Preserving Traveller

The heroes of Confederate hagiography long laid an unchallenged claim to Southern public spaces and American White imagination. However, few if any Confederates immortalized in the rebellion’s memorial landscape are still viewed as untroubled icons of honor and manhood. As monuments to neo-Confederate heroes are now rapidly being removed from public space, one of the most interesting Confederate icons is Robert E. Lee’s famed horse Traveller. Traveller is himself a symbol used to narrate the Confederate cause, and he has had the status of relic since the 19th century. The most sacred relics are the physical remain of a venerated figure’s body or the things with which their body was intimately contacted (e.g., clothing). A relic is some object or material place that is experienced as an active presence representing values that followers aspire to reproduce (see Gary Vikan’s description of relics). Traveller may seem a distinctive figure to cast as a relic, his status largely beholden to his connection to Lee. Nevertheless, Traveller’s materiality provides an illuminating story of Confederate history-making.

Lee aboard Traveller after the Civil War

Perhaps the most famous of all Southern horses, Traveller was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857. The horse that became known as Traveller was an 1100-pound 64-inch high American Saddlebred sired by a race horse known as Grey Eagle. Traveller’s owner J.W. Johnston originally named the horse after the Mississippi Senator “Jeff Davis,” who of course would become famous as the President of the Confederate States of America.  Despite Johnson’s 1908 claim to have sold the horse to Lee, he sold Jeff Davis in 1861 to Captain Joseph M. Broun, who re-named him Greenbrier. In 1861 Broun was serving alongside Robert E. Lee, and in Traveller lore Lee reportedly took a fancy to Broun’s horse. Broun’s brother Thomas wrote in 1886 that “in the fall of 1861, he [Lee] first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said he would need it before the war was over. When the general saw my brother on this horse he had something pleasant to say to him about `my colt,’ as he designated this horse.” Lee resigned from the US Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded, and he would assume command of Virginia’s secessionist forces three days later. Thomas Broun indicated that his brother sold Greenbrier to Lee in February 1862. Lee renamed the horse Traveller.

Lee would ride several other horses throughout the war, but after Spring 1862 Traveller was the horse he most commonly rode. Lee’s son waxed poetic over Traveller in 1904, indicating that “Amongst the soldiers this horse was as well known as was his master. He was a handsome iron-gray with black points—mane and tail very dark—sixteen hands high, and five years old. … He was never known to tire, and, though quiet and sensible in general and afraid of nothing, yet if not regularly exercised, he fretted a good deal especially in a crowd of horses.” Lee’s son quoted a letter from his father that indicated that Traveller “carried me through the Seven Days battle around Richmond, the second Manassas, at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the last day at Chancellorsville, to Pennsylvania, at Gettysburg, and back to the Rappahannock. From the commencement of the campaign in 1864 at Orange, till its close around Petersburg, the saddle was scarcely off his back, as he passed through the fire of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania [sic], Cold Harbour, and across the James River. He was almost in daily requisition in the winter of 1864-65 on the long line of defenses from Chickahominy, north of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, south of the Appomattox. In the campaign of 1865, he bore me from Petersburg to the final days at Appomattox Court House.”

One of the earliest monuments with Lee aboard Traveller, the 1917 Virginia State Monument in Gettysburg is situated near one of the spots Lee watched the battle (image Veggies).

