Friday, June 27, 2008
As an early American historian, I really do want to see this museum succeed, and all these changes seem terribly promising: It's great to see museums taking a proactive approach. My only continuing beef is that I remain skeptical that architectural features alone can evoke imaginative response in most audiences, but I'll hold my fire for now, and cheerfully accept the invitation to make a repeat visit to the Benjamin Franklin House at the next opportunity, this time with a child or children in tow. For now, if you're considering a London trip, please do read over Dr. Balisciano's comment (appended to my original review), and consider booking tickets to visit the house. I will be interested in readers' responses in future.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Annette's note: This is not a book for kids, although kids may well like the pictures and some of the text. So this rating does NOT incorporate the opinion of Alec, my son/kid assistant. I review it because it is a book that can be used with and for kids.
Burton K. Kummerow, Christine H. O'Tooler, and R. Scott Stephenson, Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh (2008)
I first learned how to "see" rural western Pennsylvania in 1993, in the company of Pastor Weiser, an ordained Lutheran minister who used his many personal connections in the area to take visitors beyond the tourist trail. Our group, from throughout the University of California system, had been studying Early America in Colonial Williamsburg for three months. Now, we made contact with the colonial past's tenuous survival into the present, as we travelled among the German-Americans of Lancaster County. We visited a market staffed by Amish and Mennonite farmers in their otherworldly costumes, and pondered how deep the food roots of the amazingly artificial "traditional" Whoopie Pie could possibly go. We climbed the stairs of a rural house, and met an eighty-year-old Amish bookbinder at work. We descended to a church basement for a scrumptious lunch of Pennsylvania "Dutch" grub cooked by Pennsylvania "Dutch" ladies, while a cheesy but earnest local duo sang German-American folk songs. Pastor Weiser kept us grounded, as did all the Pennsylvanians we met: These locals not quaint relics, but real and complex people who inhabited the same world as us. This tour was worth a million boring roadside "historic landmarks."
It was the memory of this day in Pennsylvania, and my realization that I have so many vivid memories of it, that piqued my interest in Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Published to commemorate this year's 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War, the book's timing is not altogether lucky: This is not so much a book for reading as it is a luxurious road trip guide. As I write, gas is pushing $4 a gallon, so it might actually work better as a guide for the armchair traveler.
That said, and assuming that the road trip has any future, this is an intriguing and creative approach to engaging visitors in the presence of the past.
Inviting the reader to retrace the route through western Pennsylvania taken by the British and Colonial joint forces during the French and Indian War, the book focuses on John Forbes , a Scottish officer who won military victory, brokered careful negotiations with Indian allies of the French and pacifist Quakers, and generally set about winning hearts and minds as well as battlefield victory. The creators are upfront in their hope that this story will serve as a model in an age when we have been more inclined to resort to saber-rattling and aggression than to diplomacy. Fair enough.
True, the muddy trail that Forbes, his men, and others followed has since mostly given way to asphalt. But despite dramatic changes in the landscape, the Pennsylvania of the 1750s has not vanished. Even the original unpaved road has been preserved in part, the authors tell us, and is open to the public. Some of the taverns on what is now called the Old Lancaster Road, such as the General Warren Inne in Malvern, already existed in the mid-eighteenth century. Looking for colonial survivals, and understanding that things aren't always as young (or old) as they seem is a great way for everyone to learn to think historically.
Recognizing that most vacationing families who might undertake the quest lack the obsessiveness of historians, however, the authors envision the trip as one that should be broken up with distractions. Capsule descriptions not only of historic sites and museums, but also of restaurants and even theme parks, offer plenty of advice for breaking up the journey.
While a journey through the area with this guide will encourage travelers to take a deeper interest in the environment—both built and natural—it would have been even better to have included a broader focus on the region's people, both past and present. Longer excerpts from letters and diaries (rather than indirect quotations with snippets of the original, more readable, language don't cut it) would have helped, as well would interviews with modern residents. The engaging and vivid illustrations help distract from the often ponderous text.
My question for the book's creators is whether they were interested in cultivating the broadest possible audience. Was it tested with families? If the intention was always to appeal to a niche audience of military history geeks, fair enough. But the theme and tone of the text may be offputting to anyone who doesn't fall in that group, and that's a shame.
Anyone considering writing future guides like this should think hard about producing a book that will actually have wide appeal. There is a great fear in America of dumbing down history by making it accessible, and we cut off too many people's interest in the past by limiting the scope and appeal of public history. It doesn't have to be military history to be history, nor does it have to rely on dense text. The sooner that we recognize this, the faster we can rescue historical literacy from the abyss.
