Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Defense of Museums

by Carmen Doyle
Carmen works at our front desk and has joined our list of "bloggers". 

I recently read an article in which the author claimed that museums are among the top five things that everyone says are fun- but aren’t.
I have to disagree. When I was growing up, I lived not far from Chicago, close enough that my school could take the occasional field trip to the wealth of museums there.  It was a wonderful way to see what we were learning in school without having to be in class and do assignments.
            I’ll admit that when my family first moved to Fort Wayne that I missed all the Chicago museums, until I realized what superb museums this city had to offer.
            The first time I visited the History Center was when my friend Megan came to visit for her 21st birthday. It was definitely a memorable experience. Looking for something to do, we saw a picture of the old jail and decided it would be great fun to get our pictures taken in there. When we saw the dummy in the cell, Megan and I were surprised that the person at the front desk had not heard us scream. (Megan has declared that under no circumstance will she ever go down to that jail again.) However, we did get the photos of each other in the cells, which was what we wanted.
            The jail is the most memorable and the most popular exhibit in the entire museum. Kids on field trips always want to visit there first, especially because of the mannequin. If they don’t jump at him, then their friends will (which is more fun.) It’s also neat to occasionally meet an adult who remembers being here when it was the old City Hall. While the people who admit to having spent time (involuntarily) in there are fun to talk to, more interesting is meeting the retired police officers or relatives of officers who worked here. One gentleman told me of how he built a machine gun for use in Fort Wayne race riots. It’s harder to get closer to history than that.
            Science Central may seem like it’s for children, but adults can have fun as well. It is so hands-on that you don’t always notice you might be learning something. On one of Megan’s visits, we went there. Our favorite part was the sewer crawl. I’m not sure why we thought crawling through a sewer (or a simulation of a sewer) would be fun, but it was. We cheated going through- she used her camera’s flash to illuminate a few feet ahead, and I used my cell phone to keep track of her feet. When my other friend Mandy visited, that was one of the places she wanted to go. We loved the slide that traveled the length of the building, even if we weren’t allowed to try and climb back up the slide like we did on playground slides as a kid.
             The Museum Dream Pass allows me to visit the History Center and Science Central, as well as the Botanical Conservatory, for one price. A benefit of the Museum Dream Membership is the reciprocal admissions to different museums across the country. I have used my membership at the History Center to get in free at the Chicago Historical Society. Among the artifacts on display was a portrait of Rebecca Wells Heald, with the explanation that she was William Wells’ niece. (Unfortunately, there wasn’t an explanation of who William Wells was!) My membership with Science Central allowed me to visit the Field Museum in Chicago for free. Growing up, I had field trips to visit there so it was fun to spend more time at my favorite exhibits.
            The Botanical Conservatory may not technically be a museum, but it is included as part of the Museum Dream Pass. I get a lot of use out of my membership there. When the weather in Fort Wayne gets extreme, I enjoy visiting the Conservatory and seeing calm weather. My favorite garden is the tropical garden.  It’s a lot of fun to go through the hall and see the snow piled at the windows and then see banana trees and waterfalls. (I am always secretly disappointed at the chocolate tree. I keep hoping that it will be a Willy Wonka creation instead of a plant where the seeds have to be fermented and then roasted before they can be eaten.)
             The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is another great museum. The recent exhibition--“WE ARE THE SHIP”-- was spectacular. I saw it on the Trolley Tour and then went back with my Dad. That exhibit was inspiring enough that on a recent visit to relatives in Kansas City, my Dad visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.  The Trolley Tour is a great way to see Fort Wayne art for one price, including some galleries of which I might not have otherwise have seen or heard.
            My love of museums started as a kid- I remember visiting my grandparents in Nebraska and being taken to a local museum to see an exhibit they had on dinosaurs. One summer during an extended family visit, my grandmother persuaded kids and grandkids to go visit a museum that recently opened an hour away dedicated to the Great Platte River Road. Just the Archway Lobby was impressive and to visit with family even more so. That museum had an exhibit about the Lincoln Highway, which is part of Fort Wayne history as well.
            I’ve never been sure why people dislike museums. I always thought that if you didn’t like a museum, then you were missing something. Today, when I visit almost anyplace, I try to find museums in the area to see.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Celebrating 75 years of Old Fort News

The Old Fort News celebrates 75 years of publication in 2012 and so over the course of the next several months some of us on the staff will be perusing past articles from the magazine’s early years and publishing quotes from articles that we find most interesting.