After the war, Traveller returned with Lee to Lexington, Virginia, and the horse rapidly became a Confederate relic. Relics are part of a broad range of formal faith practice as well as popular ritual that invoke the power of venerated figures, and in that sense Traveller is perhaps a relic of Lee, the most fabled of all Confederate heroes. Nevertheless, Traveller’s own body and his remains would inspire continual veneration. By one 1948 newspaper account, Traveller lost “so much of his mane and tail to souvenir hunters that the horse grew nervous in the presence of strangers.” An 1897 Richmond Dispatch account of the holdings of the recently opened Confederate Museum indicated the museum held locks of Traveller’s mane that “bear a mute testimony of the love of the master for the animal who bore him so faithfully and suffered with him the multitudinous vicissitudes of that great struggle.” An 1898 catalog of the Confederate Museum indicated those locks were contributed by Miss Mildred Lee, Robert E. Lee’s youngest child. A 1913 Confederate Memorial Day account suggested that at the Appomattox surrender defeated rebels wept as Lee passed, and they sought solace by reaching “up to touch Traveller’s mane and pat his neck.” In 1922 one man remembered riding Traveller in the winter of 1869-70, afterward “pulling out handfuls of Traveller’s mane and tail.” Locks of Lee’s hair and Traveller’s mane are part of the collection of Arlington House, Lee’s former home and present-day memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery; Traveller’s mane is likewise in the holdings of the University of Virginia Library and Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

Lee died in October, 1870. One account of his deathbed suggested that a physician implored Lee to get up for his daily rides of Traveller, but Lee “shook his head very emphatically, as if to indicate that he did not expect to ride `Traveller’ again.” Traveller was draped in black crepe and followed Lee’s hearse rider-less in the funeral procession. The following June Traveller contracted a tetanus infection and died. He was buried along a creek adjoining the Washington and Lee campus by Lee’s oldest son Custis Lee, who conducted a modest funeral with a cortege of eight people.

An undated image of Traveller’s skeleton on display in Lexington.

In December 1875 Custis Lee had the bones of the horse exhumed. Lee had succeeded his father as President of the institution that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Robert E. Lee’s death, and in Fall 1875 Henry Augustus Ward visited Washington and Lee University to negotiate the sale of a natural science collection to the University. The preservation and display of Traveller’s bones apparently became part of the planned collection. Ward was a University of Rochester faculty member who traveled the world acquiring a massive assortment of geological and zoological specimens and taxidermy samples for museums. In 1862 Ward began to sell such specimens to universities and museums, and he would become one of the nation’s most prominent suppliers to emergent science programs and museums. In 1878, for instance, Ward purchased a German mammoth for the University of Virginia (though this specimen known as the “Stuttgart Mammoth” eventually did not end up in Virginia’s Brooks Hall collection). Ward preserved many animals for P.T. Barnum, including Jumbo the elephant in 1886, and his enterprise, Ward’s Natural Science, continues business today as Ward’s Science.

Possibly the best-known Lee statue portrays the General on horseback on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. The 1890 statue’s horse was not modeled on Traveller but is often assumed to represent Traveller (Hal Jespersen).

Several national newspapers reported in December 1875 that “Prof. Ward of Rochester is possessor of the skeleton of the horse `Traveler’ upon which Gen. Robert E. Lee rode during the closing campaign of the war.” Ward would preserve several Civil War horses, including the horses of Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman. Sherman’s horse was preserved for the University of Wisconsin in 1875, and Sheridan paid to have his horse Winchester preserved and then donated to the Military Service Institution in 1878 (Winchester would go to the Smithsonian in 1922). Drew Gilpin Faust argues that the remains of these horses provided a uniquely authentic material artifact of the war, the literal body of an animal that had been in combat and in the cases of these Generals was linked with the war’s most prominent military leaders. A proposal to display Traveller at the Centennial Exposition apparently was abandoned in January, 1876, though some newspapers continued to champion the exposition display of Traveller’s remains. In 1882 a Chicago newspaper reported that Traveller was on display in Lexington, but other sources suggested that Traveller never returned from Rochester until 1907.

