Rights movement. The town, located about fifty miles to the east of Rochester, seems quite proud of this heritage.

Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed when we got there, but I certainly appreciated the display of the Nineteenth Amendment Victory Flags.

The (heavily restored) original venue. The Convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” (a feminist twist on the Declaration of Independence)  is inscribed on a wall on the other side of the greenspace in the foreground.

As an aside, Seneca Falls represents a stop on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, a which connects the Erie Canal to Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake (two of New York’s Finger Lakes). I thought this was a nice nineteenth-century scene. (The town is also the fictional “Bedford Falls, N.Y.” from the film It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Susan B. Anthony was not actually at the Seneca Falls Convention, but with its main organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she met in 1851, founded the Women’s Loyal National League (an abolitionist society) and in 1866 the American Equal Rights Association, which was dedicated to equal rights for men and women. Anthony, famously, was arrested for voting in Rochester in 1872, and refused to pay the fine; the authorities decided not to pursue the matter. In 1878, Anthony penned what was to become the Nineteenth Amendment, and up until her death she gave countless speeches in favor of the cause. Her grave in Mount Hope is a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who value a woman’s right to vote.

Philadelphia

Happy to have experienced Philadelphia for the first time this summer. Unfortunately, we did not get to spend too much time there, but we did get to see the two biggest historical attractions: the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As a bonus we got to learn something about Benjamin Franklin.

The Liberty Bell, so-called from the 1830s, was cast in London for the legislative building of the Province of Pennsylvania (now designated Independence Hall). The idea is that the bell was rung to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, although there is no documentary proof that this actually happened. Its distinctive large crack developed some time in the early nineteenth century, rendering it unringable – but granting it a great amount of what Stephanie Trigg would call “mythic capital.”

You get to see it in the Liberty Bell Center, run by the National Parks Service, located across the street from Independence Hall. Annoyingly, you have to pass through an airport-level security checkpoint to get in, but the NPS does give you information about the object’s history and its place in the American psyche – it used to go on tour throughout the country, and in the nineteenth century became a symbol of the desire for liberty by African-Americans and women, in addition to being reproduced countless times in various media.

UPDATE: I just received this in the mail:

Also, I saw these at a local supermarket:

Here are a couple more:

Independence Hall isn’t quite as well-known a symbol as the Liberty Bell, but it certainly has been influential architecturally (see buildings at Dartmouth, Berea, Mercer, Rust, Dearborn, etc.)

The building’s original function was as the seat of the colonial legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania. The first floor housed the supreme court on one side, and the legislative chamber on the other. It was in the latter of these that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence (July 2, 1776), and members of the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787.

Our NPS interpreter (a recent Temple University BA in English) explains the room’s history.

A fun fact: the Declaration of Independence was printed before it was handwritten. The representatives spent two days debating what exactly they were going to accuse George III of before sending it to the printer on July 4 (the reason that this date now marks Independence Day); they regathered in August to affix their signatures to a manuscript copy, which is now on display in the National Archives in DC.

(Related: the first printer of the Declaration was John Dunlap; in 1777 Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore to print a new edition [the “Goddard Broadside“] including the signatories’ names; she boldy printed her own name at the bottom.)

Walking down the street afterwards we were accosted by Ben Franklin (a.k.a. actor Rick Bravo), with whom we had a good chat.

He enjoined us to visit his house further down the street. Not much of it still exists, although a “ghost house,” designed by architect Robert Venturi, now outlines where it once was, with concrete hoods that allow you to view the foundations of the original structure.

On the west side of this “Franklin Court” is the Benjamin Franklin Museum, a brutalist structure put up for the bicentennial in 1976. The National Parks Service has recently redone the exhibits, and they provide an informative and interactive view of Franklin’s career. To the north end of the court is a print shop (one of Franklin’s jobs was as a printer), where NPS employees will demonstrate the use of an eighteenth-century printing press. An adjacent working post office (Franklin served as the first Postmaster General) will allow you to send letters with specially designed cancellation marks.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is now on my reading list for the summer.

Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

MLK Day

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a photograph of the MLK statue in Washington DC which I took last November:

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Here are some photos of the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta, with Ebenezer Baptist Church (the third photo shows the sign on the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church located not far away). I took these on MLK Day ten years ago.

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And here is another image of the great man, in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I also got to see in November:

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The Museum, by the way, is wonderful. I was very lucky to get to see it. It is on the Mall near the Washington Monument; it opened in September and is hugely popular – so much so that you can only order tickets online, or so the security guard kindly explained to me when I asked about getting in. As chance would have it some people overheard my question and gave me an extra ticket that they had.

The building, by architects Philip Freelon, David Adjaye, and Davis Brody Bond, takes the form of an inverted bronze step pyramid and is meant to evoke a Yoruban crown. It provides the museum’s logo.

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Scanned from a postcard purchased in the gift store.

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The history galleries are in the basement; there was a long line for this so unfortunately I had to pass it by, even though history is what we’re all about here. Instead, I visited the top two floors, which contain the culture portion of the museum. Extensive exhibits deal with African-American musicians, actors, athletes, artists, soldiers, and others, and African-American organizations like churches, newspapers, HBCUs, the Prince Hall Freemasons, and the National Pan-Hellenic Council. It’s enlightening, infuriating, and uplifting all at once, and I highly recommend it if you’re in DC. Just be sure to order your tickets ahead of time.

Clinton Presidential Library

In observance of the Fall of the House of Clinton, a reprint of a blog post from ten years ago, recording my visit to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Looks like there will never be a complementary museum for Hillary.

***

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The building is neat, and occupies rehabilitated industrial space on the banks of the Arkansas River. It sticks out over the river, supposedly representing Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the twenty-first century,” although of course it doesn’t get to the other side and as a friend said it looks like a trailer, a fitting monument to Arkansas and Clinton himself.

Heavens, what am I saying? Why am I indulging in such cheap partisanship now that the man is out of office?

Because I’m afraid that the Clinton Presidential Library put me into the spirit.

It’s not because the thing takes a positive view of Clinton’s presidency – of course it’s going to do that. Carter’s did that, and I’m sure that every other NARA-sponsored presidential library and museum does the same thing (a colleague of mine has visited Gerald Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan and says that it can’t shut up about the Mayagüez Incident).

No, it’s because it’s either too soon for the Clinton Library to have anything on display, or the man is really trying too hard. The main hall is designed after the Long Room of the library of Trinity College, Dublin:

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Each of the columns in the Clinton library contains boxes full of actual documents relating to the presidency that you can look at if you need to – although they represent less than one percent of the holdings and contain, as a staff member told me, trivial stuff like domestic staff schedules and restaurant checks. Down the middle of the room, a series of panels with a time line of national, international, and presidential events from 1993 to 2000. In between the columns on either side of the room, a number of alcoves each dealing with an aspect of Clinton’s presidency, like “Putting People First,” “Learning Across a Lifetime,”* or “Protecting the Earth.” As those titles may suggest many of the alcoves are saturated with the oleaginous feel-your-painism that Clinton was so famous for:

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Fine, Bill’s gotta be Bill, although the museum’s practice of highlighting key phrases in each caption made the whole thing feel like some manic fundraising letter. (The constantly running Times-Square style news ticker of “presidential achievements” that greets you as you walk in also seems a little too striving.)

The alcove “The Fight for Power,” however, left a particularly bad taste. I had heard, at the time of the Library’s opening, that it was not going to “shy away” from some of the more “controversial” aspects of the presidency. But this alcove might better be called “Bill Clinton’s Self-Pity Corner.” It started with the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took control of the House for the first time in forty years, then dealt with their incessant opposition to Clinton, their use of the special prosecutor to investigate his Whitewater dealings, and their drive to remove him from office for perjury and obstruction of justice over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The whole theme was “I didn’t do nuthin’, and the Republicans were out to get me because I cared and they didn’t” – in other words, he is still fighting a partisan battle! On the glass in front of the alcove:

A NEW CULTURE OF CONFRONTATION

“I think one of the great problems in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Newt Gingrich, 10/95

New culture? As though Washington was some sort of a gentleman’s club prior to 1994? And what’s with the cherry-picked quotation from Gingrich, hoping to make him and his party look bad? Classless! Some other choice captions from the exhibit. The highlighting has been rendered by italics.

