Monday, September 24, 2012

German Attack on Cape Cod!

“ORLEANS, MASS., July 21.- An enemy submarine attacked a tow off the easternmost point of Cape Cod today, sank three barges, set a fourth and their tug on fire and dropped four shells on the mainland.”
 [Dallas Morning News, 21 July, 1918]

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When most people think of Cape Cod, they think of sandy (or rocky) beaches, windswept expanses of dune grass, Henry David Thoreau, the Kennedys, and for the summer of 2012, sharks. But on July 21st, 1918, the town of Orleans, on the outer portion of the Cape’s “elbow,” became the site of the only attack on US soil by the German Empire during World War I. This incident was the first time since the War of 1812 that the territorial United States had been directly attacked by a hostile force.

At approximately 11 o’clock in the morning, the German U-Boat SM U-156 surfaced about 2 miles off Nauset Beach, the easternmost point of Cape Cod. It commenced firing at the American tug boat Perth Amboy and the four barges that the tug was towing from Gloucester, Massachusetts to New York City. Upon sighting the vessel , Captain J. H. Tapley of the tug immediately sounded a warning and ordered the four barges abandoned. Under heavy shelling, the Perth Amboy and its barges were set afire. Three of the barges sank, fortunately giving the 41 crew and passengers sufficient time to board lifeboats and escape to shore.

The attack continued for about an hour, during which a crowd of thousands of Cape Cod residents were drawn to the area by the sound of the U-Boat’s guns. According to a news piece on the incident by the Bellingham Herald of Washington State,

"The flashes of the guns and the outline of the U-Boat were plainly seen. Danger was not thought of until a shell whirled over their heads and splashed in a pond a mile inland. Three other shells buried themselves in the sand of the beach.” [The Bellingham Herald, 22 July 1918]

Ten miles to the north, meanwhile, the Chatham aviation station had responded to the attack by deploying two hydroplanes, armed with depth charges. The appearance of these craft caused the U-Boat to briefly break off its attack and submerge, only to resurface when the planes once again flew north towards Chatham. This time, when the planes turned around and began to fly low as if in preparation for an attack, the German vessel disappeared under the waves and was not seen again.

Damage from the raid was estimated to be in the range of $90,000 for the destroyed barges and $100,000 for the Perth Amboy. Torpedoes, shells and other ordinance fired by the U-Boat was estimated to have cost the German Empire the equivalent of $15,000. There was general confusion as to why the submarine would have gone to the trouble of navigating the treacherous shoals of Cape Cod just to waste ammunition on small craft. The opinion of the United States government was that the Germans were attempting to shake American morale by targeting American soil, and that Orleans, in the extreme east of Cape Cod, was just in an exposed position. Others have suggested that SM U-156 had been stalking a larger collier that had passed by on its way to New York just days before, and that the Perth Amboy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All accounts seem to agree that the attack could have been much worse than it was. No American warships were around at the time of the raid, leaving the U-Boat free to do as much damage as possible. Despite their free reign, the Germans were unable to sink all of the barges and succeeded only in damaging the tug without managing to completely destroy her. None of the crew were killed, nor were several women and children whom who were aboard, although one sailor had his arm blown off. Although several shells were aimed at the town of Orleans, one landed in a pond and three others buried themselves harmlessly in the sand. Accounts of the attack describe the Germans taking half an hour to hit and sink one of the smaller barges. This was derided by American newspapers as poor shooting but could also suggest outdated or malfunctioning equipment.

Sobered by this close call, the American Navy began to improve the defenses of the First Naval District in New England. Ships began to sweep the waters off of Massachusetts. To shorten shipping routes and protect other coal convoys, the Federal government assumed control of the Cape Cod Canal, providing direct access to Buzzard’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod Bay. The busy port of Boston remained open, but merchant ships were warned of the risk before setting course for open waters.

