April 30, 2012
By Allen Mikaelian
There are some things researchers gather on their archive trips that infect their projects and guide their prose, but never make it into the citations—standing where the subjects stood, walking through buildings they’d inhabited, getting a feel for the climate and the landscape. There is no substitute for being there. In honor of summer travel, of road trips, archives visits, family vacations, and wanderlust, here are a few resources for taking history on the road.
National Park Service
Construct a plan with the National Park Service Itinerary Series. Organized by state, region, or topic, history travelers can use the site to build itineraries around interests like the Underground Railroad, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the development of flight, and “places where women made history.”
No one should be surprised to find an overwhelming amount of online assistance for Civil War tourism, with one of the most popular sites being civilwartraveler.com. Twenty-six of their podcasts, which provide walking tours by Park Service historians, are available on their website or through the iTunes store. The Civil War Traveler recommends the 1861 Project, providing contemporary takes on Civil War music, as something to listen to while driving between Civil War sites.
Longtime favorite Roadside America takes cultural tourists well off the beaten path and can guide the history traveler to the largest rural Chinatown in the U.S., the Computer History Museum, Dutchy the Yankee Confederate, and the Birthplace of “Happy Birthday to You.” Roadside America specializes in the quirky and grassroots locales, providing a pitch-perfect counterpoint to the National Park Service sites. Combining the two, a traveling historian could explore two levels of interpretation of the past—the chaos of the idiosyncratic popular exhibits set up by untrained but enthusiastic amateur historians and the more carefully considered and closely mediated history of the Park Service.
As a bonus, the peripatetic historian can experience the histories that never were at sites like Professor Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom (link to one of many news stories), which writes dinosaurs into the Civil War. Or, those interested in history that hasn’t happened yet can explore the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. How to interpret such sites? What do they tell us about the place of history in American culture? Might they hint at a rebellion among the public at large against the idea that there is a single, monolithic past? Or is it simply that everything is better with dinosaurs?
Looking Into the Past
Some time ago, there was a burst of interest in the “looking into the past” meme (more, and more, and still more) that involved holding an old photograph up to the scene where it was taken, and snapping another photo, creating a layer of the past over the present. New websites and mobile apps take this activity into the age of social media, and can potentially turn any street into a museum.
Historypin, available in a browser or as a mobile app, has collected over 100,000 historical photos, from archives and personal collections, and virtually pinned them to a Google Map. An impressive number of museums and libraries have contributed photos (you can find them through ‘channels’—for example, here’s the National Archives’ channel). A GPS-enabled smartphone with the Historypin app will guide you to the spot where the photo was taken, and the smartphone’s camera will allow you enter the world of “augmented reality” by overlaying the historical photo onto the current view of the location. Another similarly innovative use of historical photos is at What Was There, which makes good use of Google Maps’ street view and also has a mobile app.
This is of course only the smallest taste of what’s available to the history road tripper. We welcome other suggestions in the comments, and would love to hear about how being at a place where history happened can change your perspective on the past.