Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Guest Post: Eric Goes "Behind the Lines" at the National World War II Museum

Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Eric Muirhead about our recent trip to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can read my review of our 2012 visit to that museum here.

As the culminating event in my post-Afghanistan leave, I was able to convince my better half to indulge me on a three day stop in New Orleans, Louisiana as it lay about half way between Disney World and our return to Killeen. The primary reason for this visit is that I have been very anxious to try the new “Behind the Lines” experience currently being offered by the National World War II Museum. However, since my wife is both a public historian and an aspiring World War II buff herself, it didn't take much effort on my part to convince her to go along. One of the highlights of the tour is access to artifacts and parts of the museum not normally available to the general public.

Though the trailer for the tour (yes, there is a trailer) went into great detail about the features of “Behind the Lines” I was still unprepared at just how much access we would be treated to upon our arrival at the museum. Since I’m sure that “Behind the Lines” is something that many of my friends and family would be interested in attending,I've decided to write a detailed breakdown of our itinerary and my reflections.

I would be remiss not to mention that “Behind the Lines” is NOT for the casual tourist looking for a few hours to kill. It is only offered on Fridays and the cost is $395 per person (or $750 a couple) and includes 12 hours of experiences at the museum including what amounts to concierge service from the wonderful travel and conference staff during the visit, personalized guided tours from the volunteer docents, and one and one time with a member of the curator staff. You also receive two meals from the fantastic in-house restaurant, The American Sector, tickets to the two multimedia experiences currently offered at the museum, “Final Mission” and “Beyond All Boundaries,” and finally seating at the evening show offered at the Stage Door Canteen (in this case, “The Andrews Brothers,” a musical review of popular USO music).

In the week prior to our tour, we received an e-mail from Molly Bergeron, Sales Manager, who would be our overall Point of Contact for the visit. She let us know who would be accompanying us on the tour and also a few questions to help personalize our visit. Ahead of time, the museum wants to know what interests you have in the World War II history, what family connections you have with the Second World War, and what connections your home-town had to the conflict so the docents could include more personally relevant information to their presentations.

This led to a discussion between Annie and me as to what this meant for the tour. I admit, rather cynically, I hoped this meant that “Behind the Lines” would be what I like to term as a “Graduate Level” experience. Too often, when I visit World War II themed attractions, I get the standard “The U.S. entered World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, etc. etc.” Though this is important, as someone who literally strives to learn something new and fascinating about World War II every single day, 101-level information gets a bit boring and redundant. We did end up covering the basics again, but I am pleased to say, I wasn't at all disappointed.

Also included in Molly’s packet were our complete itinerary, museum information, and instructions to arrive at the main lobby promptly at 9:00 am. As both a Soldier used to “ten minutes prior to ten minutes prior” and someone who was excited as a six year old on Christmas morning, Annie and I arrived around 8:30. Though the main museum was not open, the soda fountain/coffee shop adjacent was and we were able to have a light breakfast while we waited for the other members of our tour to arrive.

Right at 9:00, Annie and I met the other eight members of tour group and Molly Bergeron. I can’t say enough nice things about Molly as we learned she would be with us the entire day and had the somewhat daunting task of ensuring that Eric Muirhead, World War II junkie, and the rest didn't dawdle and miss our time requirements.She distributed special name tags that marked us as “Behind the Lines” participants and introduced us to one of the best tour guides I've ever met, Volunteer Docent Ronnie Abboud. Ronnie began introductions by offering every single lady a hug and every man a hearty handshake. He explained he was born in 1938 and therefore was a little old-fashioned. We didn't mind at all.

Behind the Lines” began with the museum’s new “Train Car Experience” a multimedia kiosk modeled after a Pullman car of the early 1940s. Each seat was equipped with a television monitor that showcased pictures and oral histories of various WWII vets telling what it was like to leave home and ship to basic training. It was a rather unique way of opening things as it gave a brief overview of what it was like for people from different social backgrounds, genders, and services to begin their journey through the Second World War. It also brought up some rather fond (and not so fond) memories of my own experiences with recruiters, MEPS, and the trip to Fort Benning, Georgia that began my own military career.

