Let Your Freak Flag Fly
As you know, Bob,I work as an historic interpreter at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY. My choice to take up a life of explaining 19th century looms, medicines, and more to visitors came as only a mild surprise to those who already knew me. Of course I would wind up down a niche rabbit hole. It was only a question of which one.
In a grander sense, my niche is people who lean all the way into that which speaks most deeply to their soul, especially when that which speaks etc. is not that which the bulk of the world cares about. Give me your barbed wire aficionados over your baseball card collectors. It’s too easy if what your heart desires can be found on a shelf in Walmart.
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When traveling, I always seek out two amusements: grocery stores and niche museums. Once you know who you are, be that person unapologetically.
My father’s side of the family does its best to get together at least annually. Last year, we met up in Bedford, PA.In August, we met up in Gettysburg.
Somehow, I’d never been to the national park there, despite years of driving through that part of the state. My husband taught for a year nearby. That corridor is the best way to get from here to Baltimore and D.C. And, yet. I’d never stuck my head in the part, not even to collect a stamp for my National Park passport.
There’s a lot to be said about Gettysburg-the-historical-monument and I am going to say nearly none of it, save for two points:
The national park makes clear that the war was over slavery. Yes, there were economic forces - but ultimately it was about whether or not you can own human beings. The touristy parts around the battlefield celebrate both sides,even though one side was in the Black people aren’t people camp. The park itself is somber and informative and edifying. However.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner but the fact that battles happened in these small towns meant that the townspeople had to deal with a sudden influx of dead bodies. Like, not only are you surrounded by gunfire and fearing for your own safety, you then have to manage the burial of thousands of strangers? That fact just staggers me. How would you even? Especially in an age where you don’t have big earthmoving equipment?
While I can’t say much more about Gettysburg qua Gettysburg, I can tell you about Civil War Tails, which is a marvel.
In high school, twin sisters Rebecca and Ruthfound themselves obsessed by the Civil War. What better way to illustrate famous battles than with dioramas and clay cats? The hobby grew, as hobbies can. Now their museum takes up the lower floor of a large house on the main drag. It is a wonder.
What struck me was not the concept (although it is striking) but how deeply into it they are. Not in a Imma sit in my cabin in write a 20-page manifesto way, mind. In a I think this is amazingly neat and want to share it with everyone. Ruth, our guide, knew all of the minutia about the battles themselves. The cats were merely the medium through which to teach. Genius, really.
This time around, more of my extended family members joined me for the excursion to Civil War Tails.In Bedford the year previous, only my intrepid cousin-in-law joined me for the National Museum of the American Coverlet.
The coverlet museum is not the product of a couple of people with a dream. Instead, it is the mission of a non-profit with a dream. Here is where the American Coverlet is celebrated with exhibitions and seminars and publications. Given what I do at the museum, which is weave on old looms (like the one in the above photo), this visit turned into something of a pilgrimage.
I have no idea where we’ll meet up next year. But I do know that I’ll be on the look out for the museums that are so niche there isn’t even a name for the niche itself. If you know of any, holler.
Two other things, including one I’d like help with:
1. Durn it. George Saundersnailed it in a New Yorker story from 2016. A pull quote is below.
I mean … come on.
2. Nudged by a tweet from Gwenda, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Westing Game. It seems to be one of those books that girls of a certain age imprinted on and have continued to hold close even now. Here’s what you can help with, if you are inclined: Do you have feelings about this book? Or about Ellen Raskin’s other work? Will you share them, either in a comment below or via emailto me? I'm mulling over a larger project and am trying to figure out if there really is a there-there.
It is not, however, bespoke or artisanal.
Oh. And here would be a great place to plug my book Sweater Quest, in which I went down a similar-but-different path. Always be selling, I guess.
I’m on the fence about the Mutter Museum. Once upon a time, their collection of weird body stuff was given the side-eye. Now, the place is a known commodity with a slick website and academic legitimacy. That being said, it still has shows you’d never see at more august institutions, like Spit Spreads Death, which I kinda want to go see.
I did go to the penis museum in Reykjavik while we were there. It’s a little Mutter-y for me. It went from being the obsession of one guy to a commodity. Which is the way of so many things, mind, and how capitalism wends its weary way. The gift shop was a hoot, however.
(unless, of course, being that person causes active harm to other people.)
More about that in a minute - but did you know that it is home to The Big Pot?
History — especially Civil Way history — is not my field. Besides, this particular field has been well furrowed by so many writers and researchers that I can’t even fathom what there could be to write about.
If you need any Confederate merch, start in Gettysburg. Also Nazi merch. Which … ok.
Ruth (now I’m second guessing this) was there the day we went. She reminds me so much of my sister-in-law is was a little unsettling.
Only one opted out, choosing instead to go for ice cream, which I respect.
Another fun fact: Saunders lived in Oneonta until a couple of months ago.
I was obsessed with The Westing Game. Ob. sessed. I long ago lost count of how many times I have read it, both as a kid and an adult. It lead me to read some of Ellen Raskin’s other works, and I remember really loving The Tatooed Potato and Other Clues. It somehow felt darker, although I don’t think it was in hindsight, and I loved the way that Raskin treated her young adult readers as young adults and not kids. The exact details of The Tatooed Potato didn’t stick with me, but The Westing Game most certainly did. If you tell me that you plan to do anything diving into these works (podcast, book, etc) I will be the first person to pre-order!
I read The Westing Game in 5th or 6th grade. I loved it and remembered most of the plot but forgot the title. Went to a teacher conference with my daughter's 4th grade teacher a couple of years ago and my husband mentioned the book to the teacher. Then I read it with said 4th grader. It was as delightful as I remembered.