Smithsonian’s Spotlight: Country Music

With the Pandemic closing museums across the country many have opted to create virtual collections and offer video tours. One of the many ways the Smithsonian Institute has begun offering experiences online is through curated galleries on a variety of topics. Although the collections are large, they seem to consist primarily of photographs with identifiers and short descriptions attached to them when clicked on. Many of the photos are of Country music stars, posters, or attire, but some of them lack a detailed description, with many of the posters and similar items descriptions reading “mint” instead of explaining the history of the piece.

The overall layout of the exhibit seems to be very scattered and without a clear organization or noticable pattern. The gallery lists items in neither chronological nor alphabetical order. The items also don’t appear to be used to tell any kind of overall story, but just describe random items associated with Country music. The Collection is massive and spans most of the Country music world from the 1940’s to the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. The exhibit also seems to lack items pertaining to the origin’s of Country music, as well as information on the themes and concepts that drove Country music to become so popular.

Due to a scattered layout and the issues of being reset upon pushing the “back button”, the Smithsonian Spotlight seems to be less of an exhibit and more of an explorable collection. Being a collection would not typically be a bad thing, but due to a lack of organization and the ability to sort by date or alphabetical order, it feels like digging through a pile of loose photos. The nature of this Spotlight was to “Discover Country Music”, but the gallery seems to lack a path to guide an audience towards and ends at all. The gallery is also too lengthy with numerous sections available at the click of the “view more” button. The exhibit lacks the interactivity of physically attending a museum and does so in a very noticeable way. The photo’s could be made better by short descriptors or even pop-up windows that tell you their history, but they opted for a very flat and aesthetically bland approach that is closer to a google images result than what I would expect from a museum.

I believe that online exhibits are trying a variety of methods right now to drive engagement with their audiences, but this chaotic method made for an unpleasant experience that did not seem to serve any educational purpose. I also watched some virtual tours of the Smithsonian, but they were all third-party. The virtual and video tours were all very surface level and felt very clunky. In a class I had with Dr. Ray last semester we did virtual tours of historic sites in Africa. These tours still left a bit to be desired, but I believe that they provided a good look at the scale of structures that can’t be captured on video or in photographs. Hopefully with the progression of VR technologies we can make virtual museums that work, but from my experiences that technology has not yet arrived.

The Auburn Landscape

As a new student at Auburn I was lost in the vastness of campus and even today knowledge of Wellness-Kitchen escapes me. The markers I’ve seen on campus have often been small ones talking about donors and founders, but off-campus I’ve seen many markers that talk about the area’s history and these markers tell plenty about the past. Auburn history is tied to more than just the University and by examining markers scattered around town that becomes very apparent. One of my favorite markers is located just off of U.S. Highway 280. This marker was the subject of a project I did a couple of semester ago on a part of Auburn known as The Bottle. It’s probably one of the coolest historic markers in Auburn because of it’s subject, which was a gas station shaped like a giant bottle of Nehi soda. I’ve learned most of what I know from unofficial markers on campus, such as the unofficial Frisbee golf course that weaves across campus from the lathe by Samford Hall to behind the science center. Each part of the course is marked by an Auburn University building or a historic part of campus and although there are some fillers to move you around some buildings the course lends itself to being a fun way to learn about campus and it’s layout. I’m unsure who started the frisbee golf trail, but I’ve seen other students play it at night and I believe it’s got a bit of an underground following with frisbee players.

I’ve now been in Auburn for 5 years and over that time I haven’t seen too much change in the way Auburn history has been expressed. On walks to class over the years I always caught tour groups giving the same words to crowds day-in and day-out. The written history of Auburn may have been changing, but the oral history has remained constant throughout my time here at the University. The oral history of Auburn starts with the Auburn Creed and ends with the Kick Six. The only changes I’ve seen to Auburn history has been it’s fleshing out of building namesakes. The expansion on the history building names currently is very surface level and focused on buildings whose names tie to the Confederacy or White Supremacy, but I hope all buildings receive a deep analysis of their namesakes with the history behind them. I would also like to see a effort to work on regional history with regards to the Universities founding and development.

ACF, the F is for Community

The street sign for ACF and the front door leading into the Community Room.

Auburn Christian Fellowship located just behind the Auburn Alumni Center is a small campus ministry that has been a rock for me throughout my years here in Auburn. I first came to ACF as a freshman in 2015 along with my roommate at the time who was also a hometown friend. We came for a free dinner event, then a worship service, and before long it just became a part of our college routine. Attending we met most of our current Auburn friends and made all kinds of memories because of this place from whittling on the front porch to Nerf wars in the worship center. ACF is split into two main buildings: the worship center or Big Room and the Community Room. The Big room serves as the dining room for free dinner nights and the worship hall for Bible study. The Community Room is actually divided into 3 parts: a boys dorm, community room, and a girls dorm. The dorms are attached but have no connecting doors to each other or the community room. The community room serves as a common area for not only ACF residents, but everyone. The room is about the size of a large living room with couches centered around a TV and coffee table. The community room is full of a variety of games and activities for students who just need a break, but it also has separate rooms that serve as staff offices and study rooms.