In case you don’t know, the Old Fort News is a magazine published by The History Center. If you are a member, you are automatically subscribed. Not a member? You can pick up copies in our gift shop. We have a number of back issues available and if there is a particular topic in which you are interested, you can have the front desk staff check the article title list for you. This list is printed in the back of the current issue.

This current issue also contains an overview of the publication’s history as well as selected articles from past issues. We strive to use as many photographs as we can because, as they say, “pictures tell a story” and no more so than in the historical arena. This also allows us, with our limited space for displays and exhibits—the downside to a building built in 1893--to publish photos many of us have probably never seen.

The first issue of the Old Fort News was published in 1936 with this opening paragraph on page one:

“This bulletin is a new venture for the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. The ambition of the Society is that this little publication will prove beneficial to members, schools, study clubs, and the general public. The aim is to serve as a source of information concerning the activities of the Society and matters of general historical interest. From time to time short bits of information such as the findings of research work or source material pertaining to matters of local interest will be printed.”

The publication has changed a great deal since the original work, thanks in large part to our curator Walter Font, who now serves as editor. In his piece on the history of the Old Fort News, written for the current edition, he says:

“…The character of the Old Fort News has gradually been reshaped with almost exclusive emphasis on providing new local histories that are well documented, having lasting value, and presented effectively with good illustrations and page layout.  There is still a place for ‘News from the Past’ pieces, reminiscences and other such tales, but the core value lies in good insightful history that adds to the fabric of our local culture.  The overall presentation was enhanced in 2006 when color was added, the same year we took full advantage of in-house desktop publishing tools.  In some ways the production process has been become more complicated and time-consuming because as one strives to improve quality there is a requirement to pay more attention to detail—the maddening minutia of commas and colons, proper endnote structure and color-enhanced page design.  The use of computer technology has made this almost manageable: text layout, image reproduction and page design are more efficient than the old ‘pasteup’ days.  Tuning the communication instrument will continue as we progress toward Willis Richardson’s 1939 vision of producing a ‘real magazine of history.’”

We encourage you to stop by the History Center’s gift shop to take a look at back issues in which you may have an interest….as well as the other books we have available for sale. The Barr Street Market opens July 7 and until its final day on September 15, admission on Saturday mornings will be free—our gift to Fort Wayne for your support! While you’re shopping to feed the body, shop to feed the mind and learn more about your city’s history. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Assassination Vacation

Laura McCaffrey, one of our board members, former librarian, and consummate lover of books, recommended a work by Sarah Vowell to me the other day. "Assassination Vacation" takes you on the travels of the author (who not only writes books but is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life) in her quest to learn more about the events, places and people associated with the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

Sarah is the epitome of the "history geek".

As someone who minored in history, I knew a great deal of the Lincoln story but Garfield and McKinley somehow got short shrift in my history classes. I now know more about those two men than I ever thought I would, thanks to this easily and quickly read work. Plus there's poor Robert Todd Lincoln, who had the misfortune of having a connection of some sort to all three killings.

This is a great summer read and one that students in high school would enjoy as well. Parents of middle school kids--you might want to read this first to see what you think.

One note of caution: the author does not hide her personal politics in this work so if you don't agree with her, best to skip those parts and move onto to the next paragraph. Or realize that we're all entitled to our opinions.

My copy of the book was obtained via a used book outlet--personally I love reading "used" books as I like to imagine who else has owned the volume.