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In the 1970s, Bill and Hilary Clinton invested in a failed Arkansas real estate venture. That investment, in which the Clintons lost money, was used by President Clinton’s political opponents to launch an eight-year investigation costing the American public over $70 million. No evidence of wrongdoing was ever found.

Well, if they didn’t find anything, then I guess the Clintons did nothing wrong. QED! As for the “cost” – let us remember that the White House absolutely refused to cooperate with Starr, ignoring all requests for documents, and causing the investigation to drag on far longer than it needed to. I remember a political cartoon with Ken Starr knocking on a door. Behind the door Clinton has piled up all the furniture so that it can’t open, while he tells the reader, in reference to Starr, “I wish he’d hurry up!” This sort of behavior may account for at least some of the $70 million, but to insinuate that it was all Starr’s doing is self-righteousness at its most revolting.

Maybe there was a “new” culture of confrontation, but it took two to tango.

In 1978, Congress passed the Independent Counsel Statute in response to the investigation of the Watergate break-in during the Nixon administration. The new law created a mechanism for investigations of the executive branch by an outside, or independent, prosecutor. Over the next 20 years, however, even many advocates of the law came to see it as deeply flawed. Prosecutors had virtually unlimited discretion to investigate whatever they wanted. Inquiries stretched on for years – costing millions, destroying reputations, and achieving little good. The law became a potent political tool.

In other words, it was great when the Democrats could use it. But when the Republicans could use it, it was a Bad Thing.

Expanding Investigations

The shift in control of Congress gave the President’s opponents power to step up their investigations. Numerous committees and subcommittees, now chaired by Republicans, convened hearings to investigate the executive branch. Countless subpoenas were issued to individuals whose only transgression was working for the administration. Many were forced to run up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves in fruitless hearing and depositions.

Oh the pain! You sure their only transgression was working for the administration? Any chance then that the administration could cover their fees? Methinks this unintentionally reveals something about the Clinton White House.

Impeachment.

In November 1998, midterm voters sent Republicans a message to stop their impeachment drive by increasing the number of Democrats in the House, the first time the President’s party had gained House seats in the sixth year of a presidency since 1822. When Speaker Gingrich was asked why Republicans were proceeding anyway instead of finding another remedy such as censure or reprimand, the Speaker replied, “Because we can.” Despite the fact that hundreds of historians and legal scholars publicly stated there was no constitutional or legal basis for impeachment, the house Judiciary Committee voted along strict party lines on December 12 and 13, 1998, to approve four articles of impeachment. On December 19, the House passed two of the four articles. One article charging the President with perjury passed 228 to 206, while an obstruction of justice charge passed more narrowly, 232 to 212. The remaining two articles failed to pass.

Funny – they didn’t bill the 1994 midterm elections as a “message” to the Clinton administration (it was all a result of misunderstanding about the provisions of the Brady Bill and concerted lobbying by the AMA, apparently). And I’m sure that Speaker Gingrich said a lot more about the reasons for impeachment than this flippancy, but you won’t find out about them at the Clinton Library.

As I said, it’s not bad that the library should trumpet Clinton’s achievements. But for it to accuse other people of what Clinton himself was guilty of, and to quote political opponents only in order to make them look bad… this is lowdown, shitty behavior, and even less defensible now that the guy is no longer in office. As if all that weren’t enough, the next alcove was entitled “Preparing for New Threats,” and talked about the Clinton administration’s fight against foreign terrorism! Such an exhibit is so obviously a response to current events that its value as a testament to what his administration was actually doing approaches nil.