In 1907 Traveller’s remains were purchased by Confederate veteran and Richmond journalist Joseph Bryan. Bryan’s wife Isobel Stewart Bryan was President of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society in 1898, a circle of women who spearheaded the preservation of the former White House of the Confederacy in the 1890s. The Society opened the building as the Confederate Museum in 1896, and it would include a sample of Traveller’s mane in the initial collections. Isobel Bryan also was the first President of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and Joseph Bryan was twice President of the Virginia Historical Society (1892-1902 and 1906-1908). The Bryans returned the skeleton to Lexington, where The Gazette reported in April, 1907 that a plan was made to mount Traveller’s skeleton for display in a proposed Lee museum in Lexington. In October the skeleton was returned to Lexington, and Traveller went on display at Washington and Lee. The skeleton apparently spent some time on display in a biology display, but in 1929 Traveller’s remains were in a glass display case in the Chapel where the Lee family was buried. A 1953 visitor to Lee’s tomb noted that the “most striking thing was the bones of Traveller. … All Traveller’s bones have been skillfully articulated and is possibly the only equine so honored.”

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This 1880’s image was one of the many mass-produced portraits of Lee aboard Traveller (Getty Images)

This 1924 Charlottesville, Virginia statue of Lee aboard Traveller was the scene of violent protests in August 2017 (Bill McChesney)

Traveller began to be appear with Lee in early 20th century statuary. Perhaps the most famous statue of Lee was dedicated in Richmond, Virginia in 1890, but the horse on which Lee was depicted on Monument Avenue was not modeled on Traveller. In 1917 a statue of Lee on Traveller was erected on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg, a spot from which Lee had observed parts of the battle. In 1924 a statue of Lee astride Traveller was installed in Charlottesville, Virginia. Franklin D. Roosevelt was on hand for the 1936 dedication of a Lee monument in Dallas portraying the rebel general atop a horse assumed to be Traveller. In 1986 a memorial was placed in Berryville, Virginia to mark the place where Lee hitched Traveller and attended church as the Confederate Army was advancing toward Gettysburg. In Sharpsburg, Maryland a private landowner erected a statue of Lee atop Traveller in 2003, and two years later the property was acquired by the Antietam National Battlefield.

Traveller was firmly part of the Lee and Confederate legacy in the 20th century. For example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a plaque on Traveller’s stall in October, 1930, and in 1949 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Rockbridge Historical Society placed a marker at Traveller’s original grave. In 1963 Traveller’s bones were finally removed from display, and in May, 1971 the bones had deteriorated and Traveller was buried alongside the Lee Chapel. A 1971 article on the fabled horse’s remains indicated that they were covered with the signatures of Washington and Lee students for whom signing Traveller’s bones was considered good luck. The University buried the horse’s remains secretly “to avoid a parade atmosphere” prior to the dedication of a marker at the burial.

Traveller’s grave marker (Hal Jespersen)

Traveller’s grave has a steady stream of contemporary visitors paying their respects to Lee’s famous horse, leaving offerings including carrots and apples, much as pilgrims do when they are visiting a site associated with a martyred figure. The horse risks becoming an ambiguous icon onto which a host of ideologically distorted Civil War histories can be projected, but like other horses who went to war, Traveller is a sympathetic historical figure quite distinct from the humans who were consciously waging war around him. Drew Gilpin Faust emphasizes that perhaps 1.5 million horses and mules died in the Civil War, and five million pounds of dead horses had to be removed from the battlefield at Gettysburg alone. That heritage makes the horse a distinctively tragic mechanism to narrate the wartime experience, and the effort to preserve and memorialize them confirms that their bodies were consequential relics of Civil War heritage just as battlefields, cemeteries, and Civil War artifacts.

 

This Dallas monument dedicated in 1936 depicted Lee aboard Traveller (to the right) alongside another cavalryman. The statue was removed in 2017 (image BoNoMoJo)

References

Faust, Drew Gilpin

2000 Equine Relics of the Civil War. Southern Cultures 6 (1): 23–49. (subscription access)

 

Leinonen, Riitta-Marja

2013 Finnish Narratives of the Horse in World War II. In Animals and War: Studies of Europe and North America, edited by Ryan Hediger, pp. 123-150. Koninklijke Brill, Leiden.

2016 From Servant to Therapist: The Changing Meanings of Horses in FInland. In The Meaning of Horses: Biosocial Encounters, edited by Dona Davis and Anita Maurstad, pp.54-68. Routledge, New York.

