About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Kids' Books ARE Boring. There, I've said it.

I ripped open the latest Amazon box yesterday, eagerly anticipating a book for kids on how to create their own museum.
Boy, was I disappointed.
Finger-wagging in tone, it was written in microtext, and had it been any drier, it would have shrivelled. There's no way my son will read it, and I'm not sure I will either.
Why are so many American kids' books boring? A huge part of the problem is the Appropriateness Police who include some vocal parents, teachers (rarely), publishers, and, more often than you might think, random adults who don't actually know any kids.
The fault also lies with authors who are determined to instruct, whether about facts or values, and instead come across as pious and pompous. No wonder kids have to be bribed with pizza parties and pig-kissing principals to get them to read...
Recently, I stumbled on this wonderful article by Martha Brockenbrough, who says it all better than I do, and who quotes the wise and wonderful Rick Riordan, whose hilarious Percy Jackson series will captivate your kids while hooking them on Greek mythology.
It is always good to be reminded that I'm not alone in my loud complaints about the soullessness of so many kids' books.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Opinion: Georgia Kids Fail CRCT Social Studies Test. Why Is Everyone Surprised?

This morning's news: Georgia State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox has thrown out the middle school CRCT test results for social studies (meaning history, with a bit of geography), after 70-80 percent of students failed.

Let me be blunt:

First, the test is likely rubbish, with a focus on arcane facts. Just a guess, because, unless I am mistaken, none of us can see it.

Second, teachers, most of whom had an inadequate education in the overcrowded classrooms of the state's university system, from the overworked and demoralized professors of the USG, were not taught history in a meaningful way that they can communicate to their own students, and so teach history as one wretched thing after another.

Third, the professors of the USG who teach history to the future teachers are pressured to eschew taking time that good teaching demands, and instead to publish scholarship that, most of the time, is far too underfunded to be good enough even to make a dent in the consciousness of the historical profession. Those of us who strive to teach beyond memorization and multiple choice get no real support.

Fourth, when the state came up with its new curriculum a few years ago, the first time they asked for the opinions of academic historians was when it was already a done deal, and without any promise of reward or recognition. They sent an email with the curriculum attached. Most of us looked at page after page of standards, saw problems, considered that we wouldn't be listened to even if we took hours we don't have to produce a reasoned critique, and hit delete.

As one example of the problems I spotted, kids in third grade are supposed to be taught that there is a direct link between Greek democracy and the kind practiced in America today. There isn't. You cannot find work by an historian that shows such a link exists. How are teachers supposed to teach that? And how are teachers supposed to teach social and cultural history by examining a random group of unrepresentative Americans as the curriculum suggests, from Abe Lincoln to Rosa Parks to Ronald Reagan (who, by the way, is extolled as an example that kids should follow. This politicization of history should outrage all of us, regardless of our personal views.)

Now the Superintendent is forming a committee to review the curriculum. Will any historians be on it? Don't hold your breath. What would historians know about history?

As an historian, as a history professor, and as a mother of a son who is being tested to death in a public school in Georgia, I am tired. Tired of encountering students who, having been tested and tested on random facts in high school, arrive in college profoundly ignorant of even those facts you would think would be common knowledge and, worse, incapable of thinking historically after years of cramming trivia. Tired of watching as my son fills out dreary worksheets and spends weeks taking meaningless tests, while his class spends zero time on history in the classroom at an age when he is most eager to learn it. Tired of watching the state continue to pretend that historians don't exist, even as it discovers that it cannot teach history without us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Museum Review: The Benjamin Franklin House, London**

Annette's note (6/28/08) Since my 2007 visits to the Benjamin Franklin House, there have been substantial changes, and the director of the House has responded to my review in a comment below, which I encourage you to read.

From Lauren, a former student of mine, who wrote to me on Facebook:

"Just wanted to tell you, I've become a bit obsessed with public history. I'm in Virginia with my cousin and I dragged her to Monticello to analyze it...must tell you, it was much better than Ben Franklin's house in London! haha."

I was thrilled to get this message. Lauren took my course in public history last summer, during our incredible University System of Georgia London Study program. She is already a history buff, which always helps, but our emphasis in this class was very different from others that I teach. It doesn't focus on a specialized body of knowledge, but rather on the ways in which history is interpreted for the public.

