Want to know what happened when our intrepid program director, Katherine C. Grier, tried a vintage electronic pet brush on her cat? (Don’t worry, no pets were harmed in this experiment!) To learn about the V.I.P. Electric Pet Brush and others examples of the material culture of pet keeping (like this postcard above), check out Prof. Grier’s new blog. If you can’t get enough there, try her book, Pets in America: A History.
by Alyce Graham
The installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot involved over seventy live zebra finches flying loose around a serene space with electric guitars set up as their perches. Wherever the finches landed, they created chords reverberating in gently expressive feedback loops through the amplifiers nestled throughout the space. The music the finches created—erratic, unexpected, discordant, melodic—drew people through the exhibit space along a carefully sculpted pathway.
Zebra finches are the most strikingly colored and sweetly shaped little birds. It felt magical just being so close to them as they fluttered around the bundles of reed nesting baskets hanging from the ceiling or rustled around the sandy nests they built behind the amplifiers. And, just as promised, the birds landed on the guitar perches and made music. But they did not simply land on the guitars and stand there. Instead, they hopped up and down the fingerboards, popping out bright chords along the way. They cleaned their beaks, a glissando back and forth across the strings. They squabbled with one another over the frets. One fat little bird even fell asleep on the warm place on the guitar body where the electric hook-ups connected, his feathers creating waves of sound by brushing up against the strings as he snored. The unexpected difference between reading about the exhibit and attending the exhibit was the dimensionality of it. When a new chord thrummed through the room, everyone looked to see where it came from, what cluster of birds was creating it, and what they were doing. Sound suggested motion and activity, not alarm but curiosity.
The exhibit encouraged visitation to another gallery with an exhibit on animal “collaboration” in art, which included videos, paintings, sculpture, and photography that used animals in their statements. (Sadly, all the ants in the artistic ant farm had died after crawling into what looked like a custom-built ant panic room, but the crickets in the tiny replica of a mid-century modern home were doing well.) In this way, the museum extended their visitors’ allotted twenty minutes of “from here to ear” and presented them with a host of interconnected ideas about how to think of the art they had just experienced.
The Peabody Essex took a risk putting on an exhibit where guests interacted with live animals. Most museums loathe unpredictability. They took appropriate measures to protect both the birds and their permanent collections. The small number of visitors and timed tickets contained people’s interactions with the finches. Entrance to the exhibit was through several doors, minimizing the chance of loose birds. Large signs warned people with allergies to feathers and birdseed that the exhibit was not a purified space. A gallery interpreter was present at all times—an enviable job, playing with the finches all day. (Read more about them on the museum blog.) And a veterinarian was on staff, too, watching for injury or signs of stress. So risks to the collection were recognized and mitigated, and the museum drew throngs of visitors from the contemporary art scene, the Audubon crowd, and the local community.
About the author: Alyce Graham is a fourth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.
Should we work from top to bottom, or should we tackle one corner at a time? At the suggestion of one of my colleagues, we carefully plucked a wooden duck decoy from a worktable and started with artifacts displayed on that surface. Our eight day project to inventory, clean, photograph, and catalogue the period room–or a museum exhibit room created to evoke a specific time and place–at the Upper Bay Museum had begun. (Other SWAT team members catalogued the other collections displayed throughout the Museum.)
What can we learn from the Upper Bay Museum Decoy Shop period room?
The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum is an installation curated by Upper Chesapeake Bay residents who make decoys, or imitations of ducks or other animals hunters have used to lure their prey at least since 400 BC, and who hunt and fish in the region known as the Susquehanna Flats in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.
Unlike many period rooms, though, the Shop interior was not copied directly from archival documentation or taken in its entirety from an original shop. Rather, the shop is a conglomeration of decoy-making related objects from several makers. Museum curators likely drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including twentieth-century interior photographs of other decoy shops in the region as well as the personal experiences Museum curators and local practitioners have had with decoy carving.
Upper Bay Museum curators arranged the artifacts to evoke the interior of a working mid twentieth-century decoy maker’s shop on the Upper Chesapeake at the tale end the height of market duck hunting but during the continuation of sport duck hunting. This interpretive choice offers a different type of historical authenticity than do other methods of creating period rooms (no single method of which I find “right” or “wrong”–all are all fascinating and informative).
