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Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols.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?”

Walking Tour of West Fairmount Park

Memorial Hall and surrounding area (HABS PA,51-PHILA,265B–34, Jack E. Boucher, Photographer, April 24, 2003)

Almost two months ago now I posted my proposal for my Digital History final project and I’ve finally wrapped it up. First of all, here it is!

I was steered toward StoryMap.js as an alternative to my original Omeka concept (for several reasons) and it was a really good decision. The StoryMap format is designed for a linear tour like this and works pretty smoothly on mobile devices. While I wasn’t able to incorporate the original map artwork as I had planned, I was still able to include an image for each stop and some text. One unexpected perk of using StoryMap was that it uses Open Street Map and several enterprising individuals have mapped lots of hidden Fairmount Park stuff (old trolley paths, hiking routes, etc) onto the map. So if you are the urban explorer type, use Open Street Map the next time you’re venturing around Fairmount Park!

I think the power of walking tours is that the act of walking triggers different types of sensory learning and spacial reasoning. For instance, I learned during an Irish Literature course at Goshen College that James Joyce’s Ulysses makes more sense if you’re walking while reading it. We accomplished this by having two walkers flank a reader, guiding them as they read aloud.

By connecting various sites in a linear path, the tour makes some sense of what might otherwise simply be scattered dots on a map.

While the original WPA walking tour is great–and I plan on following a couple of the tours myself–it is woefully out of date,  and includes relatively limited pictures. Plus one of my goals for this project was to get this sort of a tour in the hands of folks whose primary tool is the smartphone. StoryMap achieves that and allows me to draw from public image sources to craft what I think is a pretty good tour.

One of my favorite things about the final product is that there are a whole lot of things included in the 1937 tour that aren’t there anymore, despite their seeming timelessness. The number of sculptures that have been relocated out of Fairmount Park would put many other city parks to shame. We often think of bronze and concrete as permanent, but they aren’t, and this tour is a sharp reminder of that. I hope that people who embark on this tour find themselves mulling how quickly the built landscape (and at this point all of Fairmount Park is built) can change. There used to be a lake that’s no longer there!

‘Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder’

A friend told me once that they liked “weird museums.” Since I think I want to open a weird museum someday, I asked her: “Such as?”

“The Museum of Jurassic Technology,” she said.

“What?”

“You can’t really tell what’s true and what’s not. And they serve tea!”

I looked at the MJT’s website (mjt.org) and was pretty mystified. There’s something about Noah’s Ark, and some mysterious exhibit titles (“No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory
1915-1935
“) but little idea of where the “Jurassic” comes in.

Eventually I found my way to Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, by Lawrence Weschler. Weschler first published his account of the MJT in Harper’s and that essay forms the first half of this volume, “Inhaling the Spore.” Continue reading “‘Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder’”

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”