Monuments of Repentance

We set out on a gray Wednesday, ten students bundled up against the wind. Out task was to explore the mnemonic landscape of the area right around Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum.

One of the Philadelphia firsts commemorated at Penn’s Landing.

What we found was a celebratory landscape, marking everything from Philadelphia’s firsts (among them first mustard, first computer), to its immigrants from Ireland and Scotland,  the achievements of Christopher Columbus and the veterans of the Philadelphia area. Because we did this exploration just a few days after Veterans Day, these sites were adorned with flags, flowers, and signs advertising Continue reading “Monuments of Repentance”

What’s History Worth?

Reading about the USS Olympia’s preservation history on the heels of Igor Kopytoff’s  work on commodification got me thinking, once again, about why history matters and what it is worth.

Appraising Artifacts

Conversations in the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking and in Studies in American Material Culture have both touched on the practice of appraising materials donated to an institution committed to their preservation. These appraisals are necessary because they allow the donor to quantify their gift when calculating their tax responsibility but they also seem self-defeating. If the aim of the gift is that it be preserved in perpetuity (and there is much debate about that unattainable aim) then the gifted material is assumed to never be available for purchase. It thus becomes priceless, decommodified, not for sale. Users of an archives might find informational or evidentiary value in a document or set of papers, but within the archival context they have no monetary value.

Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols. This process is largely the purview of people in power and serves to reify their position. Even seemingly neutral artifacts in a museum en masse support the status quo. Historic preservation is a singularization process. Individuals can put a lot of time and money into  preservation projects, the result of which is a singularization. Since 1966, however, if preservation is done in accordance with certain guidelines, that investment can earn reward in the form of tax credits.

Continue reading “What’s History Worth?”

Political Museums, Exhibits that Provoke

Our readings for Managing History this week continue the trend of considering the political dimensions of public history. While the readings–Andrea Burns’ From Storefront to Monument, Edward Linenthal’s oft-assigned postmortem of the Enola Gay controversy, and an article by Ken Yellis on Fred Wilson and provocation–are united in examining exhibits, they engage different facets of how museum spaces can be freighted with political meaning (with or without the curator intending it). Continue reading “Political Museums, Exhibits that Provoke”

Dispatch from Dalmatia

This blog has had a bit of a fallow stretch.  I’ve been busy with preparations for moving and generally trying to enjoy my last bit of summer in Madison, then adjusting to life here in Philly. But a stretch of my blog drought is also down to the two weeks of family vacation I had in June. My focus was on relaxing and enjoying myself, but it is hard not to think about history when you’re walking around a city like Split, Croatia, where the past and present collide around every corner.

Just outside the walls of the former Diocletian Palace in Split stands a statue of Gregory of Nin. Down the steps, at the city gate, men dressed as Roman soldiers pose with tourists, for a fee. Behind Gregory stand stalls selling handmade jewelry and flea market-esque kitsch. One stand is entirely purple, selling the lavender that is one of the regions chief products. There are a few stands selling Soviet-era pressings of Beatles records. Worn out tourists sleep on benches in the small park nearby. I slipped down past the statue to find the interpretive panel, helpfully written in both Croatian and English.




So who was Gregory?

Gregory of Nin was the Bishop of Nin when, in 925 and 928, he campaigned to be named the Primate of the Dalmatian bishops. He did not get the position. He was offered some other position and largely forgotten. He did, however, succeed in introducing use of local Croatian language(s) in mass, rather than Latin.

And why does Gregory stand 8 meters tall outside of a touristy historic site?

The work of Ivan Mestrovic, the monument was erected as part of the Kingdom of Croatia’s millenary in 1925. At the time of the millenary, a thousand years after Greg didn’t get the job, Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (in 1929 it was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia). While Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia were supposedly equal partners in the Kingdom, there were cracks around the foundation, and the Croatian Republican Peasant Party began to gain seats in the parliament. I’m connecting the dots here, given that there’s a lot of context and I’m working largely from this explanatory panel and various Wikipedia pages on this period of Croatian history, but it seems like Gregory became associated with the preservation of the Glagolithic script and Croatian national identity within this fragile conglomerated kingdom.