The Decoy Shop is unique in that it is one of only a handful of workshop period rooms in American museums. (In contrast, countless domestic period rooms–championed in the early twentieth century by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York–fill museums throughout the country.) Others workshop period rooms include a Decoy Shop exhibit at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, the Dominy Shops (furniture and clockmaking) at the Winterthur Museum, and the Wright Cycle Shop at Greenfield Village. European examples include a recreation of a sixteenth-century jeweler’s workshop, based on a 1576 engraving, on display in the Museum of London’s show about the Cheapside Hoard.
The Upper Bay Museum and its collections embody rich interpretative value relating to the interconnectedness of the region’s cultural and environmental history. To that end, the Museum’s Decoy Shop period room plays a unique didactic role that could not be achieved by a traditional gallery display featuring rows of workbenches and tools. Instead, by furnishing the Decoy Shop with a variety of objects associated with the craft and related industries, the period room display provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the relationships between decoy-making tools, decoy parts, the spaces and places where decoys were made, and the people who made them, as determined by Upper Chesapeake individuals with ties to the profession and hobby of decoy carving and duck hunting.
Visitors view the Shop interior from one vantage point behind a door or from behind the Shop’s two windows. There is plenty to see. The shop is filled with hundreds of objects associated with decoy carving as well as with hunting, fishing, and boating in the upper Chesapeake more generally. The objects are displayed on shelves, on the walls, and on the floor. Objects range from workbenches to piles of nails. Primary object groups include: large pieces of work furniture; containers filled with supplies and tools; hand tools such as files and spoke shaves; completed decoys as well as decoys in various states of completion; a few items associated with the H. L. Harvey Company (active from about 1880 to the mid twentieth century); and miscellaneous items associated with fishing and hunting such as a life preservers and boat parts. In addition, the Shop “complex” also includes two workbenches installed just outside the shop.
In the process or leading the group that documented and catalogued the shop contents, it occurred to me that, even though we carefully removed and replaced each artifact, the Shop looked slightly different–a bit more tidy and spruced-up–when we were through with our work (before photo at left; after photo at right). We did, after all, dust every object and display surface; vacuum using a HEPA vac; sweep; wash the windows; secure objects using cotton twill tape where there had been duct tape…and more (all of which will help ensure the longer-term preservation of the objects). Even these slight, non-interpretative changes made the shop look different. What are the effects of more evasive interpretation changes on period rooms? How does one strike an appropriate balance of preservation and work-room-like authenticity?
In the case of the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum, authenticity derives from workshop dirt, the objects’ provenance (or history of ownership and use), and the identities of those who put them there. The Shop contents were made and used by several Upper Bay decoy carvers, a layered history that highlights continuities and change over time as it relates to decoy carving in this region. Some upper Bay decoy carvers represented here include Standley Evans (1887-1979; active 1919-1933) (used the decoy horse inside the shop); Horace D. Graham (1893-1982; active 1955-1978) (used the auto-sander inside the shop and shaving bench outside the shop as well as the many miscellaneous workshop contents distributed throughout the shop), and Paul Gibson (1902-1985; active 1915-1985) (used the painting table and paint brushes on display).
Despite the fact that hunting waterfowl in the Upper Chesapeake was limited to sport (rather than market hunting) after 1918, decoy carvers—such as those represented inside this Shop—continued to provide decoys for sportsmen into the mid-twentieth century. Some of the decoy carvers represented inside the Shop were hobbyists; others made decoys for a living. All of them used store-bought tools in combination with handmade tools made using a mix of reused and new materials, suggesting the fact that many decoy carvers engaged with (and continue to engage with) their craft as skilled do-it-yourself artisans or tinkerers. For example, the Horace Graham auto-sander was made with used wood and a washing machine motor:
His shaving bench features repurposed moldings:
Many of the supply containers were made from recycled mid-twentieth-century food containers, examples of which can be seen lining the Shop shelves in the photograph below. Anyone who has ventured inside a contemporary workshop has probably seen similar examples of reuse.
And of course, there are the decoys. The unfinished duck decoy parts, some of which are displayed inside this basket, were made by the following individuals, several of whom are still living: Mike Laird, J.E. Gonce, Bill Streaker, Jeff Muller, Vernon S. Bryant, Joey Jacobs[?], James Frey, and Bobby Simons:
Hardly a static exhibit meant to evoke one time period, the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum embodies the continued local interest in and practice of the craft of decoy making.
What could be more authentic than that?