If you're a regular reader, you know I already mentioned this class and our London adventures. We also visited the only remaining house in which Benjamin Franklin ever lived, while he acted as a colonial representative (a cushy job, really.)

Even before the House opened to the public, I had heard about its creative interpretation, and was excited about visiting. However, when I visited in January, 2007, I was disappointed. All the same, I decided to retain the trip in my summer 2007 course, and see how the students responded. I made absolutely sure to exude neutrality, to avoid influencing them.

They thought the Benjamin Franklin House was hilarious.

It didn't help that there was a glitch that day. After buying our tickets from a well-hidden theatre box office in the arches under Charing Cross Station, we turned the corner onto Craven Street, and knocked on the door of Number 36. After entering a typical eighteenth-century London townhouse, with its cramped hall and narrow staircase, we were quickly ushered into a ground-floor room for the orientation video, which is a rather messy montage of words and images shot in rapid-fire MTV fashion.

Now, I'm all for unsnotty history, but this was too much: When my students think something is being dumbed down, that's telling. As one said, we knew no more about Franklin at the end of the video than we did at the beginning.

And then we waited. And waited. Nobody arrived. Nothing happened. We called up the stairs. We sent a messenger back to the ticket office. Finally, a somewhat disheveled interpreter dressed as an eighteenth-century woman announced herself as Polly Hewson, the daughter of Franklin's landlady. We were told later that there were technical troubles, and received profuse apologies that were reminiscent of Monty Python's dirty fork sketch. My students, being a cynical lot, were convinced that the real reason was that the interpreter was late for work. I'm not sure they were wrong.

The interpreter gives the entire tour as Polly Hewson. However, my students were rather shocked when she broke character to tell off a visitor (not with our group) who took a photograph. This was just one illustration of why it's never a good idea to supply visitors with only a first-person interpreter. Worse, the format hinders questions, especially from adults, who are usually reluctant to play-act.

The Benjamin Franklin House embraces museum as theatre to an extraordinary degree. Most radically, visitors are asked to imagine the furnishings of the house (there is one table, I seem to recall, in one room, but that's about it.) As recorded voices and music float about, abstract images play on the walls: When the actor playing the voice role of Franklin speaks of a shipment of cranberries, we see a video of cranberries rolling around.

Quite honestly, it was all a bit artsy-fartsy for the audience, including me, and that's saying something. I'm all for the idea of engaging audiences with the use of imagination, but it has to be done with an eye to that audience, and not merely as an act of artistic expression.

On my first visit to the House, another visitor, a middle-class Englishwoman in her sixties, had confessed to me on the way out her disappointment with the experience. "I like to look at furniture when I visit old houses," she said. But had she learned something about Franklin that would make her want to read more about him? "Not really," she said forlornly. How to interpret this visitor's reaction depends on how one chooses to read it. My take is that it would be very easy—and a huge mistake-- to dismiss such visitors as lowbrow aesthetes, more interested in knick-knacks than getting to grips with history. This visitor was no stranger to historic sites, and clearly was educated. The fact of the matter is that people want a tangible connection with the past, and the bare house simply put more of the burden on visitors to forge that connection than they were prepared to make.

There were moments of levity: We did learn that Franklin basically left his wife Deborah to stew in Philadelphia while he lived it up in London. The presentation doesn't judge him for this, explaining that Deborah had refused to cross the Atlantic, which I can't blame her for. But my students were properly scandalized, especially in light of Franklin's relentless flirting. The good thing was that this put a human gloss on an otherwise cardboard Franklin.

But the whole thing is too hero-worshippy for words, presumably in a misguided effort to lure Americans and their dollars, which are worth much less than when the House opened a few years ago. And the breathless way in which the visitor is introduced to Franklin as an amazing man capable of holding a gazillion jobs at once is a bit much. Talented, likeable, and admirable though Franklin was, was it really impressive that he had time to be the London rep for the state of Georgia? I mean, what could that have entailed—asking around in the pub occasionally if anyone wanted to buy land in Savannah? I say all this not to dis Ben, but because, like most historians, I dislike the sort of public history that encourages the view of individuals, no matter how impressive, as demi-gods. Frankly, it's off-putting to learn that the best people are already dead, and that they are a separate race from the rest of us.