SM U-156 managed to escape undetected, although rumors persisted amongst the residents of the coastal Northeast that pursuing American warships had been heard and even sighted engaging the U-Boat. The submarine is believed to have sunk after striking a mine in the North Atlantic in September of 1918, several months after its assault on Cape Cod.

The children of Orleans, quick to capitalize on the event, set up a table overlooking Nauset Beach. On the table was a cage with a sheet over it, and in the cage was a chicken. For ten cents, gawkers at the beach could lift the sheet and behold the “chicken that survived the sub attack.”

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Have you spotted submarines lurking just around the corner? Do you have a chicken you'd like to show me, or an island to sell? Chickens cannot be placed in the appropriate place below, but comments certainly can.


“Submarine Drops Four Shells on Shore and Sinks Three Barges off Cape Cod.” Dallas Morning News. 22 Jul. 1918: 1. Print.

“U-Boat again is in action off Atlantic Tug and Three Barges Sunk by Submarine off.” The Bellingham Herald. 22 Jul. 1918: 1, 8. Print.

“Taking over the Cape Cod Canal.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 27 Jul. 1918:6. Print.

"1918 U-156 Submarine Attack of Nauset Beach."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Wild West Business Plan

Making my Museum Mission (M) statement                 

In looking back at my post from a few weeks ago, I see now how foolish it was to assume that I would be able to cover the development of my hypothetical Wild West museum in just two posts, no matter how hypothetical it is. The whole point of this exercise is to examine the challenges that museums of this sort face, from their conception to their construction. To sum up these challenges in just two posts would do a disservice to both the industry and to my better understanding of it. So today, instead of bringing my pipe dream to its conclusion, we will just examine the next chapter on the long, long road towards getting the place funded by a philanthropic billionaire.

This chapter is the museum’s mission statement. Every museum has one. It’s one to three sentences explaining why the institution exists, and what it’s trying to accomplish. For history museums, the mission statement usually provides a brief summary of the place and time period that is being represented. It helps you and your fellow visionaries to focus on the subject that you're trying to cover, and clearly explains exactly how you are different from other institutions doing similar things.

To give you a few examples, let’s turn to the two institutions that I’m channeling most closely; Plimoth Plantation, which showcases a replica of the 1627 Pilgrim settlement, and Old Cowtown in Kansas, an existing Wild West museum. The mission of Plimoth Plantation is to create “powerful, personal encounters with history built on thorough research about the Wampanoag People and the Colonial English community in the 1600s.” Old Cowtown Museum states that they are “an open air, living history museum that presents the history of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and life on the southern plains, circa 1865 - 1880.”

Each mission outlines exactly what it is that the museum is trying to accomplish, what makes it unique. The specifics of how the mission is to be carried out are left undefined, allowing for experimentation and evolution.
Working with this format, let’s decide what we want to do with our yet un-named replica frontier town. Here are a few goals that I would like our museum to strive for.

  1. To present a detailed look at life in a western frontier town of the late 1800s.
  2. To examine the people who lived in the town or nearby; who they are, what they do, and why they came to the town.
  3. To present the frontier life from as many different viewpoints as possible, utilizing historically accurate personalities, trades, and diverse ethnicities.

Vague, but it’s a start and we’ll work with it. As with other museums of this sort, our living history museum will also demonstrate period crafts, skills, and folkways. In order to keep all of these interpretations as accurate as possible, research will be carried out pretty much continuously, so as to remain current with recent scholarship. As we don’t have a location yet, or even a name, we can’t pin down these elements, but based on our goals we can craft a working mission statement that looks something like this:

Nameless, faceless Wild West Museum aims to connect the public with the history of time and place, using recent scholarship and advanced interpretation techniques. NFWWM will furthermore explore the myths and realities of the Old West and the different people and groups who occupied it.”

As we continue to develop our vision of the museum, the mission statement can be edited, specified, and changed to more accurately reflect what we want to accomplish. Next time, we'll try to pin down exactly where and when we want our living history to live.