To learn more about how your museum can apply to the UD Museum Studies SWAT project, visit the Sustaining Places web site. This blog post has been cross-posted at the University of Delaware Museum Studies blog.
In preparing for my work at the Upper Bay Museum, I found that C. John Sullivan’s Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936 (2003) provides readers with the best historical context for duck decoy use. Those with a theoretical bent might enjoy Marjolein Efting Dijkstra’s The Animal Substitute: An Ethnological Perspective on the Origin of Image-Making and Art (2010).
About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is also a graduate assistant for Sustaining Places, an IMLS-funded initiative that is dedicated to providing hands-on, practical resources for small museums.
On the first weekend in November, I attended the first conference of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) in Chicago. I am grateful that the History Department provided professional development funding to help with the cost.
The ARCS conference included twenty-four sessions over three days, interspersed with lunches, coffee breaks, and evening receptions. Since more than 500 people attended the conference, these events acted as networking events. I tried to introduce myself to five new people every day, and in this way I met registrars and art handlers from museums across the country.
I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, because I felt like they would be professionally helpful for me at my future job or because they dealt with some aspect of the work I was not familiar with or wanted to know more about. For instance, registrars from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh talked about their integrated pest management program in terms of the discovery of a massive infestation discovered during their cataloguing process. This brought pest management, a general topic I feel fairly comfortable having a conversation about, into a new plane of consideration: how to deal with an infestation in an uncatalogued collection, how to address the infestation without disrupting the cataloguing process, and how to organize and implement a pest management system in the midst of a crisis. Plus, they showed slides of insects devouring non-traditional museum collection objects that The Warhol has, like dog biscuits or half-eaten cookies. These slides were revolting and informative.
I also attended a session on transporting works of art to Italy. While this is irrelevant to my current position, I hope I get to use this knowledge in the future, because it would mean I was working at a place that exchanged artworks with Italy. When that happens, I will know to write a clause into the insurance agreement that allows the artwork to be pulled behind a tractor or transported by gondola, methods that insurance agreements typically discourage.
The most useful session covered the uses of new technology like iPads for registrars. Besides introducing us to several helpful applications, the speakers described a beautifully brief process for taking condition reports that went from taking incoming photography to saving the final report on the computer without having to leave the object’s side. Other suggestions included attaching RFID labels to packing crates of traveling exhibitions that uploaded a video of handling or mounting procedures when scanned and using collaborative software to track workflow. I have already started using some of the ideas from this session in my work at Winterthur, where I have had a graduate assistantship in the Registrar’s Office since 2010.
ARCS has a student membership rate, and they host networking events in the area, too. Anyone who is interested in more information can visit their website, www.arcsinfo.org. The next conference will be in 2015.
About the author: Alyce Graham is the Student Assistant to the Registrar at the Winterthur Museum and a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate writing about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.
As usual, Am Civvies have been busy this semester publishing articles and giving talks. Here is just a sampling of some of the things they’ve written and the places they’ve gone:
- “Collecting Disability History,” UK Disability History Month 2013 series, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, November 25, 2013.
- “About Something of for Someone? Curatorial Ethics and Curatorial Debts,” roundtable participant, discussed early 20th-century art museum program for disable children, American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C. (November 22, 2013)
- “Aunt Patty’s Furniture: Adult Cradles and the History of Physical Mobility Impairment in Early America,” New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (October 4, 2013)
- “The Muhlenberg Family and the War for American Independence,” The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in the Eighteenth Century, eds. A. Gregg Roeber, Thomas Müller-Bahlke,and Hermann Wellenreuther (Halle, Germany: Franckesche Stiftungen, 2013).
- “Palladian architecture, Germanic style: The Hiester House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (September/October 2013): 140–147.
- Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern Mythology, Winterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.
- “‘Every man turned out in the best he had’: Clothing and Buttons in the Historical and Archaeological Records of Johnson’s Island Prisoner-of-War Depot, 1862-1865,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 40 (2011, published 2013): 86-103.
- Civil War-style military drill instructor (experiential history) for Prof. J. Ritchie Garrison’s innovative undergraduate history course “The Emancipation Project.”
In 1862, a federal staff officer asked President Abraham Lincoln about the incessant stream of visitors to his office. Why, the officer wondered, didn’t Lincoln have clerks screen his visitors and restrict the traffic?