 

 

Vikan, Gary

2012 From The Holy Land To Graceland: Sacred People, Places and Things In Our Lives. Rowman and Littlefield, New York.

This 1948 Baltimore statue of Stonewall Jackson (left) and Lee was removed in 2017 (image Scott218)

Images

Lee Aboard Traveller, circa 1880 image from Getty Images

Lee Statue Charlottesville 2008 image from Bill McChesney

Lee Statue Dallas 2007 image from BoNoMoJo (Wikipedia)

Lee Virginia State Monument image from Veggies

Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument Baltimore 2012 image from Scott218

Traveller’s grave 2005 image and Lee Statue on Monument Avenue from Hal Jespersen

 

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Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

This post also appears on Invisible Indianapolis

In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.

Reginald Bruce appeared in the August 19, 1944 Indianapolis Recorder (click for expanded view).

Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.

The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films.

A 1955 image illustrated the ideological vision of a typical suburban family (Getty images).

Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community. Read the rest of this entry

Race, Reconciliation, and Southern Memorialization in Garfield Park

The Confederate Monument in Garfield Park today.

In May, 1919 Indianapolis, Indiana’s “Southern Society”—a group of Indianapolis residents composed primarily of former Southerners—proposed to the Indianapolis Parks Superintendent that a Confederate memorial be moved to one of the city’s parks. The memorial had been erected at Greenlawn Cemetery in 1909 to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis’ Camp Morton. Just over 1600 prisoners had been buried in Greenlawn, but by 1919 the former cemetery had become a modest, poorly maintained city park crowded by factories and railroad lines.

The transplanted Southerners’ interest in preserving the Confederate memorial found a receptive audience in the 20th-century North. While Confederate monuments were being erected throughout the South in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Civil War monuments were also part of a Northern landscape that aspired to unify the once-divided nation. When the Greenlawn memorial was erected by the federal government in 1909, it was part of a national reconciliation over the legacy of the rebellion that commemorated the foot soldiers of the former Confederacy. The Confederate cause would be largely forgiven by the generation that had grown up after the war, and monuments dotting the South and North alike publicly confirmed a national reconciliation. Yet that forgiveness emerged from a nation committed to Jim Crow segregation, and monuments like the Greenlawn memorial aspired to reconcile and unify the White nation that had waged a civil war a half-century before. A century later the Greenlawn memorial illuminates the ways the Confederate monumental landscape has long distorted Southern heritage and leveraged Confederate mortality in the service of White nationalism. Read the rest of this entry

Memory, Monuments, and Confederate Things: Contesting the 21st-Century Confederacy

Phoenix’s 1961 Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (click for larger image, from Visitor7/wikimedia).

In 1961 the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented Phoenix, Arizona with a memorial dedicated to Arizona’s Confederate soldiers. The “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” is a copper ore stonework shaped in the state’s outline that rests atop a pedestal graced by petrified wood. The monument sits on a plaza alongside 29 other memorials at the Arizona State Capitol that range from war memorials to a Ten Commandments monument. The Phoenix Confederate memorial is far removed from the heart of Civil War battlefields and Southern centers, but it is now part of a nationwide debate over the contemporary social and political consequence of Confederate things.

The earliest Confederate monuments were located in cemeteries and included this 1869 90-foot high memorial to the 18,000 Confederates buried in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery (author’s image).

In the pantheon of Confederate things, statuary is perhaps somewhat distinct from the flags, license plates, and assorted collectibles emblazoned with Confederate symbols. Statues and memorials aspire to make timeless sociohistorical statements and define or create memory, capturing idealized or distorted visions of the war that say as much about their makers and viewers as their subject. Yet as time passes monuments routinely begin to appear aesthetically dated or even reactionary. Viewed from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many Confederate monuments are simply documents of 150 years of shallow fantasies of the South and the Confederacy. Some of those public monuments can possibly foster counter-intuitively reflective and sober discussions about the Civil War, which is a century-and-a-half heritage rather than an objective historical event. However, such discussions risk being circumvented by contemporary Confederate defenders who distort the Confederacy’s history and studiously ignore why an imagined Confederate heritage has become so appealing—if not unsettling–well outside the South.

