Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted House Museums...and Other Historic Sites

Halloween Edition—
This time of year every historic house museum—well not every, but an ever increasing number—is publicizing its haunted house tour. Even the Mark Twain House in Hartford has been running “Graveyard Shift ghost tours,” and last year had the crew from Ghost Hunters in to film an episode. These tours are popular at historic sites, but they ofen run counter to the museums’ mission to interpret history.

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), here in Philadelphia, runs one of the most celebrated and successful haunted tours in the country—Terror Behind the Walls. ESP is one of my very favorite historic site in the city, so I’m committed to their success as an institution, but Terror Behind the Walls isn’t history—and it doesn’t contribute to their mission as a non-profit. But importantly, it does generate a great deal of the institution’s budget (as much as 65% of their annual operating costs are raised over Halloween). However, ESP is up front about the fact that these tours aren’t history, and that they, in fact, compromise their very mission as a history institution. I appreciate that they can make this admission, and that they point out the financial need that often underlies such tours. There's a great article and blog about this and Seth's Museum Class at Temple this fall here.

Other institutions—the Mark Twain House included—make convoluted arguments that these tours provide historical information and serve their missions. The Twain house countered criticisms last year by arguing that that Sam and Olivia Clemens were at times interested in spiritualism, especially after the death of their young son. Meanwhile, the tours point out that the Clemenses’s daughter Suzy died in the house. Ultimately, these tours lead to speculation about whether the houses are haunted—and they aren't haunted by literature.

Ken Finkel last week wrote a great blog over at The Philly History Blog about the danger that Eastern State Penitentiary has already or will become addicted to the funding that comes from its Halloween tours. He worries that the museum and its staff forget how to innovate within their regular tours, find new programming, or appeal to new audiences because they have a steady stream of money that comes from those who see the blood and guts at Halloween. I hope that the literary houses that have started down this route don't find themselves lost in the mire of the haunted house tour.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mark Twain, USA, Forever

The recent commemoration frenzy surrounding Mark Twain, didn't end with the centennial of his death and the publication of a new and expanded (and best-seller) version of his autobiography. This week the U.S. Postal Service released a new forever stamp that celebrates Mark Twain. Now we can all attach his visage to any scrap of paper we send. I like that the the stamp simply reads:
Mark Twain, USA, Forever. Quite a motto.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

American Literary Tourism

Nearly three weeks ago now, in New Brunswick, I participated in an outstanding panel at the NeMLA annual conference on American Literary Tourism and its contemporary study. Jennifer Harris from Mount Allison University organized the panel and brought together myself, Jane Wood (Park University), Mara Scanlon (Mary Washington University), and Susan Bishop (All in One Tours) to talk about our research in literary tourism. While I spoke about Mark Twain’s birthplace and the likelihood that it, like many other birthplaces, is a fake or a “replica,” others talked about sites associated with Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Walt Whitman, and the rich history of early American literary guidebooks.

Jane Wood discussed the Cather and O’Connor sites, and their various eccentricities. Mara Scanlon told us about her amazing class on Whitman that she ran in conjunction with 5 other Whitman classes across the world (most at or near historic sites associated with periods in Whitman’s life), the partner-classes made use of the fabulous digital resources on Whitman made available through places like the Walt Whitman Archive, and sought out real places with which to connect with Whitman’s biography and work. Susan Bishop’s overview on the history of literary tourism guidebooks was amazing. Although I thought I had uncovered all the early American guides through my amateur searches of various library catalogs, Susan brought accounts and photographs of her collection of rare books dealing with travel to American literary sites—and she was generous enough to share her sources.

I organized a panel on a similar subject a few years ago at an American Studies Association conference in Philadelphia—and had a great cast of participants—Mary Jenkins—now retired administrator at the NSP’s Poe House, Anne Trubek—before her recent Skeptic’s Guide to Writers' Houses, Lawrence Buell, and Karen Sanchez-Eppler. Between this recent panel and the last, it seems like there’s more than enough interest in scholarship on literary sites and literary tourism to put together a well rounded and interdisciplinary collection on the subject.

If you are interested or intrigued, please visit the Call for Papers for this collection here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Baltimore Poe House in Trouble

After hearing that Baltimore's city officials (all of which seem nameless in recent reports) canceled the Baltimore Poe house's city funding, papers across the country have picked up the story and are going with headlines like "Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House May Close, Warns Curator." Seth sent me a link to a version of the story yesterday, and it was all over my facebook account this morning as all of the literary houses that I am "friends" with picked up the story and passed it around.

I've kept up the naive belief that while other historic sites were closing or in danger of closing, that literary houses had continued to do well, visitation was up; "staycations," and other incentives kept people close to home and enjoying literary domestications in ways that they did during World War II. Sure some houses have had funding problems--like Edith Wharton's the Mount, but they were in the red before the recession.

During the Great Depression, federal employees through the WPA and the CCC helped maintain and build historic sites. Mark Twain's Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Missouri got a new building and a stone firewall thanks to federal workers, the Missouri state park that celebrates his birth saw huge infrastructure support through the CCC, and even his adult home in Hartford (while it was a branch of the Hartford Public Library) had a WPA worker who visited once a week to help shelve books and catalog items in their Twain collection. I don't doubt that many of literary sites saw the great benefit of federal workers. Above is a HABS photograph (HABS itself is a public works program started in the 1930s) of Mark Twain's Boyhood Home before the federal relief workers tore down the damaged brick house next to it. On the left is an image of the house with a tiny piece of the "new" stone house that they re-built in its place. Today it serves as the giftshop for the museum.

Each of these places exists today because, in part, the relief programs of the 1930s invested in America's historic infrastructure. In the 1930s we put Americans back to work in our state and national parks. Such job programs today might do a world of good.