Homeschoolers and teachers: Use with caution. Read through and think about this book before you hit the road, and be prepared to put in some work to use it effectively. Resist the temptation to read large portions of the dry narrative aloud to the family or your students. Instead, translate it into your own words. Plan your own narrative. This book doesn't teach kids well, but, with it as a guide, you can.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Alec, my son/kid assistant and I, arrived early on Thursday afternoon: Forewarned that the only affordable food on the premises was Chick-fil-A (a fast food offering that, frankly, grosses me out) we ate beforehand.
We had what I thought were modest goals: To tour the main exhibits about Atlanta history, and the Tullie Smith Farm, an 1840s farmhouse that is presented as a pointed reminder that few Antebellum Georgian plantation houses bore much resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. In a moment of weakness, I accepted the offer at the front desk of a guided tour of the Swan House, the other historic house at the Center, about which I knew diddly-squat.
Turned out, I was overly optimistic, given an eight-year-old in tow. But it's a mark of how impressed I was that I also whisked him into the Civil War gallery and a temporary exhibit on school desegregation ofr a quick look, even though he was tired and I normally get very sanctimonious about adults who force-feed kids history.
The Swan House, our first stop, was probably a mistake on my part. Turns out, there's an audio tour three days a week, and we arrived on one of these days. Good audio tours for families can be a godsend, but this one was "one size fits all," and spent too much time cooing deferentially about the antiques, the architecture, and the original owners, who were "prominent"in Atlanta (read "rich".)
That said, there were interesting points to be made about the lengths to which the wealthy (and all of us who aspire to gentility) go to turn homes into theatres to impress our friends.
The first owners, who commissioned the building in the 1920s, were avid Anglophiles, who tried desperately to create an 18th century English country house. Alas, they were done in, not so much by the ugliness of modern technology (which the architect cunningly hid, such as in a small room for the phone, or carefully camouflaged heating ducts), but by the grandchildren.
The audio tour included snippets of interviews with those grandchildren, who recalled being banned from various rooms (presumably lest they conflict with the decor), running toy trains in the grand hall, and eavesdropping on phone conversations by pressing their ears to the heating grilles... Encouraging Alec to think about how hard it is to have a perfect living space when kids are around helped him to survive what was otherwise a less than suitable tour.
The Tullie Smith Farm was much more kid-oriented, and led by a real, live docent, the kind who gives docents a good name. She constantly engaged Alec and Bryce, the other eight-year-old on the tour, asking them questions and tolerating their off-the-wall comments with great humor. The house and its outbuildings were appealing spaces for small boys, who dashed about exploring after the tour. When Alec recounted his visit to his father, it was the farm that figured largest in his recollection.
Throughout our visit, in the exhibition halls and gift shop as well as the historic houses, the staff members and volunteers of the Atlanta History Center were unfailingly friendly, and did their best to make Alec as well as me, in my T-shirt and jeans tourist mode, feel welcome. One of my beefs with museums (anywhere) and the city of Atlanta's cultural attractions is that staff too often are grumpy, snotty, or even border on the hostile (High Museum, anyone?) To find a museum in Atlanta, of all places, with a srong ethos of hospitality was truly a pleasant surprise.
While the AHC's displays are not particularly oriented toward kids, the Tullie Smith Farm, the attractive exhibits, the full program of family-oriented events, the gorgeous gardens, and the friendly staff make it a good bet for families with older kids, especially if you're willing to take the lead in helping interpret the exhibits for your children. Alec got tired and grumpy at the end, but we were there for three hours, and his exhaustive account of the day, given later to his father, showed that he took in a great deal: He also expressed enthusiasm for returning.
Just be sure to bring a lunch or eat first (we recommend Johnny Rocket's, about a quarter-mile away at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Paces Ferry Road, or the new branch of Flying Biscuit Cafe, at the intersection of Pace's Ferry and I-85.) Otherwise, be prepared to splurge at the posh Swan Coach House restaurant, or deal with the horror of the Coca-Cola Cafe, serving a limited menu of elderly Chick-fil-A products: The day we were there, they were selling pre-cooked sandwiches from a cooler. Ugh.
For details of hours, exhibits, etc, visit the AHC site at http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/index.cfm
Monday, June 9, 2008
Becky Laney just published an interview with me (wearing my author's hat) on her wonderful kids'/YA lit blog.
Thursday, June 5, 2008