Prior to the re-opening of the Old Capitol Museum after Hurricane Katrina in 2009, the Old Capitol Museum held its annual “Christmas at the Old Capitol.” This event included a 25-foot live Christmas tree in the center of the rotunda. There were also three other trees throughout the museum, which were decorated in Antebellum, Victorian and Depression-era styles. The model of the fictional town of Possum Ridge and the model trains collection was a large crowd pleaser. These decorations reflected the history of Mississippi that was housed in the museum.
Courtesy of OCM
Courtesy of OCM
Following Hurricane Katrina, the mission of the museum changed. So, too, did the manner in which the museum was decorated for Christmas. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the museum was decorated in a manner to reflect the mission of the museum—to interpret the history of Mississippi. The mission of the Old Capitol Museum is now to interpret the history of the building, itself, and the legislative history that occurred within the building. As a result, the Christmas decorations are reflective of the new mission in a more reserved style, as it would have been in the nineteenth century.
The Old Capitol Museum has several special events to celebrate the upcoming holiday season. On December 7, the Old Capitol Museum will participate in the Old Jackson Christmas by Candlelight Tour. The tour consists of stops at the Old Capitol Museum, the New Capitol, the Eudora Welty House, the Governor’s Mansion and the William F. Winter Building, which now houses the town of Possum Ridge display. On the dates of December 7, 8, 14 and 15, the Old Capitol Museum will host “Sounds of the Season,” featuring various choirs from around the Jackson area. December 6, 13 and 20, the OCM will feature “Telling Tales,” which is a storybook session by prominent leaders around the Jackson area as readers. Throughout the month of December, the Old Capitol has a scavenger hunt in which children are able to walk around the museum with their clues, while at the same time learning something about the history of the building. There is always the chance that during your scavenger hunt, you might come across Nicky the Bear, named in honor of William Nichols. The Old Capitol provides special events throughout the holiday season that are sure to be a crowd pleaser.
For four years now, I have learned to write papers for my professors. I learned how to find new views on topics, how to write in an academic tone while still maintaining my own voice and how to write in MLA or Chicago style. Interning at the Old Capitol Museum has given me a new skill—how to write for a public audience. Writing in the field of public history has to be more concise to include the main points of the information without becoming too bogged down in the details. Public writing is seen particularly in text panels. You have around seventy-five words to work with when writing a text panel, a very tight limit. The premise of writing for public history is that the museum visitor is not bored reading through paragraphs but also that they can walk away with some bit of knowledge. Another aspect of writing for public history is that you have to write for a diverse audience with various educational, cultural and geographical backgrounds. Having an unfamiliar audience means having to write in much more general terms than would be seen in academic writing. Similarly, with this blog, I have gradually learned to decrease the length of each blog, while attempting to write on topics that are relatively neutral yet still prove interesting and informative.
Thursday, October 25th, the Old Capitol Museum hosted its annual “Present Meets Past,” an event in which the visitor was able to interact with individuals from the building’s and the state’s history, as performed by several volunteer actors. This event drew in a record 132 visitors to the OCM. It was made successful through the collaborative work of the Old Capitol staff and volunteers and is a perfect example of the field of public history. It effectively tells the story of these individuals and their connection to history in an interactive and unique manner.
However, one of the most popular attractions of the night was one of non-human origins. That attraction was the mummy that was recently accessioned into the MDAH’s collection, although it has been in its possession since the early 1920s as part of a donation of Native American artifacts. For several years, it was thought that this mummy was of human origins until an x-ray examination revealed that it contained various random items—such as a heart full of nails. Nevertheless, the MDAH has retained the mummy and the mummy has always drawn a crowd and continues to do so as it is brought out for special occasions. The mummy truly is an example of the present meeting the past at the Old Capitol Museum.
The next “Artifact of the Month” to be displayed at the OCM is Governor John Marshall Stone’s top hat, which he wore during his inauguration. Governor Stone served as governor of Mississippi for two nonconsecutive terms, 1876-1882 and 1890-1896, making him one of the last governors to hold the position at the Old Capitol before the government was moved into the current Capitol. His top hat is a combination of fabrics and is an excellent example of nineteenth century fashion for men. Stone was governor immediately following Congressional Reconstruction and presided over a period when the state strove to find its identity in the re-emergence of the newly united nation. This hat is just one of the numerous objects that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has in its collection.
The Current Capitol
The Old Capitol Museum is situated in effectively what can be called ‘History Row,’ with the Winter Archives Building just across Amite Street and the Capers Building, which houses much of MDAH’s collection, next door to the Old Capitol Museum. However, these are not the only historical aspects of this area. Two notable items are the memorials on either side of the OCM, the Mississippi War Memorial on one side and the Monument to the Confederate Dead on the other. What is the significance of the location of these memorials? What do they tell the public?
The Mississippi War Memorial is a memorial to those Mississippians who served in wars including the French and Indian War, the Civil War and World War I. The memorial, itself, features sculptures of soldiers from World War I prepared for battle. In the courtyard of the memorial, which also doubles as a functioning office building, is a tomb-like structure which commemorates all those from Mississippi who fought in these wars. This is the type of memorial one would expect to see on the national scale and is very reminiscent of the National Mall. The Monument to the Confederate Dead is not quite expected to be seen at the National Mall anytime soon. At the base of the monument is a large tomb-like structure that encloses a statue of Jefferson Davis, which was formerly housed in the Old Capitol Museum. At the top of the monument is a statue of a generic Confederate soldier. This monument is considered controversial because it keeps alive a piece of Mississippi history that was incredibly discriminatory and has now evolved into a difficult subject.