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Are you a philanthropic billionaire, or an easily persuaded one? Do you have a good-for-nothing frontier town lying around that refuses to get a job? All of these comments and more can be left in the comments section below.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Internship

Personal news first; just a few days ago, I secured a volunteer position for myself as an assistant archivist at a local history museum. This will allow me to update and refine the archive’s catalog, conduct research, and even vet publications that have requested to use the museum’s images and photographs. It’s volunteer, as I said, but its work that I’ve always been interested in and it allows me to fill a gap on my professional resume.

Which brings me to today’s blog.

If you’ve ever seen curriculum vitae, you know that they can be pretty terrifying for both the reader and the writer. Imagine a resume, but a resume created by a very zealous police detective after two hours spent in the station’s basement interrogation room. “Where were you between 2007 and 2009 in your professional career? Can any superiors verify your story? Why’d you really go to community college, bub?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets that cold feeling in the pit of their stomach when a CV is mentioned. I have enough experience to fill out a one-page resume, but I’ve read that the more detailed CV usually exceeds five pages. This provides space to list doctoral work, internships, and published writing. Currently, none of these really apply to me, so whenever I get the chance to extend the page count, I take it.

In the museum world, the more hats you can honestly claim to have worn during your career, the better. Management, education, funding and development, and archives; the more boxes you tick, the better your chances of getting hired even to a mid-career position. This is especially true this age of decreased funding and increased efficiency. Having spent my undergraduate years working in an on-campus café, I may be a bit behind when it comes to the breadth of my credentials, but I’m working hard to make up the difference.

Sometimes I wonder whether it might be a good career move to go back to school, get an even more advanced degree, and start the job hunt fresh in a few years. But who’s to say that this wouldn’t just be postponing the problem? These days, when the economy is lousy and everyone seems to be going back to school, is it better to follow their lead? Or to keep slogging along and accumulate real-world experience?

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Are you the police detective who told me about resume keywords? Do you have nightmares about being naked in front of a group of curriculum vitas? Any comments on professional development, or the pretty new template for my blogger profile, can be left in the space below.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

History: The Hybrid Animal

I once read that History is a discipline that no one can quite pin down. Is it an art or is it a science?

On the one hand, art implies a medium where the artist has complete control over the final product. The painting’s too dark? Add some light. Not enough trombones in your operetta? You can fill the orchestra up with nothing but trombones, if you like. When practicing art, not only the style but also the content is completely within your control.
With a science, it’s not about style so much as it is about methodology. You are structured, disciplined, and analytical. The crux of good science is drawing conclusions about your questions logically, using evidence that you systematically collect. Theoretically, therefore, if two scientists examine the same data, they should arrive at the same conclusions, leaving a margin of error for miscalculation or personal bias.

The study of history lies somewhere in the middle. The historian of course has the freedom to choose their topic; their time period, person, or event. They can examine large portions of humanity or dissect one individual; their writing can be intimate or stay remote. Although they cover many of the same subjects, there is a huge difference between David McCulloch’s popular history 1776 and the cool legal jargon of Hiller B. Zobel’s Boston Massacre. In this way the historian apes the artist, and as with art no style is inherently better than the rest. To a degree, the final product is judged on the basis of personal needs and taste.

But unlike the artist, the historian has a predefined set of materials to work with. If you set out to write about the contributions of American women during World War II, you will read and analyze primary sources. Secondary sources will lay out the findings of other writers, which can be used to develop your own argument or find other sources to continue the process. With everyone working from the same materials, you would expect everyone researching WWII American women to arrive at the same answers to the same questions. If history was purely science. But while science relies on empirical data (information that can be sensed, experimented on and proven), history has no specimens that can be brought to a laboratory. Therefore, its conclusions are constantly being reevaluated and updated by new generations. It’s like a perpetual conversation, where the speakers get closer and closer to agreement, to uncovering the truth… but they never quite get there. Like a spaceship orbiting a black hole, to use a scientific analogy.

So, is history an art or a science? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, and many institutions of higher learning seem to agree with me. I’ve seen history courses listed in college curriculums as both Liberal Arts and Social Sciences/Humanities, and once they were in the College of Arts and Science (that last one was hedging their bets). The discipline boils down to a study of human structures and human nature, specializing in dead humans. As such, we need our scientific methods to measure the structures, and our inner artists to study the nature. It’s a system that will never be perfect, but that makes it compellingly human.

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Do you disagree with me about the nature of history? Would you like to argue for one side or another? Are you reading this while orbiting a black hole? Join in the perpetual conversation with a comment in the space provided below.


Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Pipe-dream, and Problems that Arise from it


At Plimoth Plantation last November, several friends and I were between visitors and very bored. Massachusetts in the late fall doesn’t really encourage one to wander around outside, even in replica Pligrim clothing. Once the sun starts to dip towards the horizon and visitation dries up, everyone starts to congregate in three or four houses throughout the Colonial English village, and compete to see who can huddle up closest to the hearth without actually setting their clothes on fire. This particular day, a group of us started talking about what we would do if we were to find ourselves suddenly handed a blank check and told to use the money to create our own living history museum. Ideas were thrown around. Things got messy.

Fake John Alden suggested a first-person Pirate museum, somewhere down in the Caribbean. His fake wife Priscilla liked the idea of a Victorian house designed to showcase the history of the Spiritualist movement, complete with a séance. Someone else wanted to design a Revolutionary fort. Having just days before watched the classic Sergio Leone film “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I began to think about the possibility of a Wild West living history museum, where the first-person interpreters would all portray cowboys, gunslingers, and saloon keepers.


This all started out as idle conversation, of course. But as November dragged on, we Pilgrims found that we would get a large rush of school groups in the morning, all of them eager to talk about Squanto and the first Thanksgiving. By the afternoon, these groups would be back on their warm school buses, and we would once again be huddled around our fires, talking to pass the time. And we began to expand on our original ideas. Given the opportunity, how would we organize these museums? How would they teach us about history? How authentic would they be?

This last question is one that living history museums struggle with constantly. The whole idea behind first-person interpretation is to immerse the visitor in a different world, a different time period. You’re half historian, half actor, and you play your role without a script. You dress, work, and eat the part, doing most activities in the same way that the people you represent would have done them. But sometimes the 17th century is just too… extreme for a modern person. A New Plimoth resident in 1627 would have relieved themselves into a clay pot the size of a tea kettle and then chucked the contents into the streets. If a museum today tried to be that authentic, the Department of Sanitation would close it down and chuck the staff out into the streets.

A Wild West museum comes with its own set of problems; some very similar, some completely unique. Chamber pots and outhouses would still have to be present, for the sake of appearances, but the Muzees would probably choose to use modern facilities, cleverly hidden in a barn or something. There would still be the conundrum of nineteenth-century prejudice; how authentically should the interpreter portray period attitudes towards women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other frontier minorities? How much affected bias can you get away with for the sake of education? How much should you be able to get away with?

Then there’s the constant balancing act between authenticity and the pop culture perception of a period. I guarantee that if this Wild West museum ever becomes a reality, every male staff member I hire is going to have seen the same Clint Eastwood films that I have, and they’re all going to want to be the Man with no Name. Given the chance, everyone is going to pass up roles as blacksmiths, telegraph operators, missionaries and common laborers. They’re going to dress up in a white hat and a poncho, and spend their days playing poker and ogling prostitutes at a saloon. A Most visitors would probably want their Wild West museum to have a daily event where gunslingers face off in the main street at high noon. Tumbleweeds blow by, revolvers are drawn, in a life and death contest to find out who’s the faster shot.

These are issues that every living-history museum must face, where the educational experience you’re trying to present must compete with the expectations of the public that finances your operations. And they’re issues that must be revisited, year after year, to determine whether your mission is focused more on changing a perception, or catering to it.

Come back in a few days to read more about my vision of a living history museum devoted to the Wild West. If you can’t wait that long, visit this site to see how an existing museum in Kansas has recreated one of the most recognizable periods of American history.

Friday, September 7, 2012

For Future Reference

From the Oxford English Dictionary.

Musee, n
1.       Esp. in France: an art gallery; a museum.

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Made up a few minutes ago.

Muzee, n
Forms: Musey, Mewsy
1.       A museum professional; one who works in a museum. The same as a Newsy, but with less selling of newspapers and, in some cases, more singing and dancing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Professional Stability, and other White Whales

Let me tell you how I came to be writing this blog. I grew up in a small Michigan town, not far outside Detroit. I went to college, received my degree, and started looking for work even before I’d been handed my diploma. Every day I would wake up and scour websites that listed job postings in museums, colleges, preservation firms, etc. This information was then compiled into an intimidating list that detailed the job title, hiring institution, location, and documents to be attached to the application. And then I would go through, write the cover letters and resumes for whatever job I had chosen that day, and work my way down the list, one by one.

One day, two job postings caught my eye. One was for a historic plantation down in South Carolina, not far outside of Charleston. It was part-time work, in a strange city, but it was work. The second was for a historic interpreter in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This job was technically permanent, and offered basic health insurance, but wages were disconcertingly low for the nine months of employment and non-existent for the three months of the year that staff was laid off. No matter. It was work. And it was work in my field. I applied for both positions.

A week later, I was driving down to South Carolina, a neatly ironed suit and a weekend bag in the backseat of my car. On my second day in Charleston, I interviewed with some staff from the historic plantation (part-time work, strange city), and played tourist for a few hours. My third day, I started driving back to Michigan.

On the road, I received a call from a strange number with a 617 area code. It was a manager from the museum in Plymouth, asking if I could be in Massachusetts the next day for an interview. As I had not yet reached the North Carolina border, I started calculating my options. I could drive almost 1,000 miles to Plymouth and use my rapidly dwindling funds to find a hotel and meals for the two days that it would take to interview, after which I would complete the trip by driving another 800 miles back to Michigan. Alternatively, I could save time and (a bit of) money by first driving home and then taking a plane to Massachusetts.

Over the phone, I arranged the interview, hung up, and then raced back home. That night, I used the last of my savings to book a flight out of Detroit, for six o’ clock the next morning. I awoke very early the next day, shaved and showered, donned my suit once more, and by mid-morning was renting a car in Boston’s Logan Airport, ready to drive south towards Plymouth.

The museum campus was beautiful, and the interview went well. Four days later, I had the job. It wasn’t until I had already been working there for a year that my boss told me that the reason they hired me wasn’t because I had a degree, or because I had experience as a National Park Ranger. It was because I flew into New England just for the day, and just for the prospect of work in the field, despite the low wages and the seasonal layoffs.

That was back in the summer of 2010. I continued at that institution for two more seasons, each year striving to make myself a better candidate for a permanent position, the next rung up on the career ladder.  Or at least winter work. Each winter, discouraged, I found myself collecting unemployment. It wasn’t until early 2012 that I began to realize that I was no closer to achieving year-round stability than I was when I started. The museum lacked funding, as well as the internal machinery necessary to promote the majority of their front-line staff and increase employee retention. In the weeks leading up to the yearly training sessions in March, I once again began to set up internet searches for jobs, and to polish up my rusty networking skills. I filled out my lists, and I updated my resume.

This process began in January, and it hasn’t yet stopped, even though I’m now at a different museum which pays better. My position is still dictated by the tourist season, and I still have to face the prospect of a long winter where I cut costs and tighten my belt. If you were to ask me face to face, I would tell you that I’m better off now than I was last year. And it would be true. But I’m still looking for an opportunity that will allow me to pull myself up to the next rung on the ladder. And while right now I have a reprieve, it’s more like a half-rung.

But it’s work. And it’s in my field.