Social Sciences: Object Lessons | May 1, 2013

Brown, Meredith Mason. Touching America’s History: From the Pequot War Through World War II. Indiana Univ. 2013. 288p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780253008336. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780253008442. HIST

Brown (Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America) draws upon his family’s more than 300 years in the United States and the heirlooms he has accrued to show how general readers, museum curators, and docents can learn history through objects. The approximately 20 sets of “touchstones” from which Brown draws stories and larger lessons include 17th-century Pequot Indian stone implements; an 18th-century Kentucky rifle and compass; a 1787 George Washington letter relating to his attendance at the Constitutional Convention; shavings said to be from the scaffold on which John Brown (not an ancestor) was hanged; Civil War border-state diaries; records of a court martial of great-uncle Preston Brown for the manslaughter of a Filipino captive, whose commutation by Teddy Roosevelt enabled his later distinguished service in World War I; the novel Gen. Eisenhower read while waiting for the weather to clear for the Normandy invasion; and a piece of shattered toilet retrieved by the author’s godfather from Hitler’s hideout. Quotidian materials such as these can become the artifacts from which museum collections are made. VERDICT Clearly written, buttressed by maps and portraits, Brown’s book regales while showing the objectivity and nuance of a historian. The tales make distinctive what to professional practitioners are familiar yet intriguing accounts primarily of America’s military and war-related past.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC

Holzer, Harold & The New York Historical Society. The Civil War in 50 Objects. Viking. May 2013. 366p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780670014637. $36. HIST

Through narratives on pieces from the collections of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS), of which he is a fellow, Holzer (Lincoln at Cooper Union) suggests that history is the sum of evidence-based stories. Out of an enormous number of Civil War–related pieces at the N-YHS, Holzer’s selections include a slave’s shackles; a Union soldier’s diary; a model of the ironclad USS Monitor; Lincoln’s scribbled musings on his reelection chances; a carbon copy of General Grant’s handwritten terms of surrender presented to General Lee; and a Confederate POW newspaper. As a whole, the book demonstrates the educational role of museums and the invaluable contributions made by their seasoned interpreters. Meredith Brown’s Touching America’s History is a similar treatment, but focuses on family heirlooms, while Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects used the British Museum’s holdings as its basis. VERDICT This illustrated presentation can be used by both onsite and would-be visitors and may inspire others to conduct similar research. It will be a popular choice for museum curators and docents as well as history enthusiasts, especially during the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. [Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Oct. 2013) will show Civil War history through 150 objects in its collections.—Ed.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC

O’Toole, Fintan. A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. Royal Irish Academy. 2013. 250p. illus. index. ISBN 9781908996152. $50. HIST

O’Toole (literary editor, Irish Times) originally published these as weekly pieces in the Irish Times over the last two years. He worked with curators at cultural heritage sites in Ireland—including the National Museum of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland—and now gathers the resulting entertaining and informative short essays and photographs into a chronological, object-oriented tour of Irish history. The list begins with a prehistoric fish trap and ends with a modern-day AK-47. In some cases, such as the Fleetwood cabinet owned by Oliver Cromwell’s daughter, the object is used as a jumping-off point, allowing O’Toole to make a broader historical argument. The photography of some objects could have been better matched with the text; in some cases, O’Toole is describing a detail the viewer cannot see in the photograph. Objects was assembled with an educational purpose in mind; it comes supported by an online app, teaching materials, and an exhibition trail. Verdict The volume makes a lovely coffee-table book, with each object its own brief dip into history. Those planning travel to Ireland may be particularly interested in the “Objects Trail,” and the essay/photograph pairs are ideal for classroom work. Recommended.—Hanna Clutterbuck, Countway Lib., Harvard Univ.