“I call these receptions my public-opinion baths,” answered Lincoln, “for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way; and, though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.”
Lincoln believed such encounters kept him in touch with “the great popular assemblage out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return.”*
As a historian, I like to think of my own forays into the world of popular audiences as my public history baths. Although mine are less frequent than Lincoln’s, they accomplish many of the same ends. They “renovate and invigorate” my understanding of the public’s interests, and they keep me in touch with “the great popular assemblage” to which I look forward to returning full-time once I finish my Ph.D.
I took an extended public history bath this summer. As a historic trades intern at Colonial Williamsburg, I participated in the “First Oval Office Project,” a cooperative initiative between Williamsburg and the Museum of the American Revolution to recreate, using historically accurate materials and hand-sewing techniques, George Washington’s Revolutionary War campaign tent. Rather than complete this work in a warehouse behind closed doors, we executed it in the Secretary’s Office, one of Williamsburg’s original buildings, dating to 1747. Our doors, like Lincoln’s, were always open.
A typical view inside the Secretary’s Office, Colonial Williamsburg, Summer 2013.
My conversations with visitors varied greatly. When not sewing, I acted as a third person interpreter, meaning that I wore historical clothing but did not assume any sort of historical character. I had many conversations about linen weaving, hand sewing, and sleeping under a canvas tent. The regularity of questions like “how was the tent waterproofed?” might have become trying, but, instead, we took it as a challenge to devise creative new answers to common inquiries.
Some of my conversations were less commonplace. Prompted by penetrating and sometimes unexpected questions, I talked with visitors about agricultural science, systems of free and slave labor, infant mortality, music, and politics in early America. One of the best discussions I had all summer followed the visitor question, “So, when did America become a good place for poor people?”
Tyler Rudd Putman and Joseph Privott at work on the First Oval Office Project.
All of these conversations reminded me why I study history in the first place. Working as an interpreter at a historic site is not so different from being any other type of interpreter, including a linguistic one. You straddle two worlds. Rather than facing linguistic barriers, the historical interpreter faces temporal ones. You need to take the events of the past and translate them into a language and narrative comprehensible to a contemporary audience. In fact, that’s what all historians do, albeit sometimes for students and scholars in traditional academic settings.
Of course, not all University learning happens in a traditional classroom, either. A few weeks ago, Lucas Clawson, a University of Delaware Ph.D. candidate and reference archivist at Hagley Museum and Library, and I arrived on the University green one afternoon dressed as Civil War soldiers. We spent the next hour introducing students in Professor J. Ritchie Garrison’s upper-level undergraduate history class, “The Emancipation Project,” to the rudiments of Civil War drill and material culture. These students could read about Civil War maneuvers for weeks, but they would still lack a certain experiential understanding of the subject. But when you stand in line at the position of the soldier and learn the face right or left, to double or undouble files, to march forward and by file right and left, to march by the flank, and to wheel right or left, something about the Civil War crystallizes in your mind. How officers took completely inexperienced recruits and quickly introduce them to linear drill begins to make sense. You realize how, after months of rote training, these same soldiers reacted instinctively to commands given even during intense fighting. You understand why Civil War soldiers stood in lines at all (it was for coordinated movements and to mass, or concentrate, their relatively inaccurate fire) and why such tactics proved so devastating as the war progressed (because rifled musket technology and accuracy advanced faster than field tactics). Perhaps, you catch a glimpse of the unity that emerged among soldiers on and off the battlefield. In the case of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of African Americans and the focus of Professor Garrison’s class, drill and battlefield performance proved the competence and strategic value of black troops, who helped swing the war in the North’s favor.
Discussing Civil War drill with University of Delaware undergraduates. Photo Credit: University of Delaware/Evan Krape, 2013.
My public history baths aren’t just about educating the public. Far from it. In fact, I usually feel that I take away as much or more than my audience. At Williamsburg, I learned how to articulate complex historical narratives of race, gender, class, labor, technology, and ideology in ways that made sense to nonacademic visitors. When that visitor asked me about when American became a good place for poor people, I responded by discussing how our definitions of equality and freedom change over time. I invoked Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), without ever naming the book, when I pointed to how the Revolution expanded the rights of free white men in particular. I gave a nod to the historiographical debates surrounding Wood’s work when I suggested that this same expansion of freedom came at the expense of others, such as women, and may not have been quite as positive as we sometimes think. Our definitions of freedom are still changing, I suggested, and our revolution continues. Public interpretation lets you condense complex historical arguments and provides a rocky and unpredictable proving ground on which to test the effectiveness of various historians’ answers to perennial questions.
