‘A Grizzly in the Mail’ bridges nation’s past and present

May 9, 2014
a grizzly in the mail
And Other Adventures in American History

By Tim Grove

Univ. of Nebraska. 256 pp. Paperback, $18.95


And Other Adventures in American History

By Tim Grove

The front cover to "A Grizzly in the Mail: And Other Adventures in American History" by Tim Grove (University of Nebraska Press/University of Nebraska Press)

Univ. of Nebraska. 256 pp. Paperback, $18.95

Even if the best thing about “A Grizzly in the Mail” were its title, that would be nothing to sneer at. Like the badly decomposed bear it describes, it’s an attention-grabber. Moreover, the title is a good shorthand for Tim Grove’s argument that quirky, accessible, emotionally evocative historical artifacts can fire the imagination and kindle the flames of knowledge in a way that books, however lively, often fail to.

Grove is the chief of museum learning at the National Air and Space Museum, after stops at other distinguished institutions including Colonial Williamsburg, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s American History Museum (a.k.a. “America’s attic”). His work revolves around encouraging interaction between museum collections and the public. That evolving compromise involves balancing the accurate communication of complicated historical themes with highlighting how cool it is to, say, ride an old-timey high-wheel bicycle. In short, although a 400-page history of Civil War battle tactics may leave most people cold, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s stuffed horse will, by contrast, get them talking.

But what will they be talking about? That is precisely Grove’s challenge, both in his working life and in “A Grizzly in the Mail.” If the presentation is too shallow, everyone will have a good time at the museum but emerge knowing nothing except that grizzly bears are enormous. If the presentation is too cerebral, all the Lewis and Clark artifacts in the world won’t hold people’s attention. An effective curator needs both thoughtfulness and an ad-man’s intuitive grasp of what pushes people’s buttons.

If you’re a reader of serious historical tomes that plumb the biographical minutiae of Lenin or the patterns of settlements in modern Latin America, you might dismiss the breezy and casually autobiographical approach of “A Grizzly in the Mail.” Grove’s winning anecdotes — like the one about tracking down an Amish farmer to verify the historical accuracy of some photographs of mules — can sometimes outshine his deep knowledge.

But the scholarship is always there. Grove’s concern, first and foremost, is the complicated business of forming academically sound bridges between the past and the present that are sturdy and welcoming enough that anyone might be able to cross them. Over those bridges walk citizens who will be better informed about their country and their heritage, people who will get swept up in history (possibly to the point of participating in reenactments), and, no doubt, some young future historians and scholars who will enrich the field in decades to come.

If that takes a Thomas Jefferson reenactor, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and a reconstructed cotton gin, so be it. Grove’s book is both an inspiration and a template for those who want to kick history out of the attic and put it back where it belongs: in the national living room, slightly to the left of the television.

Norton is the author of “Lake Superior Flavors: A Field Guide to Food and Drink along the Circle Tour.”

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