The Big Room doors as seen from the porch

From the outside ACF has a very professional appeal with both buildings having matching brick walls with white accents and shingle roofs. The aesthetic of ACF from the inside of the buildings and even the front parking lot is a completely different experience. From the front parking lot there is a clear view of a large wrap around porch that encompasses the community room and is filled with rocking chairs and small tables. Often students sit on the porch and use it as a study space between classes, but with COVID, they’ve become a spot where people socialize. ACF has adapted to the COVID crisis quite well, the outside of all buildings have signs mandating the use of a mask on the premises and they require all visitors receive a temperature check and scan in using a QR code.

The ACF porch alive and busy with people eager to hang-out

Outside of the people and signs that dot the landscape ACF is a beautiful building in a slightly less than beautiful area. ACF is surrounded on it’s four sides by an older apartment complex, a cemetery, some small sorority houses, and the Alumni Center’s parking lot. The building itself is a bit of an odd-ball as it’s all red brick, white trim and shingles, whereas the buildings on its flanks boast wood and cinder block builds. The buildings are also not small in their size with the Big Room almost 2 stories in height and the Community Room being 2 stories with an attic. One of the nice things about the property’s landscape are the trees that surround the buildings. The perimeter is lined by crape myrtles and the porch has smaller japanese maples growing between it and the Big Room. The parking lot also has large Pin Oak trees at its edge that provide shade across the entirety of the pavement most of the day. The spacing of the buildings also provides good wind flow allowing breezes to sweep across the porch of hot days helping to cool it down.

ACF also has some history that it doesn’t show all that well. It was constructed in the 1970s after the land was donated to ACF’s founding board by a former Auburn fraternity. The current building and campus ministry have been running since then. Despite changes in staffing and renovations to the buildings, the ministry has operated essentially the same way since the 70s with community being the main focus. This community focus is reinforced by the openness of the buildings and the flow that they accommodate throughout the day with people always slowing as they pass through to greet friends or take a quick break from studying. In a way the landscape states the usage of the building better than the sign does.

Object Biography: The Lion from Afghanistan

This stuffed lion is about 6 inches from head to bottom and about 7 inch from foot to foot. It is made primarily out of cotton with the head and upper body being both made and filled with cotton, although the bottom seems to be filled with some type of weighted beads. the stitching and coloration seems very uniform and there is a place on one of the seems where is appears a tag may have been. The lion is tan in color with a white patch on the mouth and brown wool used for the mane and tail. While the mouth and nose are purely thread the eyes are gloss and seem to be some kind of bead and feel as though they have a rod sticking into the head to attach them.

I received this lion from my dad when I was about 6 or 7 years old. He sent it to me while on deployment in Afghanistan in the mid 2000’s. My dad served with the Navy Intel group in the Middle East and moved around a lot before getting stationed in Afghanistan. We weren’t always allowed to talk to him do to the classification of some of his work, but he would call occasionally and send us letters and little things from over there. He sent the whole family all kinds of jewelry boxes and carvings, but the most important thing he ever sent me was this little lion. I’ve always liked lions and thought they were amazing animals, because of that this lion was something I attached to immediately. It also reminded me of my dad during the time he was deployed and after his return in 2008, it remained an item that I was attached to and kept put up in my room. When I moved away to Auburn, I brought this lion with me and set it in my room on a shelf. Although I don’t physically interact with it, when I see it I think of my family. I’ve moved again since being in Auburn and today he sits just under my tv where I always see him before I leave for school or work.

In studying my life, a historian could see a multitude of interpretations for the stuffed lion. The truth is that when I was young I liked lions and this is likely one of the easiest inferences to make. I also own a bible with a lion stamped into the front front cover, further reinforcing that first claim, but also tying it to my religion. Another interpretation might play into my early August birthday and my lion zodiac sign. With no tag or clear origin it may get lumped in with the beanie babies trend of collecting stuffed animals. I feel like the story behind the object is much more than anyone could find from just looking at it, this lion means a lot to me because of the symbolism I’ve placed upon it. I actually bought my bible to remind me of the lion, because I leave it at home and my bible stays with me most of the time. I think my enjoyment of the object is simple and that may make it a bit harder for a historian to identify without knowing the story of my dad. That being said I think if they were to put it into an exhibit, that exhibit would likely be based around the Iraq War or soldiers writing home. I think I will likely make the lion into a family heirloom passing it down through my family along with the story of where it came from.

