Friday, May 29, 2009

Tennessee Caves from Dunbar to Bell Witch

Today I prepare to attend the last session of the last class that I will take in a very, very long time. The class has been intensive, but I have have learned a lot from Dr. Spencer Crew about how museums can truly be transformative places and how they can have a real time impact on social issues. But the class has also been mental and emotionally taxing. And my treatment for that has been to escape into physically taxing ventures (where I don't have to use my mind for nearly anything, just the body).

For the past several weekends I have been visiting state parks with my friend Megan to do some hiking and explore some of Tennessee's back roads (and roadside architecture, of which both Megan and I are big fans, which might explain why we are also both fans of the show Supernatural, particularly the motels the main characters stay in for each episode). This past weekend we did a cave hike at Dunbar Cave State Park.

Megan on a trail at Dunbar Cave State Park.

We tried to call (several times) to reserve a spot on the cave hike, but never got through, so when the weekend came, we just went on up there. We found out that while the cave hike was full, usually there were no-shows so we planned to swing back by the visitor center right before the tour. We did the two overland hikes that they offered that morning and the best part for me were the turtles that we saw. I love pointing out wildlife: I'm like a little kid that way. But the hoards of turtles in the human-made pond was quite stunning and I eventually stopped pointing them out because it was getting redundant. I did stop to mimic one that was posed with it's rear leg sticking up in the air.

Turtles were on every tree or twig sticking out of the "lake."

The landscape was lovely and there were many families out with their kids, plus lots of military families (because Dunbar Cave is at the edge of Clarksville, which is where most of the troops stationed at Fort Campbell live). There were indeed some no-shows for the tour, so we got to go on the cave hike. Our tour guide was wonderful. He was knowledgeable, funny, and engaging...despite have some real problem tourists in the group. I'm always amazed at people who can handle a group like that where there are folks who refuse to follow the rules, seem to go out of their way to make everyone else miserable, and our tour guide kept them in check as best he could, never lost his cool, and even worked hard to engage the folks who insisted on being yahoos. Ends up most of the guides at the park are interns from nearby Austin Peay. To be a guide you have to be at least a junior in college and be studying in a field related to the work at the cave (biology, history, geology, etc.).

Our intrepid tour guide at the cave entrance.

On the cave we got to see several bats, cave salamanders, some cave fish, and graffiti from throughout the ages. They did not allow photographs inside the cave, so you'll just have to take my word for what was in there (or go see it for yourself). They had graffiti from the last two centuries left by tourists, or the promoters who labelled certain rooms in order to brand them. While the caves had a long history of use, in the 1930s a company hired teenagers to quarry out deeper paths and put in some carved steps in places. Ruined some of the cave ecology that way, but now you don't have to crawl to get to some of the spaces. But the best cave art were the petroglyphs, pictographs, and mud glyphs from the Mississippian people and even as far back as the Archaic Period (9,000-10,000 years ago).

All in all, a good tour. Actually, the great tour more than made up for the difficulties we had in trying to secure a reservation the entire week prior to going.

From there, I thought we could try and check out some of the Bell Witch silliness. I'd never heard the Bell Witch story before I moved to Tennessee, but I've learned to love it for its quirkiness. There are two major versions of the Bell Witch story, but they are very different depending on the oral tradition of the Bell family in Tennessee and the one that migrated to Mississippi. Some of the other major difficulties with the stories is that they don't seem to show up until the end of the nineteenth century when the events supposedly took place in the early 191th. And the corroborating evidence they site (namely an incident with Andrew Jackson getting scared away by the ghost) doesn't actually have any corroboration (you'll find nothing about a visit there or any incident in Jackson's papers or as part of Jackson family memories). But it's a story, it's fun, people get a kick out of it.

I knew that they had a cave as part of a tour out there, but that didn't make any sense at all because even with any of the wildly divergent versions of the legend, there's no cave. But if you're going to have a story that has evolved in leaps and bounds, why not add in a cave for more recent tellings. The town of Adams, TN, is very cool with great farms (and fantastic barns) surrounding an almost picturesque town. Unfortunately, the Bell Witch site is much less inviting. The first sign we saw at the entrance, we just thought was a lot of fun...but I'm less certain now if it was really an attempt at levity.

This is how they greet visitors to the site.