The presentation ends with the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was written after Franklin was dead and buried. Another effort, one presumes, to appeal to Americans. Quite honestly, the Americans who (like my students) take the initiative to come all the way to London are generally a bit more wordly than they are given credit for.

So, do I recommend the Benjamin Franklin House? For adults, sort of: Go and let me know if you agree. Quite honestly, it's almost more fun when museums don't work well, because they make good stories. My students had a field day critiquing the House.

But for kids, no, I can't recommend it. In fairness, I never saw a kid on the tour, either time. But the whole thing was too high-minded, too abstract, and too lacking in visual stimulation and interaction to persuade me that the average kid would have a good time. School groups may do better, because the House offers tours specifically for them. The casual visiting family, however, would most likely find the tour a little dull and frustrating.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Evacuees, Blitz and Books: A List From My WW2 Schools Visits

I love my schools roadshow about life in World War Two Britain: When a kid blurts out "That's just like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!", my day is officially made.

But I count it secondary whether a kid becomes interested in this particular subject so long as my time at schools stimulates new ideas and activity. Some kids go off and interview grandparents about WWII America, some are fascinated enough by the old British Monopoly set to pull out their own to compare, and it's especially lovely to motivate some kids to read my novel, I'll admit it, particularly if reading it brings them full circle to an interest in history. Mostly, however, I'm happy just to have jumpstarted kids' thinking, especially given the relentless drilling and testing that characterizes public schooling today.

For those kids who do want to explore further the subject of British life in WW2, here are just a few suggestions for books to add to your school or home library. They may be available from library wholesalers, they may be available from Amazon.com (often in used editions: see links below for availability), and they are certainly available direct from the British Amazon.co.uk (you will need to set up an account, exactly in the same way as American Amazon.) The links are to Amazon.com.

The list is arranged in order of reading/subject matter challenge, beginning with the most accessible. Oh, and don't miss the music, either: Check out the Amazon list at left for my selections from wartime Britain.

Rebecca Hunter with Angela Downey, A Wartime Childhood (Family Scrapbook Series) (Evans Brothers, 2005)

Today, Angela is a grandmother of six. But she was four years old in 1941, when her mother took her to live in the countryside, safe from the bombs raining down on London. There, in a small village, Angela lived with a foster family for the next three years, seeing her mother only once a year.

Angela tells her own story of life as a wartime evacuee (and the story of her family members), which personalizes what is actually a broad introduction to life in Wartime England. A picture book, Wartime Childhood includes the key themes: air raids, evacuation of children, food rationing, and war work. The text is sparse, but the graphics are varied, and the book also includes well-presented and contextualized documents (including a letter home that Angela wrote after her father was killed in action.)

This is a highly recommended introduction to the subject for ages 7 and up, very much accessible to American kids, and sure to create good talking points.

Peter Hepplewhite, An Evacuee's Journey (History Journey Series) (Hodder Wayland, 2003)

Much like A Wartime Childhood (above), An Evacuee's Journey threads the story of one child throughout the book. In this case, however, he's Joseph Thompson, he's fictional, and his story is told in third person. The text is heavy on facts and figures, and includes broad context: It begins by explaining the rise of Hitler, for example. However, it is nicely balanced with more accessible materials about everyday life.

A short anecdote about "Joe's" life that relates directly to the text kicks off each two-page chapter. We see Joe reacting to the announcement of war in September, 1939, for example, and read about his being fostered by a farmer and his wife. Short and lively quotes add the voices of real evacuees, and photographs are varied: alongside the black and white photos of wartime kids, check out the staged color photo of a week's worth of food rations. Pithy captions explain the graphics, and help promote critical thinking: Kids are urged to note how an advertiser uses the theme of evacuation to sell a drink mix. I was especially impressed that the book touches upon the variety of experiences among evacuees: Joe is happy, but his best friend is removed from a foster home after repeated beatings. The author, to his credit, explains without rancor that many foster families were ill-equipped and unwilling to care for evacuees.

Great for ages 8 and up.

Rachel Wright, World War II (Crafts Topics Series) (Franklin Watts, 2008)

Despite the sweeping title, this title is primarily about the wartime British Home Front. The text is a little more "textbooky" than most, and the focus is on the adult experiences of food rationing, clothes rationing, mass entertainment, and war work. The appeal is in the activities: As a nice counterpoint to the whiteness of the Brits in contemporary photos, two Indian-British kids are the models who demonstrate making a fake tin helmet, a truly repulsive-looking mock-apricot flan (tart) from a wartime recipe using carrots, and a cardboard U.S. aircraft.