After the “Train Car Experience” we went to the Second Floor to begin Ronnie’s tour through the European gallery. He did an outstanding job of relating the experiences of the Greatest Generation to the tour participants and most importantly made the history relevant. When he found out that I was active duty Army myself, he let me interject a few anecdotes that really connected my modern experience to what a new recruit in 1942 went through that really made the tour much more enjoyable to me and (I hope) more enjoyable to my tour mates. A particularly moving moment for me was when he recounted the story of a Sherman tank crew’s experience in the hedgerows of Normandy encountering German Tiger Tank at close range. Another fantastic moment that Ronnie brought to life was at a rather banal display showcasing the weapons and equipment of a typical World War II American “Joe” and a German “Landser” that I've seen at a dozen other places. Not expecting anything more than a quick overview of equipment, I began snapping pictures of the equipment as I’m currently working on setting up my own reproduction equipment correctly. Suddenly, Ronnie did something that caused me to pause and reflect. He asked us to realize that the two mannequins beneath the uniforms were the same. It wasn't the differences that were important. It was that they were just two 18 year old kids on opposite sides of history. He highlighted this by asking everyone to look at the Wehrmacht belt buckle on the German Soldier that read “Gott Mit Uns,” revealing the Germans felt like they were fighting on the right side as well.

I could go on and on about Ronnie’s fantastic tour, but at 10:45, Molly appeared again and handed us over to Gaston Andre, a Marine Corps veteran, and member of the museum staff helping to restore an original PT Boat, PT 305. The craft was built in New Orleans and is currently being rebuilt at the museum’s normally off-limits Kushner Restoration Pavilion. Gaston took us around the ship and through the workshops striving to bring PT 305 back to sea-worthy shape. Annie was very interested in both the process of the restoration and the interpretive plan as it was a major artifact being brought back to life. Thought the museum hasn’t quite decided what the ship’s final disposition will be, Gaston hinted you could be seeing a wooden-hulled, World War II speed demon capable of hitting 50 miles per hour coming to Lake Pontchartrain.

The prow of the reconstructed PT 305.  While much of her is newly built using original plans,
the restoration team salvaged about 20% of the original craft and will incorporate them
into this fully operational PT Boat.
At noon, Molly appeared again and ushered us all to the American Sector Restaurant adjacent to the Solomon Victory Theater. In a private dining room in the rear of the restaurant, we sat down to our lunch and were introduced to Toni Kiser, Assistant Director of Collections and Exhibits, for our “Lunch with a Curator” segment. While enjoying my delicious Shrimp po-boy, salad, and red-velvet cupcake with cream cheese icing (I’m a tanker and I love food) Toni talked to us about the museum’s on-going expansion and mission statement. Annie and I also bombarded her with questions about the museum’s interpretive plans and philosophies. Toni actually answered one of the questions raised by our previous visit to the museum in October of 2012. Apparently, the museum makes a conscience choice to omit large references to the war prior to December 7, 1941 for the simple reason that to discuss all of the Allies’ experiences in the war is beyond the scope of a single facility. Our national museum wants to focus on the stories of our own fighting men and women.

Me with the Museum's STG-44. Yes, it is fully operational and the smile is real.
Our next few hours with Toni were the highlight of my “Behind the Lines” experience. After lunch, she took us up to the third floor which is solely the purview of museum staff and home to the vault. After being issued a set of white gloves, we were allowed into the space that houses ninety percent of the artifacts belonging to the museum. Toni showed us dozens of items including a piece of the USS Arizona, uniforms, footwear, and drawers filled with original (and for the most part fully operational) weapons (she informed that she has a very friendly relationship with her local ATF agents as a result). I worked very hard to contain my glee as I handled items that most will never get to see except behind glass; including my beloved STG-44 and MG-42.
Curator Toni Kiser showcasing some of the museum's world class artifact collection.
The Soviet drawer.
Molly appeared again and informed us it was time to head to the new Boeing Freedom Pavilion to experience the museum’s incredible collection of restored World War II aircraft (including a B-17 heavy bomber suspended 100 feet off the ground) and climb through the museum’s operational M4A3 Sherman Tank. Now, as a US Army Armor Officer, getting into the Sherman was a real treat. However, as someone used to the modern vehicles in the Army’s inventory, the Sherman was a real eye-opener. I get constantly made fun of as an incredibly short and skinny 19 series Soldier, and I had significant issues getting into the Sherman’s cramped interior. I can safely say that well over half of modern tankers wouldn't even be able to fit through the hatches on that thing and I may have uttered an inappropriate expletive or two wondering how the tankers of past took this vehicle into combat.
Me barely squeezing into the driver's hole of the M4A3 Sherman.
Sitting in the commander’s seat, I realized the shield on the 75 mm main gun was shaped to accommodate the commander’s shoulders to such tight tolerances that I (all five foot eight, 155 lbs of me) couldn't rotate my upper body to access the remainder of the turret. The loader does not have a separate hatch so that in the event the turret is disabled, he would have literally been hopelessly trapped inside, and after the requisite combat yoga required to access the gunner’s seat I realized just how crude the sights and optics were on tanks of this generation. I've been blessed enough to have been able to climb through a Sherman, a Tiger, and stick my head in a T-34. I can now unequivocally say my preference for Axis designs is totally justified. On a side note, I do have to apologize to Toni for accidentally rotating the turret while she and Annie were on the front slope (honestly, I didn't realize that the turret was unlocked and the manual traverse was also located on the gunner’s hand station). Luckily, she stopped me before I went more than a couple of degrees, but I can assure you I still feel very bad about this.
Curator Toni Kiser poses with Public History Bison on the M4A3 Sherman.
We then had to say goodbye to Toni and head to the new “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience.” An extra that anyone can purchase when visiting the museum, it is an immersive experience where each person assumes a different role as a WWII submariner (my role was a throttle control technician in the engine room) during the famed USS Tang’s final mission. We received our briefing from the ship’s commander and then went to our battle stations to attack an enemy convoy. You have to listen to the commands given over the intercom and work your controls appropriately. Some guests had to reload torpedo tubes, adjust the helm, or work the weapons control stations. I’m sure Navy vets would get a real kick out this until the last few unfortunate moments when the ship is struck by its own defective torpedo and sent to the bottom.

