History on Display: The Atlanta History Center

My Own True Love and I spent the Christmas holiday in Atlanta.  It was by no means a Road Trip Through History, but in between attending a Christmas pageant and a high school basketball game, ripping open packages, anxiously watching a roast that wouldn’t roast, organizing (and failing to organize) various meet-ups, and navigating winding roads in the rain and dark(1), we managed to squeeze in a visit to the excellent Atlanta History CenterAtlanta History Center.

The museum wasn’t exactly what I expected.  Instead of an overarching history of Atlanta,  it offered several small focused exhibits that were developed around the private collections of enthusiasts.(2)  In less skilled hands, it could have been just a bunch of “stuff”.  In this case, the museum used the collections to tell stories.  Always a good approach in my opinion.

I  skipped the exhibits on American golf legend Bobby Jones(3) and the 1996 Olympic Games in favor of a temporary exhibit on the history of the Creek and Cherokee in Georgia and permanent exhibits on folk arts and the American Civil War.(4)  Here are some of my takeaways(5):

  • A greater sense of the process of treachery, trickery, and legal sleight-of-hand that the United States government used to move Native American peoples off their land.  Ruling bodies of both the Creek and Cherokee nations formally declared their refusal to sell the lands they held as a group. Federal agents got around that refusal by identifying individual members of those nations who were willing to sign removal treaties, which were then ratified by the Senate at a speed astonishing even at the time.  (Without approving the results, I wish our current Congressional leadership could find a similar sense of focus, unity, and speed.)  Not a pretty story, but well told.  It left me wanting to know more.  That shouldn’t be a problem; the Indian Removal Act of 1830 has been tracking me down in the weeks since  I saw the exhibit.  Stay tuned.
  • Southern pottery was the heart of the  folk arts exhibit: a truly impressive array of works by nineteenth century “clay clans” throughout the south and modern potters using traditional methods to create works of beauty.  I was particularly fascinated by the story of David Drake, the best known enslaved African American potter, who was not only allowed to sign his pottery (a rarity among nineteenth century potters, slave and free alike) but to inscribe them with his own poetry.
  • The scale on which pottery was needed prior to the American Civil War came as a surprise.  In the days before the mason jar(6), people used clay jars to store just about everything.  A family could need as many as 50 jars to hold a year’s supply of sorghum. Not to mention pickled vegetables and other staples. (I’m not sure why this came as such a surprise.  It was certainly true in the ancient world.  Think of the hundreds of amphora discovered in wrecked ships.)
  • The Civil War exhibit, titled Turning Point, was one of the best general exhibitions I’ve seen about the war.  The museum did not try to trace the ebb and flow of battles, though it did compare and contrast Union and Confederate goals and actual outcomes for each year of the war.  Instead it focused on the social and economic history of the war, beginning with one of the best demographic comparisons of the North and South in 1860 that I have seen.  This was the first exhibit I have seen to deal with the South’s need to create a munitions industry from scratch, the Civil War counterparts of Rosie the Riveter, the role of the international cotton trade in the war, the long-term consequences of the war for the Southern economy, and the mythic reach of the war well into the twentieth century.   Well done, Atlanta!

Due to rain and time constraints, we only managed to see a portion of the center, which includes two historic houses with living history docents exhibiting life in the 1860s and 1930s(7) and 33 acres of gardens that show the horticultural history of the region as well as the museum proper. There are also new exhibits and the restoration of a nineteenth century cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta in the offing. We’ll be back. (That’s a promise, Stacy Allen.)

(1) An experience which led us to bless the unknown inventor(s) of the grid system, who installed order on urban settings in the Indus Valley civilization, ancient Rome, and the Aztec Empire.

(2)AKA the lunatic fringe, which includes some of my favorite people

(3)Though perhaps I should have chosen that exhibit. I know little about golf and nothing about golf history. I might have learned something wonderful that I couldn’t even imagine.  An opportunity missed.

(4)Because that’s where my head is right now, thanks to My Book, My Book!

(5)In checking whether or not to hyphenate, I discover that takeaway is an alternative term for a backswing in golf.  Dang! I knew I should have gone through the Bobby Jones exhibit.

(6)The self-closing glass jar canning system was patented by Mason in 1858.  He trademarked the name in 1871.  Obviously it did him no good.  Like aspirin, xerox and dumpster, the brand name has entered American English as a common noun, testament to the importance of the technology.

(7) I was sorry to miss that one.  I’ve seen lots of historic homes from the nineteenth century, but not from the first half of the twentieth century.  Time passes.


Traveler’s tip:  Take a long-sleeved sweater.  The museum is  seriously air conditioned.  I had a fleece vest and a light scarf and I froze.  Even My Own True Love, who is happiest when the temperature drops, thought it was chilly in there.

Photo of the Atlanta History Center’s Swan House courtesy of  Evilarry – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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