What Comes Next?

hamposterThe popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is undeniable. It won a Grammy (Best Musical Theatre Album), will likely be nominated for (and win) multiple Tony Awards, and has been discussed by scholars and the popular press. It has been lauded and critiqued by scholars of history, theatre, and literature. But the popularity of Hamilton also raises a challenge for historians of Early America, especially those who do public or digital history:

To borrow from Miranda’s King George III: “what comes next?

How do we engage the people who are coming to this history through Hamilton? Having considered the gaps in the stories told by the show, how do we bring that history to people who are, in my anecdotal experience, eager to learn more? While offering further reading on the period or pointing people to existing programs are good places to start, I think we can do more.

To truly connect with the populations who are flocking to Hamilton: An American Musical, we need to look beyond the historical period and consider what makes the show popular. The music is strongly rooted in hip-hop, rap, and r&b, but there are also nods to classic broadway, even Gilbert and Sullivan; Miranda is speaking in a voice that is familiar and accessible to a wide range of people.

Moreover, audiences who have never set foot in the theatre (either the Public or the Richard Rogers) have been welcomed by Miranda and the show’s cast in various forms of online engagements. Miranda, who like his title character seems to work non-stop, frequently converses with fans on twitter and has joined tumblr where he reblogs and likes fans’ posts. When someone added the lyrics of the show to Rap Genius and the community started annotating, he expressed delight and even noted (again on twitter) when people guessed correctly about a riff or other fact. Members of the cast and crew have live-streamed events on SnapChat and Facebook.

Interactions between the cast and crew of Hamilton and its audience – its fandom – are conversational and egalitarian to a large extent. When the audience creates annotations, transformative works, YouTube videos, the official Hamilton community generally responds with praise or gratitude. The creators of Hamilton have embraced their fan community and recognized its voice as a valid participant in the expression of the show an experience, as a cultural moment.

The challenge as I see it for public/digital/early american historians who want to catch the wave of Hamilton’s popularity to expand the understanding of the show’s fans is to find ways to communicate which echo the accessible tone of the show and which convey a sense of shared experience where the non-expert is welcomed and celebrated. We should try to share our enthusiasm for the past with them, and welcome their enthusiasm or concerns in return, instead of imparting knowledge. Conversation, shared authority, a willingness to allow emotion to be part of the experience of history, are all useful tools as we try to convey the rich history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.

A note: I started drafting this post last week, before attending the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, whose theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” Every day of the conference brought me new possibilities for creating a more inclusive interpretation of the past, as well as the challenges which exist. It reiterated what I had been thinking about when I began writing this post: that we need to create an inclusive (public) history of the Revolutionary/Early National era, telling the stories of the wise range of peoples of many races, ethnicities, gender identities, and classes who lived through this period and including our publics as participants, not an audience, when we do so.

One tweet from the conference which I feel captures some of what I’ve been trying to say came from Lara Kelland, quoting Denise D. Meringolo “I wanted to let people tell their stories, but I didn’t want us to tell them what their lives mean.”

The dead may have no control who lives, who dies, who tells their story, but the living should have a say.

Papers of the War Department

One of the projects I work on at RRCHNM is the Papers of the War Department. I’m fond of it because it was the only project I worked on my first year, it falls within my temporal period of study, and I’ve discovered some very entertaining letters which generating metadata and summaries for it. Lately I’ve been working on trying to increase the project’s visibility, especially as other crowdsourcing projects like the Smithsonian Transcription Center and projects out of NYPL Labs take off.

To that end, I wrote a guest post for the 18th Century Common which has, thus far, been very well received. Digging into the stories of Corbin, along with individuals like the Mrs. Greatons, Samuel Hodgdon, and Isaac Craig (who has lovely handwriting), has been one of the pleasures of working on the Papers project.

Teaching History to Captain America

I started thinking about this post in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger came out. The movie came out the summer before I started my PhD program, and Clio Wired in particular made me think about how digital tools could make history education more accessible on the move.

