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.

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)

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.

 

Change vs. Exchange

I am reading the Baron Montlezun’s Voyage fait dans les années 1816 et 1817: de New-Yorck à la Nouvelle-Orléans, et de l’Orénoque au Mississippi, although only the part about his visit to Orange County, Virginia (perhaps I might read the rest later). He had a conversation with President Madison, at the latter’s house, where they swapped stories about American Indian boys who were taken into European or European-American communities, educated, and then invariably (in the context of the conversation) returned to their “savage” communities.

There is one translation of Montlezun, published in parts in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1945. The footnote for this conversation adds “For a parallel case taken from North American history, we refer the reader to Smyth, who says that Indians educated at William and Mary in colonial days returned to their savage life, as soon as they went back home.”1

What strikes me is the assumption that the American Indians would stay. Historically, I understand the perspective of the Baron and the President, and even the mid-20th-century scholars, who knew that the European lifestyle was far better than the savage one in the wilderness. It was folly, to them, to abandon it. The actors in their stories who took or invited American Indian boys (because they’re all men in this instance) to “civilization” were probably trying to improve them.

From a modern perspective, however, the first thing that springs to mind is undergraduate year abroad. You go somewhere strange, learn about this other culture, then go home and share your experience with friends and family. Many of the native individuals in the story went at least semi-willingly (the young boy who went to France with General Lafayette was sent by his father, but who knows how he felt about it?). What better way to learn about your allies than to live among them for a while? It’s a strategy which also works with enemies.

There’s not a huge point to this post, merely an observation. Some people may expect foreign students who come to study in the US to become Americanized and remain, but it’s not surprising to us (I hope) that they come, learn, and go home again.

1 L. G. Moffatt and J. M. Carrière. “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (1945): 206.

Citizenship and National Identity

This morning on NPR I heard a story about the push for immigration reform, and a rally in Washington to happen this weekend. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, who apparently opposes reform, said of the pro-reform marchers “They’re as treasonous and as un-American as anyone I know.” The quote came on the heels of a conversation with woman who works with teenage children of illegal immigrants, trying to keep them out of gangs. The teenagers feel that no opportunity is open to them because of their uncertain immigrant status.

Now, the history of the South-West and Central America are not my area of expertise. What I know has been gathered haphazardly through media and the occasional lecture. However, the question of who is an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led to the War of 1812.

I know that there is scholarship on how Americans resident in the (present) US came to conceptualize themselves as a new nation. What this NPR story has me wondering about, in addition to that, is how quickly or slowly did new immigrants become “Americans”? What was the process, social or political, through which a person who moved to the US after 1783 came to be regarded by their neighbors as an American and not a Brit or Frenchman or Italian, or what have you? I am given to understand that slaves, not being thought of exactly as people, were probably not thought of as citizens either. What of indentured servants?

I have no answers to these questions. I know that at the local university there are papers from numerous families from this period, including a family whose children were all born in England to an American father and English mother, but who apparently considered themselves American citizens. Maybe some small part of the answers lie there?

Christmases Past: the Eighteenth Century

Fans of the eighteenth century who are curious about Christmas in the American colonies have a number of excellent resources: colonial-era historic sites have dug into records and primary sources to try and find a historical way to interpret Christmas. I’m briefly going to try and describe what Christmas was (and wasn’t) in the 18th century, but if you’re really interested I highly recommend the research available on the web from Colonial Williamsburg. Emma L. Powers’ article Tis the Season is an excellent overview, and there’s a slew of articles on Christmas in Williamsburg – I think my favorite thing about the latter is how all of the decorating articles basically say “the wreaths you see at CW are totally not historical.”

It’s true. The fruit-decked wreaths they put up in Williamsburg are a 20th century invention. Outdoor decorations of the 18th century were probably limited to a bit of greenery. there was not an emphasis on decorations. In Massachusetts area, Christmas was still frowned on. In Virginia and other southern states, it was party time for a fair portion of the population. Some of the various Christian sects, Presbyterians for example, did not mark Christmas with any celebration, and of course the small scattered Jewish populations wouldn’t. The dominant religion was Anglicanism, which does observe Christmas with a special service, and in this time it was one of the few opportunities to take Communion.

The celebration of the season was very much what you find in the Dickens quote I posted a few days ago: dancing, feasting, parties, visiting friends and family. Essentially, the things I love about Christmas now. Goodwill towards all expressed in fun and games and laughter. For me the most surprising thing about the 18th century Christmas was that people didn’t give a lot of gifts, and most gifts were food. Apparently there’s a good historical foundation for the exchange of goodies from Harry & David between my parents and their friends, and my grandfather sending us citrus fruit.

All in all, I think that most of us today could enjoy an 18th century Christmas, at least for a few hours.

What makes a citizen?

Working as I do with a focus on the period between 1780 and 1830, the War of 1812 frequently drifts into focus. It is not a war with which I was very familiar when I started at this job, and I still think there’s a lot more I could know about it (although I have very little interest in all the movements of all the troops).  Still, I am aware that one of the issues which led to the war was continued impressment by the British Navy of people who considered themselves to be citizens of the United States.

I do not know, and admittedly have not taken the time to discover, how exactly one became a citizen of any nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Now, of course, we have citizenship applications and tests and ceremonies where you swear an oath, and afterwards you get a new passport. What was it like then?

Yesterday, while in the archives, I came across a letter which mentioned this question of what makes a person a citizen. It is written by a man living in Liverpool, England, to an acquaintance back in the U.S. The man in Liverpool worked for the U.S. Government, and must therefore have considered himself an American, despite having been born before the Revolution. It doesn’t answer my question completely, but it’s an excellent insight into the attitudes which led to a war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“I observe what in America constitutes a citizen of the U. S. differs from what is here considered the Qualification; pro. Ex. a subject of this Country settled since the peace, in the Territories of the U.S. altho’ admitted there a Citizen is nonetheless still held here a subject of this Country.”

Source: James Maury to Thomas Jefferson, [10] November 1791. Papers of James Maury, 1769-1917, Accession #3888 and #3888-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.