Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Public History: Old Sturbridge Village

(I was traveling in southern New England last week, this is the first in a short series of posts about some historical excursions there.)

Old Sturbridge Village is an outdoor living history museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Dedicated to representing New England Village life of the 1790s to the 1830s, the village is a New England institution. OSV (as they frequently abbreviate it) was founded in the 1930s. Unlike Colonial Williamsburg or Arrow Rock or similar outdoor museums, OSV does not preserve an actual town. The village is rather a recreation of a "typical" (and perhaps romanticized) country town of the era. The 40+ buildings are mostly historic structures gathered from across the region and transplanted to the site. A few are modern reconstructions.

The interpretive staff at OSV wear period costumes but are not in character--that is, they do not pretend to be persons from that time period, as many interpreters do at Colonial Williamsburg. I found this a relief--I think the play acting at CW can get in the way of the historical interpretation and creates a barrier between the interpreters and the visitors.
I don't have time here for a long critique and analysis of how history is presented at OSV. (Though perhaps that would make a good article.) Suffice it to say that the presentation is excellent, if tending to the idyllic. This is the New England village of Currier and Ives prints. It is wonderfully scenic, and true in its way. And to their credit some of the interpreters and signs did try to emphasize that life was hard in that era. Overall, however, the impression of the place is that people in the 1790s lived simple, happy wholesome lives. The children at OSV seem to have played more than worked, the houses are bright and airy rather than sooty and stinky, and the chamber pots are freshly scrubbed. In particular there is very little interpretation of the crushing rural poverty of many families in that era, such as is discussed in Alan Taylor's Liberty Men and Great Proprietors.

And yet, what else are the Great Proprietors of Old Sturbridge Village to do? Though non-profit, the organization needs ticket revenue to stay afloat. Adding some muddy, grim little huts to visit and having the interpreters pee in the chamber pots each morning is hardly an option. All of the living history sites are like this: lacking in the dark, stink, poverty and early death of authentic history.

Quibbles aside, OSV is a magnificent place to spend a early summer day and learn about early American history. It is rightly one of the top historic destinations in New England, every bit as important to visit as Boston's Freedom Trail.

Here are some more pictures from our visit:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Online Historical Images Roundup from the ACRL

The newsletter of the Association of College and Research Libraries this month offers a terrific roundup of websites with deep collections of historical primary source images online. Relevant to PNW history are the Alaska Digital Archives, the University of Washington Digital Collections, and Calisphere ("a free online collection of more than 150,000 digitized primary materials contributed by libraries, archives, and museums from all over California"). It is from Calisphere we get the image below, "Bridge over Spokane River, downtown Spokane, Washington" [undated].

Friday, May 16, 2008

University Presses with Podcasts

I love good history podcasts. This post over at MetaFilter points to some terrific, professionally produced author interview podcasts by MIT, Harvard, Yale and University of California. See also the Making History Podcast and the Washington State Historical Society podcasts. If you know of any others, post them below.

And watch this space for the announcement of the Northwest History podcast series, which I plan to initiate in the fall.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Echoes of Oregon History Learning Guide

The Oregon State Archives has a neat set of primary documents for teachers: the Echoes of Oregon History Learning Guide. The focus here is on short, exciting primary documents from the early history of Oregon. We get the text of each document, a high-quality scan, a paragraph or two putting the source in context and some questions relating to the document. For classroom teachers these are ready to go. Among the goodies are an 1858 Divorce petition, an 1857 Request to open Indian lands, and the 1854 Petition for Thomas family to stay in Oregon (they were a black family threatened with expulsion by Oregon's racist exclusion laws). My favorite document here is this 1851 Defendant's request, Whitman massacre trial:

The United States vs Telokite et al

Telokite one of the defendants makes oath that a certain Indian named Quishem now in the Cayuse country he thinks will be a material witness for the defendants in this case. That the materiality of said witness was not known in time to have him in attendance at this term of the court. He expects & believes that said witness will prove that the late Dr Whitman administered medi-cines to may of the Cayuse Indians and that afterwards a large number of them died, including amongst them the wives and children of some of these defendants. He expects further to prove by said witness that a certain Joseph Lewis, who resided at Waiilatpu informed these defendants a few days before the 29 November 1847 that the Cayuse Indians were dying in consequence of poison being administered to them by the late Marcus Whitman and he had heard Dr. Whitman say that he would kill off all of the Cayuse Indians by the coming of the ensuing spring-that he would then have their horses and lands. Witness will also prove it is the law of the Cayuse Indians to kill bad medicine men.

This is a rare glimpse into the legal system of the native inhabitants of the region and how they understood the Whitman tragedy. Of course it hardly need to be said that the request was denied. Here is the trial verdict.

More on "Digital Images at the Beinicke"

Howling Wolf, Sketchbook, Bison Hunt
Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

I've just followed up on Larry's post on digital images at the Beinicke Library (see just below), and I agree that it is a superb resource.  Following his suggestion, I clicked on his Beinicke Digital Images Online link and entered the search term "bison." The image above is one that appeared. Not only are the images quite wonderful, but the metadata is excellent. For Example, under "Summary/Description" for this sketch you can read this information about artist Howling Wolf:

"Cheyenne warrior and son of Cheyenne chief Eagle Head. He was imprisoned from 1875 to 1878 at Fort Marion, Saint Augustine, Florida, with other 'hostile' Prairie Indians.  Their jailer, Captain Richard H. Pratt, encouraged the artistic talent of the Indians."

The metadata also includes "Subject" -- useful for more searches -- "Genre/Form" and, in this case, a link under "Multi-Image set" allowing you to choose to "See all Images in this set." This brings you to 20 sketches by Howling Wolf.

One of the marvels of the web is the way that it can help us find connections between so much data of so many kinds. After reading the note above about Howling Wolf's "jailer," Richard H. Pratt, I immediately liked the man.  Here is someone who respected the Indians so much that he encouraged them to express themselves and their lives in art. I wondered how long he could have lasted in those days as a culturally sensitive benefactor to the Indians.  A quick Google search, suggests that his story is much more complex, for Pratt, it turns out, is responsible for one of the most notoriously ethnocentic statements ever uttered about educating Native Americans:  "kill the Indian, save the man." Building on his success at Fort Marion he became a leader in Indian education and persuaded some of his Indian pupils, once free, to recruit young Indians to attend the Carlisle Indian School, which he founded.

There is much more to this story, of course.  For the moment the point is simply to illustrate the power of the Beinicke digital images, backed up with excellent metadata, to drive historical inquiry.

Thanks for the "heads up," Larry.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Digital Images Online at the Beinecke Library

Beinecke's Digital Images Online offers approximately 70,000 images of a wide range of materials from throughout the Beinecke Collections: photographs, manuscripts, correspondence, artwork, objects, illustrations, and selected pages from printed works . . . Approximately 1200 images are added every two weeks. About 20,000 images are scanned images from the Beinecke's Photonegative File, which contains negatives and color transparences of images selected for reproduction or study by patrons over the last twenty years.

The site is well-designed, with a powerful search engine and the ability to display results as a gallery or slideshow. You can link directly to the images and once you find something you can see all the images in a given set. Yale patrons can create an account and save items, but the rest of us can use the direct link and a service such as Del.icio.us to do the same thing.

The above image of Spokane Falls in 1879 is from the delightfully titled Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Glimpses of Pretty Spots Along the Valley of the Columbia River (1879) by Isaac Grundy Davidson. Here are the other images in the volume. Though the collection is at Yale the Northwest and West is surprisingly well represented--try searches for Seattle, bison, or salmon for some delightful images.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Video Journal: Saving Salish

Another good video from the Spokesman Review, Saving Salish tells the story of a night class at Havermale High where students are learning this endangered native language. Something of a follow up to this post and to this one.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Longest Drives in Google Maps

View Larger Map

Alan Taylor: I set out to find the longest distance for which Google Maps would give Driving Directions. Now that they've shut down the fun "swim the Atlantic" feature, things have changed a bit. It turns out there are multiple "longest drives", because the Google Maps World is partitioned (many countries don't support driving directions), and sometimes ferries are included, and sometimes they are not.

I am not sure what this does for us, it is just kind of neat.