They also had signs saying that this was private property and not to trespass on it. Once we got to their visitor center, we had to wait for the guy behind the counter to finish yelling at someone on a walkie-talkie before he turned to glare at us. We asked where there was to do and he informed us that nothing was free and we had to pay to go any further. He didn't offer any further information, try to engage us in any way, he just glared at us. So we left.

Their "unwelcome" center.

I'm not going to pay money (no matter how small the amount) to be treated poorly. And now that I've asked around, we are not the only people to have had rough treatment there. But it was bizarre. One of the worst customer service experiences I've had, and one of the unfriendliest site visits I've had. And in comparing that experience with the friendly and informative staff at Dunbar, it was almost more jarring. At Dunbar I was glad to pay for the tour.

But on the way back out of town, we decided to enjoy some of the roadside architecture. Someone made some good business a century ago with pressed block construction because there were multiple houses with decorative concrete block. But our favorite was a historic church that someone had heavily stuccoed so that all of the additions to the building all had the same facade treatment. There's a historic church under there...somewhere.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sustaining the King

I've had an up and down relationship with Graceland and this most recent visit continues that trend. There is no denying that Elvis was a dynamic person, had a huge impact on music and pop culture, and that he continues to be an icon of American culture. The reason why he continues to be such a mainstay, though, is because of Jack Soden, the chief executive officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises. He's been involved with the site and the larger corporate management of the Elvis brand since 1982. His background is in financial planning and he has put his considerable skills to work in building the Elvis brand and managing the legacy of Elvis' image so that they continue to build market share.

This solid financial foundation is something most historic sites would kill for. It is also something that Elvis never achieved in his lifetime (he wasn't much of one for long term financial planning). But while this aspect of the Elvis image is sitting pretty, the physical site of Graceland has loads of untapped potential that no amount of financial planning and marketing will unlock.

They are so savvy with their branding that even the renovations at the Heartbreak Hotel incorporate Elvis' personal motto of "Taking Care of Business"

For a business that makes so much money (mostly from licensing, which also builds brand strength), I don't understand why so much of Graceland is done on the cheap. Last time I was there I thought that the cheap carnival feel of the strip mall that serves as the visitor center/gift shops was sort of an appropriate approach to the Elvis' legacy. He came from a working class background and loved kitsch, so why not celebrate that? The only reason to denigrate that kind of experience is if you're being an elitist about social class, right?

Dr. Spencer Crew and class loaded into the shuttle at the visitor center on their way to Graceland.

In touring the house, I was both really impressed and really disturbed by what I saw. The audio tour is done exceptionally well. It is available in several foreign languages (and this pulls in a considerable international audience) and managed in such a way so that you could hear as little or as much as you wanted. It incorporated details about the room, memories of friends and family, and a little bit of the history of Elvis' life.

Dr. Crew's audio tour had problems at the beginning and the staff at Graceland was incredibly helpful in resolving his problems (and polite about it too).

What I was really disturbed by were their conservation practices. While I am definitely on the adaptive use end of the museum spectrum, they took things further than I was comfortable with. It looked like that rather than UV protection and inert mylar, they were using polyvinyl coverings for much of the furniture (which off-gases and destroys what it encapsulates). Now, I don't know this for a fact and Dr. Crew suggested that I ask them if that's what they are using rather than assuming...but it sure didn't look like mylar.

In addition to that (and supporting my non-conservation thesis), all of Elvis' clothing were on department store style mannequins. That's what poor museums do when they have to make the most of their resources. For an industry that is making mad cash, why are they doing things on the cheap? They can afford to buy conservation forms, so why do they still have the cheap stuff? The result for me was that rather than being delighted by the Elvis aesthetic, I thought it was a bit tawdry. I was also strongly concerned about the longevity of the material culture on site. The image of Elvis can live on in an ephemeral way, but the material culture of his life is a very important aspect to conserve.

Now, most people probably wouldn't notice those details. I know that I see museums very differently than your average visitor. I think that it would be interesting to do a survey of visitors to get their impressions of the experience and get genuine feedback on how successful the site is in telling the Elvis story and honoring his legacy. Speaking of his legacy, another aspect that disturbed me was that they nickle-and-dime you for every aspect of the experience there. This does not seem to be in keeping with Elvis' ideals. Now, they make a lot of money and I think that's the goal there, but it adds to the cheap carnival atmosphere.

The design of the site leads to a cattle corral feel as they herd you through Graceland.