How did this nationalist statue go over with the occupying Axis forces during WWII?

Not well apparently, and it was dismantled (perhaps for its own protection?) in 1941, only reassembled in 1954.

How is Glagolithic script related to the contemporary Croatian language?

Linguistically, not very much at all, I think. The Croats were the last to use the script regularly, up until the end of the 19th Century, but today it is only used in religious texts. Modern-day Croatian is a form of Serbo-Croatian, though sometimes considered a standalone language, usually for political reasons. In fact, in 1967, Croatian scholars issued a “Declaration on the Status and Name of the Croatian Literary Language” calling for Croatian to be used alongside the state-sponsored Serbo-Croatian (at this point the state was the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). This appeal resulted in policy change in the Yugoslav constitution of 1974.

Herein lies the interesting connection for me between our 8-meter-tall friend Gregory and the language that pings off the walls of the old towns along the Adriatic before the tourists like me rouse themselves for a day of “exploration.” The land that now salutes a white and red-checked coat of arms (and soccer jerseys) has had an immense amount of political evolution and  upheaval in the last 1100 years, but taking ownership of the language one uses has been a constant concern.

Collected Links


Often I come across stories online that connect in someway with what I’m reading or thinking about at the time. Sometimes on this blog, I’ll collect some of those links with a few notes about what parts of them resonated with my train of thought. This week I seemed to see a lot of stories about how we remember (or don’t) places and how markers, monuments, or programming can affect those memories.


“Race Riot” or “Massacre”?

On one level, this article tells a harrowing story of an 1866 massacre in which 46 black residents of Memphis were killed, others were raped, and homes, churches, and schools were burned to the ground. But when some people petitioned for a historic marker, they couldn’t agree with the Tennessee Historical Commission about what to call the tragedy; was it a “race riot” or a “massacre”? In the end they put up the marker with their own money (and the city’s blessing). In a region dominated by monuments to Confederate generals, this marker stands out and may lead to more like it as well as a broader conversation on memorializing the South’s slave-holding and Jim Crow past.

For more on the massacre (and its lasting impact today), see this article from the Atlantic too:


Public Squares

While there’s a lot to unpack about how public places such as squares shape human interaction, I was more interested in how some squares are linked to certain events and how that connection is marked. Tiannanmen Square, for example, bears few markers of its iconic “tank man” and the protests that surrounded him, but rather has been stripped of features that may invite people to gather in the plaza.


Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary has run a successful Halloween attraction for over two decades but they’ve just opened another scary exhibit: “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” In part a response to criticism from historians such as Seth Bruggeman (who will be one of my professors at Temple!), the historic prison’s new installation uses “informative wall panels, video displays, and interactive panels” to tell the story of American prisons today. And it includes a massive graph/sculpture in one of the courtyards.

UPDATE: And then I saw that Prof. Bruggeman linked to this article from the BBC about ESP employing former inmates as tour guides. Well worth a read!


Stonewall to be National Monument

Exciting news for LGBTQ activists and historians of various stripes, I should think, as the site of the iconic 1969 riots looks to be slated for National Monument status this summer. It’s fascinating that the bar itself will remain a private enterprise–I don’t know what all that entails but it could be precedent setting?


Using Old Records for Climate Science

This article popped up on Facebook because it was written by a fellow graduate of Goshen College. I include it here because it features a few exciting way that scientists are using old records. I was especially intrigued by the UK Coastal Floodstone Project which is using a relatively recent convention (crowdsourcing) to make use of a really old one (floodstones). And I like that these efforts are displaying  touch of longue durée. I also just really enjoyed looking at photos of floodstones (seriously, how cool is the image at the top of this post!?).


Ok, that’s all for this collection of links, I imagine I’ll have enough for another one before too long.