Woodlawn finds new way to sustain itself through farm-to-table movement

In this month’s (May/June 2011) Preservation magazine is an article about how Woodlawn, the former estate of George Washington’s granddaughter Nellie Custis – and a favorite of mine – has implemented a new innovative farming program based on the estate’s roots as a farm. The article explains, “Restauranteur Michael Babin dreamed of starting a sustainable farm just outside Washington DC, to supply fresh, local produce to chefs and also to give the community a place to learn about food production.”

The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Woodlawn was created in November 2010 to fulfill Babin’s dream.

According to Arcadia’s website, the Center aims to “demonstrate an environmentally and economically sustainable model of agriculture and livestock production…using only the highest standards of sustainable growing and cultivating primarily heirloom and heritage foods to increase the biodiversity in the area.”

I love that historic sites who are looking to reinvent themselves and find new ways to remain relevant are finding success in the local farm-to-table movement that has been sweeping the urban parts of America. While this is just one example of what I imagine is a growing trend for historic sites, I am happy that Nellie’s fields are being pressed into service once again – this time to feed a capital city the size of which she and her grandfather George could not have ever imagined in their lifetime!

If you know of other historic sites supplying local restaurants with produce and livestock, let me know more and I can feature them on this blog!

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Lack of history in schools gets some mainstream coverage

It isn’t really news to those of us in the history field that schools today are cutting back on history lessons in favor of the math and reading skills that appear on standardized tests. But I was happy to see this issue get some national mainstream exposure on CNN’s “Perry’s Principles” in an article called “Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history“.

The article states that many students know memorized facts such as the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, but are unable to put historical facts into a larger context. Many have trouble placing events in the correct decade and identifying other characteristics of that decade. Others confuse events that happened a century apart.

Some teachers make the effort to find ways to include history while teaching test skills – for instance, assigning a history text as a way to build literacy and comprehension skills.

We in the history field need to make it easier for teachers to accomplish this by creating curriculum and other teaching resources that include history in a way that still allows teachers to prepare students for standardized tests. I know many museums write curriculum that conforms to your state’s history standards, but are you taking into account the literacy and math standards also? Are you finding creative ways to weave history into the required No Child Left Behind requirements?

I would love to hear from both teachers and museum educators on ways you have addressed this continuing problem – please discuss in the comments section!

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What lessons can we learn from the NPS’s President’s House?

With the start of 2011 comes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Independence, the Freedom War. All of these names have appeared in history text books. The version of the war I studied in school is different than the version you studied. What you learned about the causes of the Civil War depends on the decade and the state in which you were educated.

Ever since the South lost the war, Southerners have been writing revisionist histories, trying to claim the Civil War was fought over states rights, tariffs, or taxes. These stories continue to be told today…I  read an article just last week that stated that Abraham Lincoln was so hated that all the Southern states seceded upon his election. They imply that Lincoln was so polarizing a figure that we fought a war over him! James W. Loewen’s “Five myths about why the South seceded” from The Washington Post gives a good overview of the revisionist theories and why they are false.

What the revisionist historians are trying to cover up, of course, was that the Civil War was really fought for one single reason, and that reason was slavery.

Over the past decade, much scholarship has gone into proving these revisionist theories wrong, and we observe the 150th anniversary of the War with a more transparent and honest approach than has existed before. One place this is visible is at the new National Park Service exhibit “The President’s House” in Philadelphia. For a look at the new exhibit, you can visit the Park Service site here.

Problems existed from the beginning. The new interpretative space is built on the site of the original President’s house, but was required to be an outdoor space, accessible 24/7. This requirement severely limited the type of interpretation the Park could present. Additionally, the development team had the tall task of telling a variety of stories: life in colonial and early Federal Philadelphia; the Presidencies of Washington and Adams, who lived in the house before the capital moved to Washington; what the archeology of the home site told us about the past. But they also had to confront the fact that George Washington — one of the men who fought for our independence —  was a slave holder. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but the archeological remains on the site showed slave tunnels, and the interpretation needed to address it. So many restrictions; so many stories; so many goals…this project was burdened heavily before it even began.

The finished interpretative site was reviewed by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times in December, and his article contains what is, in my opinion, a frank discussion about whether the final interpretation of so many varied themes at The President’s House was successful. He felt it was not, an opinion that several in Philadelphia took issue with (Critique of The President’s House was Off-Base). Further follow-up and discussion on the topic from Rothstein is here  — To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display.

My blog isn’t the place to discuss who is right and who is wrong in the battle of opinions over The President’s House. Plus, I haven’t seen the exhibit, so I have no personal opinion to add. However, what I take from these articles, and from The President’s House project, is a warning other museums should hede. Most of you aren’t operating on the scale of the National Park Service, and your exhibits won’t be reviewed by The New York Times. But if you are a site dealing with colonial, Federal, or antebellum history, you are probably dealing with finding an appropriate, sensitive, and honest way to tell the story of slavery. And even if your museum does not relate to slavery, you undoubtedly have wrestled with trying to combine multiple stories and histories into one cohesive display.

