Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Next Generation House Museums

I just got back from two full days at the Buford Pusser Home and Museum in Adamsville, TN. It was amazing, as always, and we ended up completing an inventory of their artifact and archival collection. It will still require some fine tuning, but the team of people we had working on itemizing all of the artifacts, detailing a description, and evaluation the condition, they were able to cover an amazing amount of ground in only two days. While I do not enjoy doing focused, detailed work like creating an inventory and then doing the data entry, I can appreciate the benefits of going through that process. After laying hands on and describing everything in that house, I know have a very solid grasp on what they have and how to organize the interpretation of the museum in a fundamental way.

Megan Akerstrom, fellow public history grad student, doing an inventory in Buford's den

While we created a heritage development plan for them last year, which covered our recommended thematic changes to how the rooms are currently organized, I can now tell them how to make that vision a reality on an item-by-item level. I've appreciated this approach ever since my first assignment as a graduate research assistant at the Albert Gore Research Center when I was a public history MA student at Middle Tennessee State University. My first assignment was to update the Gore Center's internal finding aid for where each of their collections was located. It didn't need much of an update, but after that I knew where each collection was because I had laid hands on each one. So, while that kind of work is still not something that I look foward to (I'd rather talk about it, organize a workshop about it, or do some other "big picture" related job), I can fully appreciate what putting in the time and effort will get you.

Doing this work at the Buford Pusser museum also helped me to understand the story in a visceral way. It was a total immersion experience into that man's life and the home life of his family. And that was possible because of their fantastic collections. As my boss keeps saying, "They are covered up in authenticity." But because they have so many wonderful items, the museum is a bit disorganized. It is not that the museum is bad, but it could be better. At the same time, the sheer number of items and the great interpretive value of each item makes it overwhelming in thinking about how to organize the museum. And the result is that artifacts have ended up in some odd locations in the house or without interpretation that makes sense to outside visitors (but is recognized by the people who are fully immersed in the story). With the new inventory, I think that this could be easily fixed with another hands-on work day out at the museum (look for that to happen sometime this summer).

Another issue that this museum brings up for me, though, is the idea of a contemporary house museum and the new trends in house museums. My original training in museum management said that museums are contained spaces. Basically you did your best to freeze the site in time and instituted artificial controls to keep the site frozen, and therefore preserved. This meant disabling passive environmental systems and installing HVAC, removing all plants from the house, never allowing food inside a museum, etc. Last fall I went to a session at the National Trust for Historic Preservation meeting in Tulsa where a panel of preservationists and scientists from the UK's National Trust discussed their findings related to those techniques. Their conclusions were that we haven't saved buildings by imposing modern technology onto them. In fact we're implementing a whole new set of preservation issues and they recommended that using the buildings as they were originally intended was the best course of action.

Shortly after that meeting, I represented the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area at an Alliance of National Heritage Areas meeting in Asheville, NC. Our hosts, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, showed us around the area and took us on a full tour of the Biltmore. It had been years since I was there and after my training and the information from the Trust meeting, I saw the experience in a whole new light. The Biltmore does not have HVAC; instead they use the passive environmental systems that were originally designed for the house. They cook food in the kitchen (and it smells great), and they adorn the house throughout the year with live plants and bring in cuttings (or whole trees at Christmas) from the grounds. In short, they still treat it like a house. And it works.

Technology museums insist on keeping their artifacts in working order and often show them at work (be it a car or an oil rig) as part of how they teach about why shouldn't history museums do the same? There are limits, but I'm interested in exploring those limits. And one of those places where I think it is appropriate to put that philosophy to work is at the Buford Pusser Museum.

Fellow grad student, Liz Smith, grabbing a donut in Buford Pusser's Kitchen

The '70s equipment in the kitchen all still works, including Buford's Sub-Zero built-in refigerator (he bought the display model and got a great deal on it, but he was till very proud of it). In your own home, you would keep it clean, but you would still eat in it without being overrun by why not in a museum like this? I think that continuing to use the kitchen in this museum keeps it feeling like a welcoming home. It only adds to the authenticity of the setting.

