Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

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Silver Screen Century: Rogers Park’s Evolving “New 400” Theater

Movie-going offers a sort of timeless joy. Cinema enthusiasts a century apart share the experience of immersing themselves into the big, bright screen. The same wonder and suspension of belief attend viewing both a silent Chaplin film and Marvel’s next 3-D blockbuster. Even the popcorn has featured prominently for generations of filmgoers since the Great Depression. But the movie theater business has also undergone considerable changes as economic downturns and the advent of television have reduced box office lines. These challenges loomed even larger for small, older theaters which had to compete with the shiny new multiplexes with far more screens. All these factors make the continued existence of the theater at 6746 N. Sheridan Road, currently known as the New 400, all the more remarkable; it is arguably the oldest still-operating theater in Chicago. How has this comparatively-small location so far from the Loop kept projecting Hollywood magic for over a century? Two factors stand out: adaptation and community involvement.

In 1912, architectural firm Grossman & Proskauer designed the Regent Theater as a vaudeville venue, but by December 1913 it was showing movies produced by the Mutual Film Corporation and soon advertised its film offerings multiple times a week in the Chicago Tribune. (A Mr. F.A. Duffield served as manager-owner in 1914; Duffield, previously a typographer for the Chicago Record-Herald, appears to have joined the movie theater business after the Tribune bought out his previous employer.) Although boasting 736 seats, the Regent, like most early theaters, only contained one screen. The theater served as an important hub for Rogers Park community activities; the Regent hosted a benefit for the Catholic Women’s Club of Rogers Park in 1913, and in 1914 showed patrons slides to raise money for a power boat to help lifeguards prevent drownings on Lake Michigan’s north shore. During World War I, the theater took part in the Four-Minute Men Program, where government spokesmen would use the intermission to appraise patrons of the war effort and encourage patriotic involvement. By all accounts, the Regent Theater was a high-class place, representative of a prosperous and active Rogers Park.

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Infant Christ - In Gallery

A New Home for the New Year: An Infant Christ at LUMA

With the winter holiday season coming to a close, it is time to look forward to a new year, and perhaps a new home for an exciting historical acquisition. Last November, the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) launched its eighth annual exhibition showcasing nativity scenes from around the world. However, a rather unique object stood among the works more typically displayed in Art and Faith of the Crèche. Greeting guests from inside a vitrine as they entered the exhibit space was a 42 cm tall statuette of the infant Christ. LUMA hopes to raise the donations necessary to acquire this object, with senior curator Jonathan P. Canning saying, “I envision it exhibited at the beginning of the annual crèche exhibition, connecting it to the D’Arcy [Collection of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art] on the floor above.”

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Public History Lab in the Classroom: Bringing Communities into Coursework

Photograph courtesy of David Kogan. 

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

This story originally appeared on the Loyola History Department’s website in October 2015. It has been modified for the Lakefront Historian and updated to reflect Public History Lab activity since then. 

On August 23, 2015, Loyola history master’s student Kristin Jacobsen led a walking tour of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood for the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RP/WRHS). Her walking tour stemmed from a project organized by the Public History Lab, in partnership with the RP/WRHS, and undertaken by student groups in Dr. Patricia Mooney-Melvin’s graduate Public History Methods and Theory course (HIST 480) during the fall 2014 semester. For the project, HIST 480 students produced walking tour scripts about Rogers Park and West Ridge history for the RP/WRHS. Jacobsen’s group, which also included master’s students Blake Kennedy, Lauren O’Brien, and Andrew Paddock, produced a tour that explored Rogers Park’s Glenwood Avenue Arts District and presented the concept to the RP/WRHS President and Vice-President in December 2014. Jacobsen agreed to lead the tour for RP/WRHS members the following August.

I spoke to Jacobsen about her experience.

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Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History

Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.

From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1852, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war).  Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.

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“Who Tells Your Story?”: Historymaking in “Hamilton”

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.

The Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, a “hip-hopera” about the nation’s founding, is a bona fide phenomenon. Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and celebrities flock to every performance. (President Obama has seen it twice.) The show and its composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are receiving recognition for fantastic performances, an energetic blend of musical theatre tradition and hip hop innovation, and the choice to cast people of color in the roles of the lily-white Founding Fathers.

But Hamilton is also being praised for its potential to teach its audience members, to get them excited about a period of history they may only remember from dry classroom lessons. Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the historian served as a consultant to the show. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide discounted tickets for low-income New York City high school students and develop accompanying educational programming.

Hamilton is the latest in a long line of musicals based on historical events: 1776, Les Misérables, Evita, and the recently-opened Allegiance, about Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II, among many others. So why has this particular show seemed to inspire its audiences, particularly those who are not otherwise musical theater fans, more than these other worthy musicals?

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A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library

Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.

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#AskAnArchivist and #AskACurator Highlights

October is American Archives Month. #AskAnArchivist Day marked the start of the month by having archivists and archival institutions respond to Twitter questions that utilized the aforementioned hashtag. Questions could be directed to specific institutions or individuals by directly tweeting that museum, archive, or person in combination with the hashtag. #AskAnArchivist worked in exactly the same way as #AskACurator Day that took place on September 16, 2015. The importance and success of these social media events can be found in the statistics:

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In the digital age museums and archives have turned to the internet to find ways to reach larger audiences. Institution information such as hours of operation, events, and collections can be found online. Social media plays an important role in reaching audiences that may not otherwise seek out museums, historical sites, or archives. Events like #AskACurator and #AskAnArchivist encourage a social media collaboration of institutions worldwide to promote their respective professions. The more people taking part in the event and using a defined hashtag ultimately will help to move the hashtag up in the queue of trending Twitter topics. Trending hashtags reach even larger audiences because they are promoted within Twitter’s trending topics and are seen by people who may not have any idea that such a day existed.

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