Author Archives: Keith Muchowski

Whither the house museum?

Concord's Old Manse

Concord’s Old Manse

Here is a confession for you: I never pay the full suggested admission price when I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reason is because I figure that, like many huge and successful insitutions, the Met is doing pretty well for itself, even in these difficult times. Usually when I visit I give them $5, not the $25 they suggest. Let me hasten to add that I believe it is crucial to support all cultural institutions, large and small. I never freeload and I always give even the wealthier places something. When visiting smaller museums–and I visit several dozen a year–I always make certain to support very generously. At a small site I always give the full suggested amount. If the place is gratis, I still make sure to put a little something in the donation box. Every little bit helps, especially at smaller venues. An interesting article came through my in box the other day about the perilous state of house museums in Massachusetts. By extension the problems faced by such museums in the Bay State are applicable across the country.

For me at least the term “house museum” can mean two different things: a building that was once the actual domicile of a famous individual, or someone’s current place of residence partially turned into an exhibit space through an act of passion for something. My favorite was this one. It is shocking to see that Paul MacLeod has died.

The topic was already fresh in my mind because a few of us at Governors Island were talking about the sins and virtues of a few particular house museums in Gettysburg. Without naming names, let’s just say the quality of interp varies along Steinwehr Avenue and the Baltimore Pike. Also, just a few days after that conversation I was in Boston and visited a few of the historic sites in Lexington and Concord. The museums were a mish mash of Park Service and private sites working next to each other along the route the Redcoats covered in April 1775. One of the most interesting was The Old Manse, the Concord house that Emerson and Hawthorne called home at different points in time. The museum staff was quite informed and knowledgeable, everything one can ask for.

Thank god for the Met, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay and others, but I hate to think of a world in which our precious house museums disappear.

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Re-reading McCullough

author David McCullough

author David McCullough

Today I began re-reading the first third David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback. This is the ur-text for anyone who works or volunteers at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. I wanted to re-read this portion of the book for a few reasons. First, I felt my tours at the TRB were becoming a little too rote and formulaic. It is so easy to let the story become flat. Also, the “problem” with the Roosevelts is that the entire clan is so fascinating. Mention an aspect of American history–even international history–and the Roosevelts were probably involved in some way. This is great for a generalist such as myself but I must force myself to focus on my ultimate goals regarding the Roosevelt Birthplace, to involve myself in public history and to focus at the same time on my book about the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt Senior. The house on East 20th Street was after all the home of Theodore Senior and his wife Martha. A third reason for going back to Mornings is that I know much more about the family than I did when I began there ten months ago. I feel like I am absorbing much more of what McCullough has to say this time around.

It is interesting because Mornings on Horseback is something of a Roosevelt trilogy. The Path Between the Seas is about the construction of the Panama Canal and obviously focuses on Theodore Roosevelt. Even The Great Bridge, albeit to a lesser degree, has a Roosevelt protagonists: Robert Roosevelt, the future president’s uncle. The book about the Brooklyn Bridge does such a good job too of putting the era into a context. I don’t how McCullough does it.

So much good work has been done about the Roosevelt family and yet there is still much ground to cover and areas to explore.

(image/Nrbelex)

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Sunday eve

The Colonial Era Grand Union flying over Fort Jay today.  Look closely at the canton and you will see the Union Jack.

The Grand Union flying over Ft Jay today. Note the Union Jack in the canton.

It was a fun and exhausting day on Governors Island. There was a lot going on, which I will talk more about as the week progresses. You never know who or what you will see. Today there was an old Coast Guard member who had served on the island for twenty years. He was even there on 9/11 as part of the skeleton crew left over after the closing of the base in the late 90s. That would have put him just half a mile rom the Trade Center. One of my favorite things about the island is seeing which flag the Park Service has decided to fly over Fort Jay. It varies depending on the occasion and/or the mood of the personnel doing the hoisting. It is one of those neat little things I like to point out to visitors. Some thought has always gone into it. This week it is the Grand Union flag in recognition for the Battle of Brooklyn, the anniversary of which is in a few days.

