Tuesday, April 28, 2009
As the thermometer pushes eighty degrees, students in my American and New England Studies class, Museums and Public Culture, are trying to ignore the sunshine so that they can draft their twenty-page museum ethnography papers. All semester they have been perusing their assigned readings and pondering the place of museums in our society. Michael Ames once called museums "artifacts of society" and, indeed, these hallowed institutions harbor traces of former ways of looking at and interacting with the world around us. Rarely do we consider that the curiosity is not under glass, the true curiosity is the behavior of enclosing things under glass and then peering at them! So, with this blog entry, I invite them to comment upon their chosen museums of study and lead us towards some of their insights about heritage in Maine and beyond.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Cannon fire, columns of black smoke, and a red penant snapping ominously atop the mainmast of a British warship. Peaks Island Elementary School students are learning that the Trott family faced these things on the morning of October 16, 1775. As part of their unit on the Revolutionary War, twenty one third, fourth, and fifth graders explored a local chapter of national history.
Students examined historic images and documents related to British Captain Henry Mowatt’s burning of the colonial town named Falmouth (what we now call Portland). Working for the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, I led students on a field trip to several historic sites including the site of Benjamin and Thankful Trott’s log cabin where they were living with their four children in the fall of 1775. From their homesite just above Ferry Beach, the Trotts would have had an unobstructed view of the unexpected destruction of the town and the ships in the harbor.
The field trip also stopped at Ye Olde Trott Burying Ground that was in use beginning in the mid 1700s. At Brackett Cemetery students completed a scavenger hunt where they identified Peaks Islanders who had been born prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
All over the country this week, various lectures, ceremonies, and events have been commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the date that Robert Peary claimed to have discovered the North Pole, on April 6, 1909. The controversy over whether it was Robert Peary or Frederick Cook who first discovered the Pole (or whether either of them reached the precise top of the world at all) has dominated much of the media coverage. One exception has been the attention given to Matthew Henson, Peary’s African American fellow explorer. Although Peary relied heavily upon Henson for decades and chose him as one member of the team that made the final dash towards the Pole, Henson did not receive appropriate recognition during his lifetime. In the post Civil Rights era, Henson’s skills as an explorer (as well as linguist, dogsled driver, and carpenter) finally are receiving the recognition that they were due all along. However, the 1909/2009 commemorations largely left silent the contributions of Peary’s wife, Josephine Diebitsch Peary. Cally Gurley, Curator of the Maine Women Writer’s Collection, generously invited me to speak during this historic week as part of their lecture series. I was pleased that University of New England students from Elizabeth DeWolfe’s Women and the Environment course were able to attend and hear “White Woman, White Snow, Blank Page: Josephine Peary as Arctic Author/Explorer.” Although Josephine accompanied her husband on multiple Arctic expeditions – notably giving birth on one of them and spending the winter trapped in an icebound ship in another – she maintained a strong connection to Maine. After the Pearys built their stunning cottage on Eagle Island, Josephine spent winters in Washington, D.C. and her summers at their cottage off the coast of South Harpswell. The last two decades of her life, Josephine lived in an apartment at 290 Baxter Boulevard in Portland, Maine. Bowdoin College's Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is exhibiting several artifacts associated with her life, including an American flag that she sewed (borrowed from the National Geographic Society) and porcelain teacups borrowed from the University of New England’s Maine Women Writer’s Collection.
Monday, April 6, 2009
For those of us who look forward to winter and the rush of Arctic air, this year has been an exciting one in Maine, not because of the snowfall but because of the Peary Centennial and International Polar Year Commemorations. The Portland Museum of Art has been hosting its Coldest Crucible exhibit, curated by Michael Robinson (whose blog is stunning, by the way). Also, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College hosted several days of events to commemorate one hundred years since April 6, 1909 when Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole. An attentive audience listened as a few Bowdoin students delivered their first conference papers.
There are two artifacts on loan to the Arctic Museum that are worth the drive to Brunswick. One is the enormously controversial page – an inserted page – from the diary Peary kept on his 1909 dogsled trek to the Pole. Loaned by the National Archives, this page sports the entry “The Pole At Last!” I confess that the other artifact counts as my favorite – an American flag loaned by the National Geographic Society. I delivered a talk at the Bowdoin symposium entitled “Mother of the Snowbaby, Author of the Flag: Josephine Peary in the Arctic.” Robert Peary’s wife, Josephine, sewed this flag as a memento for her husband who was departing on one of his many expeditions. We know from many media accounts, correspondence, published articles, and family oral history that Peary carried this flag for the next decade on his quest for the Pole, cutting swatches out of the flag and caching the pieces each time he accomplished a “farthest north” geographic point. Peary cut a diagonal stripe from it when he reached the Pole. This tattered, stained, and patched flag awaits those who would like to see, in person, one of the most famous artifacts in Arctic exploration history.