What is the significance of these memorials in relation to the Old Capitol Museum? Like the example of the National Mall, these memorials did not always exist. The existence of these memorials was part of the conscious choices made by a group to depict a particular moment in history. Both of these memorials highlight the themes of sacrifice and honor by Mississippi citizens. They do, however, create a contradiction. One represents a sense of national unity and pride, while the other celebrates the Confederate cause during the Civil War. The placement of these two memorials on either side of the Old Capitol Museum is perhaps to establish a sense of historical legitimacy. The Old Capitol is one of the most identifiable and historic buildings in the state. These two very different, yet permanent, memorials show the complex nature of Mississippi’s identity despite the time that has since passed. Memorials are important because they represent a sense of permanency, a permanency that exists through the conscious decision to display such themes through these monuments; themes that highlight the complexity of how Mississippi is identified. Thus, a ‘History Row’ is created through these memorial placements surrounding the Old Capitol Museum.
Race is a difficult topic to speak about in everyday life; this is especially true when it is portrayed in museums and historical sites. Museums are supposed to tell the truth to the public about the history they house in an educational and an inoffensive manner. But why, when it comes to race, is it so difficult to present this particular history? It is mostly because race factors so much into recent history. Because the topic of race has had such a large national discourse, it is often a highly debated subject. Since race is so large a part of our present, it is difficult to portray in museums because there will always be someone who could come forward and contradict what is portrayed in the museum. How does a building, the Old Capitol Museum, a symbol of the “Old South”, incorporate race into its story?
The Old Capitol Museum has created a discussion of race that appears to take a neutral attitude towards this topic. This museum is not about the history of Mississippi or the progression from slavery to civil rights. It is about the history of the building and what occurred in the building. Any discussion of race has to be done within the context of the museum’s mission. The approach the Old Capitol Museum takes in relation to race is through legislation related to race. Overall, I think that the Old Capitol Museum goes to appropriate lengths to discuss slavery and race in Mississippi and in relation to the Old Capitol’s history.
The approach of the Old Capitol follows the story of race in Mississippi through legislative matters. The Museum’s discussion of race is traced through early attempts to protect the institution of slavery. For instance, race is first discussed in legislative matters to regulate slavery in the years from the founding of the state until the beginning of the Civil War. This information board is exhibited next to two other boards that describe the rights of Indians and women and a board that shows the rights of white, property-owning males. The placement of these boards puts the legislative measures related to race in context of other disaffected groups in the early years of Mississippi history. The issue of race was also discussed when the legislature decided to secede from the Union in a means to protect the institution of slavery.
This approach is seen throughout the rest of the Museum as well. It is most evidently seen in the “Government & the Constitution” room. This room highlights the various legislative proceedings that occurred following the close of the Civil War. The first legislative attempt of this was the creation of the Black Codes, which were quickly repealed by federal regulations. With the Constitution of 1890, the state saw legislative measures that began to follow the federal example. Voting rights are large component of this room and of the legislative history of the building. This room traces the post-Civil War legislative changes in Mississippi. Starting with the Black Codes instituted in 1865, it follows through to civil rights in public places in 1873 and finishes with the 1890 Constitution and the incorporation of voting rights. This interactive and informative exhibit helps to show how the Old Capitol discusses race through legislative measures.
Walking through a museum, one might think about just how seemingly easy it was for the curator or exhibit designer to create the exhibit. In actuality, presenting public history is quite the opposite, especially when sensitive issues are being presented. This is the case with public history and race. When depicting elements of race, the public historian must ask: Is this offensive, can this be read in any unintended manner, and is it truthful, among many other questions that have to be taken into account. Also, one of the issues with race and public history is that not every element can be represented; there simply isn’t space, time or money to do so. Therefore, there are often decisions that have to be made regarding what is considered more important than something else.
I am a senior at Millsaps originally from Collierville, TN. I am majoring in European Studies and minoring in Museum Studies. Early in life, I developed an interest in history, which has continued to grow. Because of this, I began collecting items I thought to have historical significance, from coins to magazines. This led to my interest in the objects themselves and finally to museums. I am in love with museums. I have volunteered with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and interned with the Mississippi Museum of Art. Through both of these I have learned a great deal about the care of objects. Now is the time for me to learn how these objects are presented to the public in an understandable context, particularly through my internship at the Old Capitol Museum.
I believe that public history is a field of study that is gaining importance. Public history includes museums, historical sites and houses, archives and historical interpretations. It is one thing to care for and preserve the objects and another thing to place them in their original, historical context. There is a definite divide between public and academic history. The basic idea of public history is to take academic history and present it in such a way that it is understandable for the general public. Public history is a difficult subject because not every detail can be discussed or presented as it is in academic history—decisions have to be made about what is included and what is not. Also, decisions have to be made about the way in which it will be presented. Academic history has a defined audience that remains consistent. However, the audience of public history is not so well defined and measures have to be taken to account for the reactions of different members of the public. Not everyone is able to partake in academic history, but they are able to walk into a museum. I feel that public history is a multi-faceted, challenging field, but one I am eager to explore further.
I feel that my internship at the Old Capitol Museum will provide me with the foundations of public history and how the public interacts with it. I am excited to learn how to present objects in a historically meaningful yet interesting manner. I am also excited to discover the ‘public’ aspects of public history. I am a shy person and am nervous about having projects that I have worked on out in the open for the public to critique. However, I feel this will better prepare me for a future career in the field. Some of my projects at the Old Capitol Museum will include creating two “Artifact of the Month” exhibits, assessing the existing exhibits, and updating the “This Day in History at the Old Capitol” list. I will also be reviewing “Mississippi’s Old Capitol: Biography of a Building” by John Ray Skates (1990) to evaluate potential additions and updates. All of these tasks are different from what I have undertaken previously as a student, volunteer and intern. The opportunities this internship will provide me with are diverse and interesting and I am excited about beginning them.