The Henry Ford: A museum review.

22 10 2012

I have a new favorite museum in America. It used to be the National Museum of American History, but I really think they’ve shot themselves in the foot in the course of remodeling and I’ll never forgive them for destroying their bookstore. The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, however, keeps getting better every time I see it.

I went back last Friday while I was in Detroit for the North American Labor History Conference. You go to the Henry Ford for the cars and their collection really is quite amazing.

1914 Model “T” Touring Car

1931 Duesenberg Model “J”

When I first went during the 90s, the museum just had lines and lines of cars with almost no explanation. Now, the cars are not only explained, they have some of the best computer enhancements to any museum exhibit that I have ever seen.

For example, there’s a station where you can simulate driving a Model “T’ as if it were a driving game. What it does is illustrate all the steps you have to take to get a Model “T” running and moving forward, including getting out of the car at one point. I knew all these things, but I never quite realized how hard it was until I played the game. Now I’ll never forget.

The museum’s “Driving America” exhibit, however, is a lot more than just cars:

Traffic Light, c. 1920.

McDonald’s Sign, c. 1950s.

It really is the social history of the car as well, which I find much more interesting than just car after car. The film in the middle of the exhibit was particularly good. To paraphrase one of the curators in that film, he said, “In order for a new technology to take hold, people have to be convinced to do something in an entirely different way.” That was really easy when cars became relatively cheap.

It also seems quite clear that I have completely geeked out when I get excited over a McCormick Reaper and early steam engines. But then again, look at what I’ve been publishing lately.

McCormick Reaper, c. 1850.

Newcomen Engine, c. 1760.

PS You should all order that book one way or another as I’ve pitched writing a prequel to that book to the same publisher, and they’re looking at how early sales and requests go before deciding whether they’re going to give me a contract.


Like one of those old Populist cartoons.

3 05 2012

Let me interrupt this hiatus to discuss a development that has given me a lot more time to blog: Our entire campus computer network has been down for the last two days and it’s still mostly down. Did I mention that this is finals week???!!!

For me, this is mostly just an inconvenience. I’ve spent more time at home and at Starbucks than usual. However, for many of my colleagues this has been an absolute catastrophe. You’ve seen the chart on Blackboard usage at our place already, but some of those popular functions like the gradebook or the mechanism for accepting papers are kind of important (particularly at the end of the semester). Blackboard returned last night, assuming you have your own way to access the Internet and any student who lives on campus doesn’t have it. E-mail, web pages and most everything else are still completely down.

I promised myself I wouldn’t gloat, but I do think this story should serve as a reminder of the shape of the electronic infrastructure in modern higher education. I think it resembles the old Populist cartoon that I’ve reproduced above (thanks to my old friend Bob Miller) with all those people standing between the farmer and the consumer, taking a little bit of the proceeds every step of the way. We proffies are the farmers, losing a little more of our livelihoods every time a new middleman appears.* And like the Populist farmers of old, if any of those middlemen decide to make unreasonable demands upon us there’s really nothing we can do about it.

The edtech situation I prefer is not a circle but a sun, with the professor standing in the middle. I’m still getting some e-mail (from off campus, obviously) during the outage because I mostly use my G-Mail account for professional business. I can still record (but not post) grades during the outage because I use an Excel spreadsheet for my gradebook. [The grades get posted from another program entirely though and that’s still not up.]

This doesn’t make me a genius. It simply means that I have a lot of experience with this kind of thing. As this morning’s Pueblo Chieftain explains:

This is not the first time a computer program has affected CSU-Pueblo students.

In 2010, student leaders gave a vote of no confidence to the campus technology service because of repeated disruptions in computer service.

So if you think tech services at my university are particularly awful, you’d probably be right.

They, however, seem to think otherwise. Last night on Facebook, the CSU-Pueblo account claimed:

CSU-Pueblo is the third university in Colorado (this year) that has experienced this type of outage and the second during a finals week.

I don’t know if that’s more depressing if it’s true or more depressing if it’s not.

In either event, the lesson here should be clear: Don’t keep all your eggs in the same basket. More importantly, maintain control of all of your baskets. Any LMS, almost by definition, threatens that kind of control.

PS One more old cartoon featuring a circle of people before I end this. Who’s responsible for the CSU-Pueblo network outage?:

T’was him.

* In the case of online education, this can add up to a pretty penny. Does that constitute railing, Kate?

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.

Extended metaphor of the day.

