MyAmericanFuture

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September 3, 2013: Virginia Daytrips: Frontier Culture Museum

[In honor of my recent trip to Virginia, and to parallel my earlier series on New England daytrips, this week’s series will highlight AmericanStudies trips in ole Virginia. Add your nominations, whether in the Commonwealth or anywhere else, please!]
On the living history site with a profound organizing argument.
I’ve already blogged briefly, as part of this post on Virginia AmericanStudies connections across the centuries, about Mechal Sobel’s amazing The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th Century Virginia (1988). What made Sobel’s book so unique and impressive to me when I read it in college—and what made it a significant influence on the idea of cross-cultural transformation at the heart of my own Redefining American Identity—was her use and analysis of seemingly small, everyday items and details to develop her sweeping and convincing argument about how Virginia’s multiple cultures and communities came together to produce its own unique and enduring identity. She located some of our biggest and most defining ideas in some of our smallest and most intimate practices, a skill that exemplifies what AmericanStudies can do and offer.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected as my boys, my Dad, and I drove out to Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum, but I know it had a lot more to do with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone than Mechal Sobel. But while the Museum did indeed include replicated or reassembled versions of 18th and 19th century Virginia cabins and homes (in which young Davy and Daniel and their peers certainly could have been born and raised), it also included exhibits on old world homes that were just as painstakingly and lovingly constructed and inhabited: English, Irish, German, and West African sites and homes, to be exact. (The newest exhibit, on Native American homes, is still under construction but promises to be just as compelling.) Each site was staffed by historical interpreters dressed in period costume but offering a 21st century perspective on the place, time, and details, a choice that interestingly complements how Plimoth Plantation presents its histories and stories.
That diversity and depth of sites was already surprising and effective to this AmericanStudies visitor, but the Museum took things one big step further. As the orientation film (narrated by David McCullough!) notes, the Museum’s exhibits are divided into two distinct sections: the old world sites in a first part, linked to one another as some of the places from which these Virginian arrivals came; and the new world/Virginia sites in a second part. As such, for those visitors who travel through the exhibits in that suggested order (and the site is spaced so as to make it difficult to do so in any other way), the Virginia exhibits quite literally build on those old world starting points, making clear how much they developed out of the cultures that came here but became part of a new and shared culture all their own. Without losing sight of all the individual details and aspects that define each particular site and moment, that is, the Museum as a whole builds, just as Sobel’s book does, to a broader, defining argument about the Virginian and American culture composed out of those details and all the peoples they comprised.
Next Virginia trip tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Daytrips you’d suggest?

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