On top of this, I have to do a complete mental shift to thinking about contemporary houses as possible museums. Graceland is a similar site and I keep making comparisons between the two museums. Buford's house is a middle class version of Graceland, but there are similarities (apart from Elvis and Buford being friends). Being a historian, I tend to think of antebellum mansions as historic house museums, but there is more to our history than that. I would love to do a whole other research project on the issues of contemporary house museums...and perhaps I will in the future.

Megan and Liz posing with Dwana Pusser Garrison (daughter of Buford and Pauline Pusser and Adamsville City Commissioner)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sites of Trauma

Last night I watched the 1973 Walking Tall film in preparation for the two days of fieldwork we'll have out at the Buford Pusser Home & Museum next week. I've been out there several times, love the story, and love the people. And I've been giving a lot of thought to how to address that story accurately and appropriately, and that's brought me to a larger reflection on how to deal with sites of trauma. Things are still tense in McNairy County nearly 40 years after Buford broke up the moonshine and prostitution ring in that part of the state.

In some ways, though, the Buford Pusser story has an easy out because that story has a hero and fits nicely into the American mystique of independent lawmen (Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness) and of an American community coming together to throw off oppression. But what do you do with stories where there isn't a nice way out?

At the end of February we went out to Brushy Mountain State Prison, supposedly to do the fieldwork for a historic structures report and compile a list of adaptive reuse recommendations. When we got there, we were informed that the prison wasn't empty (it's officially closing in July), we weren't allowed to take in our equipment to document the site, and they had a team of consultants there that they were looking into hiring to do the work that the county had originally asked us to do.

Brushy Mountain Prison (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

So we ended up going on an extended tour of the prison, including walking around the yard with the prisoners, and analyzing what we could without being able to document what we were seeing with photographs or measurements. In all, it was bizarre, surreal, and horrifying. The prison guards treated us to demonstrations of their various types of equipment (particularly the ones that emitted electricity) and regaled us with horror stories of a century of prisoner mistreatment and hazing of other guards (particularly how hard of a time female prison guards had it). The consultants that came on the tour with us kept making rather loud disparaging and juvenile comments about the prisoners who were surrounding us. Actually, the prisoners ended up seeming to be the most polite and human of all the people we interacted with there. And considering what you have to do to get sent to Brushy, that's more than a little horrifying.

The end of the tour was on the prison museum, which mostly consisted of confiscated weapons, a recreation of the ladder James Earl Ray used to escape, and then the types of tools that they have used over the years to "discipline" the prisoners. The highlight was the heavy leather strap that they used for most of the twentieth century to whip inmates. We were told of that several times before we ever got to the museum to see it.

Wall of confiscated weapons at the museum (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

We were glad to get out of there and all really shaken by what we had experienced and what we had heard. The setting for the prison is gorgeous and if a resort were in the place of the prison, it would be a spectacular setting. The architecture of the New Deal era prison buildings is majestic. But the legacy of the prison juxtaposed with the beauty of the setting almost makes it more disturbing. After hearing numerous stories from the guards about the workings of the convict labor system for the coal mining operations (involving "mining accidents" for prisoners who didn't behave), I can't help but wonder how many bodies are holed away in that closed mine that the prisoners used to operate.

New Deal era gymnasium at Brushy (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

And that brings in the whole issue of race. Historic photographs show white guards with nearly all black convict labor crews. Makes the significance of the whipping take on a whole new light. In Morgan County, where the prison is the largest employer and the residents are 96% white, their introduction to race relations is often at the prison. It is hard for me to wrap my head around a community where almost all African Americans are prisoners and white residents learn that people of dark complexion are criminals to be managed and treated with brutal force.

But the criminals are not the heroes or the purely victimized here, so that's not the easy solution for how to come to peace with this landscape of trauma. The inmates have done terrible things to get sent to Brushy (Byron "Low Tax" Looper is incarcerated there) and they often continue brutal and deviant behavior upon their arrival (including killing prison guards). They twist one another and twist the prison guards who work in that environment. Within the prison, it is almost like a psychological arms race where everyone keeps stepping up the game as a combination of offense and defense. The prison guards end up with some noticeable psychological impact (it was shocking what they thought was acceptable conversation or social interaction), and they take that out on the prisoners and take it home with them, where the social environment of the prison then twists the community. Everyone comes out sullied by trying to deal with a gruesome situation.

