Everyone Eats: Food, History & Cultural Preservation at the National Museum of African American History & Culture

A guest post by Laura Macaluso

The Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum—and the last projected to be built directly on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.— the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), opened to great fanfare on September 24, 2016. Crowds appeared on that day and haven’t ceased; except for a handful of timed tickets given out every morning, the museum is sold out through the spring of 2017. The building, clad in a multi-tiered framework of intricate geometric patterns burnished with a bronze colored coating (the framework is actually aluminum, for lightness and durability), is juxtaposed against the whiteness of the Washington Monument nearby. Thus, the first monument built on the Mall (1848-1888) and this latest addition to the American story—elevating and celebrating African American people through the shared experience of visiting monuments and museums—continue to demonstrate how great places contribute significantly to the practice of public history and the preservation of culture.

nmaahc-1

Interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by author.

That some of this public history and preservation work is done through the study and appreciation of foodways (the word scholars use to talk about the study of everything food) is no surprise: food is front and center in historic sites and museums today because the subject is a point of access for visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and economics: everyone eats. The “intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history” is both deep and broad. I’m not ashamed to admit I went to the NMAAHC with the intention of visiting Sweet Home Café, the museum’s in-house cafeteria whose purpose is to “tell the story of African-American contributions through the food they made and ate,” according to supervising chef Albert Lukas. I am a huge fan of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Café, which offers “traditionally prepared dishes along with conventional items infused with Native ingredients.” The NMAI has focused on food in its interpretive programming since opening twelve years ago, and its award-winning restaurant furthers the mission. The NMAAHC clearly wanted to follow their success—but, it turns out that right now, the success of the museum means the café is not big enough to hold the crowds. Fortunately, the two cross streets around the museum were filled with food trucks, providing an international selection of lunch options (no doubt graduate students are already writing papers on the foodways of the food truck movement).

Back inside the museum, my focus on food found another way in: through objects on display in the history galleries. Although there are amazing objects to view in the galleries, such as Nat Turner’s bible and the silk lace shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, the two objects that caught my attention are part of the story of food and how it intersects with African America life—how food was grown, processed, and consumed, and who was involved with each of these steps. These objects reminded me that even in the twenty-first century, questioning where and how food is produced is a question not only for foodways scholars, but, for everyone.

nmaahc-2

Display of iron sugar pot, Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by author.

nmaahc-3

Burl bowl with incised patterns, Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by author.

The first object, a giant cast iron “sugar pot” was used to boil down cane sugar on plantations in the lower Americas and the Caribbean. The display of this huge object, placed in a double-sided glass case on the corner where two walls meet, is arresting, with the pitted rimmed pot sitting on top of a mound of pure white sugar. Placed next to the pot are refined silver objects: a tea pot, sugar bowl and tongs. I don’t need to spell out the analogies here.

Further along in the galleries I was drawn to another large object, this time a hand carved wooden bowl. Like the iron sugar pot, this bowl was worn, with two major areas of loss which the bowl’s owner had fixed with nails and a filler. The rim of the wooden bowl is decorated with geometric designs—a powerful statement of humanity, which stands in contrast to the iron sugar pot, which is strictly utilitarian and surely a despised object. The sugar pot—a object that represented the worst of plantation life in the Americas, where enslaved men lived on average only seven years before dying from the harsh work—stands in contrast to the wooden bowl, which is soft and suggests warmth and nourishment.

Although the two objects are not displayed in the same gallery, they are both part of the study of food, history and cultural preservation. The museum states that “creative cooking helped nourish enslaved families in body and soul.” Cultural memories were preserved in the engraved patterns, as was the food served in the bowl. This may be one of the reasons foodways has such a large interest in the twenty-first century—perhaps there are things missing from society and we humans are looking for both nourishment and for ways to preserve our memories and histories in a fast changing society.

The curators of the new museum had to create from the foundation up a new collection through which they could share African American history and culture. These two objects—an old iron pot and an old wood bowl—both seemingly without much monetary value or design interest , both hold fabulous stories within their rims.

Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D. holds degrees in art history and the humanities from Southern Connecticut State University, Syracuse University in Italy and Salve Regina University. She has worked as a grants writer and curator in historic sites, museums, art, and park organizations. She held a Fulbright at the Swaziland National Museum in 2008-2009, and returned in 2010 under an Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation award from the State Department. She curated the exhibit “An Artist at War: Deane Keller, New Haven’s Monuments Man” and authored the accompanying article in Connecticut Explored magazine (Winter 2014-2015). Her newest book, New Haven in World War I (forthcoming from The History Press, 2017) was endorsed by the World War One Centennial Commission. 