To top it all off, you can purchase this bumper sticker at the store:

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There was even a T-shirt on the wall bearing the same message and signed by Al Franken. Now, it’s conceivable that people really do miss Bill in the abstract, as they might miss Reagan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower. But in this context it comes across clearly as a pointed jab at the current administration, something rather unseemly.

I hereby propose a ten-year waiting period between a president’s leaving of office and the opening of his presidential library, in order to ensure a proper critical distance.

I will grant that the man was a political genius. He seemed to have the ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the room. (He also managed to insinuate himself into or merely associate himself with positive things he really had nothing to do with. One photo showed him marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Jesse Jackson, et al., in a recreation of the Civil Rights march of 1965. There was no indication that he was there at the time, however, when he was 18 and would actually have been risking something. I think he would like you to believe that he was personally responsible for the fall of Apartheid as well.) One of the alcoves dealt with his “personal relationships” with other heads of state, and had fawning tributes from Nelson Mandela, et al., about how good a man he was. Now you could say that in politics, style is substance, but it seems that he was much more style than substance – what did he do with his “I care” image, with all the foreign good will that he generated? It seemed he just loved to talk and talk… and bask in the warm glow of adulation (including the imagined adulation of any women who caught his fancy), and get really petulant and self-righteous when he encountered any opposition. Contrast this with GWB, who has no time for such antics and wants to get down to brass tacks right away, thereby pissing off everyone and actually making it difficult for him to accomplish anything.**

If only we could have a president who could generate good will and then put it to genuinely constructive use…

—–

* This one dealt with increased funding for education, and even had a small sample of Clinton’s personal book collection. On the acoustiguide he talked about some of his favorites. To my great chagrin Leaves of Grass was not on display… whoops, I’m being partisan again.

** I seem to remember a quote from Bono about how Clinton said all the right things about alleviating poverty in Africa, but that Bush has actually committed more resources to it.

Capitol Campaign

Continuing our personal project, here are some more state capitols that we saw on our recent trip:

1. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This departs from the regular pattern of a neoclassical dome – instead, like Bismarck, N.D. or Lincoln, Nebr., it takes the form of a tower. You can take the elevator to the top for a nice view.

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This building, of course, is essentially a monument to Huey Long, Louisiana’s populist Depression-era governor, who authorized its construction and who was assassinated in it in 1935.

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A statue of the Kingfish stands on the grounds.

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The former capitol building down the street is a crenellated structure that now acts as a museum of political history.

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Needless to say, Huey Long appears in here, too.

IMG_2695The Capitol Park Museum nearby is first rate.

2. Austin, Texas. Quite large, as befits anything Texan. It was surprisingly crowded on a Sunday. I was amused to note that the guards were armed with assault rifles. Don’t mess with Texas!

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Enjoyed the portraits of Ann Richards, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry, along with the view of the interior of the dome, and the mosaic on the floor.

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You can hardly see it, but “TEXAS” appears between the arms of the star.

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Another appearance of the Six Flags, or rather, the Six Emblems, with Texas at the center of the large star, and the other five between the arms of the star. Alas, this was the least crowded it ever got while I was there.

Down the street, the Bullock Texas State History Museum is wonderful.

3. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A rainy day and construction, but the locals were certainly friendly. 

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The interior has a nice collection of paintings of famous Oklahomans, like Will Rogers, Gene Autry, Sequoyah (they claim him), and Wiley Post. Like Texas, the interior of the dome is nice, as is the floor decoration beneath it.

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The arms of the star illustrate devices used by the Five Civilized Tribes, who were all expelled there in the nineteenth century: starting with the seven-pointed star on the top left and moving clockwise, these are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek. The middle of the seal shows “Columbia” (a feminine personification of America not much used anymore), holding a balance above her head, and blessing a handshake between a white settler and an American Indian, who are flanked respectively by a train and a teepee.

(Not to be too much of a wet blanket, but I don’t think this image necessarily reflects the reality of the Dawes Act, or the land runs that followed.)

Unfortunately, we were too late to see the Oklahoma History Center. Next time!

