Interpreting Main Street

I will be participating roundtable discussion at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in St. Paul. “Interpreting Main Street” will look at the ways that four communities interpret their historic commercial districts. Although I’ll be representing New Ulm, I’ve worked with the other three towns: Red Wing, Willmar, and Winona. The other panelists each bring a different perspective to the challenge of creating a museum without walls.

Come join us. Friday, September 19, 2014 from 2:00 to 3:15 p.m. The conference will be held at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul.

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.

Podcasts and Art Museums

I’ve been impressed by the creativity of the art museum world in their use of podcasts. I think that it stems from their familiarity with the recorded gallery tour, in which you picked up a cassette player at the entry desk and walked through an exhibition, listening to the curator. Take a look at SmartHistory (, an award-winning site that uses a format of two narrators discussing a particular work of art. For a good example, check out their podcast on Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed.” It is very low tech and focuses completely on the painting itself. I have not found the same level of energy for the interpretation of history, although this is rapidly changing.

City of Gold

In this 1957 classic film, Pierre Berton talks about his hometown of Dawson City. A recollection of the Klondike gold rush at its height, City of Gold used still photographs to compare Dawson City of the gold rush era with the town in the 1950s. It is, in essence, the “Ken Burns” technique years before that filmmaker’s breakthrough documentary, Brooklyn Bridge.

The documentary began when Colin Low visited the Public Archives in Whitehorse, Canada, and found 200 photographs taken by A. E. Hegg during the Gold Rush in 1898-99. These 8 × 10 glass plate negatives had been found in wooden boxes in a sod-roofed log house, but were fortunately saved and restored. The plates provided incredibly sharp images; photographer Hegg brought an eye for faces and context to his work. This is a real gem, lasting around twenty-one minutes.