I was in Boston earlier in the week visiting relatives and we went to Concord and Lexington. I had never been there before and feel I now have a sense of the Shot Heard Round the World that I did not have previously. As with Civil War sites, one must visit and walk the battle grounds of the Revolutionary War to get a sense of the action. I had a good talk with Park personnel about the hows and whys of the construction of the visitor center in the early Seventies in preparation for the Bicentennial. Over the past few day I have been reading the Cultural Landscape Report for Minute Man National Historic Park. The evolution of historic sites is fascinating in and of itself. I read an article a few years ago, for the life of me I cannot remember where, in which the author argued that New York State lags behind Massachusetts and Virginia in the Revolutionary War tourism industry because the Empire State was late to the game at the turn of the 20th century. It certainly sounds feasible and would explain why New York’s role in the Revolution is under-appreciated. That is why I was glad to see the Grand Union flying today.

 

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Sunday morning coffee

IMG_1380

It is another early Sunday morning. There is about another month to go in the Governors Island season. I was at the public library doing some Roosevelt stuff yesterday. When I was done I went up to the History Department and noticed this display for the World War 1 Centennial. Of course I had stop top and take a quick pic. Which one stands out?

Enjoy your Sunday.

 

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The world’s crookedest golf course

Bunkers of another kind: remnants of the old Governors Island gold course

Bunkers of another kind: remnants of the old Governors Island gold course

Comedian George Burns liked to say that golf is a good walk spoiled. This adage comes to mind when looking at the remnants of what was once the Governors Island nine-hole course. It was a short executive style set-up laid out on the glacis to the south and west of Fort Jay. The course measured about 1,900 years and played to a par thirty. It is easily recognizable today if one knows what to look for. The sand traps, putting greens, and tee boxes look almost like archaeological ruins. These are now choice spots for picnickers and sunbathers. Note how close the golf course is to both Fort Jay and the neighboring residential houses and apartments. Army officers stationed on the island liked their golf course and played frequently. Still, golf being what it is, even the best of them sometimes had their off days. According to one account it was on the links here at Governors Island that “young West Pointers were taught to swear.”

The course dated back to 1903 and was in use through the Coast Guard years in the 1990s. It was the only golf course in Manhattan’s jurisdiction, as the island is technically part of that borough. The course received considerable use. The 1920s seemed to have been a particularly busy time; with the Great War over and the army downsizing to pre-1917 levels there was more time for leisure. The course was sometimes called “the world’s crookedest” because it was shoe-horned into such a small area with lots of twists and turns.

When General Robert Lee Bullard commanded the Department of the East from Governors Island he received a serious eye injury when his shot ricocheted off Fort Jay, bounced back, and struck him in the eye. He had survived Cantigny and Chateau-Thierry unscathed, but the bunkers on Governors Island proved too much. In 1927 Gene Sarazen, Francis Ouimet, Walter Hagen, and Jess Sweetster played a fundraiser here to raise funds for the Army Relief Society.

A postage stamp green: with land at such a premium on the island such small greens were the norm

A postage stamp green: with land at such a premium on the island such small greens were the norm

Bullard was injured when he attempted to bounce a shot off the walls of Fort Jay. Speaking of Bullard, note that his full name was Robert Lee Bullard. He was an Alabamian born in January 1861.

Bullard was injured when he attempted to bounce a shot off the walls of Fort Jay. Speaking of the general, note that his full name was Robert Lee Bullard. He was an Alabamian born in January 1861. Robert E. Lee was not yet a universal household name, but one cannot help but wonder if Bullard was named after that military leader.

Tee boxes: again note the closeness to residential housing

Tee boxes: again note the closeness to residential housing

Another bunker: that is Fort Jay directly behind and the new World Trade Center off in the distance

Another bunker: that is Fort Jay directly behind and the new World Trade Center off in the distance

Gene Sarazen as he was in the late 1920 around the time he came to Governors Island for an Army Relief Society fundraiser. With the Great War over for almost a decade, the Roaring Twenties were on.

Gene Sarazen as he was in the late 1920s around the time he came to Governors Island for an Army Relief Society fundraiser. With the Great War over for almost a decade the Roaring Twenties were on. Sarazen is one of only five golfers to win the modern Grand Slam.