27 03 2011

I just finished Linda Gordon’s prize-winning biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange. It’s very good. I think here subtitle, “A Life Beyond Limits” is actually a reference to this metaphor from the book’s introduction:

“Neither photography nor history simply reports facts. Historians and photographers choose what to include and exclude in the pictures they shape, frame their subjects so as to reveal, emphasize, relate, or separate different elements, and use interpretive techniques to do this. Some will argue, of course, that historians and documentarists have no business promoting their opinions, but that argument rests on the false assumption that it is possible to avoid doing so. History and documentary photography necessarily proceed from a point of view shaped by social position, politics, religious conviction, and the thousands of other factors that mold every human being.

This does not mean that it is appropriate for historians or documentarists to shape their creations as they please, regardless of the evidence. They must try to limit their own biases and must never manipulate evidence or select only the evidence that supports their perspective. When using examples to make a larger point, historians and photographic documentarists must look for the representative, the paradigmatic rather than the exceptional. Yet they must highlight what is most significant and remove detail that impedes the clarity of the main point; if they did not, no one would read a history book and photographs would be incomprehensible.”

Now apply that metaphor to one of Lange’s long-suppressed images of Japanese internment during World War II depicted above. Useful, isn’t it?

The word “astonishing” is often overused these days.

5 10 2010

Nevertheless, I think it is the appropriate term to describe these selections from the Burns Archives of photographs as excerpted at Newsweek. By the way, if the copyright holder ever wants to sell the rights to this stuff for classroom use I’m definitely interested.

The Lewis Hine Collection at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

17 09 2010

I’ve looked for the famed progressive photographer Lewis Hine’s pictures on the web before, but not until I read this morning’s Scout Report did I realize that UMBC has over four thousand of them up on the web. Looks like I’m going to spend a lot more time on child labor when I get back to teaching labor history next semester just so that I can do more with these stunning images.

Two wonderful photosets for Friday.

30 04 2010

1. Yet again via Boing Boing, this article from Wired about the 1939 World’s Fair is quite wonderful and amply illustrated. I think I’ll use the picture above for my syllabus when I teach the history of capitalism next Spring.

2. Based on a tip from the Scout Report (which you should definitely subscribe to), I’ve been avoiding grading this morning by perusing “The Epic of Industry” section of the “Pageant of America” collection at the New York Public Library. They are quite wonderful, but alas not readily available for use in classes. The New York Public Library, however, is an excellent institution so perhaps I might buy the rights to a few for classroom or publication use somewhere down the road.

Reorganized photos on the Library of Congress site.

7 04 2010

While this may not seem like much, it really is. The Library of Congress has reorganized the presentation of its pictures online and it is absolutely spectacular. From the LOC’s blog:

Some of the new features include nifty new ways to browse our 1.25 million online prints and photos, such as grids that give a quick overview of dozens of images at once and even a slideshow format that lets you toggle bibliographic information on and off.

But what’s most exciting to me personally is our new “sharing tool” that can be found at the top of every page in the new catalog, which lets users easily post links to their favorite social media sites.

Not only can individual images be saved or posted, but entire pages, specific searches, or collections can be saved and shared. I can think of many uses for this, especially in education, where a teacher might search for a highly granular set of pictures for use in the classroom, and then share the set with a colleague for his or her own students.

I was just browsing the National Child Labor Committee Collection (where I got the Indiana glass works boy above). Leave aside the fact that I didn’t know they even had the National Child Labor Committee collection. Hit “view all” on the left and you can now see 100 thumbnails from the collection at once. If memory serves me well, you used to have to click twice to see any single picture and go back twice before you could go forward to see another.

Bravo Library of Congress! Now pardon me while I go share some pictures.

An “exploded” Model T Ford.

30 03 2010

Stupid disposable cameras! Every picture I took at the Henry Ford Museum came out so bad I can’t post it here (except for an 1880 Grand Rapids Refrigerator Company icebox for some reason, and that’s only going to interest me). And yes, I was using the flash.

Lucky for me, the image I wanted most also happened to be on Flickr:

To me, that’s the perfect illustration of industrialization. You can’t depict an entire assembly line but the principle is all here in simplified form. You’re just following the parts, rather than the labor.

Besides, it’s not as if raw materials went in on one side of Highland Park plant and the final product came out the other, which raises the question of how the more complicated parts were built. Then it was at the out buildings. Now it’s Mexico or China. Having been on the Rouge Tour as well on Saturday I can report that they still make cars essentially the same way, only the number of parts in an “exploded” Ford F-150 would be too many to all hang on strings.

Wright Brothers photographs at Wright State University.

24 03 2010

Boy, Dayton, Ohio is a lot bigger than I thought!

I’m here to use the Frigidaire Collection at Wright State University, but while looking for the finding aid tonight I ran into their huge Wright Brothers photo collection online. Spectacular stuff!

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