My complaints? There's a "Now what?" quality to the activities. It would be great to have suggestions for dramatic play to go along with the crafts, and a text that sparks empathy and imagination. Still, if you can get it cheap, it might be a useful addition. Ages 8 and up.

Terry Deary, The Blitzed Brits (Horrible Histories Series)

True to the series' title and reputation, this is horrible history at its best. Read about the evacuees whose parents didn't want them back when the war ended… The evacuees who arrived with fleas and had no idea how to eat at a table… And don't miss the stories of people who used the black market to cheat on rationing. It's good for everyone to learn that the people of the past weren't always perfect, and, no, this doesn't make kids depressed and cynical as the Appropriateness Police blithely assume. Indeed, kids are gleeful to discover that adults are people, too, and that their behavior can make kids seem morally superior. Check out the recipes for truly awful wartime food to try at home. No color pictures, but plenty of cheery black and white cartoons. Ages 8 and up.

Nina Bawden, Carrie's War (book and DVD)

The book's a classic, but whether kids like it or not will depend on their general taste in books. This is a gentle story of an evacuee and her brother who are sent to rural Wales, far from the bombs of the Blitz. The strength of the book is in the characters, from the terrified Auntie Lou, to the bullying Mr. Evans, the sensible (and amusing) Albert Sandwich, and the daffy Mrs. Gotobed. Nina Bawden was herself an evacuee in Wales, and, although she maintains that Carrie's War isn't autobiographical, she writes from experience. Ages 9 and up.

The Carrie's War DVD…is okay. It has far too much of a modern tone for my taste, so that the characters seem anachronistic for the Forties. Mr. Evans is too sympathetic (to appeal to the adult audience, I suspect), while Carrie and Nick seem too worldly and self-assured. However, the BBC has not yet released the 1975 version on DVD, so this is the one we have. Still worth a look. Ages 9 and up.

Michelle Magorian, Goodnight, Mr. Tom

A lonely and sweet old man takes an abused evacuee into his home and heart. One very humane novel with a sweet ending. Ages 10 and up.

Annette Laing, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Confusion Press, 2007)


American kids from 2008 become British kids in 1940. Enough said, since it is (full disclosure) my book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Theatrical Teaching & School Visits

You know, some of the best things I've learned about presenting to kids, I've learned from British children's theatre...
Had a very good time visiting May Howard Elementary School in Savannah yesterday, talking to the entire fourth and fifth grades about kids' lives in World War Two Britain, which also happens to be the backdrop to the first novel in my Snipesville Chronicles series.
It's always interesting to see which variables affect my school visits: Timing (right before lunch can be tricky), age (above 6th grade requires significantly different strategies) and, most of all, how "on" I am. Or not.
Yesterday, I'd had to take a bit of temporary but very powerful anti-allergy medication that put me into jittery hypermode. I'm kinda afraid to watch the video now, to be honest. But kids and teachers were reportedly pleased, so I guess I pulled it off. Phew.
My large-group talks always include lots of show and tell artifacts, a multimedia narrative, and audience participation, in the form of question and answer, volunteers to the front to help me demonstrate, and objects passed around for hands-on experience. I also compare and contrast between past and present, and encourage kids to imagine themselves as children in the period.
But the very best stuff, I learned from pantomime, or panto for short.
Now this isn't to be confused with "mime", you know, like Marcel Marceau.
Panto is a interactive family theatre format in Britain that dates back a couple of centuries at least, and is a much-treasured secular Christmas tradition. British kids love it, and I'm delighted to learn from Wikipedia that a handful of theatre companies in the U.S. have started their own Christmas pantos.
My experience with TimeShop taught me that American kids love interactive and silly approaches just as much as any kid in Britain. So I've started incorporating some techniques in my one-person school visits: I wear a truly hideous costume. I hand out prizes to kids who come to the front and help, or who answer questions; random candies (from the period, I rush to add) are distributed to the audience, and I make fervent efforts to get the kids to argue with me. "They ate a lot of vegetables during the War...But you like veggies, don't you?...Especially cabbage. And Brussels sprouts."
That usually gets them going. :-)
Where I come a cropper is when I forget myself while talking to fifth graders, and revert to the historians' habit of being equivocal: "Well, there were exceptions...." etc. It's always best to keep it simple.
Does all this emphasis on entertainment and avoiding ambiguity mean that I'm dumbing down?
No, it absolutely does not.
What I try to do is all about engaging kids, and then slipping in asides to jump-start their thinking: They're fascinated to figure out that they have much less personal freedom than did the kids of wartime Britain, and also that they are generally much better behaved (not that this always a good thing...)
Once kids realize what they have in common with people of the past as well as what sets them apart...The ball is rolling, and I no longer have to push it along. That's the thing that too often gets missed by those who create social studies curriculum for elementary schools and inflict it on teachers: Cramming the kids full of facts is boring, pointless, and counterproductive. Inspiring them is the only thing that counts at that age.