Uniformed service persons stationed on Governors Island were proud of their gold course. As this 1930s post card shows, they even put it on stationary.

Uniformed service persons stationed on Governors Island were proud of their golf course. As this 1930s postcard shows, they even put it on stationary. Here too one can see the Manhattan skyline in the distance.

(images/Sarazen and postcard from Digital NYPL)

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Sunday morning coffee

I was at a social gathering a few weeks ago when I mentioned that linguist Steven Pinker has a new style guide coming out in September. My story of Pinker and his thoughts on grammar fell flat, though that was my fault. Broaching the ins and outs of split infinitives on a Saturday night was probably not the way to go.

In a nutshell, Pinker tries to split the difference between prescriptivists and descripivists. Grammarians and editors who fall into the prescriptivist camp believe that there are rigid rules to follow in writing and that deviation should be avoided at all costs. Yes, language evolves, they allow, but change should be slow and cautious. Descriptivists take a more relaxed approach and believe that language is more flexible and fluid. Language, they argue, is whatever people say it is. It is more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. You can read more about it yourself; the London Guardian published an excerpt on Friday.

Ironically people generally–and lazily–call Pinker a descriptivist, which I think misses the point. His whole argument is that good communication is the goal and that style is an important part of the process. Otherwise why would he waste his time writing a book on usage? The point is to communicate effectively without being a prig.

I am looking forward to Pinker’s book, which will be released in September. Writing well and clearly is important. I wrote about this a few years back. Like Pinker, I too fall in the middle area between presriptivist and descriptivist. Standards matter. There is nothing more frustrating than reading something–an email, text message, newspaper article, whatever–in which the meaning is vague or unclear. It cannot be a total free-for-all. At the same time, we should not become totally captive to the rules, as if they exist just for themselves. The idea is to understand the rules of style and grammar well enough to be able to break them occasionally when necessary.

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The Panama Canal turns 100

I do not usually cross-post items I have written elsewhere, but a version of this appeared earlier today on the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Facebook page. I could not let the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal go unnoticed here on The Strawfoot. I have been a bit surprised that there has not been more coverage of this over the past few days. I will have to check the C-SPAN listings to see if maybe there is anything over the weekend. Canals have played a an important and curiously under under underappreciated role in the world’s economic and political development. The Suez, the Erie, China’s Grand Canal. These are hugely significant feats that had, and have, important consequences. I suspect the reason for the lack of appreciation for canals is that visually they are not much to look at. Essentially a canal is a big ditch. The Brooklyn Bridge is something that poets and painters can get excited about. The Soo Locks are not.

index.phpStill that does lessen the importance of the Panama Canal. This is a monumental day in the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, it was an important day in the history of science, engineering, trade, commerce, and more. The canal took so much of Roosevelt’s and John Hay’s diplomatic energies. For years everyone had understood the growing importance of navies and shipping. A canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been a dream for decades. Before the canal it was necessary to sail around the lower tip of South America. The canal cut 8,000 miles off that journey. Another option was to traverse the isthmus by mule, carriage, or on foot. That was as dangerous, even fatal, as it sounds.

The French had tried and failed in the nineteenth century. Construction on the American attempt began in 1903 and took eleven years. Completion of the 77 kilometer (48 mile) passageway could not have come at a better time; the Great War had begun just weeks earlier. Keeping the oceans free and accessible was now easier. I believe the canal’s role in the First World War is ripe for Interpretive possibilities, and I intend to write about it over the Centennial. It was crucial during the Second World War as well. Today the canal is busier than ever and is being expanded.

To say that there were obstacles—political, logistical, and otherwise—would be an understatement. When I worked for the public library I had a Panamanian colleague whose ancestor had worked on the project. One of the biggest problems were the disease carrying mosquitoes that took the lives of the manual laborers. Roosevelt’s visit to the canal’s construction site was the first time a sitting president left the United State. Eight years later all of that had been overcome and Roosevelt’s dream had become a reality. It took all of his skills—and yes even a little political intrigue—to make the whole thing happen. He was not in Panama 100 years ago today, but one can only imagine what he must have been thinking that day.

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