Friday, July 31, 2009

Online Museum of Historical Kitsch, Chesapeake Region

Zach, this one is for you -- not the subject so much as the fact of a post.

Zach is one of the other participants at the institute. He helped me to get drunk on my birthday, which led me to confess to a secret identity. The next day, he used our late start to obsessively search for that identity online. (Historiann, your friend, the brilliant young scholar from the Omohundro panel, says "hi!" She's fabulous!) He has been kind enough not to out me to everyone else, although his obsessive search was noticed by a few others. Now, one of our organizers is now also searching for me, as is one of the presenters. The opinions of everyone else could be summed up in this exchange between another participant and I.

The other participant asked, "is this blog thing something we should read?"

"No," I said. "Not at all."

"Good," he said.

Meanwhile, Zach has eagerly awaited a new post. I cannot deliver the post that I just know he is dying to read because I don't write fiction on this blog, but I can deliver this post: a continuation of the Online Museum of Historical Kitsch, particularly since he was involved with my purchase of one of the items.

Our institute has taken two field trips. The first brought us to Mount Vernon, home of George Washington's slaves and a lot of interpreters who tried really hard not to make ole George look too bad as a slaveholder. To be fair, they were quite knowledgeable, referred to documents, and were willing to answer questions about Washington's fugitives, including our friend, Oney Judge. They just didn't always offer up those stories unsolicited. Still, you can see that the museum has come some distance in actually acknowledging slavery on the plantation, and that slavery in Washington's time was a more complicated institution than simply "the beatings will continue until morale improves."

As we entered the visitors' center, past the life-size statues of the Washington family (that Martha was a hottie), past the outpost gift shop (they give you a taste as you go in, then save the big one for the exit), you encounter this fine specimen:

That is a Mount Vernon dollhouse, which is awesome! I wanted to populate it with dolls. In particular, I wanted to put a little doll of an enslaved woman in there, and have her subtly conveying her opinion that the Washingtons were #1 in her book.

Sadly, gift shops were not high on the list of stops. You just know Mount Vernon would have a wide array of historical kitsch. I did, however, get a chance to take a peek, and found two fabulous examples.

Here, you see the George Washington bobble-head:

I had anticipated the bobble-head because, several years ago, the Association for Documentary Editing held its yearly meeting in D.C., and the participants took a nighttime tour of Mount Vernon, which culminated in a wine and cheese reception in the area of the Gift Shop. They kindly kept the Gift Shop open for the reception. A friend found the bobble-head and had to have it. He worked at the Papers of the Supreme Court project (or something like that), and desperately wanted to know if they had a set of the early Supreme Court judges in bobble-head form. He expected, at the very least, John Marshall. He was disappointed.

I knew to look for the bobble-head, but wholly did not expect this:

You can't really tell from the picture, so I'll describe it. The display is in the shape of a little tree. Those things that you see sticking out of the stump? Those are little, toy axes. Their handles are hollow and filled with cherry-sour candies. Geddit? George chopping down the cherry tree? So he cannot tell a lie? The classics never die, even when they should. Still, a clever bit of kitsch -- with candy, no less -- you must admit!

Our second field trip took place last weekend. We participants, the organizers, and two poor speakers who had no idea what they were getting into, all hopped on a bus to go down to Richmond and then Williamsburg. The trip alone is a tale to tell, involving a detour, a broken bus, illness, monster traffic, a bad lunch, and two of the hottest days of the summer thus far. As a result, we had to have an intensive seminar on alcohol consumption in Colonial Williamsburg. (Honestly, after this month, I will have to check into rehab. I'm hoping that gives me more time to write.)

In Richmond, we visited -- ah, hell, I forget the name of the museum, but it was one of those Civil War things located in an old armory. They desperately tried to provide a balance interpretation of the war; but, being located in Richmond, you just know that a second or fifth Civil War was fought over the interpretation. The result was three different points of view that never, to me, quite meshed into a thesis that went beyond the sort of Ken Burnsian, "They were all there. They all fought for a Cause. They were all American. Yea!"

In fact, Ken Burns influences ran throughout this exhibit, especially in the films, with their first person narration, folksy music, and slow pans over images. The pans drove one of our participants crazy.

"Why are they panning?" he demanded. "What are they moving toward?"

"You know what they are moving toward?" said another participant, with full gusto and commitment to a cause. "Freedom! That's what!"

I almost said, "Amen."

All of this is not an attack on the museum. Lord knows they must have to keep some really pissed off and myopic constituencies happy just to keep the doors open. But, it is a product of having the public determine historical analysis -- or lack thereof. I'm not sure that I could seriously work in museums, especially ones like this, because I would have a stroke from containing my urge to start smacking people.

Back to the kitsch: In this museum, they had an artifact that I, being the product of two southeastern Louisiana families, had heard of all of my life, but never seen:

That is a chamber pot with the image of General Benjamin Butler in the bottom. Butler was the Union general who occupied New Orleans in the Civil War. There, when faced with a rebellious city of southern belles, he issued an order saying that all unruly ladies would be "held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." Earlier, he had also classified fugitive slaves as "contraband of war," thus forcing the federal government to actually free some slaves. He was a man who knew how the enemy thought. This chamberpot, then, was a southern artifact.

Of course, in the gift shop, we continued with our bobble-head president theme:

Bobble-head Ulysses S. Grant. In the exhibits, they also had a General Robert E. Lee, as well as a model toy car of the "General Lee" from The Dukes of Hazzard. Would you beleive I forgot to take a picture? I was lax in my duties, finding out that another participant had actually gone to high school in Navasota, Texas, with my old roommate.

The piece de resistance, however, was this:

Yes, a Frederick Douglass action figure! Isn't it wonderful! He even has a small copy of The Narrative, as well as a pissed off expression. Notice, too, that he was on sale.

This picture was not taken in the gift shop, but in my hotel room because, yes, I bought it. (And I just realized how creepy it sounds to say that I bought a Frederick Douglass.) In fact, Zach, one of the presenters (in whom I found a kindred spirit in gift shop obsession), and I caused a run on the Douglass figures. Any disaster that occurred after that on the trip was entirely worth this coup.

Unfortunately, I was unable to fully explore the big gift shop at Williamsburg due to time constraints and the fact that everyone just wanted to get the hell back to Baltimore. I did get a look in their smaller gift shop on the museum grounds and discovered, first, that their slates are still made in Portugal just like the one I got there in 1976; and, second, they are really really proud of their stuff. Desperately as I wanted a tricorn hat in which I could stick a feather and call it macaroni, I wasn't willing to pay $30 for the fun. I'll only go so far for a punch line. Earning the PhD so I could say "yes" when anyone asked if there was a doctor in the house kinda put a damper on that sort of commitment.

We finally got back to Baltimore before dark, but are still feeling the exhaustion today after fourteen days on the clock. NEH institutes are not for the faint at heart!


Ink said...

Yay! A new post! Well, it was awesome. I bet there was a big market on certain people at the bottom of chamber pots...funny.

And good luck keeping your blog mask on tight.

Bavardess said...

I had no idea the world of historical kitsch was so very rich. A Douglass action figure, no less!
So, am I right in interpreting that order of General Butler's as saying that any woman who dares mouth off is liable to be raped?! I know I should no longer be shocked by the threat of rape as a form of officially sanctioned social control of women, but I still find it appalling. Frankly, the bottom of a chamber pot is too good for that man.

Susan said...

A Douglass action hero is a great coup. I love the museums at historical sites because you always get to read (a) what the dominant popular interpretation is and (b) how history (and which parts of history) is imbricated in culture, popular or elite. (The $30 tricorn is popular culture going classy, no?) In Britain there is this great rage for "Horrible Histories"....

dykewife said...

so instead of blogging you've been gallivanting about the historical countryside? what about your fans? ;)

i'm glad it was fun despite the mishaps.

Ann said...

I'm so pleased that you got to do some work on your research and immerse yourself in following your intellectual interests. I hear you about the NEH institutes not being for the faint of heart! What a great summer camp report.

Glad you like our mutual friend. I think she's going places.

Yes, it is weird to say you "bought" a Frederick Douglass. I have little lead Indians and English captives that I rearrange on my bookshelf, from time to time. In fact, I think you've just given me today's post!


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