Interested in having me visit your school?
First off, I want you to know that I keep it affordable, because my primary mission is not to push my books for their (or my) own sake, but to sell kids on history. I genuinely treasure my schools visits, because it's so stimulating to touch base with teachers, librarians, and, of course, kids.
So I'm not getting rich: Fees start at just $100 a day (local), rising to $800 for West Coast visits, which includes travel expenses. I will admit that I also make my books available for sale, with $2 per book being donated to your school's media center/library. However, my large group presentations DON'T depend on kids having read the book, and I always make sure they have access to library copies. Hard to believe, I know, but I ain't in this for the money.
Drop me a line at Annette@ConfusionPress.com, and I'll happily send you info by email.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teaching The Industrial Revolution: Child Labor and The Cycle of History

If you are teaching the Industrial Revolution, and wondering how to explain its relevance to kids in the IPod, $100 sneakers generation, check out this NY Times piece on child labor in Chinese factories.

Kids are fascinated with first-hand accounts of children who worked in mines and factories in the industrial revolution in early nineteenth-century Britain. Combine that with a discussion of the later American industrial revolution, and now the industrialization in China, and you will hook them.

In every case, child labor is a feature of early industrialization, but is finally acknowledged as an evil, and attempts are made to eradicate it. Consider that kids had always worked on farms: How was this different from working in factories? How did the ending of child labor go hand in hand with the rise of compulsory education?

Have kids look at pictures and write a first-hand story of what they imagine it would have been like to work at a young age.

Ask kids if they would be prepared to give up goods made by children, even if that would mean paying more. This is not the loaded question it may at first appear: Many of us who have qualms about poor working conditions in factories nonetheless purchase their products, either because we are apathetic, or because we cannot afford to pay more for our current standard of living. Allow kids to decide for themselves where they stand.

This is a great way to kick off a study of industrialization: It will make learning the economic stuff more palatable, and encourage critical thinking, including historical literacy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wot, No Fun British History Books For Bored American Kids?

So much for globalization.

I created a short list of recommended summer history reading for my local independent bookstore, the amazing Book and Cranny. Among my suggestions were Terry Deary's Horrible Histories, a marvelous (and phenomenally successful) British series that is listed with major online booksellers in the U.S.

Silly me. I thought this meant it would be no problem for Debbie the bookseller to stock a few of the titles.

Boy, was I wrong. Turns out, she would have to forfeit the standard booksellers' discount of 45% for a measly 25%, assuming a title was available at all, because most of the books have to be imported from the UK. Since Debbie has to pay her rent, and bookstores are hardly places of great profit, I couldn't ask her to take a hit. We settled on ordering Horrible History of the World (mysteriously re-titled Wicked History of the World for the U.S. market) and the Horrible History Pirates' Handbook, the only two titles available at standard rates on this side of the Atlantic.

I do wonder why these books are so hard to find

I doubt very much that demand is low because American kids wouldn't enjoy the series: My son and several of his friends love it to bits.

Perhaps the problem is that American parents may be shocked by a history series that cheerfully tells of heads being chopped off, and other ghastly subjects that kid adore. Certainly, there are a couple of easily-shocked adults who have vented their spleen in Amazon reviews…But it's not clear that all the critics are in touch with what kids really like. Moreover, American parents have staunchly defended the titles, and praised them for their humor and lively approach to history.

Some years ago, there was an effort to launch an American Horrible Histories brand, with a book on Columbus that…wasn't very horrible at all. In fact, it was rather dull.