It was a sort of thought experiment: how would you catch Captain America up on the years he missed, when he’s presumably constantly running around saving the world? Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. would fill him in on the basic geopolitical and military information, how to do you get across the facts of the national and global social and cultural changes of the second half of the twentieth century in a way which is both relatively bite-size and captures the nuance of current historical interpretation?

At the time, I was inspired by the work of my colleague Richard Hardesty, whose project that semester looked at the intersection of baseball and civil rights activism in Baltimore (he probably would say this better). I wondered about the possibility of doing the major events of a decade built around baseball as a video, allowing for responses and remixes, all of which would be on YouTube or some other public platform.

Three years later, we have the second installment of the Captain’s story. One of the things which delighted me about Captain American: The Winter Soldier was Captain Roger’s list of “things to look up,” and moreover the fact that the film had different items depending on which the country of release. This choice by the directors and/or designers shows an awareness of the different important cultural moments for different nations. K-pop or the Beatles? The World Cup or the Superbowl?

What do you think? What would you put on that list for Cap? What podcasts or blogs would you tell him to check out?

 

Compare and contrast

On my way back from Poughkeepsie, I stopped in New Paltz to visit Historic Huguenot Street, which popped up on my twitter feed on Sunday evening. Once I arrived, I realized I’d been there once during my college career, but only to wander around outside, never in the buildings, and moreover they’re in the process or renewing their interpretation.

One interpretive choice they’ve made is to pair two 18th century houses. One is unfurnished, so you can see the architectural features and the way the construction progressed over time. The other house is fully furnished with pieces that are (mostly) appropriate to the period interpreted. Our guide was explicit about the comparison, particularly when we were in the basement kitchens of the two houses. In the unfurnished house, the kitchen felt smaller, there was less natural light and little artificial light, and the overall feeling was depressing. The kitchen in the furnished house had more light, natural and artificial, and seemed almost cheerful in comparison. However, our guide reminded us that the space would have been smoky and smelly, and that in the 18th century the people working in the kitchen would have been enslaved African Americans.

I appreciated the contrast as part of an overall effort by the site to make the act of interpretation transparent. Both guides I had explicitly stated “we have decided to interpret” and we were even asked if we thought the comparison of furnished and unfurnished was helpful. When I was working in a historic house in Virginia, we often talked about whether to interpret areas for which we had little or no documentation, in particular the upstairs bedchambers. Do you fully furnish a house, even without evidence? Or leave rooms empty, knowing that visitors often expect to see “what it was like”? And if you are guessing, what do the guides/docents tell the visitors? Historic Huguenot Street has the advantage of having multiple houses, but they could have chosen to interpret them all one way or the other. I think the decision to show the two paths interpretation can take, and in sequence, not only helps visitors think about the past but also how the past is presented to them at historic sites.

I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit the next time I’m in the area. I’m curious to interact with the first person interpreters, and see where else the education and interpretation goes. My experience was a little off the usual, because I had a guide for all of the houses, when some of them usually have first person interpretation (they started the tour a little early for me since I had to drive back to Virginia).

Belle

I recently saw Belle (2013), a film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman of color and status in late eighteenth century England. While the film diverges from the actual facts, it does so to underscore the messages of the film.

Some reviewers have pointed out the “Austen-esque” nature of the story, focusing as it does on marriage as a goal for women, and the conflict between marry for station and marrying for love. While I acknowledge that modern viewers may feel it’s a very Austen story, it also accurately reflects the concerns of women, in this case elite women, of late eighteenth century Britain. Their choices were, as presented, marry or serve the family as spinster chatelaine.

I can see this film being a useful resource for teaching late 18th century British/Atlantic history. The characters discuss, through the course of the film, that trifecta of modern historical analysis: race, class, gender. The film would also be useful for a course on material culture, as it highlights the way people of color were portrayed in paintings of the era (slight spoiler at that link, but only slight). I was occasionally reminded of the blog People of Color in European Art History while watching, and this poster stating that representation matters. The film of course speaks to the present as much as the past, but not in a way which diminishes either message. I look forward to reading more responses to the film.

two women in formal attire.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin.