Historically, there are so many points of significance for Brushy Mountain State Prison. It is an important resource to talk about the Coal Creek War of 1891, a discussion of the convict labor system in Tennessee, New Deal prison architecture, the Martin Luther King assassination and the incarceration of James Earl Ray at Brushy, and in the present the site can be used to discuss the social impact of a prison on a community (race relations, race education, domestic violence, economic impact, etc.). But because the prison is so isolated and would require such a significant amount of investment for maintenance and adaptive reuse, it seems unlikely that much will be done with the site. The current community plans consist mostly of trying to run the prison as a b&b where they process visitors like prisoners and the hosts are retired prison guards (brings to mind the Stanford Prison experiment, among a whole host of other problems with this plan). This site also has the potential of becoming a mecca for white supremacists who would come to celebrate James Earl Ray (how his memory is currently treated at that site is already rather bizarre).

All of the stories associated with the prison are traumatic. It is overwhelming to try and figure out how to tell a complete and balanced history while also including the full weight of what occurred there. It brings to mind what a colleague of mine said while doing research for the multiple property submission we completed for testing sites of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She had finally had enough of reading account after account of the ongoing brutality of the experiment, threw down the book she was reading and said, "Why can't I do research on something happy, like something involving rainbows and puppies?" The mind can only handle so much horror and then it is just too much.

I don't know what will become of Brushy when it closes in July, but there are no easy answers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tennessee Preservation Trust

This year's TPT conference was in Murfreesboro, TN. We had sessions either at the Heritage Center of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County or at the Rutherford County Courthouse. That gave people a short walk between the two locations and time to look at the beautiful historic courthouse square. This year, rather than having a catered lunch, TPT decided to have people experience the town where the conference was being held, so conference goers were turned loose to eat at one of the many local restaurants on or just off the square, all excellent examples of adaptive reuse (or ongoing usage with little adaptation in some cases).

TPT director Dan Brown and Tennessee Historical Commission director Patrick McIntyre discuss a successful preservation conference

Some of the highlights from the conference were the announcement of the Tennessee Cultural Heritage Preservation Society's First Families of Freedom initiative, a session about uses of technology in community-based preservation, and the closing gala at Oaklands Mansion. First, TNCHPS (pronounced "ten-chips," we do love our acronyms) unveiled its First Families of Freedom project (honoring descendents of Tennessee slaves) in the main courtroom/gallery of the antebellum Rutherford County Courthouse. Not only was it a majestic setting, but it seemed a very apt location. Slaves undoubtedly were involved in construction and fabrication of the courthouse (as was the case for most antebellum buildings in the South and in many places in the North). While some local heritage groups like to play up the Confederate heritage of Murfreesboro, it also had a very active free black population (Revolutionary War veteran Peter Jennings had a bakery in downtown and designed the first waterworks for Murfreesboro) and was home to two United States Colored Troop companies (which became part of the 13th and 17th USCT).

You won't find any monuments at the courthouse commemorating the efforts of Murfreesboro slaves who fought for their freedom by joining the USCT, but you'll find plenty of monuments to the Confederate veterans and even ones lionizing Nathan Bedford Forrest when he nearly burned down the Murfreesboro courthouse during his raid (ironically, the plaque commemorating this event is on the courthouse he nearly destroyed). A few blocks away from the courthouse at Bradley Academy, you will find the history of the African American soldiers of Rutherford County and there is even a USCT reenactor troop in Murfreesboro. One of the more harrowing stories of these groups involves a man from the 13th saving the colors at the Battle of Nashville, which was inscribed "Presented by the Colored Ladies of Murfreesboro" (the full story is reminiscent of the final scene in the movie Glory).

What is exciting about the TNCHPS program is that it is helping to bring that lost (or purposefully forgotten) history back out into the open. Their website has forms for people to download where they can trace their genealogy back to the former slaves of Tennessee and celebrate their heritage of moving from bondage to freedom (some of them literally fighting for their freedom by joining the USCT).