Elvis' legacy of charity seems to be in contradiction to some of the practices at Graceland. They have a plan for constructing new facilities and say that they are going to construct an entirely new Graceland experience and make things more upscale. I'll withhold judgment until they roll out what that will look like. I'd really like to see some quality museum exhibits, though. What is there now is really in the style of the amateur "stuff" exhibits of volunteer museums (there I go being elitist again). They have great artifacts, but they seem content to just shove a bunch of them in a case with little or no interpretation. The labels that they do have tend to be packed with entirely too much text and try to tell way too much on a single label (also in the style of amateur exhibitry).

Fellow classmate John George looks up at the all of the artifacts that are plastered in every surface in the former racquetball court. In addition to very high light levels (a conservation issue), the visible storage exhibit technique doesn't completely work here.

I suppose that my main problem here is that the site (be it a music museum, house museum, shrine, what-have-you) does not seem very professional. They do phenomenal financial management, but have kept so focused on controlling the branding image that I think they have shut out the potential of having a real museum or allowing for some real history on the site. They do not allow scholars to have access to their archives (other corporate entities do this by incorporating restrictions that ensures genuine scholarship as opposed to salacious, tabloid misuse). They don't so educational programming. And this is a point that I think bothers me most. After a recent visit to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, I don't understand why Graceland isn't further leveraging their brand by doing something that is experiential and educational on site. They could link it to Elvis' musical roots or his evolving legacy. It could be part charity, part outreach, and also make the Elvis brand relevant in real time as opposed to in the past. It could make Elvis Presley Enterprises cutting edge as a cultural institution as opposed to being a typical corporate entity. The brand identity is sustainable, I would love to see them implement sustainable tourism (especially sustainable heritage tourism) strategies at Graceland.

Maybe that's a direction they will be heading in with this new facility that they plan to break ground on in five years. I'm hoping that they begin to staff Graceland with cutting edge and creative museum professionals so that this site can contribute to Elvis' legacy in an evolving cultural way that also promotes quality of life (instead of just bring in money for the corporation). After being incredibly critical of what they do, I want to take a moment to comment on something that I think they do very well. This site will probably always be a shrine in some respects. I love that they allow fans to leave tributes at the graveside. They take in flowers (both real and fake) and other items and place them along the perimeter of the graves until nature takes its toll on them. This allows for fans to feel a very real connection to the site and it does play into a cultural tradition of grieving. I wish that they were doing more than just this, but no matter how they change, I hope that they always keep this part of their operation.

In the meditation garden, visitors get to honor the dead and even donate tributes of flowers and nicknacks that the staff then place around the Presley family graves.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Transformative Museums

I am doing a May-mester course with Dr. Spencer Crew on issues of conscience, commemoration, and memory at museums and historic sites. Because the course is a semester's worth of work in just 2.5 weeks, everything is very intensive. We're looking at sites that deal with strong emotional issues and reading up on lots of theory, and that amounts to exhaustion on a number of levels.

Part of my mental exhaustion is that I am honestly rethinking the purpose and mission of historic sites, what they can accomplish, and what areas of culture they should be a part of. As my brain is literally rewiring itself, I find that I am having trouble forming cohesive sentences and yet I am making numerous connections within my head. It is making me consider how the brain works and the type of research that a friend of mine is doing at Michigan State in psycho-linguistics.

For the class we did a two-day visit to Memphis to experience the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland as places that are involved in commemoration and memory. I have been to both sites a number of times, but with the context of this class I found an entirely new way of looking at what they do. The result ultimately was that my opinion of the NCRM went up and my opinion of Graceland went way down.

Dr. Crew and class at the NCRM

I've always had problems with the sheer amount of text that is in the exhibits of the NCRM. On the one hand, I think that they are trying to cover too much of the history of the Civil Rights movement, on the other hand, I'm disappointed in some of the things that they leave out (there's no pleasing historians, is there?). But I have always liked that rather than just being a shrine to MLK, that they strive to educate people about the movement he was a part of and what the legacy of that movement is. Now, they do have a shrine to MLK. There is the exterior memorial where he was shot that anyone can see as they pass by, and inside they have a viewing area where you can look at the rooms as they would have looked when MLK died.

The museum itself is packed full of information, but going into the shrine with all of that context makes seeing where MLK was all the more powerful. It is chilling and stirring every time I go. A bedroom is a place of intimacy and security, and when he stepped out of those doors and back out into the world, he was shot. What I think truly completes the experience is that the museum purchased and interpreted the boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed and the assassin took his shot. As a kind of parallel, they preserved the room where Ray stayed and the bathroom that they know was where the assassin shot MLK from. You can stand right next to that and look out onto the balcony where the exterior shrine to MLK is. Purely chilling.