Links

  • 155-year-old mousetrap, on display in the Museum of English Rural Life, claims its latest victim.
  • The Helgo Treasure, from Viking Age Sweden, includes a bronze Irish crozier, a Coptic ladle, and a bronze Buddha from the Indian subcontinent – a testament to how much Vikings were plugged into early medieval trading networks.
  • Related: a Viking woman was buried with a ring reading “For Allah.”

More From Amiens

From Culturebox, via my friend Mike Ryan:

The Jewels of the Amiens Cathedral Treasury Are Brought To Light

After twenty years of work, the treasury of the cathedral of Amiens is once again accessible to the public. It features a collection of exceptional richness, both artistic and historic, made up of devotional items and reliquaries considered masterpieces of medieval goldsmiths.

Amiens Cathedral, constructed between 1220 and 1269, is home to many jewels. The treasury has been closed for the past twenty years while its liturgical objects have been worked on. One may now see them in all their restored splendor, including chalices, crowns, processional crosses, jewels and priestly vestments, objects that bear witness to the great skill of medieval craftsmen.

The showpiece of this collection is the skull of St. John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, which was acquired in 1206 by crusaders. Fifteen years later, to provide it with a home befitting its importance, Amiens cathedral was begun in earnest. And to welcome pilgrims from across Europe, it had to be the biggest cathedral in France.

The treasury has been completely redesigned to welcome the public who may view these exceptional pieces behind glass – but only twenty people at a time, and for a maximum of forty minutes. With over half a million visitors in 2015, one will need patience in order to take this plunge into history.

Illustrations (and the original French text) are at the link.

Museums

• Ron Good brings the Arabia Steamboat Museum to my attention. This sounds fascinating and worth a visit if you’re ever in Kansas City:

The Steamboat Arabia was built in West Brownsville, PA at the boat-yard of John S. Pringle in 1853.  At 171 feet long and capable of carrying 222 tons of cargo, she was considered an average-sized packet boat.  The 28-foot-tall paddlewheels could push the steamboat upstream at a speed of over 5 miles per hour.  Being a side-wheeler (having one paddlewheel on each side, rather than just one on the back) made it easier to maneuver around hazards like sandbars and snags… In her heyday, the Arabia was considered a dependable vessel and soon gained a reputation for speed, safety and comfort….

The Arabia traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for about two years until she was purchased for $20,000 by Captain John Shaw of St. Charles, Missouri in February of 1855.  Her first trip on the Missouri River took her to Ft. Pierre, South Dakota with 109 soldiers from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas….

The most treacherous of the many river hazards were fallen trees lying hidden from sight just under the river’s surface.  These “snags” crippled and sank hundreds of steamboats, some even on their first trip up the river.  Of the estimated 400 steamboats lost to the river, about 300 were “snagged.”  The Arabia was one of those victims. [On September 5, 1856,] the steamer’s thick, oak hull was pierced by the end of a lethal snag.  The impact was tremendous, catapulting the bow from the water and throwing many of the shaken passengers to the floor.  As the Arabia’s timbers gave way, the log was thrust into the heart of the boat.  Water poured through the gaping hole, and the Arabia began quickly sinking.

Within minutes, much of the boat and virtually all 200 tons of precious frontier cargo lay at the bottom of the Missouri River…

All aboard were saved except for a solitary, forgotten mule that remained behind, tied to a piece of sawmill equipment on the deck.  The river bottom was soft, and the boat and cargo sank quickly into the mud and silt.  The next morning, only the smokestacks and the top of the pilothouse remained visible.  Even these disappeared in a few days, swept away by the tremendous force of the river.

Notorious for its shifting channel, the Missouri River cut a new path and moved east, abandoning the spot where the Arabia sank.  By the twentieth century, the steamboat was lying deep beneath a Kansas farm field.   Rumored to be filled with whiskey and gold when it sank, the Arabia drew the attention of treasure hunters and failed salvage attempts for many years.

Using a metal detector, weathered maps, and old newspaper clippings to guide the search, David Hawley located the wreck in July 1987.   Years of erosion and shifting sand left the lost paddleboat 45 feet underground and a half-mile from the present channel of the Missouri River.