After this I went to moderate a session called "From Desktop to Downtown: New Uses of Technology." I'm an old school geek and learned HTML before there were cool things like website editing software, so I was excited to learn about the things that Jill Mendoza and Chris Wilson had to share. Mendoza represents Jackson Downtown Development Corporation, which is their Main Street entity. The website software that she walked us through had some very exciting possibilities and I will probably play with it periodically (I can't help myself).

What really blew my mind, though, was Chris Wilson's demonstration of how any community, no matter what size or financial resources, can utilize Google SketchUp to market their area and make their historic places more accessible. He described himself as a Google SketchUp Evangelist and he wasn't joking: I am now a convert. Before he went to work with Google, he put their SketchUp to use for Main Street McMinnville, where he was the director at the time. The result is the McMinnville in 3D program...and it is amazing. You really need to look at it to get the full effect.

Finally, we ended the conference at Oaklands Historic House Museum. It was great to use their grounds and the food was amazing. We were treated to live jazz music by Earlice Taylor (she sang some gospel music at the First Families of Freedom unveiling), and the live auction had some really compelling items.

I'm a foodie, so my favorite part was the cake that looked just like Oaklands

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tornadoes Now and Then

I live right in the middle of the path of Murfreesboro's most recent tornado. Seeing the destruction every day forces me to think about what it all means and my mind is making connections in an effort to make sense of it all. A couple of weeks ago we had an E-F1 tornado that damaged the Jackson Heights shopping area and the Murfreesboro Boys and Girls Club (and the Goo Goo car wash). The one on Friday did an amazing amount of damage through where I grew up and where I live now, and was just upgraded to an E-F4.

Behind my apartment complex is the greenway along the Stones River. This used to be scenic and now it is a wreck. It is impossible to get to the greenway because it is buried under debris and much of the battlefield is closed.

What is surprising is how little loss of life there was and how the tornado often seemed to choose to go through unpopulated areas. There is still extensive damage, but it could have easily been a lot worse. One of the open areas was our local NPS division, the Stones River National Battlefield. They have a lot of trees down and the landscape was fairly traumatized, but no one was hurt there. Most of the territory covered by the tornado was technically all battlefield during the Civil War. And that got me to thinking about the trauma that both people and the landscape have suffered in this space over the years.

Contraband slaves repairing the railroad after the Battle of Stones River, 1863 (from the Library of Congress Civil War photograph collection)

Aside from the devastation of war (the major battle and then the guerrilla warfare throughout the Civil War), this is not the first tornado to pass through this side of Rutherford County. In 1913 there were two tornadoes that ripped through the county. The one that gets the most attention (commonly just referred to as the Cyclone of 1913) is the one that flattened a corner of the courthouse square on March 21, 1913. Anyone from Murfreesboro has seen some of the tornado pictures that both highlight the devastation, but also show the spectator involvement. There were special trains from Nashville that took voyeurs to see the wreckage of Murfreesboro's downtown business district. Downtown quickly rebuilt and businesses remained strong.

1913 Murfreesboro Tornado
(from the Albert Gore Research Center)

While that tornado did significant damage to a portion of the downtown businesses, the only injury was a man who was working in one of the stables just off the square (he broke his leg when a beam fell on him). Lesser known is that the tornado did damage to what was then known as the "County Farm" or the "County Workhouse" out on County Farm Rd. It served as a debtors prison, but was also the county insane asylum. There are oblique references in newspapers of the time referring to the effort to gather up all of the inmates/patients after the storm blew apart the building and let them loose on the countryside.

But a week earlier, there was a tornado that came through the Blackman community. Blackman is an unincorporated crossroads community to the west of Murfreesboro and it is where I grew up (I did my MA thesis on the history of Blackman and two other crossroads communities). On March 13, 1913, a tornado came down Beesley Rd. and destroyed the Beesley Primitive Baptist Church and travelled Northeast to destroy the Blackman Academy (the community's one-room school). School was in session and when the tornado hit the building, Ada Beesley and her five students were blown out into a nearby field...aside from some scrapes and bruises, all were okay.

