The power of place.

26 06 2011

Perhaps my favorite part of these TAH teacher trips is when we do what I affectionately refer to as dog-and-pony shows at major American archives. In the last five years or so, the archivists and curators at places like the Franklin Institute, the California Historical Society and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin have gone into their collections and brought out documents and objects to offer our teachers a sophisticated version of show and tell.

I’ve been through the dog-and-pony show at the Massachusetts Historical Society three times now, and it definitely gets the best reaction of any of those places. To be fair though, not all of those places have centuries old copies of the Declaration of Independence. This, for example, is the Dunlap broadside printing of the Declaration made up right after it was signed and read aloud to annonce independence:

A few years ago, Norman Mailer bought a similar version of that document for nine and a half million dollars. If you want to see one-of-a-kind documents, here is the original copy of the Abigail Adams letter in which she asks her husband to “remember the ladies”:

These pictures are just some of many that students post on their blogs, and one of the great things about blogging these trips* is that students can pull pictures from each other, just as I’ve done here. I’m not sure there have ever been so many pictures from a dog-and-pony show as I’ve seen from the one at MHS in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the age of the documents or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s the Declaration of Independence they’re seeing.

But I have a confession to make: a few original documents don’t do that much for me. After all, MHS has been good enough to put up an awful lot of the best stuff from its collections online. I could get the ideas from these important documents at home in Colorado if I were so inclined. I like these days because of the look on the teachers faces when they see these documents rather than from the documents themselves.

Lest you think I’m totally jaded, I did get that look on my face myself a few days ago. After covering Lexington and Concord for the second time, we made an unscheduled stop at Walden Pond for what was my first visit there:

Certainly, the photo isn’t particularly impressive (as it was pouring rain at the time we were there, and, by the way, who knew you could swim in it?). I think what got me is that I knew exactly what happened there. Heck, I have about two pages of my current manuscript on the icecutters who bothered Thoreau when he stayed along its shores. That’s why I bought myself a Henry David Thoreau t-shirt despite the fact that my wife keeps telling me that I have far too many t-shirts already.

While there is no question that I prefer Thoreau to Jefferson in the great scheme of things, I think my differing reaction is more a testament to the power of place than anything else. Documents are fragile things, but place is forever. People put up plaques to events in the place where they happened even if the buildings that they happened in have already been lost. I’m used to culling ideas from the world’s great archives, but if it’s not Colorado history that I’m dealing with I usually have to get on an airplane to see where the stories I’m telling happened with my own eyes. Sometimes I get that feeling when I walk into a particularly good library, but usually I have to be let into the stacks to partake of the full effect.

Maybe it’s the sense of discovery that gets me. The unfamiliar rather than the familiar is what allows me to be thoroughly surprised. Or perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time around Boston lately.

* If you want to read some of our teachers’ work, click at the above link and tool around in the blogroll there.

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2 responses

27 06 2011
Dan Allosso

Kind of cool that it’s a public beach though, don’t you think? I’d never been to Walden either (despite the fact that my parents met there), until last week when I drove by with my teenage daughter on the way to a wake in Newton (didn’t want to get there too early). It was sunny and there were bathers and picnic parties. Amazing that it’s so close to the sprawl of greater Boston.

11 07 2011
“Time is but the stream I go a fishing in.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] 11 07 2011 That is the Henry David Thoreau quote on the t-shirt I snagged at Walden Pond a couple of weeks ago. I love it because it’s both historical and philosophical at the same time. It also reminds [...]

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