Liverpool’s overlooked history?

The archives and libraries were closed today, so I took myself down to the riverfront to look around some of the National Museums Liverpool, specifically the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. The latter is currently located on the 3rd floor of the Maritime Museum, although it will someday have its own building.

They are very nice museums. The Museum of Liverpool only recently opened, and the outside is still being completed. The Maritime Museum opened in the 1980s. Both focus primarily on the history of Liverpool since about 1850, emphasizing urban development, Cunard and the Titanic, World War II, and Merseybeat. The International Slavery Museum, which grew out of an exhibit on the Atlantic Slave trade, is by nature of its subject centered on the 18th century, although it emphasizes that slavery is not merely a historical institution.

I enjoyed nosing about the museums in a general sort of way, but I confess I was disappointed in the lack of information on Georgian Liverpool. There is a timeline exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool, but the 18th century is in the same case as the 16th, with very little space given to it. Liverpool does not seem reluctant to talk about the fact that slavery played a large role in its development into a major commercial center, but the town during that era is largely left out of most narratives. With one notable and very enjoyable exception.

When I entered the Merseyside Maritime Museum, I noticed a banner with an 18th century looking map promoting a tour of the Old Dock. Curious, I wandered over to the desk and discovered a brochure, which confirmed that the Old Dock Tour related to an 18th century dock – as I was to learn, the first commercial wet dock in the western world. The tour required a booking but no fee, so I put down my name. I expected some sort of walk around the commercial area now laying over the old dock site, with some “this was here” comments. Instead, the tour goes to one corner of the Old Dock, all of which was preserved when the dock was closed in the 1820s. It is now the site of an archaeological excavation and was apparently featured on Time Team (a British TV show).*

I had fun. The two guides were informative, friendly, and well-versed in the topic. There were only two other people, local gentlemen, on the tour. After being conducted into the dig site (through a car park, under the square outside John Lewis in Liverpool One), we were given a brief lecture and then allowed to read the interpretive panels and ask questions. This was more than the glimpses of Georgian Liverpool I’d gotten in the museum buildings, this was a visit to a remnant of it. What’s more, I know that James Maury’s consulate office was about a block from the Old Dock, so I felt like I knew a little more about the Liverpool which he experienced (by the 1810s, the Dock was full of sewage, so I imagine he was well aware of its proximity).

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*I feel compelled to point out that the dock was closed because it was full of sewage, when it was re-opened as an archaeological dig there was still organic matter remaining, but the tv people didn’t show up until the professionals had dug through layers of Georgian excrement.

(Please forgive any formatting oddities – I’m using the WordPress app on my tablet for the first time)

Talk About Memory

I’ve posted before about the events of 9/11/2001, my experience(s) of it, and how my undergraduate studies emphasized another 11 September, in 1973 in Chile.

It seems every year when this day rolls around I’m in a situation with new people and we all share the “where were you stories.” It’s a ritual, a bonding experience, and a conversational opening into topics like politics, college life, or the expression of shared memory. In some ways, reciting my experience of the events of that sunny Tuesday morning in September is as calming as any liturgy or mantra. (( On a side note, the fact that 9/11 is again a Tuesday, and sunny, is more commemorative for me than last year’s 10th anniversary. )) Sharing memories, the individual facets of a collective experience, isn’t new, nor do I expect that we’ll stop doing it in time.

A friend of mine who is a very talented historical research focused on genealogy posted today about her 9/11/01 memories, and I want to share a part of that post:

“The December after the attacks I sat at a Holiday Dinner with my mother’s family.  With us was the last few members of my grandmother’s generation.  My Great-aunt Bertie told us about Pearl Harbor.  She could remember exaclty where she was, what was playing on the radio, and what happened that day in December 1941.  She told us that this was our Pearl Harbor.  This event would define us as people and as a nation.”