In the case of the Civil War drill, the students may have learned a lot about moving like soldiers. I’ve studied Civil War drill for years and executed it as a living historian and volunteer at a variety of historical sites. But with this class, I learned what it’s like to take a group of completely novice individuals, with no more experience of linear drill than the average recruit of 1861, and put them through the paces of military maneuvers. I was genuinely surprised just how quickly they picked up the basics, even with only two instructors to a dozen students.
I firmly believe that all historians should take regular public history baths. This doesn’t have to involve months of costumed interpretation or complicated military drill. It can be as simple as giving a talk at your local historical society, elementary school, or fraternal club, maintaining an accessibly-written blog, or publishing in a public history periodical. Like it or not (I like it), we all return regularly to the great popular assemblage from which we sprang, and it’s good to test the water there once-in-a-while. It can get pretty cold in the ivory tower, but the water of public history is always warm.
*Miles O’Reilly [Charles G. Halpine], Baked Meats of the Funeral (New York, Carleton, 1866), 106.
About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization Program. He maintains a blog at www.ranawayfromthesubscriber.blogspot.com.
As each of my fellow participants in the 2013 Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DelPHI) fellows program chose a folded slip of paper from the box passed around the table, my excitement mounted. Who would be my “pretend” audience for my upcoming five-minute presentation on my research? A group of kids? Retired professionals? Prospective museum donors? The possibilities were endless, but I was eager to accept the challenge. As the box of dwindling slips reached me, I dipped my hand into the pool, selected a strip of paper, and read it discreetly to myself.
Shoot, I thought.
I had been musing just days before about how I needed to do some research on this guy Ted and his talks. Well, now I had a few days to figure this out to avoid making a fool of myself.
One of the goals of DelPHI is to give us, the humanities graduate student participants, tools for refining how we communicate our research to public audiences (from your grandmother at the retirement home to my little cousin at school) using outreach tools ranging from Twitter to public talks. The significance of our research (the material culture of disability in early America, in my case) often seems self-evident. We don’t need to remind ourselves of that significance on a daily basis. But when it comes to convincing other people of our research’s significance or its utility in everyday life…well, that’s another challenge all together. And while we know the answers to these questions in theory, articulating them is an art.
In the course of creating my “art,” I started with the horse’s mouth. I knew from hearing snippets of the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR that TED talks tend to be engaging and relevant to the average (NPR) listener. Indeed, according to the TED web site, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading.”
No pressure there.
TED, established in 1984, tends to feature speakers from the technology, entertainment, and design (hence, “TED”) communities, yet any survey of recent TED speakers shows that, as TED points out on its web site, its scope has broadened. TED hosts two conferences per year, and audience members who pay a few thousand dollars just to be there, listen to speakers who are expected, according to TED’s website, to “give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).”
Ok. So, I had to “give the talk of my life,” and I only had five (rather than eighteen) minutes to accomplish that. Right.
I have given many talks in the past to a variety of audiences, but somehow this one seemed more daunting (not least of all because my fellow DelPHI-ers were great communicators!). Many of my colleagues pulled out slips of paper that dictated a specific audience; my slip of paper dictated a genre. It turns out that the genre, “ideas worth spreading,” might, at the end of the day, be a good mantra to keep in mind for any future talk, undergraduate lecture, or grant application, etc., no mater how long and for whom. Surely there are some good models out there. (If you’re starting to wonder whether there are any critics of TED talks, your instincts are correct. Google “Ted talk criticism” to see what people find unappealing about Ted).
So I did a little more digging and started watching some TED talks available online. First, I found a talk about giving good talks. Meta, I know, but what the heck. This was my only “homework” for two weeks, so I decided this was a better use of time than watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo reruns.
First, I listened to Nancy Duarte, an expert presentation designer, who asserted that after studying talks such as MLK’s 1963 “I Have Dream Speech” and Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone unveiling, the structure of a good talk generally follows the same pattern: the speaker explains the status quo, or “what is,” and then explains “what could be.” This speaker repeated this several times before ending the speech with a description of the “new bliss” or “new norm.”
After fooling around with my subject matter for a while, I decided that Duarte’s blueprint, while useful for some contexts, would not suit my subject or my time frame of just five minutes.