Posted in Cultural Heritage, museums, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Branding a Man, Branding a New Country: Abel Buell’s New and Correct Map of the United States of America, 1784

A guest post by Laura Macaluso

Preservation comes in all shapes and sizes. Adventures in Preservation focuses their partnership projects on buildings and historic sites both in the United States and across the globe, but heritage preservation also encompasses other forms of culture, such as archaeology, artwork, oral history, foodways, and landscape design, just to name a few. In other words, the practice of preservation is applied to all forms of culture and heritage, because all of these things need care and attention in order to survive and be useful to the present and future.

abel-buells-map-case

Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

One example of a precious work of art and history preserved—in very fancy digs—is Abel Buell’s map of the eastern seaboard of North America, described by the Library of Congress as the first map compiled, printed, and copyrighted in a new country, called the United States of America, by an American. After seven years of war, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 between Great Britain and the revolutionaries made this so. Although today Abel Buell’s name doesn’t roll off anyone’s tongue, the display case built to preserve and showcase his map demonstrates its significance, and suggests that Buell deserves attention, not only for this hand-painted map—one of the first to show the “Stars and Stripes” (the flag)—but for his early American life, which could be the subject of a movie. How many other maps preserved in the Library of Congress were made by a man branded on the forehead for counterfeiting?

There are only seven known copies of this map and it only recently came to the Library of Congress—the largest library in the country, founded around a collection of books belonging to Thomas Jefferson—so the story of its preservation is also of note. When documents of “extraordinary significance” come to auction, these objects might be purchased by collectors for their private collections, never to be seen by scholars, let alone the public. But David Rubinstein, currently a leading figure in the preservation of early American history and material culture, purchased the map and placed it on view in the Library of Congress, which is located directly behind the United States Capitol building. Rubinstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group and a philanthropist, is helping to change the face of many historic sites, from Monticello to Montpelier to the National Mall, by giving millions of dollars towards renovation and preservation projects.

Abel Buell Map display case, Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

Abel Buell Map display case, Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

The primacy of the Buell map is seen when walking into the gallery—the map display case features the mapmaker’s name in large block letters lighted from behind and the case is placed at the head of the narrow Great Hall Gallery, which is itself heavily decorated with murals and inlays of marble. The Library of Congress describes the preservation of the Buell map and its “state-of-the-art” display case as: “This hermetically sealed, anoxic encasement was designed and constructed in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to allow the Buell map to be placed on exhibit for an extended period of time. The encasement, tooled from a single block of aluminum and covered with hurricane-proof glass, enables tight control of the map’s environment, reducing its potential degradation by oxygen and moisture.” Purchasing the map cost Rubinstein 2.1 million USD, but there are high costs too, in the preservation of the map—this copy is considered in the best condition of all seven, but likely received a conservation treatment before being placed into the specially made case.

Rubinstein’s loan to the Library of Congress has made the map available for anyone to view and use in research—thanks to the digitization and online exhibit built around the map’s purchase—but it is also an indicator of just how hard it is for history museums to sustain themselves in the 21st century. The New Jersey Historical Society owned the map for more than a century before selling it via Christie’s in late 2010, in order to help pay down more than two million dollars in debt. The story of the organization’s debt and sale of collections is not unusual, replaying itself over and over across the United States in recent years. In this case, New Jersey’s loss is the public’s gain, albeit with the knowledge that everything comes with a price.

Benjamin Franklin (designer), Abel Buell (diesinker), Fugio copper cent, manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, 1787. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Benjamin Franklin (designer), Abel Buell (diesinker), Fugio copper cent, manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, 1787. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The Abel Buell map became the centerpiece of the map exhibit, Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independent to Statehood, with early examples of state maps filling out the rest of the cases. In this presentation, details of map designs are noted, but the men behind these maps remain unknown. Although Abel Buell’s map gets top billing and his name appears in lights, Buell is in the shadows. Buell (1742-1825) lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut—a small port city with a balance of maritime trade, educational institutions and deep religious underpinnings. Buell’s map work was tied directly to his expansive entrepreneurial endeavors built on silversmithing skills learned as an apprentice. As a young man, Buell put these skills with metal plate and engravers tools to a foolhardy purpose: he was caught counterfeiting, and the punishment was branding, which was done at the top of his forehead. In addition, the top part of his right ear was chopped off (although he was then allowed to have it sewn back on). Despite this early calamity, Buell went on to create the dies (molds) for the country’s first copper cent, the Fugio, which was designed by Benjamin Franklin. Like many early American entrepreneurs at the beginning of the industrial revolution, he invented machines and tried his hand at a number of money-making ideas, but he died in the city’s almshouse.