11 November 1918. 7 December 1941. November 1989. 11 September 2001. Dates that generations and populations remember and commemorate in their own ways.

History in Unanticipated Places

Yesterday my priest started her sermon with a version of the origin of Labor Day. She focused on the life and work of George Pullman, particular those actions which contributed to the 1894 strike. The sermon was also rooted in the readings, particularly James 1:17-27. (( She likened Pullman to someone who has turned from the mirror and forgotten his face, forgotten that he and his workers were all Children of God. This was church, after all. )) But what interested me was the fact that Labor Day was established in law by President Cleveland so soon after the end of the strike.

Like most Americans, I would imagine, I had forgotten that National Holidays are formally established with an Act. This particular act started as S. 730 and H.R. 28. I was going to post the text here, but I’m having trouble tracking it down. Once I do, I’ll come back and put it in. I’m curious as to what the original wording was.

Old Haunts, New Views

This summer I’m working on a project which has to do with the history of the National Mall. It has been fun to learn more about a part of town with which I’m so familiar. Although I’m not a DC/Northern VA native, members of my family have lived in and around DC since the 1960s and we used to come visit at least once a year. I have fond memories of climbing on Uncle Beazley when he sat outside Natural History.

Today, despite the record-breaking heat, I ventured down to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was the first time I’ve been down to the Mall since starting work on the Mall history project. Knowing what had come before made the very familiar landscape of flat, dying grass and beige gravel paths interesting again.

I metroed to Archives/Navy Memorial (to avoid crowds at Smithsonian and to get coffee at the Starbucks in the gold-domed insurance building on 7th) which obviously put me out near the National Archives. Or, in my new thinking, the site which once housed Center Market, where generations of Washingtonians bought produce, meat, and groceries. And, apparently, played billiards.

Then I wandered down the Mall towards 14th, passing construction just across from the sculpture garden which is, I think, roughly where there used to be temporary government office buildings.

I tend to see history wherever I go. Today I had more information and the memory of the many photos I’ve seen over the last month, making the past more vivid and certain than usual. I may have been to the Mall hundreds of times, but today it felt new.

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, by which I mean the friend I have known the longest, leaves the country today. She is off on her first posting as an employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and over the next twenty or thirty years she will get to live in all sorts of interesting places.

Her father worked for USAID all during our childhoods, so she has already lived or spent extended periods of time in Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, not to mention North Carolina, Massachusetts, and the DC metro area. Every summer, she would come back to our hometown in North Carolina with her mother and brother. Her mom had seen too many USAID and foreign service kids grow up without a sense of place, a rootedness, so she determined that my friend and her brother would spend months every year in the town where both their grandparents lived.

Recently, we went out to dinner. My friend had just finished speaking at a panel on “third culture kids,” a term for children whose parents work and live in country or culture different from that of their origin. Most of the literature about third culture kids talks about their distance from their ‘home’ country, the place which issues their passport. I get the sense that coming back to North Carolina helped assuage some of that alienation and differentiation, which was, of course, the point.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about all of this on a blog which focuses more on history and my experiences as a PhD student? Because my friend’s experience resonates with the family about whom I want to write my dissertation. One of the first US consuls in England, married an Englishwoman and had five children, all of whom em/immigrated to the United States at some point in adulthood and there stayed. Were they English or American or something else? These five people are in some ways the cultural precursors of my oldest friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be intrigued by their story if I hadn’t grown up with a friend who lived overseas, but neither can I deny an increasing interest in the cultural history of early diplomats and citizens living abroad and their families.

When my friend was applying for the job, I got to sit down with someone and act as a reference. They wanted to know if she was reliable (she is), but also get a sense of how well she would represent the country. I answered, truthfully, that I felt she had grown up knowing that she was a representative of the country, and I thought she did it really well. What did it mean for people (men, women and children) to represent a nation which was only years or months old?

Safe travels, friend. Who knows where the future is going to take either of us.