Monthly Archives: April 2013

Blogging the Past in Real Time

One piece missing from most history museum installations is the sense of time. That might seem like a strange statement, but a good gallery tour might take one hour, during which events that took days, weeks, and years are compressed so that you can get the whole story in one visit.

I’ve found a couple blogs that are telling their stories in real time. One, Blogging the Beatles, has been following the world’s great rock band from its start. The posts roughly match the real events of fifty years ago, so, although we know the rest of the story, there is a certain anticipation as they have their first recording sessions with George Martin, or when they hit Number #1 on the charts with “Please, Please Me.” It helps me to understand how the Beatles exploded on the U.K. scene while remaining generally unknown in the U.S.

A second blog, Bound for South Australia, takes the same approach, except this time using captains’ logs and diaries to follow, with once a week entries, the voyages of nine ships from Great Britain to Australia in 1838. At times, not much happens, and as a reader, I watch the horizon, looking for an island up ahead. At others, storms beset the ships and with accompanying maps, we can connect the story to a place. In these forty-five entries, the authors make available primary resources for further study. It’s a great teaching technique.

An Evening with the New Ulm Battery

On Saturday evening I had the opportunity to speak at a dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of the New Ulm Battery. This unique organization defies simple categorization. It began as a state militia unit in January 1863, charged with the defense of New Ulm, Minnesota, following the attacks on the town during U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Of course, we know the rest of the story — that no attack ever took place — but they did not.

No guns were ever fired by this unit in any conflict. After 1871 it no longer held any official connection to the military, but remained an organized and active unit. You can see them at Civil War reenactments (although they are not strictly a Civil War unit), parades, and other special events. Their participation in a performance of the 1812 Overture is certainly unforgettable.

Josh Moniz, a reporter for the New Ulm Journal, asked me why this local organization endured over 150 years while so many had their moment and then faded away. It wasn’t an easy question to answer. New Ulm loves its history and the Dakota War has been a touchstone of community experience. It’s also great showmanship to see the horses pulling the cannons into place, followed by the rituals of firing a round. Thanks must go to a few dedicated people like Frank Burg and John Fritsche who dedicated so much to keeping the Battery alive.

Museums: Coming soon to a theater near you

Technology is rapidly changing the museum experience. By Experience, a company that brought the New York Metropolitan Opera to a wide audience via their live video programs, has now entered the museum for its latest venture. This week, their program, Manet: Portraying Life, played on an estimated 1,000 screens in twenty-eight countries. Unlike the live opera broadcasts, the art presentations are really just one-time-only documentaries.

What is gained with this new format? For one, I will not be able to visit the exhibit, stunning in its quality. I can sit in a comfortable chair (with a bag of popcorn) and receive what the project director calls “a super-size VIP virtual tour.” I’d learn something, and that’s good.

What is lost? I am not in control over what I see and how long I look at it. In a real museum, you set your own pace, decide what’s worth twenty seconds or ten minutes. I also lose depth, so the painter’s brush strokes flatten.

The biggest loss, though, I might call the experience of the holy — entering into the presence of the real thing. I have gone online and read letters of Thomas Jefferson. But there was an ineffable moment when I was in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and held the actual paper in my (gloved!) hands.

Still, these two approaches are not contradictory. The Met says that opera attendance is up because a new audience has been attracted by the theater experience.

Roger Ebert and the Princess Theater

Yesterday brought the news of Roger Ebert’s passing. It also brought to a close more than forty years of turning to his reviews on the movies of the day. It began with train commutes to summer jobs in Chicago. The Sun-Times was the right size to hold while sitting next to other passengers,  and slightly more liberal than the Chicago Tribune.

Two years ago I completed a walking tour pastcast for Urbana, Illinois, entitled, “In Lincoln’s Shadow.” The challenge was to connect the city with the presence of our greatest president, who practiced law here while on the circuit. However, no buildings — except possibly one house — remained from the 1840s and 1850s. Instead, the scripts reflect themes about Lincoln’s association with Urbana — he, for example, signed legislation establishing land grant colleges, leading to the founding of the University of Illinois.

One theme brings us back to Roger Ebert. Lincoln had friends in town, and in the evenings when the court had adjourned, enjoyed lively local entertainments. In much the same way, Roger Ebert, an Urbana boy, fondly recalled his visits to the historic Princess Theatre where he gained an early love of movies.