Looking at the preservation history of one object, a map, allows us to travel back and forth across time. You can see Buell’s New Haven made map and many others from the earliest days of the United States in the online exhibit Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independence to Statehood.

 

Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D. holds degrees in art history and the humanities from Southern Connecticut State University, Syracuse University in Italy and Salve Regina University. She has worked as a grants writer and curator in historic sites, museums, art, and park organizations. She held a Fulbright at the Swaziland National Museum in 2008-2009, and returned in 2010 under an Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation award from the State Department. She curated the exhibit “An Artist at War: Deane Keller, New Haven’s Monuments Man” and authored the accompanying article in Connecticut Explored magazine (Winter 2014-2015). Her newest book, New Haven in World War I (forthcoming from The History Press, 2017) was endorsed by the World War One Centennial Commission. 

Posted in Cultural Heritage, Historic Preservation, Media | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving the Past a Future: Historical Preservation at Kulla Isuf Mazrekaj – Drenoc, Kosovo

Here’s a very thorough description of how Adventures in Preservation’s latest adventure went!

The Runaway Bunny

Like anything that’s been around for several centuries, the Isuf Mazrekaj kulla is finding that it needs to adapt in order to survive. These stone towers, potent symbols of traditional Islamic Kosovar culture, were particularly targeted during the recent war, and now only a couple dozen survive. The Mazrekaj family has survived warfare, regime changes, and economic instability, and so has their kulla, but now that Kosovo has found independence and relative stability, helping the kulla participate in modern tourism is the surest way to ensure the survival of the historic structure, and the prosperity of the family who have held it for three centuries. Adventures in Preservation, an American company partnering with Cultural Heritage Without Borders Kosovo, brought seven volunteers to spend two weeks working on the kulla alongside the Mazrekaj family, guided by conservation architects and local craftsmen. The result? A historically-minded rehabilitation of the 18th century…

View original post 1,333 more words

Posted in AiP Projects, Building Conservation, Experiential Travel, Historic Buildings, Historic Preservation, Volunteer Vacations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

American Grand Hotels of the Gilded Age

The American Grand Hotel

Some of the greatest architectural treasures in American history were produced in the Gilded Age, including grand hotels, which would ultimately attract a certain social class and grand hotels are considered an American concept and invention. These grand hotels were built to accommodate America’s wealthy, and their construction coincides with America’s industrialism, and the expansion and growth of incredible wealth that was seen in the gilded age. These hotels were also meant to be efficient, well-managed machines that provided timely meals, clean rooms, and an attentive and inconspicuous hotel staff. These grand hotels were built to attract wealthy businessmen, socialites, political leaders, and even some unsavory characters.

IMG_4026

Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Built 1902

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rhythms of Life: Drenoc

One of our jammers’ impressions of Drenoc, where they’ve been volunteering for two weeks on the kulla restoration project.

The Runaway Bunny

As I write this I’m sitting in the communal living room of an 18th century kulla, a traditional Ottoman-Albanian tower-house, in the small historical village of Drenoc in the west of Kosovo. The “guest room,” as they call it, is a large elegant space in the top floor of the tower, with a perimeter of sheepskin cushions for sitting on. The floor is covered in red woven carpets, while the datk wooden beams of the ceiling add to the cozy atmosphere.


The shoes come off at the door, so we’ve all padded softly up here in socks and house slippers. Our hosts have explained that this room was the traditional cultural hub of village life – the place where disputes were settled, business deals struck, and marriages arranged – while Turkish coffee stimulated the mind and eased conversation.


This is where we’ve come to work for two weeks. The magnificent…

View original post 961 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rock Me, Amadeus: How Mozart Helped Me Become a Rock and Roll Preservationist

A guest post by Sheryl Davis

Travel played a big part in my journey to become a historic preservationist specializing in rock ‘n’ roll landmarks. In May 2006, ten years ago this month, my twin sister Sherry and I decided to make a pilgrimage to the three music capitals of Vienna, Salzburg and Prague for the “Mozart Year,” a worldwide celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday anniversary. It was when literally walking in Mozart’s footsteps and hearing his music played with his own instruments in the places where he lived, worked and played, that I first realized how I might combine my interests in music history and architecture into a unique career path all my own.

Sheryl in Salzburg_May 2006

Sheryl in May 2006 overlooking Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Austria, from Hohensalzburg Fortress (c. 1077)

I thought, while we do not have nearly the depth in years of music history or indeed architecture as European, African or other indigenous countries do, from those ancestral influences we have created many genres of American popular music such as rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, zydeco, Cajun, soul and R&B which have arguably been some of our country’s greatest contributions to the world. Who’s to say that in 250 years, people will not want to see and experience the places that tell those stories, to have that authentic sensory experience just as we had during our Mozart pilgrimage? It was a formative moment in my life to be sure, and at that point my career path was set ablaze,

When we returned home I immediately set out to explore the field of historic preservation while remaining conscious of my specific interest in the places significantly linked to American popular music, especially rock ‘n roll, for which I’ve had an affinity since childhood. It led to an internship, field school, a graduate degree in historic preservation and now, approaching four years out of school, first efforts in documenting and preserving rock ‘n’ roll landmarks in the US.