David, along with his father Bob, brother Greg, and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, would soon return to the farm and begin an adventure consuming the next 20 years.  The excavation resulted in the discovery of the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

The Hawleys originally intended to sell these items but they quickly realized their historic value, and so opened the museum instead.

Some thoughts on improving historic house museums, courtesy Gene Harmon:

Picture in your head a historic house museum that you have visited.

Did you picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello? How about the historic house that you grew up down the road from? Did images of antiques and display cases flash through your mind, or was it the velvet rope barriers, musty smell, creaky floorboards, and dusty signs? I bet a majority of these things popped into your head because that’s what many people remember after they leave a historic house museum. I know that I have! The historical value of the museum is short term, but the memory of a musty old home you visited once as a kid will last you a lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

When historic house museums started popping up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their purpose was to educate immigrants about “American values and patriotic duties.” As the years went by and the surrounding communities changed, the museums stayed the same. As a result, historic house museums have been experiencing a steady decline in visitors and funding over the years. However, people like Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah Ryan are on a mission to revive interest and relevance in these museums.

Vagnone, the executive director of New York City’s Historic House Trust and co-author of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (published in October 2015), explained a core issue pertaining to historic house museums’ decline through the years: too many of them are offering a “beige experience,” he told interviewer Carol Bossert on September 18, 2015. Many museums are too similar in presentation, and the public possess a “you’ve-seen-one-you’ve-seen-them-all” mentality towards the museums. “One of the problems with house museums is you keep kind of circling back to the same people who come . . . Eventually they are going to die and there’s going to be no one coming to your parties,” Vagnone stated.

Vagnone’s co-author, Deborah Ryan, explained in the same interview with Vagnone and Bossert that, “Historic house museums tend to be inward focusing particularly on their collections, and what we have suggested is that the houses need to turn themselves inside-out. So, rather than expecting people to come to them, they need to make the community aware of who they are and make the community feel welcome.” Ryan also advised that historic house museums need to grow into “place-making” because places hold meaning for people. Museums should not just be “biometric space” that contain objects. Museums are places where activities happen; where families do things together, watch demonstrations, and get involved.

Some of the most memorable house museums that I have seen let me participate in the house’s history; a lot of the historical participation that I have taken part in was not even traditionally exciting scenarios. I love feeling included in the household and in the everyday rituals that would normally take place, like milking a cow, making soap, stoking the fireplace, or baking bread. I love learning about the clothing people in certain eras wore and how they would make or acquire these clothes. The little routines like that are what have stuck like glue in my mind.

Read the whole thing.

• A museum in Tallahassee, Florida is devoted to the art of Jack T. Chick, the author of some 250 religious tracts. You’ve probably discovered some of these left in public places, like the classic “This Was Your Life” or “Bad Bob!”

Whether you love him or hate him, you gotta respect Chick for sticking to his guns. Since 1961 (over half a century!), he’s cranked out tract after tract to help sinners “see the light.” He’s written over 250 different tracts, with more than 900,000,000* distributed worldwide (in over 100 different languages)! His influence is so vast that entire nations have passed special laws banning his comics. Even as Political Correctness reigns supreme, Chick seems unafraid to take on the sacred cows. He steadfastly exposes a conspiracy of Catholics, Masons, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Agers, Rock & Rollers, and any other group the devil might use to damn your soul. Chick also offends Jews and Muslims with previews of their fiery futures in hell (but only because he wants to save them). The more taboo a topic, the more likely you’ll see it covered in a Chick tract!

We don’t condemn Chick for his controversial nature. We celebrate it! It’s just one of his unique characteristics. Besides, he’s an Artist. They’re supposed to be provocative. (If he drew Christ in a Bowl of Urine, many of his critics would love him.)

Our goal is to SALUTE this dedicated demagogue and immortalize his work by assembling a complete library for fans and scholars to marvel at JACK T. CHICK!

According to Wikipedia, Chick was most likely influenced by the format (but not the content!) of Tijuana Bibles, of whose existence I was unaware.