Fun for Historians

In an effort to relieve what can often seem like drudgery in the writing process, I sometimes take up little side projects. At one point during my graduate candidacy, I came across this thesis project by two U of M MArch students and loved the way they created the site map as part of the table top.

Since I have long been interested in integrating geographic knowledge into other realms of life, I fixed on doing a table project of my own. Fortunately, my wife had a plain pine table that was ripe for refinishing. The project ended up being the Ann Arbor neighborhood we lived in together after we got married.

This is a simple IKEA table and a wood burning knife (available at hobby and craft stores). The maps were Sanborn fire insurance maps of Ann Arbor from 1925, available from UMI (now proquest). After all was done, I gave it two coats of minwax polyurethane finish.

The finished version, complete with denim legs and stocking feet.

I started ambitiously in early 2007, then stalled out for several months as I took exams and traveled before I got to dissertation writing, finally finishing in a mad rush in late 2007.

Here is a detail of the Ann Arbor table.

My wife and I lived in the east half of this duplex on Ann Street (reputed to be the inspiration for Bob Seger's 'Main Street.')

Feeling good about my temporary city and having found another little table in need of refinishing, when I moved to Philly in the summer of 2010 I fixed upon another map project.

View after I sanded down the heavily pitted top.

I got a bit overwhelmed for about two years, but now I’m picking the project back up. I tell students all the time that historians have the firmest foundation for knowledge in the academy and we have nailed the production of text as a means of communication. But reading archival documents and writing all day often leaves me longing for alternate forms of intellectual consumption and knowledge production. The often-cited desire to work with my hands is another dimension — not only to shift formats, but a format that is more physical and durable. Sometimes working on my bicycle can slake this thirst, but not always, so I’m back to it. More to come.

Temple University Public History

Two short videos I put together with Seth Bruggeman to help explain and promote the public history program at Temple University. One on Temple and History, the other on how public history differs from traditional historical training (and what it has in common).

We took a little different approach with this set of videos from what I did at Loyola. Instead of a lengthy, comprehensive video, these minute-long clips can be contextualized and viewed individually, or can be put together to make up a longer video. There are two more in the pipeline.

The Philadelphia Story

One of my friends and colleagues, Andrew Highsmith, has a review essay out in the newest issue of the Journal of Urban History. In it, he takes up several recent works on postwar American cities including Tombstone and Jerome, AZ; New Haven, CT; St. Louis, MO; Youngstown, OH; and Philadelphia, PA. The essay challenges the framework of urban decline that has such a strong effect on how we think about cities, whether visually, narratively, or economically.

Despite what Daniel Okrent and others have written, cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities. When renewers cannot lure new residents to declining cities, as was the case in Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” enterprising locals reinvent them as ghost towns and heritage sites. And if those efforts fail, scavengers and urban explorers arrive to pick through and salivate over the ruins. Tellingly, even “lost cities” of antiquity—places such as Pompeii, in present-day Italy, and Mexico’s Chichen Itza—have become major tourist attractions many centuries after their supposed deaths. And this, in short, is why even the most nuanced narratives of urban declension remain problematic.

One of the aspects that’s most interesting for me, however, is Guian McKee’s research on Philadelphia — The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia. McKee argues in his introduction that Philadelphia’s local flavor of liberalism was somewhat more activist and creative in addressing the problems of job loss for the industrial metropolis,

“[Drawing] on American liberalism’s rich legacy of policy ideas and experiments to develop a series of local industrial and employment policies that sought to arrest the decline of the city’s manufacturing sector…liberals in Philadelphia recognized the problem of deindustrialization at a very early date and used the resources they had available to shape activist, public solutions to crucial economic problems. While they did not always succeed, the vibrancy and ceativity of this local liberal response invites a reassessment of the role of urban political actors during this period…”

However, McKee notes,

“for all of its innovation, Philadelphia’s postwar liberalism suffered from a critical flaw. Its core economic strategy bifurcated along racial lines. The resulting division, into parallel, racially defined tracks of industrial and employment policy, ultimately limited the city’s ability to respond effectively to the challenges of economic transformation during the post-World War II period.”

These are salient points, and ones that I have found in my own research — it was not all state-enabled policy segregation and decline, though there was much of that. In higher education and health care, some urban actors found ways to overcome (if not drive) the transformation of the urban economy and the metropolitan landscape. In places like Philadelphia, where this also went on, there were significant efforts to arrest the flight of jobs to the PA/NJ suburbs, but these were tied up in the larger metropolitan order, in which race seemed an insurmountable barrier (or, in McKee’s telling following Gunnar Myrdal, a long term cultural and psychological problem).

I was sufficiently intrigued to buy McKee’s book for my Kindle. Now to figure out how to cite the dang thing.

The Gross Clinic

Gross Clinic Restoration

Above you see an image of Thomas Eakins’ restored Gross Clinic (restored version left, old version right). The painting was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from Jefferson University, pre-empting an agreement to sell the classic Thomas Eakins painting to the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum, in 2007. After taking possession, the PMA conducted an extensive restoration, which included x-radiography (discovering that Eakins had moved some elements in the painting), removal of an obsolete varnish and application of a new varnish, and restoration of a dark glaze to at least one key part of the painting. The restored image is now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building) until January, 2011.

The painting is the center of a fascinating exhibit about the creation of the painting, its reception, regional pride, and art restoration. Beginning with review excerpts illustrating the range of attitudes about the painting, the first gallery establishes both the controversy surrounding the modern, realist, and bloody portrait, and its artistic importance in 1876. The second gallery offers a brief sketch of Eakins’ life and the exhibition of the painting at the model military hospital at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The third gallery, which features The Gross Clinic, also contains a number of other Eakins paintings, including another surgery portrait, The Agnew Clinic; as well as Mending the Nets; Between Rounds; a portrait of Benjamin Rand, and a few studies Eakins made for the Gross portrait. In addition, it contains a section on the study and restoration process, including two key images, one a reproduction work by Eakins from around its completion for publication, and another a black and white photograph of the painting from early in the 20th century, before its first major (and highly interventionist) restoration work.

Beyond the painting itself is a small theater space showing a 24-minute video on the acquisition and restoration of The Gross Clinic. The video is well produced and fairly interesting, but has two problems: first, it is basically a video repetition of the gallery wall on the restoration process; second, it does much to promote the PMA’s restoration genius, but passes up the opportunity to offer insight into the history of restoration and why such processes may both be necessary and evolutionary. The PMA’s web pages on the restoration are more thorough and informative in this regard. Simply put, early treatments are presented as bad, mid-century and recent PMA treatments are good, even when issues with the PMA’s 1961 restoration (the obsolete varnish) must be revisited in due course. Such a simple morality tale aggrandizes the deservedly proud PMA and PAFA, but I as an audience member was left with a sense of heroes and villains in restoration, surely a facile way to think about the process that has been ongoing for about a century.

One final note on the exhibit and the PMA — the museum shops at the main building and the Perelman Building were both adequate, with the significant and even shameful lack of postcards for purchase (there were a handful in the main building, but did not include most of the museum’s main holdings). This is a terrible error and an annoyance to patrons. I love buying postcards when I go to new places, museums included. In the case of excellent art or history exhibits, a postcard is an affordable keepsake representing some feature of the exhibit. In the case of The Gross Clinic in particular, I would love to send a postcard to an acquaintance who is a scholar of the history of the human body and has almost a full-size poster print of the unrestored Gross Clinic in his office. No such luck — you dropped the ball, PMA.