After the Tang, Molly escorted us back to the Louisiana Pavilion where we met Volunteer Docent Barry Simon for our guided tour of the Pacific Galleries. Barry did another outstanding job of humanizing the conflict in the Pacific and in a particularly moving moment, choked up during his retelling of the Patten family, eight brothers and a father serving in the Navy during the early years of the war. Chosen by fate to be at both Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea, they all survived the destruction of the USS Nevada and the USS Lexington to finish the war together.

As the day wound down, we finally headed back to the Solomon Victory Theater to view the museum’s crowning experience, “Beyond All Boundaries,” a 4D movie narrated by Oscar Winner Tom Hanks about America’s journey through World War II. Annie and I had seen this on our previous visit to the museum and I can only describe it as, “World War II: The Ride.” It is an incredibly moving, immersive journey through history that emotionally captivates you through oral histories, large screens, and special effects. It’s an absolute must for history novices and enthusiasts alike.

Finally, Molly took us over to theStage Door Canteen for dinner and a show before finally said her goodbyes. After thanking her for all her hard work, we were treated to a wonderful meal where all the members of the tour group were able to discuss our experiences during the day and get treated to a viewing of “The Andrews Brothers,” the museum’s latest musical review. Performers skillfully brought the music and costumes of the '40s back to life in the guise of a USO show that suddenly finds itself without its stars on a South Pacific island.

As Annie and I walked back to our hotel room at the end of the day, both of us were tremendously impressed with the program the National World War II Museum put together. Molly was there every step of the way to make our visit a spectacular memory, Ronnie and Barry, our volunteers both helped bring new life to our tours of the galleries, and Gaston Andre let us see history getting rebuilt to its glory. Toni Kiser was absolutely outstanding and it was a real privilege to have one of the museum’s leaders take us through so many rare and beautiful artifacts. She also indulged Annie and I and let us see how a world class museum organizes its collection and constructs the experience for its visitors.

“Behind the Lines” is exactly that: A real adventure through the inner-workings of the National World War II Museum. To anyone with even a passing fascination with the world-changing events of 1939 to 1945, TAKE THIS TOUR. It is a gift you give to yourself. Plus, your contributions will help ensure that this fantastic museum and its staff will be able to keep telling the story of the Greatest Generation for many years to come.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

NCPH 2013 Recap, Part 1

This April I decided to attend the National Council on Public History's 2013 Annual Meeting in Ottawa, Ontario. I almost didn't get there, thanks to the black hole that is Chicago. Still, after a couple of drinks with one of my professors we managed to get out as standby passengers on the last flight of the night. Thus, I spent most of Wednesday wandering around Chicago O'Hare searching for a power outlet and feeling immensely grateful that I had not checked a bag. The real fun began on Thursday. Here's a rundown of the different panels I attended with some of my notes and thoughts.