Fascinatingly, many of the Horrible History books are readily available in the U.S., but only in Spanish. I'm guessing this means they're big in Latin America, and so can easily be trucked here. Does this mean that Latin American parents have a better appreciation of good kids' history, and that the cultural differences in publishing between Britain and Peru or Mexico are not as great as those between Britain and the U.S.? But I'm just guessing wildly.

Still, I am encouraged that at least two of the titles are available here, but concerned that they aren't much promoted, and hard to find. Let's see how The Book and Cranny does with the two titles in a small, conservative town in Georgia. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What’s History? A Random Ramble.

Working on my second children's novel recently, I keep on thinking about a comment from an Amazon customer who praised my first book for reviving her son's interest in reading (hooray!) but who also criticized it for not having as much history in it as she had hoped (Not hooray. Hmm.)

I really, really wish I could ask her for more feedback.

This was an extremely interesting comment, because I hadn't heard it before from anyone, not even the three academic historians, other than myself, who read the book in draft. I asked one of those historians, what to make of it. Without being unkind or patronizing, I promise, she said "Oh, she doesn't understand what history is."

That's the sort of comment that understandably rankles people, so let me explain.

We often use the word "history" generically. We use it to mean "the past."

A building becomes "historical" by virtue of its age, regardless of whether it is genuinely of interest in terms of architecture, social history, or political history.

Even the most tedious chronicler of the past can dub himself a historian without being challenged, so that very, very boring and/or unrepresentative people and books become the public face of history.

In too many high schools and, I'm ashamed to say, in all too many colleges, what we call "history" classes are really exercises in one damn thing after another, in which students are fed and tested on random factoids, without rhyme or reason.

Why does this matter? It matters because history is not the past, but interpretation of the past. History is honesty, not apology. History is critical, not celebratory. History is argument. History is questioning. The word history itself comes not from the blending of "his story" (contrary to the imaginings of 60s feminists who celebrated "herstory"), but from the Greek "historia", which means (roughly) learning through enquiry.

If historians engage constantly in argument with themselves and others, doesn't that imply that they are deliberately manipulating the past?

True, the ethics of professional history do not require absolute objectivity, because that's humanly impossible: We all have our biases and prejudices. But they do require self-examination, and honesty,. Put another way, I am not required as an historian to shed every opinion I may hold (how could I?) but I am required to pursue truth, no matter how unpleasant I may find it. I am required to be willing to revamp or even abandon a thesis when the evidence does not support it.

What's more, I must constantly play devil's advocate, asking myself over and over if I have taken every available bit of contradictory evidence into account.

That's why ideologues don't make good historians.

If I screw up, if I don't deal honestly with the evidence, if I inadvertently interpret it out of context, or if I miss some major body of evidence entirely, I expect to be called to account by peer reviewers before my work goes into print. Our ideas are run up the flagpole at conferences, and tested further in articles and books. Even if we survive the vigorous debate to that point, we expect our work to soon be rendered obsolete: Every idea worth its salt inspires a dozen other scholars or more to rush to the archives on a hunch that it's wrong.

Lecture over. Now, hands up: How many people learned all this about history and historians in high school? Or in college?

That's the problem.

When practically everyone who didn't go to graduate school in history is only taught history in vapid survey courses, a "history" without theses, without argument, without passion, without debate, what is generally understood to be history is indeed one damn thing after another. Without an awareness of the ongoing arguments and the vast publishing output of professional historians, we believe that history is enshrined in textbooks, having been passed down since time immemorial on stone tablets.

I recall attending a lecture given some years ago by the then-head of the American Historical Association, Dr. Joyce Appleby, who said wearily, "People think that when we tell them something different from what they learned in elementary school, we're lying to them." (Not a word for word quote, because it has been a few years, but pretty close.)

Which brings me back (sort of) to my Amazon critic, who (unless she contacts me to clarify, and I really hope she will!) I can only assume meant that my novel was lacking in textbook-type facts.

Normally I don't respond to reviews, because having been trained as a journalist as well as an historian, I am used to criticism and, indeed, genuinely welcome the feedback.

On this occasion, however, I did respond, because it was an opportunity to make sure we were both on the same page. What I emphasized is that history is not just dates and battles, but changing attitudes and values: As a cultural historian, that's my specialty. By bringing three 21st century American kids to mid-20th century England, I had to exercise all my skills of historical imagination, as well as my (imperfect) knowledge of the period, to show how things really do change over time and place. That said, I wasn't trying to write history, but fiction that would ignite kids' interest in history. I wanted, above all, not to sound like a textbook.