Beesley Primitive Baptist Church in 2003
(courtesy of my MA thesis)

The church congregation immediately rebuilt and that structure still stands today. The church and historic cemetery are on the National Register of historic places. Blackman Academy was not rebuilt, but the site remains a community gathering place. Currently on that site is the Blackman Community Club, which is a New Deal structure (I believe that it is a WPA construction). It is currently not listed on the NR, but it retains most of its historic fabric and is certainly eligible.

Blackman Community Club in 2003
(also from my thesis)

The 2009 tornado traveled in a similar direction and started in the Blackman community moving northeasterly, but about a mile or so east of its 1913 predecessor. There were a lot fewer homes on this land a century ago, and despite all of the sprawling housing developments on top of historic farms, it is still amazing to me that so few people were injured or killed. We'll be in recovery mode for quite some time to come, but there is a lot of industriousness to get things back into shape. Unlike 1913, police are asking for spectators to go elsewhere. There are quite a few pictures from spectators and residents, though, that are reminiscent of the crowds milling about the square in 1913. And like the people who pulled together and immediately rebuilt Beesley Primitive Baptist Church, many of the roofs in the Blackman area are already repaired. I hear chainsaws at work all day long and there is a constant stream of trucks coming in and out of Thompson Lane with loads of debris. The continual police presence prevents looting and the city of Murfreesboro (and all the utilities) have been working overtime to get the infrastructure back into place.

So, despite marked changes to the landscape, the instinct to pull together and work towards recovery is much the same in Rutherford County as it was a century ago after a similar disaster.

From the front door of my apartment you can see the roof repair in progress.

This is my debris pile at my back door, mostly pieces of pallets from the trucking facility down the road.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sustainable Tourism in Tennessee

Today I am working my way through some research on tourism in Appalachia. In between that reading I am finishing up some projects that I'm doing on behalf of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Where the two organizations are overlapping and offering support to one another is through the Tennessee Sustainable Tourism initiative, specifically through the Civil War Trails program and planning for the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial.

A great example of a project that we worked on here at the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU/the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area was out at the Niota Depot. While I did not work on the project, I heard a great deal about it from my colleagues (I think that I was working on a historic structures report (HSR) for the Longstreet Billet in Russellville, TN, while they were working on Niota). I believe that they did something like and HSR along with recommendations for how to do a successful adaptive reuse of the depot. The folks in Niota then did major work on restoring the building and making it a vibrant part of the community (serving both the local community and serving as a heritage tourism asset).

Niota Depot

The most recent development with the depot is that it was just featured in the monthly newsletter update from Tourism (Tennessee E-News) because Niota just had a Civil War Trails marker installed at the depot.

But all of that is background info! What I am doing today is finishing up digitizing some of the Civil War driving tours that the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area has sponsored over the years. The idea is to make the tours as accessbile as possible, hence making them available online in addition to them being in paper form at various locations (the Tennessee Welcome Centers tend to be well stocked with driving tours that we have funded with various community partners across the state). When we launch our new website (just any day now) those walking tours will be available there, but Tourism will also have copies (I am burning the CD to send to them right now) and will have them on their website. I am biased, but I am particularly proud of the Paris-Henry County Civil War driving tour...because I was the director of the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center when that project started. I applied to the heritage area for a grant to do the brochure as an effort on the part of the museum to get people engaged with the historic resources in our county. So, I've managed to work with the heritage area from both sides of the equation.

And while I'm talking about heritage tourism, I signed up to do reviews of heritage travel through a new program launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation called...Heritage Travel (go figure). I'm trying to keep with writing about what I'm doing in an effort to keep the writing wheels turning as I work on my dissertation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Military History and Whiskey

Military historians at a whiskey tasting

This past weekend I was in the Boro volunteering on a number of fronts, and one of those was working at the Society of Military Historians conference. I am not a military historian. Actually, the reason why I have a BS in Psychology is because I wanted to study people, but thought that history was only the study of wars and I had absolutely no interest in that. My MA is in history and I love the work that I do in the field of public history, but I still find that I avoid anything faintly military or war related. I almost fanatically focus on social history. My work with the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area focuses on homefront/occupation stories during the war but my real interest is in Reconstruction (to me the Civil War is the "what" and Reconstruction is the "so what" that contextualizes what the war meant and how it shaped lives). I was heartened to hear at the SMH conference that the new military history is more than just strategy and tactics, but it is also about the social history that contextualizes the wars.