While it rarely appears in standard Civil War narratives, Arizona can claim a genuine Civil War history. Swaths of southern Arizona and New Mexico territories were claimed by the Confederacy a century before the monument was erected in Phoenix. A secession convention agreed to leave the Union and become the Arizona Republic in 1861, and in February 1862 it became recognized by the Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Confederates fought under the Arizona banner through the war, but the Governor of the Confederate territory retreated to Texas in July, 1862, and for most of the war the military presence in the region was by Union forces.

Dedicated in September, 1867, this Romney, West Virginia monument was one of the nation’s first Confederate memorials (Justin A. Wilcox/wikimedia).

The vanquished Confederacy began to memorialize its cause almost instantly. The town of Cheraw, South Carolina claims to have erected the first Confederate memorial, a cemetery marker erected in June, 1867 (while the town was still occupied by Union forces); a Confederate memorial was dedicated in September, 1867 in Romney, West Virginia. These earliest monuments to the Lost Cause were nearly all cemetery memorials, but the South began busily erecting public monuments to the Confederacy in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. Scores of statues were placed in former Confederate towns, mostly by a host of ladies’ memorial associations who assumed the care for the Civil War dead and would become the leading proponents of Lost Cause ideology. From its first issues in 1893, Confederate Veteran zealously tracked such monument construction efforts (for example, compare their 1893 monument inventory), and by 1914 they gushed that roughly a thousand public monuments dotted the South: “Year by year with increasing rather than decreasing devotion all over the Southland monuments are rapidly being erected to the heroes who died in the effort of the Confederate States to win a national life.” Read the rest of this entry

The Aesthetics of Bliss and Trauma in Plantation Weddings

The Flossenbürg camp landscape today (click on all images for larger view).

Between 1938 and 1945 the little Bavarian town of Flossenbürg was the home for a Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners, German criminals, and, near war’s end, Hungarian and Polish Jews. About 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its neighboring subcamps by the time the camp was liberated in April, 1945.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected dimensions of Flossenbürg today is that it is a beautiful little Bavarian town that departs from our imagination of a landscape of genocide. Nestled in the Bavarian forest near the contemporary Czech border, Flossenbürg was a small medieval village that was home to granite quarry laborers by the late 19th century. Atop the village’s highest point sits the picturesque ruins of Flossenbürg Castle, which was built in about 1100 and eventually was burned in 1634 during the Thirty Years War.

The ruins of Flossenbürg Castle viewed from the village (image Nikater).

Many dark tourism sites associated with death, tragedy, and disaster are likewise aesthetically appealing contemporary spaces. Sites like Flossenbürg acknowledge our anxieties about death, violence, and injustice, and interpretation at such sites usually paints a sober if unsettling picture of historical experiences. Nevertheless, many of these preserved places inevitably have been purged of most of the material trappings that made them horrific places, and some of them like Flossenbürg are once more visually appealing spaces despite their heritage.

The American landscape is dotted with places that witnessed enormous tragedies, and much like Flossenbürg they have now been absorbed into the everyday landscape. Unlike Flossenbürg, though, many of these American sites clumsily negotiate their dark heritage or simply ignore it in favor of aesthetically pleasant contemporary landscapes. Some of the most interesting examples are Southern plantations, where surviving buildings, landscapes, and archaeological materiality are the products and expression of captive labor. Yet few if any plantations conceive of themselves as sharing the mission of dark tourist sites whose stories revolve around trauma and tragedy. Some plantations have embraced a critical analysis of the relationship between captives and White slaveholders, but many have not really pushed beyond painting the plantation as a relic of the antebellum South. Read the rest of this entry

Memorializing Uncanny Histories: Materiality and Memory at Pulse

Pulse nightclub August 2016 (click for expanded view; image Walter).

