Museums and Displays

One of the problems I have with going to a museum that touts its history collection and suggests that it will teach the visitor something about history is that for the most part the audience will take for granted that the museum will tell “the truth.”1

Often these displays will not actually lie to said visitor, but they will certainly mislead. For example, the USS Constitution Museum2 wanted to give a very, very basic overview of what the age of sail was about, that era of American Naval History (mostly the Barbary Wars) and, of course, the USS Constitution. In part because of not going into that detail and in many ways regardless of the detail the museum promoted glorification of sailing ships, the US Navy and the founding heroes of that body. For example, Stephen Decatur had a little bio, including his exploits on the Intrepid and as captain of the Constitution; William Bainbridge also had a plaque (both men won gold plaques for distinguished service and bravery), but while Decatur’s death was mentioned, what was not mentioned was that Bainbridge hated Decatur, was his second in the duel where he died, and did not intervene when Decatur had things set against him.

Another display talked about the foundation of the original six frigates (Constitution, United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, and Congress) and how Joshua Humphrey won the contract to design the fleet. It didn’t mention that Josiah Fox also won the contract, that it was shared between the men and that Fox believed that Humphrey was wrong and therefore changed the design where ever he felt necessary.

The section about how the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli Harbor was glossed over, whereas the emphasis was on Bainbridge’s communications out of the prison and to Commodore Preble (who was praised as a hero and for Preble’s boys, without mentioning that he was unpopular and sickly), and, of course, on the daring raid to sink the frigate before the Tripolitans could refloat and rearm her.

I suppose that if someone wanted a passing understanding of that era’s naval history and a generic tale of what happened, then the museum was passable, but a bit small. It just seemed in many ways to be a glorification monument to the United States.

1 Very much the same is true for books, tv documentaries and teachers, but I visited the USS Constitution museum today, which is what made me think of this.

2 Which was decidedly underwhelming.

Footnotes versus Endnotes

As both a reader and a researcher I love footnotes. I love the ability to digress slightly, relate related, even if not especially pertinent information, to explain minutiae of an argument without detracting from the narrative. They are also extremely useful for noting where certain information, especially primary information and obscure facts, come from. For scholars, especially respected ones, to simply state a fact as true without acknowledging or explaining where this information comes from is simply unacceptable to me.1

The same information may be expressed in an endnote, but I find them to be unwieldy. In a footnote you may explain tangents, but they must be narrower in scope simply because there should be more text on a given page than footnotes. In theory the same could apply to end-notes, but there is more freedom to ramble on.

As a reader, I hate end-notes because they interrupt the flow of my reading.2 Reading footnotes I can pause at a paragraph break, skim through the footnote and pick up again with little time lost. End-notes I can stop at a paragraph, but then have to find where in the notes at the end of the book my particular note is located. This is even more true when the author renumbers their end-notes by chapter, because then if I reach the right number, I may not be on the right page.

There it is. End-notes are better than no notes, but inferior to footnotes because of reading flow and their lack of checks on their length or deviation.

1 Most recently I saw this in Paul Cartledge’s book Alexander the Great, where he chose a starting point for much of the action with the claim that Parmenion was from Upper Macedonia. My research does not support this, if for no other reason than that Parmenion was a major player in Lower Macedonia for years prior to unification and that there are no sources attributing to his birth location. My suspicion is that he was a middling aristocrat from Lower Macedonia. Further, Upper Macedonia is the modern term for several different principalities, not one unified area. I could go on into much more detail, but that is another footnote.

2 That is if I care enough to follow through.

Historical Fiction

I have been reading non-fiction history books for fun for as long as I can remember. When I was in the lower portion of elementary school (it might have been as early as second grade, but no later than fourth) I took out a book on a Dakota (Sioux) Chieftan thirteen times in a row. Over the years I have learned that my propensity to read these things is rather unusual–even more so than the amount that I read is.

Even so, as a compulsive learner on the verge of entering a graduate program in history I feel myself also drawn to historical fiction; in an almost perverse manner I feel that this genre has a lot to add to the study of history, be it for someone simply for a glimpse of an event, a serious historian, or a teacher of new students.

I suppose that before I explain myself, I should qualify that statement. Most historical fiction is poorly written drivel that misleads, super-imposes the author’s morals and values onto the subject matter and may be entirely under-informed. The same may be said of actual historians.

I study history because I want to. I find it interesting and want others to experience the same enjoyment. I have stated my view of history here before and do not feel as though I should explain it all anew, but for this most critical aspect, historical fiction is invaluable. A well written historical fiction novel brings to life the events as they happen, bringing into focus the motives and characters of history. While not the same as what a historian does by reliving the past and making the investigation, this is similar and quite pleasantly fulfills the same niche in those people who have no interest in actually doing the investigation.

At this time I have begun designing five different classes and have completed one; three of these incorporate historical fiction novels, but with the explicit section of the course where the class looks towards what the author changed, why and were they valid.

Perhaps the metaphor that I am looking towards is that Historical Fiction is the television show to History’s life. For those so inclined history is preferable, but for many others, for whom life is another persuit, the show w – ill substitute well.

Good (or worthwhile) Historical Fiction – An incomplete list.

Lincoln – Gore Vidal
Creation – Gore Vidal
Julien – Gore Vidal
The Sunne In Splendour – Sharon Kay Penman
Here Be Dragons – Sharon Kay Penman
Andersonville – MAcKinlay Kantor
Killer Angels – Michael Shaara
Grail Quest, Saxon Chronicles and Arthur Series – Bernard Cornwell
Roma – Steven Saylor
The King Must Die – Mary Renault
The Praise Singer – Mary Renault
The Accursed Kings – Maurice Druon
The Gates of Fire – Steven Pressfield