Tim Grove is chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. He has worked at three Smithsonian museums, at Colonial Williamsburg, and on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition.
I’ve found that people either proclaim to love history or hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. Among the people who love history were Thomas Jefferson who claimed that “a morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable,” and John F. Kennedy who said that “for the true student of history, history is an end in itself. It fulfills a deep human need for understanding.” I’ve been fascinated with the past most of my life, beginning with my early moments in Williamsburg, the restored capital of Virginia. I ended up with a career in history. I get paid to do fun projects and share what I learn with millions of others. I’ve been fortunate to work at some well-known places that explore the national experience, and I’ve been able to dig into topics that many Americans know (or think they know), such as the origins of the Star-Spangled Banner, the inner workings of the cotton gin, or the trials and tribulations of Lewis and Clark.
My new book, A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History, is an attempt to document some of these projects and show that the pursuit of the past is fun and that history is both relevant and complex—and to bust a few myths. When I finished working on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition, which traveled across the nation, my friends encouraged me to write about my adventures. From experiencing a water battle on the Missouri River and accompanying a group of teachers from reservation schools on the explorers’ trail, to, yes, receiving a grizzly in the mail, I learned much about our cultural landscape. I kept writing as I thought of other projects that were meaningful and had molded my thoughts on history. At some point along the way, the writing became a book of eighteen chapters spanning a broad scope of place and time: from Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic to Cape Disappointment on the Pacific, and from eighteenth-century Williamsburg to the twenty-first-century Kennedy Space Center. I describe the book as part insider perspective, part scholarship, and part memoir.
What began as a selfish effort to remember turned into a passionate desire to demonstrate the historical process. I wanted to lift the veil and show how historians analyze historical evidence, ask questions, and think critically about multiple perspectives. In an age where STEM gets most of the attention, historians need to show why the study of the past is vitally relevant to an informed society. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “history, by apprising [the people] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future.”
I’ve had great fun learning to ride a high wheel bicycle, growing and picking cotton, flying over the transcontinental railroad, and undertaking many other adventures. I hope my readers will catch just a spark of my enthusiasm for the past.