Sunday, April 21, 2024

Top Stories of 2023: JYF Using Popular Media to Inspire Learning About History

Visitors explore the “Reign & Rebellion” special exhibition at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. (Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

Editor’s Note — As part of our countdown to 2024, WYDaily is revisiting its most-read and favorite stories of the year. Reporter Jillian Appel picked this piece as one of her favorites because she’s always been fascinated by how popular culture influences what the public takes an interest in. She also said it is likely she was influenced by being in high school during the height of Hamilton’s popularity. She also enjoyed having questions answered by New York Times Bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. 

YORKTOWN — Popular media has a way of sparking the imagination and encouraging people to learn the histories that inspired their favorite things.

The time period covered by the Reign & Rebellion, the special exhibition at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, is such an example. One that helped inspire the New York Times bestselling book series “Outlander,” written by Diana Gabaldon, and the Starz television show based on the books.

The ongoing special exhibition explores Virginia’s founding through the lens of the Stuart monarchy to the American Revolution, storylines captured in Gabaldon’s epic nine-part book saga and the TV series.  

“We’re always striving to present programming and exhibitions that have relevant messages and meet visitors where they are, whether it be related to popular culture or not,” said Katherine Egner Gruber, curatorial manager for Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

“We want our visitors to see themselves in the stories we tell, and come to the Jamestown Settlement Museum and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown to seek answers to questions or learn more about topics in the media, such as the Stuart era and themes in “Outlander,” she added.

This is the first exhibit the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation has presented at both the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The story begins at the settlement and is completed at the museum. The museum exhibit has been extended to Sept. 19. On Sept. 16, Gabaldon will be giving a 45-minute presentation followed by a book signing, an event that was completely sold out shortly after its announcement.

Outlander Author Diana Gabaldon (Photo provided by JYF)

“I’m looking forward to [the upcoming event] very much,” said Gabaldon about her visit in September. “I’ve walked the Yorktown battlefield three times (over the last thirty years) since I’ve known for a long time that it would have a place in (what I think is) the final book of the “Outlander” series, but it’s been more than ten years since my last visit. It will be a pleasure to talk to people about both my writing and the time, place and significance of Yorktown to the American Revolution.”

The exhibit had been in the works for many years — stemming from an initial idea of exploring King James I, the namesake of Jamestown. Through a series of focus groups, JYF learned that visitors were more engaged by including the impact of the monarchy on early Virginia, not exclusively the monarchy.

With that in mind, the JYF developed an exhibition that would center not just on the monarchs, but also the Indigenous Virginians, free and enslaved Africans, and Anglo-European colonists who converged in Stuart-era Virginia. 

“The events of the past don’t happen in a vacuum. We wanted Reign & Rebellion to highlight the Stuart-era context of early Virginia through the coming of the Revolution, to show how the legacies of the Stuart monarchs — including their personalities and their policies — impacted not just colonization and people here in Virginia, but the American Revolution as well,” said Gruber.

“Additionally, this lens of the Stuarts allows us to explore how the important themes of the 17th and 18th centuries are still part of our national dialog today,” Gruber added.

Historically influenced popular media can also have a huge effect on the attendance of historical sights. As an example, the Detroit News reported that Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s Harlem home and a National Park site, saw more than 35,000 people in the first five months of 2016. It was a nearly 75% increase compared to the 21,000 visitors who toured the Grange in 2014 — a year before the popular musical “Hamilton” opened.

“Bear in mind that history is not (necessarily) what happened; it’s what people wrote down about it,” Gabaldon explained about historical events in popular media. “Consequently, the popular media (of whatever mode or time period) will affect how the history of that period is perceived, both by people of the time itself, and those who come later.  I say ‘will affect,’ because popular media accounts are as likely to distort and mislead as they are to report and inform.”

“It’s a double-edged sword. Exposure is very valuable, to draw attention to work, performances, events that would otherwise be missed, or would find little or no audience.  At the same time, there’s neither control nor accountability in popular media, so a creator (of any kind) can only hope for honest treatment.  Creators of popular media also need eyeballs, and often will do just about anything to get them,” Gabaldon admits.

Gabaldon holds three degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and a doctorate in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology as well as an honorary degree as a Doctor of Humane Letters. She worked a dozen years as a university professor before beginning to write her first novel, “Outlander,” in 1989. 

Gabaldon has been offered access to the JFY library and collections as well as the battlefield and said she’s very grateful for the valuable assistance to her writing.

Reign & Rebellion will continue until Sept. 19. JYF hopes to host similar trivia nights and book signings, like the ones held for this exhibit, for future exhibits. According to JYF, both are great ways to introduce people to the stories told at the museums, connecting them through subjects and stories they are already familiar with and love.

For more information about Reign & Rebellion, visit the JFY official exhibit page.

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