You could easily overlook the little firehouse where John Brown's rebellion ended in Harper's Ferry. It's small and it sits in a little park like some utility building. I had been to HF many times before I noticed it and realized what it was.

The signage is discreet, to say the least, and the location is new, for the "John Brown Fort" has travelled a bit. It was moved to Chicago for the World's Colombian Exhibition of 1893 where it attracted 11 paid admissions. It was supposed to go to New York, too, and at one point was marked for stable duty.

Paul Shackel has an intriguing chapter on the fort in his thoughtful new essay collection, Memory in Black and White. He talks about the different meanings it has, the people of Harper's Ferry not wanting it there, and the changing Brown historiography in which Brown's transformation from Abolitionist hero to sadistic murderer affected this particular artifact.

Underneath this is the question of how historical objects connect to historical understanding. If you think this is banal, think of all those historical institutions believing that objects convey history, or even that objects embody history.

John Brown's daughter refused to attend the Chicago fair or be associated with the firehouse. "I may be a relic of John Brown's raid of Harper's Ferry, but I do not want to be placed on exhibition with other relics and curios and such," she said.

So the human and historical essence of the raid escaped the artifact's fate. By choice. Historical institutions should take note. Especially those managing bric-a-brac.