In June, 2016 a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people.  In the aftermath of the murders the club has been routinely invoked in a wide range of political causes, but materially it has become a place that illuminates the depth of homophobia, complicates gun rights, and recognizes domestic terrorism.  Like most dark history, the Pulse nightclub materializes death and profound tragedy, and that makes it an especially productive place to concede anxiety, apprehension, and fascination alike.  Pulse may have become part of an “uncanny” materiality; that is, it is among a host of things and places that provoke uneasiness because, in Freud’s words, it “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (PDF; compare archaeological examples from Gabriel Moshenska, Paul Graves-Brown, and Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini).  People flock to Pulse because it allows us to acknowledge anxieties about hate crimes, terrorism, homophobia, and gun violence and potentially brings them into an open public discussion, a discussion that some people welcome and others want to escape.  That discussion is inevitably challenging: the club may be the proverbial historical “open wound,” confronting us with a recent past so repugnant and unpleasantly contemporaneous that we struggle to acknowledge it or simply ignore it entirely.

Offerings at the Pulse memorial (click for expanded view; image Walter).

After the murders Pulse instantly became a scene of spontaneous memorialization, and it is unlikely to ever again be a more-or-less invisible leisure space in the midst of interchangeable retail outlets.  Within a month of the killings The Orlando Sentinel’s Caitlin Dineen recognized that Pulse “has found its way onto itineraries for tourists from around the world who pay their respects and leave handmade memorials” (cf. The Advocate’s June video of the spontaneous memorial).  As visitors continually flock to the club, various parties have begun to discuss a place-based commemoration, which might involve the preservation of the structure, a radical remodeling, or its complete demolition.  Barbara Poma opened the club in 2004 in memory of her brother who had died of AIDS 13 years before, and in the wake of the murders she almost instantly proposed to re-open the club as a memorial.  In August, 2016 Poma proposed to transform the club into a memorial, and in November she reached a preliminary agreement to sell the club to the city of Orlando.  However, before the City Council could approve the $2.25 million selling price, Poma had a change of heart and decided not to sell the club site. Read the rest of this entry

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

Invisible Indianapolis

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home. In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of…

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A Future-Proof Heritage: Dutch Ice and Intangible Heritage

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Four centuries ago Hendrick Avercamp immortalized the Dutch winter landscape as a snowscape crowded with ice skaters traversing canals and gathering on frozen ponds.  Painting in the early 17th century, Avercamp’s works are almost wholly devoted to winter scenes that feature numerous people skating.  Avercamp’s idyllic landscapes featured a rich cross-section of people having fun on the ice during a “little Ice Age” that delivered a half-millennium of harsh winters.  Avercamp’s focus on ice and ice skating helped make winter landscapes a staple of Dutch art while confirming skating’s centrality in the heart of the Dutch imagination.

Avercamp may not have known that Netherlanders would spend the subsequent centuries traveling and playing on frozen waterways, leading numerous 21st-century observers to sound off that skating is “ingrained in Dutch DNA.”  Even beyond the Netherlands, few dimensions of Dutch culture are more firmly impressed in mass imagination than ice skating:  Every four years even Americans are briefly in awe of the Dutch domination of Olympic speed skating, and picturesque images of skaters in Amsterdam’s canals routinely grace tourism literature.
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Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating (Getty Images)

On December 19th it was announced that “the tradition of skating on natural ice” was added to the Netherlands’ national inventory of intangible cultural heritage (a list of those traditions is on the Netherlands Cultural Heritage website).  Ice and skating are novel intangible dimensions of heritage, since ice has a fleeting material presence, and skating is common to many other societies; nevertheless, the celebration of ice skating aspires to capture the distinctive Dutch experience of ice and could provide a novel framing for Dutch heritage. Read the rest of this entry

The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump's motorized Mercedes.

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump’s motorized Mercedes.

It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.”  For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.”  Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown.  In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.”  A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes.  In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.” Read the rest of this entry

Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry