Book Recommendations from a Historian in a Happy Place

I am armed and ready with great recommendations for your holiday reading list!

A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.

These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.

Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.

1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading

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Janice and Sara Do Thanksgiving

My mother, Janice, and I in her kitchen (not her usual hangout!)

I am a Thanksgiving stickler. I take Thanksgiving very seriously. This means for one glorious day of the year my family does not experiment with the menu, we don’t devour take-out, and we definitely do not skimp on full-fat ingredients.

Since change is a given in any family, I am comforted by our Thanksgiving consistency and sometimes brattily demand it. I insist that we have green beans with pearl onions and balsamic vinaigrette. I require the best homemade pumpkin pie made by my aunt and cousin, “award-winning” according to my grandpa. (Once he even made a trophy in appreciation.) I will squint with judgment while my dad carves the turkey with an electric knife and eats the fatty end while telling everyone else to go away while he “works.”

Despite my strange affinity for all things old-school and traditional at our holiday table, two of my absolute favorite Thanksgiving recipes are relatively new to the arsenal, which speaks to how tasty they are. Even more bizarre is that the recipes were tested and refined by my mother. Continue reading

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Democracy in Action

Inspired by the exhibition Creating the United States, I worked at the polls last week on Election Day. It’s taken me a week to recover from the tiring but important work.The first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election was in 1972, when I cast an absentee ballot for George McGovern in Tennessee while I was a college student in Missouri. Despite studying political science, I knew little about presidential politics and was shocked that my candidate lost. I had even gone to see him at a campaign rally in suburban St. Louis where he appeared with Warren Beatty—who, I admit, was the much bigger attraction for me. [Just last week, Vanity Fair revisited that 1972 campaign through this fortieth anniversary “oral history.”]

I have voted in every election since, whether for a primary race, an off-year election, or a major presidential competition. Since 1977, I have voted here in Los Angeles, at a variety of polling places in my neighborhood—at a private residence, in the local floor covering store, at an elementary school, at a church, and at a skilled nursing facility. During all those elections, I gave little thought to the hapless poll workers who toiled to keep the lines short and the election running smoothly. I was frequently annoyed at how slow and cumbersome the process seemed…

…until this year, when spurred by our “Democracy Matters at the Skirball” initiative, I decided to volunteer to be a poll worker. Here was an opportunity for me to see democracy up close and from the other side of the table. Little did I know it would be one of the most challenging and exhausting jobs I have ever undertaken. I now have greater appreciation for the work of union activists who demand limited hours, mandated breaks, and safe working conditions!

The process began with a mandatory training session. The county workers crammed about eight hours of information into a scant two hours. My head was reeling when I left. Would I remember what goes in the white box or the green striped envelope? Would I figure out how to assemble the voting booths? What if I did something wrong that invalidated a vote? Luckily there are several safeguards built into the system to prevent my worst nightmare.

For poll workers, Election Day begins at 6:00 a.m., reporting for duty to assemble the voting booths, hang all of the directional signs, place all of the voting rosters on the table, and prepare the ballots. Continue reading

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Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

Continue reading

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