This meant that even though I was volunteering in order to help a friend and colleague (who was in charge of the conference), I was able to interact some with the participants. Friday I was in charge of a busload of folks who did a field trip out to Jack Daniel's Distillery. On the trip there I was able to talk through the geography of Tennessee, talk about the mystery of red bud trees (their buds are purple and folks not from the region always ask about them, I figure that they were named by some poor color blind man), and then discuss the Tullahoma Campaign during the Civil War, which went through that area, and the WWII story of that region. Tullahoma had a CCC camp called Camp Forrest (before that it was a National Guard post called Camp Peay), which later became a training camp for the WWII maneuvers, and then became a POW camp for Nazis. Tennessee hosted several WWII training camps in order to train soldiers before they went to war in Germany, and the rationale was that the geography in Middle Tennessee was similar to what they would find in Germany.

In some ways it was similar, and in some ways it wasn't. The German POWs were rented out to farmers who used those men as farm hands for bringing crops, particularly tobacco. There are some great oral histories where POWs are either talking about the grueling work or farmers are talking about what it was like to have Nazis working on their farms.

So I was surprisingly able to talk about some of the military related history of the area and had a lot of social history information that tied those stories directly to the landscape we were traveling through. Once there, we did the standard tour of the distillery (which is free and fabulous). I was telling my crew of people that I am a frequent visitor to the distillery because I love what they do so much. In terms of marketing, ecological sensitivity, and public history, Jack Daniels does it better than just about anyone. They know what they are doing and they do it extremely well. They work in affiliative marketing techniques throughout the tour, it is authentic and very personable, you get a ton of local history related to the area and the operation of this National Register site (the first registered distillery in the country), plus you learn how they recycle nearly every part of their operation. Seriously impressive and well worth the trip.

Inside a barrel barn at Jack Daniel

But what made this trip exceptional was that we had a whiskey tasting with the Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett. I have a new found appreciation for whiskey after being led through the tasting by a professional. After that we did the usual browsing around the square in Lynchburg and then on up to BBQ hill, which is just above the distillery. We had amazing food and heard good music. But what made the experience up there truly exceptional was that the view was stunning and every once in a while, the wind would shift and the sweet smell of the mash from the distillery would waft over to you. Incredible.

Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller

It is the full Jack Daniel's experience. And the time spent with the military historians has given me the opportunity to rethink my super sensitivity to military history. I'm never going to be a military historian, but I see some opportunities for bridging some gaps between what I do and what they do.

View from BBQ Hill above Lynchburg, TN

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fieldwork and writing

While I am in the midst of wrestling with my dissertation, I thought that it would be a good habit to actually write about what I'm doing. In part this will help me think through what I want to put in the dissertation. It will also get the ball rolling and hopefully enable me to just roll right over writer's block (fingers crossed!).

As part of my dissertation work, I have completed most of my fieldwork, but there are still a few site visits that are on the horizon. And I get frequent requests for retelling of some of my more quirky fieldwork adventures. So, this blog will serve to chronicle some of those adventures (although, the stories are much better in person where I engage in wild arm gestures and physical reenactments).

At the moment, I am reading through Ann Denkler's Sustaining Identity, Recapturing Heritage and am loving how much her research corresponds to what I run into with the history and tourism in the Gatlinburg area. The tension between the national park and the surrounding communities, plus the total erasure of African American history from the larger narrative is just the same in my neck of the woods as in her's. And like her, rather than just talking about the problem, I am engaged in helping to create change. So the work that I participated in up in Townsend, TN, with the Tanner Cultural Center is helping to kick off an African American driving tour of public history sites. I suspect that we'll continue to see a lot of activism out of the group of there (which has a long community tradition of that) and we'll see more of them in the tourism world.
This is the Tanner School (the original Rosenwald structure is still in there somewhere) as it looked when we were last out there in the Fall of 2008.