My first site visit to Circle G Ranch_May 2013

Sheryl in May 2o13 at the “Honeymoon Cottage” at Elvis Presley’s Circle G Ranch, opening to the public this summer after an international effort to preserve it

Last month I accepted the position as Interim Museum Director at the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association (IRRMA) in Arnolds Park, Iowa. IRRMA, now nearing its 20th anniversary in 2017, was the first state non-profit created to preserve its rock ‘n’ roll history and the first to induct its landmarks into its Hall of Fame. That pioneering legacy and vision for expanding the landmarks programming in the future is what really drew me to the job.

So as I celebrate National Preservation Month with so many others around the country, I will also be taking to Facebook and Twitter to celebrate this ever-important anniversary and hallmark year in my life and the composer who inspired it. Come join me!

Sheryl Davis is a historic preservationist dedicated to documenting, preserving and interpreting the architectural legacy of rock ‘n’ roll, and more broadly, American popular music. In addition to her new position as Museum Director at the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association, Sheryl provides consulting services for music heritage projects in the US and abroad. You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Cultural Heritage, Cultural Travel, Endangered Heritage, Historic Preservation, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Heritage Travel Volunteers

If you are looking for a unique travel experience, you may enjoy being a historic building conservation volunteer with Adventures in Preservation. Even if you are cramped for time, there are options to fit every kind of time restraint from a week to several months. Work is interesting and exciting. Usually there is more than one project happening simultaneously, so you can pick the one which interests you. A half-day or full-day is usually given to a sightseeing excursion.

This is an experience for those over 18. However, with special permission, sometimes families can participate together: grandparents, parents, and teenage children. No experience is necessary. Technical experts will guide the beginners. These projects are created through partnerships with organizations holding limited resources. They are fulfilled through a 501c(3) corporation so many expenses are tax-deductible.

For retirees, these opportunities offer both a challenge and a way to serve. This is a chance to help raise the economy of a nation by restoring a heritage building which then may become a center for tourism. For the student of history, it opens a way to gain additional experience, increasing the value of a history degree or diploma. For the heritage professional, it is a way of augmenting skills and adding to a resume.

If someone is majoring in history, this type of activity is the perfect complement to the educational training. It can also open new doors in the field oDSCN8307 Russian Chapelf a degreed major.  It is a chance to enhance knowledge and work experience. It may offer an opportunity for language interpretation. Other skills that may be used or enhanced are surveying, conservation cleaning, churchyard recording, and assessments.

An example of a current project is the conservation of the Kumayri Cultural Museum-Preserve in Gyumri, Armenia. It will consist of eight (8) 12-day sessions beginning May 18, 2016. This is part of a project to restore the city’s architectural heritage. There are 1,200 historically significant structures.

The city endured an earthquake in 1988. Half the city was destroyed. The after-effects remain, leaving little funding to deal with restoring the historic buildings. The focus of this restoration is recognizing that once these heritage buildings are restored, tourism will bring life and a stronger economy back to the region. This will have beneficial rewards for the inhabitants of the area.

There will be more than one session. The first phase of the restoration will be documentation and study of the 7th century church that is in the historic district. The documentation phase consists of taking photographs, making drawings, taking measurements, and collecting data. This will help in the restoration process. The historic district contains some of the last remaining authentic buildings in Armenia. Priorities will be developed as to which buildings hold tourist appeal and architectural value and which should be restored first.

Benefits to participating in this type of a project include personal satisfaction knowing that you become a vital part of Gyumri’s economic growth strategy. You get to know an area first-hand, rather than through a brochure. Lodging is within walking distance. A workshop will be held prior to the actual trip for training purposes. You will learn new skills, experience new cultures, play a role in saving a historic building, help build a local economy through tourism, expand your horizons, build self-confidence, and add to your education or professional resume. This is vital conservation work and it can complement diploma or degree training.

Have you been looking for an experience that combines travel with learning new skills? Then consider becoming a historic preservation volunteer. It will become the experience of a lifetime.

This article was contributed by Cheryl Jones, a free lance writer and blogger.

Posted in AiP Projects, Cultural Travel, Experiential Travel, Heritage Travel, Historic Preservation, Volunteer Opportunities, Volunteer Vacations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment