Risky Business: Provocation and Interpretation

By Alex Andrioli ’18

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

The fourth commandment of Freeman Tilden’s six principles for interpretation is, “The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” This statement is both profound and problematic because the very heart of provocation is goading some sort of reaction from someone or something. Provocation usually has a negative connotation associated with it, like to purposely play the devil’s advocate in order to upset someone. Of course, a museum’s goal is never to intentionally upset visitors. However, at the same time, a museum may want to change the way visitors might think about a certain topic in order to view a familiar subject in a new light. There must be a delicate balance between provocation and instruction that provides visitors with enough information in order for them to make a personal revelation; to take away something that resonates with them. This is one of the challenges of the provocative interpretation that Tilden writes about in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage, and one that I have witnessed at my summer internship at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, PA.

Continue reading “Risky Business: Provocation and Interpretation”

The Legacy of the NEH

By Danielle Jones ’18

On March 16th, 2017, the Trump Administration released the first draft of their proposed 2018 Congressional budget. Many people were focused on the massive cuts to the EPA, but another troubling cut that the original budget proposed was the 12% cuts to the Interior Departments. Even more worrying for those of us in the Humanities, the budget also called for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. After the government’s hiring freeze, a cut to programs like the NEH was the last thing that museums and historical sites wanted to hear.

The NEH was founded in 1965, and lauds itself as one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. The grants given by the NEH typically go to museums, archives, colleges, public television and radio stations, libraries, and to individual scholars. Some famous NEH programs include Ken Burns’ The Civil War and the “Save Our American Treasures” program by the National Museum of African American History and Culture which collects and preserves artifacts from African American communities, including a set of child’s slave cuffs and Harriet Tubman’s bible. Museums as large as the Smithsonian receive NEH grants, as well as small museums and historical sites. The NEH also provides grants and awards to educators in order to strengthen education in schools and colleges, to facilitate research and scholarship, and to strengthen the humanities as a whole. Virtually every state and 6 territories have been touched by NEH grants. The money given helps further American education and to foster education and enlightened discussions about the humanities in the U.S.

The proposed budget cuts would have had lasting impacts across the humanities field. Many of the institutions who receive NEH funding would not be able to support all the programs they run without the NEH, and there are many other institutions who would cease to function without NEH and other federal funding. Thus, the potential loss of funds caused a massive outcry by many in the humanities. The loss of NEH funding could lead to a significant decrease in the available jobs in humanities industry, and many academics would not be able to continue to support original research necessary to furthering their respective fields.

On May 1st, the House Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill to fund the federal government for the current fiscal year ending September 30, 2017. This bill provided some hope for those in the Humanities; the bill calls for $150 million each for both the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. This is a $2 million increase from the fiscal 2016 year. While this increase is of great benefit to the Endowments, it does not necessarily mean that the 2018 budget is going to keep the Endowments at the same level. As students, historians, and people who love the humanities, we must continue to work to show people the importance of programs like the National Endowment for the Humanities.


About the NEH.” National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed May 02, 2017.

Farrington, Dana. “Read President Trump’s Budget Blueprint.” NPR. March 16, 2017. Accessed May 02, 2017.

Tableau Public. March 20, 2017. Accessed May 02, 2017.

Cascone, Sarah. “Despite Trump, NEA Lives to See Another Day as Congress Finalizes 2017 Budget.” Artnet News. May 01, 2017. Accessed May 02, 2017.

Kaplan, Thomas, and Matt Flegenheimer. “Bipartisan Agreement Reached to Fund Government Through September.” New York Times. April 30, 2017. Accessed May 02, 2017.

U.S. Cong. House. Committee on Appropriations. Comprehensive Government Funding Bill. By Rodney Frelinghuysen. 115 Cong. 244.

Clara Barton and the Missing Soldiers Office: A Chat with Amelia Grabowski

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Image courtesy of Amelia Grabowski

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Amelia Grabowski, the Education and Digital Outreach Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.  A graduate of Gettysburg College, she earned her Master’s degree in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from Brown University, where she received the Master’s Award for Engaged Citizenship and Community Service.  Ms. Grabowski has previously worked for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, humanities councils, and various community organizations. 

CWI:  What was the Missing Soldiers Office?  When, why, and how was it created?

GRABOWSKI: Clara Barton opened up the Missing Soldiers Office in 1865. Her original intention was to connect prisoners of war with their families. However, this operation quickly grew. Clara Barton and her team received over 63,000 letters from people looking for missing Union soldiers. They ultimately found over 22,000 missing soldiers.

Original sign from the Missing Soldiers Office. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

CWI:  How did the Missing Soldiers Office operate, and what role did Clara Barton play in those operations?  What challenges did Barton encounter in her work with the Office?

GRABOWSKI: Barton rented many of the rooms in the boarding house where she lived. She transformed these rooms into the offices of the Missing Soldiers Office. She hung a sign outside and paid fifty cents to have a mail slot cut into the office door. Soon, thousands of people were sending letters and visiting the office in person, searching for their missing loved ones. Barton and her employees used their own experience on the battlefield, their network of acquaintances, and the power of the press to find over 22,000 missing soldiers . . . living and dead. Using only pen, paper, and the printing press, Barton conquered the chaos and confusion of both battle and reconstruction to find as many missing soldiers as possible. Continue reading “Clara Barton and the Missing Soldiers Office: A Chat with Amelia Grabowski”

Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits is the perfect place to get your Mercy Street fix while awaiting a possible second season. Left to right in the glass jars: A wax model of an arm with smallpox made around 1850, a wet specimen of ileum (final section of small intestine) with typhoid fever, and a wet specimen of a colon with a dysentery ulcer. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum.

“In my dreams, I always have the use of both my hands,” Lt. Col. Henry S. Huidekoper confided in a letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia surgeon, on February 10th, 1906. Such a statement seems very odd because to have two hands doesn’t feel like a big deal, especially in a dream, but it’s easy to take for granted. For Huidekoper, having two hands, even if it was only in his dreams, was something worth writing about to a doctor.

Lt. Col. Huidekoper was just twenty-four years old when he served in the 150th Pennsylvania on the first day of combat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. On that day, his regiment was in battle near McPherson’s Farm when he was shot through the joint of his right elbow. He walked over a mile under enemy fire to St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic Church, where he had his right arm amputated while “never quite losing consciousness.” Forty-three years later, at the age of 67, Huidekoper had long since learned to cope with life as a “one-handed being,” as he described himself in the letter to Mitchell. Continue reading “Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine”

Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Picture in your head a historic house museum that you have visited.

Did you picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello? How about the historic house that you grew up down the road from? Did images of antiques and display cases flash through your mind, or was it the velvet rope barriers, musty smell, creaky floorboards, and dusty signs? I bet a majority of these things popped into your head because that’s what many people remember after they leave a historic house museum. I know that I have! The historical value of the museum is short term, but the memory of a musty old home you visited once as a kid will last you a lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

The Dyckman Farmhouse is a Dutch Colonial style farmhouse that was built around 1784 and still resides in the same location that is now Broadway & 204th Street on Manhattan Island in New York City. It opened as a museum in 1916 and is the last farmhouse in Manhattan. Photograph by the Historic American Buildings Survey, via the Library of Congress.

When historic house museums started popping up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their purpose was to educate immigrants about “American values and patriotic duties.” As the years went by and the surrounding communities changed, the museums stayed the same. As a result, historic house museums have been experiencing a steady decline in visitors and funding over the years. However, people like Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah Ryan are on a mission to revive interest and relevance in these museums. Continue reading “Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum”

Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience

By Jenna Fleming ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In her 2011 History News article, “Do Museums Still Need Objects?,” Rainey Tisdale argues that while modern museums definitely need to continue displaying artifacts, a reevaluation of the ways in which these objects are utilized, presented, and interpreted is likewise necessary. Though advances in technology and shifts in public views of history are changing the museum experience for many visitors, artifacts still play a central role. Tisdale, an independent curator and professor of Museum Studies at Tufts University, presents a seven-point outline of ways to make museums more effective. Specifically, she calls for the innovative presentation of objects, making them more interesting and relevant to visitors and thereby achieving a more personalized version of history.

Focusing on a few distinctive objects that make a museum’s collection unique may be a better way to educate visitors than the simple display of a greater amount of more commonplace objects. This may seem counterintuitive as some museums are very concerned with acquisitions, but the emphasis of quality over quantity can ultimately result in a more positive learning experience. Additionally, Tisdale advocates the personalization of history through allowing viewers to connect with the past through artifacts. This goal might be achieved by highlighting how, when, and by whom an object was used, or even giving the viewer the opportunity to interact with it in some way. The desire for interaction with historical artifacts does raise the question of a museum’s ability to strike a balance between preservation and education. In association with this challenge comes the need for curators to be more open to advice, requests, and opinions of the public. Tisdale believes that greater communication between museum officials and visitors is another way to modernize and improve the museum experience. Continue reading “Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience”

The American Museum?

By Megan McNish ’16

I walked up to the customs officer and handed her my passport, which was opened to my student visa. When she asked for my letter of intent as to why I was entering the UK, I turned red. That letter was buried at the bottom of my extremely heavy carry-on. As I dug it out, I feared that she was probably thinking ‘what a dumb American.’ I managed to produce my papers and the questions began. “Where are you working?” she asked. “The American Museum in Britain,” I replied. “Where’s that?” she asked, sounding more than confused. “Bath,” I replied. “Well, who knew?” Really though, who knew that there is an American museum anywhere outside of, well, America? As an American studying for the semester in Bath, the city of all things Jane Austen, why did I choose to spend part of my semester at the American Museum?

First and foremost, the American Museum in Britain has an amazing collection of early American artifacts, folk art, and period rooms that have been recreated inside the museum. These collections include a better treatment of Native Americans than I have found in the average American history museum. This year’s exhibit in the main house also includes “Spirit Hawk Eye,” modern photographs of Native American culture by Heidi Laughton. The American Museum makes a concentrated effort to show more than just the sterilized history of the United States that has long been our national story.

The American Museum in Britain, located in Bath, England. Photo credit to the author,
The American Museum in Britain, located in Bath, England. Photo credit to the author,

Continue reading “The American Museum?”

History Alumni Lecture: Historic Homes and Audience

By Megan McNish ’16

"Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch," original uploader MamaGeek. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StratfordHallPlantationPano.jpg
“Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch,” original uploader MamaGeek.

On the evening of October 8 in Gettysburg College’s Joseph Theater, Paul Reber ’82 spoke on the historic house museum. Reber presented for the History Department’s annual Alumni Lecture, despite the fact that when he was at Gettysburg College, he was a Political Science major. As Dr. Shannon, chair of the History Department, said, Reber eventually saw the light. Reber spent the majority of his talk speaking on various historic house museums he has had experience with, including Mount Vernon, the White House, and Stratford Hall, where he is the current director. Stratford was the home of the Lee Family on the Northern Neck in Virginia and is one of the sites of the Civil War Institute’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. Stratford has a particularly interesting history. When it was taken into the hands of the historic preservation community in the 1930s, the home closely resembled what it had been like when Robert E. Lee was born there. During this period, however, the structure was restored to its Colonial appearance. Reber and his staff are attempting to restore various rooms in the home to their appearance based on various periods of the Lee family ownership.

Continue reading “History Alumni Lecture: Historic Homes and Audience”