Jack the Ripper Museum

In August 2015, a museum that had originally been billed as “the first women’s museum in the UK” opened instead as the Jack the Ripper Museum on Cable Street in the East End of London. ‘Jack the Ripper,’ an anonymous figure who murdered and mutilated at least five women in the late nineteenth century, has become the focus of a museum that had once been promised to represent and celebrate untold histories of women.

Photo by Claire Hayward

Photo credit:  Claire Hayward

The unveiling and opening of the museum has caused a great deal of controversy in the United Kingdom because planning permission had been granted for a museum focusing on women’s history. The change of use application for the site explained that the Museum of Women’s History would “analyse the social, political and domestic experience of women from the time of the boom in growth in the East End in the Victorian period through the waves of immigration to the present day.” There is already a museum of women’s history in the UK–the Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland has been an accredited museum since 2010–but the Museum of Women’s History would have been a valuable addition to London’s public history sites and, furthermore, could have paved the way for improving the representation of women in museums across the UK. Continue reading

Leo Frank commemoration: Museum partnerships and controversial topics

Leo Frank circa 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

Leo Frank circa 1910. Photo credit:  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

As museums increasingly become spaces for engaging challenging topics, three metro Atlanta institutions joined together to address a century-old rift in the community. Using expanded audiences, a shared strategic mission, and a network of public historians, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History forged a partnership with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education to present the exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” The following reflective case study provides an example of how public history can address a controversial subject in its most sensitive geographic location.  Continue reading

Pennsylvania’s hallowed ground: A role for historic preservation

Memorial Day ceremony, Midland Cemetery, Midland, PA, 2013. Photo credit: Brenda Barrett.

Memorial Day ceremony, Midland Cemetery, Midland, PA, 2013. Photo credit: Brenda Barrett

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

The saga of the Locust Grove Cemetery, an African American burial ground in the small borough of Shippensburg, is one that is repeated across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In his article, “’From Troubled Ground to Common Ground’: The African-American Cemetery Restoration Project: A Case Study of Service-Learning and Community History” (2008), Steven Burg recounts his work with students to research and tell the story of the cemetery’s historic value and engage with its caretakers in the site’s preservation.1 The Locust Grove project helped change the community’s perception of the cemetery from problem property to a respected historic site. While it was a success on many levels, the Locust Grove project highlights the challenge of using the National Register of Historic Preservation as a preservation tool. Continue reading

A Confederate on campus: The case of MTSU’s Forrest Hall

"Forrest plaque on the MTSU Keathly University Center, from Sidelines campus newspaper, March 1968."

Forrest plaque on the MTSU Keathly University Center.  Photo credit:  Sidelines campus newspaper, March 1968

Editor’s note: This post continues our series addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.  Here is the opening post for the series.

On April 4, 1968, an altercation occurred at Middle Tennessee State University’s newly constructed student union building, where a large crowd of students had gathered to await breaking news about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. A white male student cut through the crowd to turn off the news program in a deliberate attempt to provoke other students. This led to a fight, which at least one African American student connected to the unwelcome influence of Confederate symbols on campus. Indeed, an elaborate 600-pound bronze plaque of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest adorned the month-old building where students had gathered to mourn the death of a Civil Rights leader.

An African American student present at the union that night, Sylvester Brooks, later wrote in the campus newspaper Sidelines, “Are you proud of your school’s mascot, General Nathan Bedford Forrest?; the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan; the man who captured Black soldiers fighting for the Union; and the man who marched into Fort Pillow in West Tennessee and murdered 250 Black men, women, and children? . . . Black students have just as much right to feel a part of this campus as anyone else.”  Brooks became the most recognizable voice of opposition to MTSU’s Confederate iconography in the late 1960s. The fight he started continues to this day.

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The room is now so still

The restored Den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo courtesy of Leslie Schwartz Photography.

The restored den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

This post had its genesis in an undergraduate course, “Doing Local and Community History” (taught by Amy Tyson) at DePaul University in Spring 2015. Through the course, the author, then-senior Juan-Fernando León, partnered with the Frances Willard Historical Association in Evanston, IL.  Drawing on archival research he conducted at the Willard Archives, he was inspired to write the following.

In 2006 the Frances Willard Historical Association completed a faithful restoration of a key room in the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois: the upstairs den. Serving as a library and study for suffrage and temperance reformer Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), the restored den visually freezes the space to a single moment in time: in this case, a period between 1889 (when the den was renovated) to 1898 (when Willard died). But what of the space’s longer history?

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No mere morality play: Why we need Confederate memorials now more than ever

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the June 17 shooting tragedy in Charleston, SC, numerous cities, institutions, politicians, and members of the general public have engaged in an array of important discussions about Confederate imagery and iconography. These discussions have illuminated for a large segment of the public the integral link between slavery and the coming of the Civil War and have prompted important conversations about the evolutionary meanings and appropriations of Confederate symbolism since the war. They have also resulted in necessary revisions of public displays of the Confederate flag, most notably the removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. However, these discussions have also produced a wave of interest in the wholesale destruction of Confederate memorial landscapes, including the removal of century-old Confederate monuments, plaques, and artwork.

Numerous historians, such as Jill Ogline Titus, Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, and Gordon Rhea, have smartly delineated the differences between Confederate flags and historical, memorial landscapes. I strongly support these historians’ findings, and am in favor of the proposed creation of “counter-monuments” to slaves, African American abolitionists, United States Colored Troops, and Civil Rights activists which, I feel, would conform to the best practices of sharing authority, community engagement, and both activist and cathartic civic dialogue upon which our field has long prided itself. However, I worry that St. Paul’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia, might be contemplating the removal of its own memorial landscape in its discussions about the future of its Confederate memorial Tiffany-stained glass windows. Although the congregation’s discussions to this point are far from conclusive, I believe the importance of these discussions to the overarching debate about Confederate iconography bears address here. Continue reading

The fifty-year stumbling block

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

The Beauvoir Estate, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, seven months after suffering damage during Hurricane Katrina. Source: FEMA

The Beauvoir Estate, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, seven months after suffering damage during Hurricane Katrina.  Photo credit: FEMA

Assessing properties for listing in the National Register of Historic Places is rarely an easy process. Not only does it call for a combination of skills in architectural description and analysis, a convincing nomination relies on the ability of the author(s) to place the property in its historic context and within existing literature about the property’s period of significance. Then comes the application of what National Park Service Bureau Historian John Sprinkle has wisely described as the “so-called” 50-year rule: the property must be at least fifty years old unless it has “exceptional importance.” Sprinkle’s 2007 article, “‘Of Exceptional Importance’: The Origins of the ‘50-Year Rule’ in Historic Preservation,” for The Public Historian analyzes how the rule came into being, how it may be interpreted, and how it has impacted historic preservation in the United States for two generations. Continue reading