A Modern Homage to History ; Past Presidents Are Popping Up on Social Media Sites -- If, Sometimes, in a Tongue-in-Cheek Way -- and Some Cultural Groups Embrace the Trend

By Vogel, Charity | The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), February 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Modern Homage to History ; Past Presidents Are Popping Up on Social Media Sites -- If, Sometimes, in a Tongue-in-Cheek Way -- and Some Cultural Groups Embrace the Trend


Vogel, Charity, The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)


Some boast Facebook pages listing hobbies such as attending Ford's Theater and interests ranging from log cabins to Texas Hold 'Em poker.

Others are the subject of interactive websites, complete with lively blogs and Twitter accounts.

Still others have turned into the object of geo-cache quests.

Being a U.S. president -- even a long-dead one -- no longer means being out of touch with the latest in modern technology.

In fact, some presidents from the 18th and 19th centuries are quite popular these days on social media sites and beyond.

For instance, on Facebook:

*A page devoted to George Washington lists his relationship status as "complicated" and offers this personal credo: "Homies before chicks no matter what."

*A page for Thomas Jefferson gives this pithy summary of his politics: "Government governs best when it governs least."

*And a page for Abraham Lincoln says the former president enjoys hobbies including "reading, walking, music and watching plays at theaters."

There's more.

In an effort to reach new audiences -- or just to keep pace with the changing virtual environment -- some of the country's more traditional historical sites related to former U.S. presidents are using technology to create interest in fresh ways.

That includes geo-caching -- a popular game in which people use GPS devices to hunt for hidden troves around the world.

"I'm a geo-cacher, and I have a whole series of geo-caches that teach people about history. So of course I am going to put one at the Millard Fillmore House -- that's dear to my heart," said Rachelle Francis, a docent at the Millard Fillmore House historic site in East Aurora.

Some argue that traditional history should be left to expert historians.

But others -- including Millard Fillmore's fans in East Aurora -- think otherwise.

If technology makes people stop and think about a figure such as Fillmore, they said, it's worth it.

"The beauty of it was, we got so many people who said, 'I didn't even know this was here in Western New York,' " Francis said.

And Fillmore himself?

"I think," she said, "he'd probably appreciate us keeping his name alive."

Making history fun

Technology allows people to play with history in new ways.

Take a recent example. In a Lincoln-themed project held in Chicago, people were invited to "Lincolnize" themselves by cropping their own photos onto one of the 16th president's iconic portraits.

Other museums and historic sites have built blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for their subjects.

In California, a director who has won praise for driving up attendance at Santa Cruz's museum of art and history through public participation in history-themed events said that such approaches are the way of the future.

"It's important to me that people not see history as something on a wall," said Nina Simon, executive director of the Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center, who blogs about participatory history at museumtwo.blogspot.com.

"History is a part of life. History is a part of everyone's lives. Having that kind of empathy through history helps people make a better connection," she said.

The Lincoln project in Chicago, Simon said, was a good example of stretching the public's imagination of how history is relevant and meaningful.

"It was fun, but it was also about seeing yourself as part of Lincoln's story," Simon said. "That kind of thing, even if it's a silly little project, can be very powerful."

But what about limits and propriety?

Some Facebook pages set up to showcase former presidents offer these nuggets:

*A page for Millard Fillmore proclaims the 13th president's interests to be bonfires, Texas Hold 'Em Poker and the National Civil War Museum -- an irony, given that Fillmore is often criticized for signing controversial legislation designed to stave off war between the states. …

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