Covid-19 Oral History

I interviewed one of my housemates on the effects of Covid-19 in his life. He is currently attending Julliard through Zoom and similar apps and is planning on moving to New York towards the end of the year in hopes that in-person classes will resume. So far classes for him have been pretty simple and most of his work involves recording trumpet pieces that they compile for their performances which are now recorded in the place of live performances. He is also struggling due to an issue we’ve recently been having with our internet that causes intermittent disconnection with some lasting up to 30 minutes in length.

Socially he still goes downtown to bars and has been on a few dates recently, but about a month ago he tested positive for Covid-19 and was, along with the rest of us, put under house quarantine until we were all tested. During his weeks of quarantine he had to use apps like Grubhub and similar delivery apps to get food or rely on friends to pick him up groceries. His time with Covid was not the worst experience he’s had, he was asymptomatic so the quarantining was the only real negative.

Like many people he finds the masks and checks a bit annoying when going to events or out to eat, but he complies anyway. He did say something that I’ve wondered about as well. Because he’s had the virus he has immunity to it for around 3 months according to his physician, but he is still required to pass health checks and wear a mask. We figured this is probably due to people not knowing who has had it and who hasn’t.

When I asked him if he thought we would discuss the events of 2020 in the future, he said that it would probably end up being like the Spanish Flu Pandemic, he’d never heard of it until we were in a pandemic, so the Corona-virus would likely fade into the same niche and only be brought up when there’s a new disease that is spreading rapidly or when a doctor needs to spice up their resume.

Ask a Public Historian: Hill Goodspeed

Hill Goodspeed is the current historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL.

How did you get your start with the Museum?

I interned with the museum through my Junior and Senior year of college. When I was working on my Master’s I Co-oped with the museum and after graduation they offered me a job and I’ve been here since.

What work do you do as the Museum’s Historian?

I work pretty much everywhere in the museum and do a little bit of everything. I do most of my work with Research and publications, but I am also in charge of the collections archive and responsible for all loans to and from our collection.

What’s the best and worst part of your work at the Museum?

If your into history, it’s like walking into a candy store everyday. We’re always getting something new that changes the way we think about everything. Being a military museum we’ve been at full staff and pay, but shut-down due to Covid. I wouldn’t say there is a bad part of working with the museum outside of some funding issues.

What Skills do you recommend picking up in college to prepare someone for work in a Museum?

I’d say good research skills are a must along with good communication skills. One skill that’s on the rise and growing in importance is technology. People don’t like just looking at an exhibit and reading about it, they want to have some interaction and through technology it becomes a lot easier to give that to them.

Any parting tips for students interested in public history?

Get experience. It’s pretty simple and a lot of people are gonna tell you that, but it’s really the only way. What they won’t tell you is sometimes you have to get the experience on your own dime.

Surveying the Past

This was my second time doing this survey, the first time I believe I interviewed my Dad and remember having to explain a lot of the questions to help him understand the meanings of some of the questions. This time I interviewed one of my coworkers at the Home Depot, someone a bit closer to me in age. The interview went about as smooth as the first time and I think the main issue is the wording with a few of the questions. The shorter questions are easy to read and answer, but the lengthier questions required a bit of explanation. I had a similar issue last time. I also feel to make results easier to collect, the questions could be put into a Google Survey to help limit answers on yes or no questions and provide options on questions that seem too open ended (i.e. the part 2 of Q1, on Section I). My father was a bit quicker on this question because he liked older movies and they served to remind him of the times when he was younger watching them, but my coworker had a bit of trouble answering this question because he has seen a lot of movies set in the past and he said all movies are about the same to him. That part of the question could be reworded away from using “like”; the word “interest” would be a better here . Also I feel that COVID-19 has affected a few of the questions in a way that may skew results if it’s not stated that these result were taken during a pandemic.

Monuments and the Public

Monuments serve as reminders of the past and are often used to elevate people of the past, but without context they’re just statues. Many of the monuments in the South are dedicated to the Confederate Army and the men who died for the Confederate cause, but few try to name the men they represent or contextualize themselves. These monuments have sparked backlash over their placement in public squares and often their meanings are debated to the point of anger by both sides of the political aisle. All Monuments have good and bad aspects, humans by nature are flawed and all monuments made for human achievements are subject to scrutiny for the people and ideals they represent. No two people have the same experience in life and because of this every person is different and has values that make them support certain points of view while renouncing others. This leads to mixed support and opposition to the removal of controversial memorials, with both sides grasping for moral superiority. One of the recent controversies was of the California statue of Saint Junipero Serra, he has been called a supporter and oppressor of native peoples and during a protest his statue in a local park was torn down and painted red. The unauthorized removal led to people on the right demonizing those at the protests and the present organizations. There are a plethora of solutions for monuments, but I believe the least controversial way to deal with them would be the mass decentralization of them all away from public spaces to relevant historical sites and museums, because many monuments that spark similar backlash exist in areas where they serve no purpose in teaching the area’s history. Monuments should be used to teach about the past, without proper context they fail to do this, so we should find a way to use them rather than demolish them.