Thursday -
I've used WordPress a couple of times in the past, but obviously I don't use that platform for this blog. This session went over many different ways to use WordPress and some of the various plug-ins the presenters have found useful. Connecticut History is an ongoing publishing effort that serves as a gateway to museums and other repositories within Connecticut. The interface allows users to explore the connected stories of Connecticut's past and directs them to further discovery around the internet and the state. The Zotero plug-in maintains a database of sources organized by category tags, which update automatically on linked Connecticut History pages. The site also uses the Edit Flow plugin to contain and organize the editorial process. On the educational side of things, Jeff McClurken talked some about how he uses WordPress in the classroom to publish creative and public digital history projects. He does not assume that all his students are "digital natives," but emphasizes how even a WordPress newbie can create a polished website. Another idea for the classroom? Use more experienced, tech-savvy students as "Tech Mentors," who can handle basic questions from their peers. Two other platforms also came up. Omeka works best for creating online exhibitions or digital repositories. Drupal offers similar options to WordPress, but requires more programming knowledge. Another aspect the presenters emphasized was the need to think about advertising from the very beginning of a project, often incorporating social media. After all, what's the point of doing all that work if no one ever sees it? I asked the presenters about copyright issues - both how they handle the use of copyrighted material and how they protect their own work on the web. They weren't very concerned about the second part, but the first generated generated further discussion. They emphasized reliance on Creative Commons licensing and Educational Fair Use, combined with the use of clear citations. One audience member pointed out these don't exactly offer ironclad protection. Linking to external content is definitely OK, but embedding content hosted elsewhere has yet to be tested in court. For an exploration of student privacy issues and some WordPress tutorials, check out I got to talk with Jeff McClurken briefly after the break about ways of incorporating Pinterest into digital history projects. Especially in the costuming world, it has emerged as a brilliant way of organizing visual research. Here is Ava Trimble's article on Using Pinterest for Historical Costume Research and another one from Lauren Reeser of American Duchess on How to Find Original Image Sources on Google.
  • Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice
    • Hey Girl: Popular Culture, Digital Media and the Practice of Public History, Rachel Boyle and Anne Cullen, Loyola University Chicago
Ok, there was no way I was going to miss this talk. I discovered Public History Ryan Gosling during Fall 2011 exams and he made me laugh rather a lot. Rachel and Anne dissected the creation of a meme, but I most enjoyed their discussion about community and social media. They asked whether memes create new communities or reinforce existing ones and also suggested tumblr as a form of shared authority. I'm definitely still thinking about their talk every time Grumpy Cat shows up on my newsfeed.
  • How to Celebrate and Remember WWI
I got to this panel a little late because of Public History Ryan Gosling. I managed to grab the last open seat, but missed out on the headphones for simultaneous translation.
    • Remembering the First World War in Britain in the 21st Century, Dan Todman, Queen Mary University of London
I came in a few minutes late into this talk, but I really wish I'd gotten to hear the entire thing. Todman talked about the fundamental problem of combining commemoration and public history. In regards to WWI, this leads to a struggle between the traditional narrative of sacrifice and any historical questioning. He also touched on the connection between remembrance and national identity (you can bet that set off my Falklands alarm!), the politicization of the past, the roles played by mythical narratives, identifying key stakeholders, and difficulties concerning Irish and Scottish narratives. I actually ran into Dan Todman on Friday outside the Canadian War Museum, so we got to chat for a few minutes.
    • Commemorating a Foreign War in a Neutral Country. Recent WWI Interest in the Netherlands, Kees Ribbens, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies
Did you know the Dutch commemorated World War I? I sure didn't. Apparantly integrating it into Dutch history is a fairly recent project connected to ideas of modernity.
    • Battlefield Tourism as a Memorial Practice. Centenary of the Great War, Commemorations and Changing Actors in the Ypres Salient, 1914-2014, Delphine Lauwers, European University Institute of Florence
Battlefield tourism started in Ypres as early as 1919. World War I completely destroyed the city, but British families still came to see where their men had fallen. Veterans oftened guided these groups, lending authority to the expeditions. Questions arose regarding the site: should the ruins be preserved or the town rebuilt? Belgian and British interests clashed on the future of Ypres, but centennial commemorations have settled on a theme of peace.
    • The Great War: An Economic Asset for French Local Institutions, Joelle Beurier, Rheims University
This talk was in French and I was trapped in the back corner with no translation headphones. Sad Annie was sad...and confused.
  • Public History in Postcolonial Spaces
    • Telling New Stories: Public History and Collective Identity in Post-Conflict Belfast, Julie Davis, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University
I love Belfast. I haven't been since I was 14, but my family has a pretty strong connection to the place. We were Usltermen centuries ago and my dad served at the US Consulate in the early 1980s. Julie observed that  Belfast is a city made of stories, all dying to be told while the city struggles to reinvent itself. The 30 years of the Troubles remain one of its most defining features, sustaining a culture of sectarian conflict and entrenched narrative oppositions. While Northern Ireland is often excluded from postcolonial societies, Julie uses the ideological framework of settler colonialism to help understand her subject. She also draws on cultural geography to rethink ideas of place - for example, placing Northern Ireland in the context of the pre-1690 North Sea world. During Julie's visits to Belfast, she made a number of observations about stories currently being told for tourists and residents. She attended a theatrical performance which has used individual stories to construct a a raw narrative that confronts the Troubles. Efforts to commemorate the Ulster Covernant raised a question of whether such activities promote reconciliation or continue sectarianism. The Titanic has emerged as the primary tourist attraction in recent years, but the the exclusion of Catholics during construction makes that narrative inherently sectarian. A rise of interest in industrial history has also accompanied the Titanic vogue. Julie experienced another Belfast narrative which crosses the Protestant/Catholic boundary. Punk music thrived during the Troubles, centered on Terri Hooley and his Good Vibrations Record Shop. That history may offer another opportunity for the new Belfast. These observations and ideas mark the beginning of Julie's work on identity in Belfast, but I can't wait to see what she comes up with next. I spoke to her briefly after the session in order to put her in touch with one of my classmates (also named Julie!) who will spend three weeks in Belfast collecting oral histories later this summer.
    • When the Audience is the Subject: Practicing Shared Authority, Developing Cultural Competencies, Katrine Barber, Portland State University
Katrine Barber developed this session to reflect on a recent course she taught on regional American Indian history at Portland State. Much to her surprise, American Indians made up a sizable portion of her class, adding an additional challenge to an already difficult subject. How could she, an Anglo academic, teach these students their own history? We received copies of her syllabus, in which she used ideas including "shared authority," "contact zones," and "survivance/tragic wisdom" to address this postcolonial narrative. The class worked with a few local tribes on producing public events.

Yeah, I went to a lot of sessions. I'll write the rest of them up in my next post. Now - pictures!
Bicycles for rent! I saw these stands every few blocks in downtown Ottawa. It seems to be
cycle city - I also saw lots of riders and enjoyed walking along some of the bike paths.
The Mill St. Brew Pub, housed in a 140 year old former grist mill. Really tasty food.
Looking down the Ottawa River at Chaudiere Island.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to go inside. Next time.
Alexandra Bridge.
View of Parliament Hill from Gatineau.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and Maman by Louise Bourgeois, on display outside the
National Gallery of Canada.
Locks on the Rideau Canal.
Sign at Pinhey's Point.
Police arrive at the Canadian War Museum after an alarm evacuated  the building.
Sock!Moose - an excellent use for my last Canadian dollars before dawn at the airport.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Meet Public History Bison

The National Park Trust introduced Buddy Bison to get kids excited about going to National Parks and to raise money for their Kids to Parks scholarship program. For $9.99 anyone can get their own Buddy, perfectly sized for travel. His attached carabiner makes it easy to clip him to a belt or bag and features the URL Buddy's website contains resources for parents and teachers as well as a map where anyone can add to Buddy's adventures. Unfortunately, I don't think much time is spent on its maintenance - my picture of Buddy has not been added. The interface is rather cumbersome and could be easily upgraded by using a Google Map. Still, I'm a fan of anything that gets kids involved with National Parks or any aspect of public history. I saw Buddy in the gift shop at Andersonville National Historic Site and couldn't resist joining the fun. Since then, Public History Bison has accompanied me to two conferences and I hope to include our travels with the larger Buddy Bison experience.
Public History Bison connects to the memory of US POWs at Andersonville National
Historic Site by drinking from Providence Spring after the walk from the Visitor Center.
Public History Bison investigates my reproduction historical footwear before our panel on costuming for living history at Bridging Ages 2013. (From left to right: Low-Top Moccasin by Medieval Moccasins, Pemberley Regency Leather Slippers by American Duchess, Astoria Edwardian Leather Shoes by American Duchess, 1930s Black Oxford by Aris Allen, original 1940s)
"Are you eating my family?!?!?!" I assure Public History Bison that my burger is elk, not bison at Mill Street Brewery in Ottawa during NCPH 2013.
Nobody checked his ID at D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub.
Public History Bison chooses poorly at the Canadian War Museum.
Bison not to scale.
So that's what happened to my Timbits!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Annie's Adventures in Tankland

This week finds me in Georgia for spring break and for Eric's graduation from the Maneuver Captains' Career Course. This proved a great opportunity for a family get-together, so the Muirheads and Moshers descended upon Fort Benning. As a special treat, some of us spent a couple of hours at the Armor Museum Restoration Yard. Since the Armor School moved to Benning from Fort Knox, the Army has assembled an extensive Armor collection at Benning with the goal of creating a National Armor and Cavalry Museum to rival the phenomenal Infantry Museum (review to come!). Unfortunately, a severe lack of funding has put a serious damper on these plans. The only workers we saw there today were Marines doing volunteer hours as part of whatever school they're attending. We didn't encounter anyone in charge, but no one questioned a captain in uniform walking around with three men in coats and ties (plus me). I wish someone had been around, because I would love to talk about tank restoration in the context of what I've learned about museum conservation this semester. The scale of this place was simply incredible - tanks as far as the eye could see from around the world. The real treasures are kept inside, but even those show signs of damage from the elements. As awesome as it was to be so close to such amazing artifacts, it's pretty sad to see them rusting away without homes. Below is a slideshow of my pictures from today. If you think the public deserves to see these vehicles preserved and interpreted, please visit the National Armor and Cavalry Heritage Foundation and consider making a contribution to the museum's future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center

I wrote this review fall 2011 for one of my public history courses. I revisited the museum in January 2013, during which time I took the pictures included. At this time, a multimedia exhibit called "The Memory Project" had taken the place of the introduction video. I observed no other changes to the museum.
The El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center
As I approached the El Paso Holocaust Museum, one question found its way into the forefront of my thoughts: what on earth is a museum about events that happened a world away doing in El Paso, Texas? The answer became clearer as I began my tour. Prior to entering the galleries, visitors watch a short introductory film, which covers the Jewish experience prior to the Holocaust and the story of the museum's founding. Henry Kellen, a survivor of the Holocaust, founded the museum in 1984 as a single room in the Jewish Community Center, using his personal story and collection of artifacts. A plaque in the memorial section of the museum reveals that his wife, also a survivor, died one year prior to the museum's founding. It's possible that her death inspired Mr. Kellen to honor both the dead and the survivors by teaching a new generation about the atrocities that swallowed Europe in the twentieth century. In 1994, he moved the museum to its own building, which tragically burned in 2001. The present museum opened in 2007.
A couple of cabinets with a bunch of Nazi artifacts, many of which don't
have any labels.
This very personal museum tells a story about the millennia of oppression and persecution faced by Jews, which culminated in the twentieth century with the Holocaust. As the museum lost many of its original artifacts  in the 2001 fire, it relies on video, timelines, and dynamic environments convey its narrative. I followed the chronological path of Germany's Jews as Hitler's rise to power shattered the illusion of peace after ages of struggle. From there, my path continued past the devastation of Kristalnacht, through deportations and ghettos, to the concentration camps. My tour concluded with the liberation of the camps and memorials honoring those who died, those who lived, and those who helped others escape death. The introductory video continued throughout the galleries, explaining the pertinent events with segments like "The Rise of Nazism," "Deportation from the Ghettos," and "The Final Solution." Besides the timelines, I saw little text to augment these videos, which used still photographs and narration a la Ken Burns. My impression was that this museum wanted visitors to experience history, rather than read it.
The jarring transition into Nazi Germany.
The construction of the actual galleries contributed greatly to the active experience. My tour began conventionally, staring at an example of an twentieth century Jewish dining room behind a glass case. Very little distinguished it as "Jewish," suggesting that the Jews had finally found acceptance in European society after millennia of persecution. A helpful timeline on the opposite wall detailed this lengthy struggle. This portrayal of normalcy enhanced the shock I felt upon entering the next gallery, where the walls featured large images of Adolf Hitler and crowds of uniformed Nazis tinted a vibrant and jarring red.The center cases enclosed Nazi headgear, lit from below, adding to the sinister feeling in the room. My tour through Nazi Germany continued with a wall of reproduction anti-Semitic propaganda posters, cartoons, and advertisements. Now in a German street, I saw a shop front destroyed during the violence of Kristalnacht.
Unfortunately, a cartoony quality to this environment evoked thoughts of Disneyworld rather than disaster. Past Kristalnacht, I saw a train car protruding from the wall of the next gallery. If I hadn't recognized it already, at this point I found it impossible to deny the influence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington D.C. in 1993. Upon my last visit to Washington, I had walked through just such a train car. On the other side of this train car, a staircase led me down to the entrance to a concentration camp. A guard tower with an obviously fake machine gun protected a small gate bearing the words "ARBEIT MACHT FREI." Like the Kristalnacht gallery, the small scale of these otherwise imposing structures made them almost comical. This gallery also included the facade of a barracks, an example of a gas chamber, and a reproduction of a crematorium oven. The story focused on the dehumanization and murder of prisoners in concentration camps. Any amusement I felt at the tiny gate and tower dissipated quickly. The rest of the museum serves as a memorial. The next gallery talked some about resistance, but an entire wall commemorated those who saved others from death, declared "The Righteous of the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. A few moments were spent on the liberation of the camps, where the museum found the opportunity to make a local connection. The images and stories of liberators from El Paso adorned the last wall in the gallery. The final room contained a memorial to both the dead and the survivors. One last local connection recognized all the survivors who settled in El Paso after escaping Europe.
A replica train car, similar to that at the United States Holocuast Memorial
Museum in Washington DC.
Quite plainly, this museum does not tell the entire story of the Holocaust, but the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. The videos occasionally mentioned Hitler's other victims as statistics or in passing, but every time the narrator referred to prisoners or victims as a group he used the word "Jews." This presents a rather narrow view of the Holocaust, possibly encouraged by the very personal nature of the museum. It does not represent an organization or government, but one man's desire that people remember what happened to his people. The narrative also makes no effort to place the Holocaust in the greater context of genocides throughout history. The final video segment went so far as to call it a unique event. Both that segment and the introductory film ask the question "why?" intending that the visitor ruminate on how people could have allowed or committed such monstrous acts. However, I felt that the museum answered their own question in regards to the Holocaust: Germany's vulnerability after the First World War created a power vacuum in which Adolf Hitler found it easy to convince people to follow him.
The display case of camp artifacts and the model guard tower.
I think any real explanation is much more complicated, but the museum did itself a disservice by not expanding its narrative to at least mention other genocides. One holocaust can be easily explained as an aberration, but a long history of mass murder forces visitors to ponder the "whys" and "hows." I found it surprising that the museum did not use this tactic to affect my emotions after making such obvious attempts to evoke emotional responses throughout the exhibits. Poetry, sculpture, and artwork all found places in galleries, where they were clearly meant to impact visitors emotionally (e.g. a statue of a suffering child next to the boxcar). I heard other attempts at sensationalism as my visit coincided with a field trip from a local high school. For the most part, I made my way through the museum alone, but after the boxcar I caught up with their group long enough to listen to the docent for a few minutes. I grimaced as I heard him describe how the Nazis made lampshades, book covers, soap, and other goods out of human skin and fat. As there is no historical evidence to support these claims, I felt a bit miffed that he passed this information along as fact to the unsuspecting group of students. The museum's narrow focus on Jewish suffering takes the visitor through an emotional journey, which loses some impact without further historical context.

After hearing about the devastation wrought by fire in 2001, it did not surprise me to find the museum lacking in material culture. What does remain came from the personal collections of Holocaust survivors in El Paso, who generously donated their memories or returned to the camps to collect new artifacts. However, the museum did not incorporate them well into the narrative shaped by video and environment. One or two artifacts found homes in other galleries, but the bulk of the collection resided in the sections on the rise of Nazism and the camps themselves. This first gallery includes several cases with a veritable hodge-podge of Nazi memorabilia. China, badges, uniforms, books, documents, trinkets, and weapons lay side by side with little explanation. Most objects have no explanatory text at all, much less any cohesive organization or narrative. I saw this jumble repeated in the camp gallery - a variety of relevant artifacts flung together in a case haphazardly. It seems to me that the museum divided their surviving collection into two categories and threw them in cases. This museum needs to work on incorporating artifacts into the narrative to support its flashy videos and galleries.

The final stop on my visit to any museum is the gift shop or bookstore. I think that the gift shop is just as much part of the museum as the galleries, because it is from there that visitors find tangible objects to help them remember or further explore what they learned. Therefore, an excellent gift shop should expand from the museum's focus to other relevant topics. The El Paso Holocaust Museum's shop boasted a small selection of souvenirs, books, and DVDs, which support its focused narrative. Almost all the books retold the experiences of Jewish groups or individuals during the Holocaust, including volumes appropriate for both children and adults. Of the other topics covered, I found one volume on other victims of the Holocaust, one book on Japanese internment camps, two books on Rwanda, one on genocide in general, and one on Holocaust denial. The collection of DVDs contained slightly more variation in genre and country of origin, but focused on the Jewish experience with one notable exception. Downfall, a 2004 German film, which witnesses Hitler's last days through the somewhat revisionist account of his secretary, Traudl Junge. Its presence among the several different versions of Anne Frank's tragic story continues to intrigue me.
Holocaust survivors who settled in El Paso.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. Its narrative, though narrow or somewhat exclusionary in its focus, guided me through a clear and emotional history of Jewish suffering. I appreciated the modern influence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in creating the museum's environment and structure, but I think this museum could benefit from revisiting old fashioned museum work. Artifacts need more text and should contribute to the narrative, facts and figures need support and documentation, and all the galleries could use more text for those of us who want more information. The museum does a good job at incorporating personal narratives at the beginning and end, but the bulk of the story features no such personal connection. Nevertheless, this museum offers a reasonable introduction to the events of the Holocaust, though I hope most visitors seek supplemental information. I completed my thorough tour in an hour and a half, making it an easy trip for even the most impatient museumgoers.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Falklands Playlist

I was working on my thesis this weekend and dusted off my Falklands playlist from last summer, so I thought I'd share it. For one reason or another, these songs remind me of the Falklands. Some of them I still hear on the radio fairly often and they always make me smile. I never hear the Wurzels played anywhere. A few of these were on heavy rotation pretty much everywhere last summer. Still - I'm amazed that I didn't hear Gangham Style until October.

Rolling in the Deep - Adele
Poison - Alice Cooper
Bruises - Chairlift
Titanium - David Guetta feat. Sia
Shake It Out - Florence + the Machine
 We Are Young - Fun. feat. Janelle Monae
Call Me Maybe - Carly Rae Jepsen
          Somebody That I Used to Know - Gotye feat. Kimbra
And I Remember Every Kiss - Jens Lekman
Part of Me - Katy Perry
Torn - Natalie Imbruglia
Back In Control - Sabaton
Girls With Boyfriends - the Extraordinaires
Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) - Steve Harley
I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) - The Proclaimers
Valerie - Amy Winehouse
Not Fair - Lily Allen
A Thousand Years - Christina Perri
The Magic Position - Patrick Wolf
She's So Lovely - Scouting for Girls
Or Something - Speechwriters LLC
Where Have You Been - Rihanna
Combine Harvester - The Wurzels

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Spring Semester Round-up

Alright. We're now three weeks into the spring semester and I think it's time for a short post about what I'm up. This fall was rough - so rough I ended up taking two incompletes.
All the books I used during the Fall 2012 semester.
However, this semester I'm only taking  two classes. For my last traditional history course I'm spending one night a week in a basement learning about the Holocaust. I chose this class because the Holocaust remains a hot topic for public history across the country, interpreted by a wide variety of institutions, organizations, and individuals. The other course is already one of the best I have taken at NMSU -  Museum Conservation Techniques I. We have lecture on Tuesdays and then lab on Thursdays, where we get to practice what we've learned. The final product for the semester is an actual conservation report about the pot on which we have tested the interactions of a variety of resins, paints, and solvents.
My terracotta pot, currently with 3 different paints and 5 different resins.
I am also taking the first three credits for my thesis, which I plan to finish during the Fall 2013 semester, wherever I may be. Inspired by my work in the Falkland Islands, I am examining the effects of place on the formation of Kelper identity. Of course, this all depends on finding enough sources to produce something of sufficient length. Fortunately, I have a back-up thesis. I'm currently working on an article about Josephine Foster, but I think there is more than enough information for a longer work if necessary.

My time in the Falklands has now popped up around the NMSU website:
  • The Center for Latin American & Border Studies mentioned me in the Summer 2012 edition of the Nason House News.

  •  There's now a picture of me with the Super Puma helicopter on the main page for the History department's graduate program.

  • And the Public History program's site also features a blurb about me. It's pretty neat that I get to represent the department this much.
As usual, I'm also engaged in a number of other projects. Next week I lecture to a class on Central America about piracy in the Caribbean. Can you believe I was actually assigned that topic? This will probably be my last lecture at NMSU, so I'm hoping it goes well. I'm also working on content about Las Cruces for Next Exit History, in anticipation of a workshop coming up later this month. I've also got some conferences coming up. We are hosting the local Phi Alpha Theta conference in March. I'm not sure I'm going to present this year, but I'm definitely planning to attend. April, however, is going to be insane. I'm giving a talk about the Falkland Islands that first Tuesday, and then there are two conference that third week. First, NMSU is hosting the 2013 Bridging Ages Conference, which deals with "Historic Environment Education and Living History." I'm participating on a panel concerned with costuming for living history, focusing on how people can assemble period-like clothing without spending a fortune. Second, the National Council on Public History is holding their conference in Ottawa that week. It's much too late for me to present anything, but I'd like to go just to see what the rest of my field is up to.

Oh, remember what I said about experiential history? Lauren over at American Duchess is currently doing some herself, experimenting with the effects of daily corset wear. She's made some fantastic observations during the first couple of weeks - well worth checking it out.