I referred this parent to the many entertaining and informative non-fiction books for kid on British childhood during World War II. But I'm still worried that I sounded condescending, then and now. I promise that I don't mean to: The tone is rather of a young woman in a hurry, trying to get out the word to the real public (not just those who read the New York Times) that history is so much more than meets the eye.

Why does all this matter to kids, parents, and democracy?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What Makes A Museum Great?

What makes a museum work? That's a question I have wanted to answer for many years. Too often, as a kid, I begged to go to museums, only to get, well, bored when I got there. More recently, I was fascinated to hear a friend who is a well-respected historian expound on how much she hated museums, and how dull they were.
Last summer, I taught public history in London to undergraduates from throughout Georgia . Every week, we took a day-long field trip to a different museum, with a view to figuring out what works, and what doesn't. Of course, we weren't there as official consultants, and my goal was to get students looking at museums with a critical eye. But I think we learned a few things that might be of interest.
Size doesn't matter. The British Museum, of course, wins the "Who Has the Biggest and Most Bewildering Collection Award" for all time, and one could certainly argue that its treasures, from the Elgin marbles to the pickled body of the Bog Man, are attraction enough. Our class visit to the BM began as a mystery tour: The students, in their first week in London, didn't know where they were going until we got there. For the first fifteen minutes, I had them go off in pairs to figure out what the theme of the Museum is, without consulting the official leaflets, and then return to give brief oral reports. To discourage cheating, and to encourage creativity, I awarded extra points for humor. A typical response was that of the student who threw open his arms and said "EVERYTHING!"
Like every British kid within a hundred-mile radius of London, I was dragged to the BM more than once in the Seventies, and set loose to wander (or, more accurately, misbehave). I've never been that keen to go back, honestly, because I feel boredom setting in rather rapidly after I've oohed and ahhed at a few of the more remarkable exhibits.
But the BM scored points with me on this occasion. It made quite an effort to help visitors avoid being overwhelmed, and also made their experience a personal one.
There are more resources specifically for kids these days, including a family-friendly audio tour, hosted by British comic actor Stephen Fry. Scattered throughout the Museum were tables where visitors could handle artifacts. What was striking was the friendliness of the staff at these tables: They encouraged kids to touch, answered questions concisely with humor and without droning on at length, and otherwise made themselves very approachable. It was this spirit of hospitality, more than anything, that helped make the BM less daunting to us all.
Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge has, in many ways, practically the opposite set of challenges. It's on the very edge of London, in Epping Forest, which makes it off the beaten path for most visitors. The building itself is tall (three stories) but very narrow, so space is limited. There are practically no period artifacts beyond the actual building, and it's unlikely to acquire any.
Yet Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge was my students' favorite museum in London.
That's because it has soul.
We were given a tour by Sophie, the enthusiastic director, who showed us how the museum makes the most of its limited resources. Unlike larger museums, this one has a very focused theme: The building was indeed a Tudor hunting lodge. Royals and their guests, often a bit worse for wear after several rounds of drinks, would shoot arrows out of the windows at deer who were driven toward them from the forest by servants. It's a lovely, Monty Pythonesque image, really, especially when you realize that the guests were sustained by ample food and drink being delivered from the kitchen on the first floor, and it speaks volumes about the entitlements of the wealthiest Tudors. A friend of mine laughingly pointed out that this is roughly the style in which the wealthy still hunt today.
The museum uses wonderfully presented fake foods to recreate the kitchen. The upper floors include dress-up costumes and a few small displays. An excellent scavenger hunt (treasure hunt in British English) is available for kids, and my son enjoyed that enormously. The view from the windows is a great spark to imagination.
But the most striking thing is the hospitality of the staff. I have visited the Lodge before, and even in the absence of the wonderful Sophie, it's clear that everyone is passionately fond of the Lodge, and eager to share its story with others.
Over many years of visiting museums and running my own public history programs, I have become convinced that it's hospitality that counts. An impressive collection and sophisticated interpretation don't make for a pleasant visitor experience if staff are apathetic, pompous, or dismissive toward visitors. One passionate, committed, and friendly interpreter is worth a thousand artifacts.