Fellow classmate Angela Smith visiting with infamous protester Jacqueline Smith (no relation to one another)

But what I see as the most telling part of the NCRM's integrity is that they don't run away from controversy. In that boarding house they address all of the conspiracy theories about MLK's death and whether or not Ray was the real assassin. They also see the protestor who is at the entrance to the museum as part of the story of the site. They welcome controversy and dissent and see themselves as a place for dialogue. And that is part of their larger mission as a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Their programming seems to be very much in line with fellow coalition member Monte Sole in Italy.

We asked the NCRM staff tough questions and they welcomed them. They also spoke of how they want to use their legacy to expand their international programming and be activists in the world community to support social justice. And they have a plan to do that.

While I had been skeptical about museums as transformative institutions, I think that the NCRM does exactly that. They make a place for commemoration and sharing of memories, but then they take a step beyond that to spur themselves and others into action. This, of course, just encourages me further down the path of the dreaded label "activist historian."

I'll tackle Graceland tomorrow, which is a site that does commemoration well, but doesn't seem to have even considered the full potential of what their site could offer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Having Fun with History

I have taken quite the hiatus from blogging, but that is because I was running the academic gauntlet and getting some of the final hurdles of my academic career out of the way. I finished up the Professional Residency Colloquium where we presented the work products from our residency (mine with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development), how this fed into our dissertations, and how all of our work up to this point has shaped us as professionals. In true gauntlet form, I survived, but came out feeling a bit bruised after class.

The more positive note was defending my professional portfolio and my dissertation proposal to my doctoral committee. Where the class was supposed to be a practice/dry run of this event, the actual defense was much more enjoyable than the classroom experience. We basically had a conversation. I talked through some of my work products, discussed how my actual work with heritage tourism on a state level was reshaping how I thought of history and community development, and also my thoughts on adaptive reuse.

The discussion was incredibly helpful. I felt like I was genuinely treated like a colleague and they were all providing insightful feedback about my work, where it could head, and some challenges that I needed to consider. In part it helps that I've selected quality people for my committee. But I also can't help but think that i set the tone with how I approached my committee for the defense.

Rather than this being a stiffly formal affair, complete with Powerpoint (don't get me wrong, Powerpoint has its place and can be very helpful if people use it appropriately). But given a choice, I would much rather have a conversation than participate in a rigid structure. I did not want to lecture to my committee or then do the more traditional question and answer format where I literally defend my positions in a debate style (we did this for my orals, and I see the place of it there and I can do that type of thing if the situation calls for it).

I came armed with food (all of my defenses or qualifying exams, even for my MA, have involved me bringing food of some sort for the committee) and wearing a new tshirt that I hoped would set the tone:

The shirt is from BustedTees and it commemorates an early computer game that I loved to play in elementary school called The Oregon Trail. We had one computer for several classrooms and it was a big deal to be able to get computer time. We would play the computer, usually this game, in teams of two or three. I think that games like this helped me engage me in a creative way as a child and instilled an interest in history. It was also a lot of fun (you got to shoot bears and try to navigate a river) and we thought that it was hilarious to leave behind silly inscriptions on tombstones for "fallen" classmates. The most common way to die in the game was from dysentery and this still sticks out in my mind and of anyone who sees my tshirt and remembers that game.

I told my committee that I was wearing this shirt in honor of the long legacy of American road trips and the perils therein. We all got a good laugh out of it. And while I wanted to set a tone of friendliness and levity, I was also trying to evoke a very personal connection to history through my nostalgia for this game. I have a number of shirts from Vintage Roadside (supporters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) and while some of them fit in with my love of history and my sense of humor (I wear my Slick Chick Drive-In shirt at least once a week), none of them spoke to my personal experience of history (they commemorate a roadside heritage that I love but was not around to directly experience myself).

But the Oregon Trail shirt also played into one of my larger points about how I see history: history can be fun. There are topics that call for contemplation and respect, I'll grant you that. But history doesn't have to be boring or overly serious. I think that it is possible for history to be fun without being the dreaded "edutainment" that scholars look down their nose at. I'm holding to the idea that I can be passionate about history while also bringing my quirky sense of humor to many of the subjects that I deal with. And I think that certainly has a place in the world of heritage tourism. History can have integrity while also being exciting and fun.