Here is my take on what happened at The President’s House: there were too many players, too many stories, and a loss of vision. The situation reminds me of the old adage: “A camel is a horse built by a committee.” The President’s House is a camel. Sometimes, when you are so busy trying to please everyone, you end up with an exhibit that accomplishes nothing. I think that was the point Rothstein was trying to make.

It’s bound to happen again and again as we put together exhibits and materials for the Civil War anniversary. Slavery is a hard story for museums to tell, because it is an ugly splotch on our country’s proud history. The President’s House deserves credit because it valiantly tried to tell the stories of Philadelphia, of Washington and Adams, of archeology, and of Washington’s slaves. Although the result may be somewhat muddled – a camel – at least they tried to be transparent and honest about the paradox of a slave-owning Founding Father. This is a step forward.

As you wrestle with similar issues in your own exhibit designs, focus in on the story you want to tell – don’t try to take on too much. Keep your focus on that story as you work. Be sure that the final result is something that tells an accurate and compelling story. Don’t build a camel, build a horse.


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Very few Americans can pass a test on the American Revolution – can you?

Scary numbers of people know very little about the events surrounding the American Revolution. For those of us in the history world, this probably does not come as a huge shock. But in light of the cuts being made to history and social studies programs across the nation in favor of subjects on the standardized tests, this information is starling and worth discussing.

First of all, the numbers. The American Revolution Center conducted a demographically representative random sample of US adults on their knowledge of the Revolutionary period. It was the first such national survey of its kind. Although 89 percent of the respondents believed they could pass a basic test on the American Revolution, only 17 percent were actually able to pass.

The current adult population took this quiz, so they weren’t victims of the new standardized testing craze that would have limited their study of American history. Myself, I learned about the American Revolution and Civil War every year in grade school and high school. Now, memory can be to blame for some of this. The show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” is popular for a reason…it is amazing to adults to realize the amount of information we learned in grade school that we no longer retain. So I give people a pass that they may not know such Revolutionary trivia as which foreign power fired the first salute honoring the flag of the US (The Netherlands), or which slave spied on the British at Yorktown (James Armistead).

But, I do really think people should know the following:

  • What document the Bill of Rights is a part of.
  • What type of government the Constitution establishes.
  • Who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
  • Which documents the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “We, the people” appear in.
  • What the final battle of the Revolution was.

And the thing that really makes me crazy is that people don’t know enough about the chronology of United States history to answer this one:

Which of these four events occurred BEFORE the Declaration of Independence:

  • The founding of Jamestown
  • The Civil War
  • The Emancipation Proclamation
  • The War of 1812

The press release about this study is full of terrifying facts like “60 percent of Americans can correctly identify the number of children in reality-tv show couple Kate and Jon Gosselin’s household (eight), but more than one-third don’t know the century in which  the American Revolution took place.”

This is not a good statement about the citizens (and voters!) of our country, and it is up to us American history lovers to keep fighting the fight and making a case for history in schools and continuing education via museums for adults.

See how you do on the quiz – I got a 24 out of 25.


Learn more about the survey:


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Things that go BOO

Well, it’s that time of year, when ghosts and goblins roam the streets. Thanks to hit television shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, ghosts are enjoying extreme popularity these days. As Halloween nears, many historic sites and towns offer ghost tours. I took a ghost walk around Historic Annapolis last Saturday night, and my companion and I both felt it was a wonderful way to learn the history of that historic town. Our guide “Sir Frederick” had a wonderful way of weaving history into his ghostly tales, and all 25 of us on the tour were riveted for 90+ minutes. We visited the graveyard outside of St. Ann’s Church, in use since 1692, the Maryland State House, the Governor’s Mansion, and the William Paca House, all complete with their very own stories of the mysterious and unseen. While most of the tour was outside – allowing us to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather – we got to go inside the Paca House with the Rattner – a first-person interpreter in costume who took us through the (battery-powered) candle-lit house while regaling us with ghost stories. And don’t you know we heard one of those ghosts rattling chains?! (A rattner, for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the term, is one who spent nights collecting rats. Fun job, right?)

This experience made me wonder if ghost tours were successful in drawing people into learning more about the history they are exposed to during the tours. I know I came home with a list of things to research, but then, I am a history nut so I’m not a good test case.

I did a quick search online to see if I could find any useful information for museums considering doing such a program, and I came up with one article that touched on ghost tours from the business standpoint. (See the full article here.) The Salem Museum Historical Society near Roanoke, Virginia is embarking on their thirteenth year of ghost tours. “We have found no more effective way to teach folks about local history than the Ghost Walk,” said Museum Director John Long. “Think about it– if the people in a cemetery could rise up and tell us about their lives, how much could we learn? Our Ghost Walk gives us the chance to talk to our forebears, in a sense.” Like the Annapolis tour, Salem uses costumed interpreters to impart knowledge to the tour goers. “What makes the Ghost Walk enjoyable is the quality of the acting,” added Assistant Museum Director Helen Johnson. “All of the actors are volunteers, and several are teachers by profession. I think that testifies to the educational value of the Ghost Walk. Folks learn history and have fun doing it.”

I don’t know if ghost tours have been studied in depth to see if they are worthwhile programs that result in repeat museum visits after October 31 passes. I have added it to my list of things to research further. In the meantime, weigh in below if you have a great ghost tour story or evidence that they have helped your site cultivate new audiences. And don’t forget to look behind you on Sunday night! Boo!

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Who wrote your child’s history text?

I am taking history courses right now to earn a second bachelor’s degree in history, and even in the 100 level classes, they are having us do history research online. We have had to find sites that are acceptable for collegiate research and sites that are not acceptable. We were given worksheets on how to identify whether a source was primary or secondary, whether a site was published by an authority on the subject, and whether the information appeared bias or out of date. Doing research is a vital part of the historian’s craft, and given the prominence of the internet today, they are teaching us how to vet our online sources to obtain reliable and factual information.

Given all of that, I was stunned to read this story in The Washington Post today: “Virginia 4th-grade textbook criticized over claims on black Confederate soldiers.” The criticism comes from a passage in the book that claims that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War; a claim that multiple historians disagree with. The part that blew my mind was this: “The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

Two things about this sentence make my head hurt. #1: The author is not a trained historian? Why is she writing a text book about history? Why am I getting a degree in history that is training me to be a historian, if book publishers let random people write text books? What kind of education is this providing to our school children?

#2: She found this (false) information on the internet; the finished book was approved by multiple committees; and yet the falsehood still made it into print? Even if the author is not a trained historian, anyone doing internet research for a scholarly purpose should know how to vet their online sources before putting something into print! She found this information on the Sons of Veteran Confederates website? Nothing against the Sons, but this should have been a red flag to Masoff if she knew anything at all about the revisionist history of the Civil War. And, since she apparently doesn’t, we return to the first question: Why is she writing a history text book?! The committees who approved the text can’t be expected to fact-check every sentence…that is the author’s and editor’s job. And while it is disconcerting that multiple committee members missed something so glaring, I still blame the book company and the author.

Reading the Post article and the commentary on the situation that appeared here taught me a lot about the business of text book production and the approval process. What I learned didn’t make me happy. We just saw in Texas a few months ago politics shaping history curriculum, and now this. We need to be  more careful with what we teach our kids about the history of this country. History and social studies are already getting less time in the classroom because they aren’t on the standardized tests. So if we are teaching even less history to our kids than a generation ago, shouldn’t we be positive we are teaching them things that are accurate?

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Tell your visitors a story

Hello history fans! I took a break from blogging over the summer, due to several vacations and the fact that I decided to go back to school and pick up a degree in history. It was been wonderfully exciting to read my text books and discuss history with my classmates – all online! I figured I spent all my free time reading history books anyway, so I may as well get credit for it!

But, now fall is here. I am still taking classes, but there has been so much going on in the history world that I felt I needed to get back to blogging. We have two major anniversaries approaching – the War of 1812 and the Civil War – and museums have their education and visitor programs up and running for the new school year. Lots to discuss and dissect, so let’s get to it.

I glance at Slate every other day or so, because I find their mix of news, analysis, trends, technology and lifestyle articles to be intriguing, and a good way to keep an eye on life in America. Imagine my joy when I logged on one morning and saw “Dispatches from the Front Lines of Travel: Civil War Road Trip.” The piece catalogs the road trip the author and several of his buddies took to visit Civil War sites between New Orleans and New York. The author freely admits he is NOT a history buff, which gives those of us who ARE history buffs a chance to witness historic sites through the eyes of our “non-history-buff” visitors.

What seems to make the most difference to this guy is the quality of the tour guides he has. He is lucky to meet with several phenomenal guides who manage to make the battlefields come alive, without all the nitty-gritty details some guides pepper their talks with. You’ve all been on that mind-numbing tour where peoples’ eyes roll back in their heads due to an overwhelming and incomprehensible amount of detail. This series of articles really drove home the importance of good tour guides telling good stories.

If you have some tour guides guilty of boring the masses with lots of detail, point them to this story. Let them read how a “non-history-buff” approaches a history site: with a slight fear they might be “bored.” You don’t want to prove them right by boring them! Help your guides craft those details into enthralling stories that will leave their visitors wanting to learn more. It can be done – this story proves it!

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