By this point, I realized that, much like there is more than one way for historians to tell stories, there is also more than one way to tell a story using a TED talk.So if I didn’t have to follow that model, I kept plumbing the depths of the TED web site for more inspiration and insight. I decided I should watch some TEDs given by individuals in my own field—history, material culture, and museums—for inspiration. It turns out there isn’t much out there. (Can we fix that? Actually, it seems that the Met is staging its own TED event.) So I started with Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas P. Campbell’s talk “Weaving Narratives in Museum Galleries.”To be honest, I just watched highlights to get the gist of it all. And I began to realize that everyone goes about this quite differently (reinforcing my epiphany about storytelling).
It was time to start working on the talk.
The one unifying theme I found with each good TED is that the speakers pontificate from the heart. Campbell really got me excited about tapestries and how museum-goers can have meaningful experiences with them. In short, he echoed my enthusiasm for what he described as “making a lost world relevant” for the public. I laughed out loud when he recounted his interaction with an art history professor who chastised Campbell for using the word “bacchanal” instead of the more down-to-earth “orgy” when it came to classifying the scene depicted in The Bacchanal of the Andrians by Titian. (Let’s stay jargon-free, here, folks!)
The good TED speakers exuded genuine passion for their subjects, and listeners benefitted from learning about the subject matter but also from being in the same room with an enthusiastic expert. (Enthusiasm energizes me, even when I don’t agree with what is being said.)
But how could I replicate this in a mini-TED? How could I impart a complete informative story as well as enthusiasm in just five minutes? I decided that my sparkle would be derived, in part, by my committing my mini-TED to memory. Now, I don’t mean rote memory, but rather I chose my images carefully so that they would prompt me to tell a story that would captivate my audience’s interest from the start to the end. And I practiced…a lot…something that had been drilled into me as a teenager pursuing music and theater. Being moderately impatient and most definitely perfectionist, I always wanted the sparkle to come NOW. Not much has changed, so this took some time. I achieved it by talking to myself a lot during evenings leading up to the mini-TED.
I had the meat of the talk down pretty early. I knew I would be featuring one of the individuals with a disability (and his stuff) whom I plan to include in my dissertation, but I struggled most with how to grab my audience’s attention from the start. My initial impulse was to walk into the auditorium on crutches. As one of my DelPHI instructors noted, “we’ve all been there, right?” Most definitely. But I thought that perhaps such a move might offend (for lack of a better word) some audiences, particularly since I am not an individual with a physical mobility (or any other) impairment. So I decided to play it safe and use, instead, a nineteenth-century crutch from my own collection as a prop. My hope was that this evocative object would get my audience to conjure up their own past experiences with or observations of people with physical mobility impairment and crutch use.
And then, I launched into my guy’s eighteenth-century story. But really, it was my story about how I came to identify him as a viable research avenue, why objects proved critical in interpreting his story, and how these objects changed the way his contemporaries thought about him and how we think about disability today. My research path, not really the research itself, provided the fuel for the enthusiasm I think I successfully conveyed in the course of the mini-TED. I realized that my talk followed the storytelling trajectory (likely familiar to many) we learned about from documentary filmmaker Michael Oats: familiarity, comfort; a challenge; a resolution. This personal research trajectory angle worked with my audience of peers, and I think it would work for the general public as well. Why not impart our knowledge of history through the demystification of what researching history involves? Perhaps this is one way historians and other public humanists can convey why the humanities matter. (There’s been a lot of debate about how to do this best in recent months.)
And so what did I take away from this experience? Was it worth it to spend all that time throwing a crutch around my apartment for a few nights, trying to find the sweet spot of my enthusiasm for my research? The process reinforced what I knew already—that good research takes time, that I love my research and sharing it with others, and that it takes time to craft a unique presentation for each unique audience. I owe it to myself, I owe it to my audience, and I owe it to the humanities.
About the author: When she is not antiquing, hanging out in a museum, or teaching, Nicole Belolan is studying material culture and disability in early America.This year, she is working as a graduate assistant for the Museum Studies Program’s Sustaining Places initiative. Read more about Nicole’s work at her web site, http://www.nicolebelolan.org, and follow her on Twitter @nicolebelolan.
Despite its status as the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley, the New Sweden colony does not hold the same place in American mythology as Jamestown or Plymouth—even for people who live quite close to “The Rocks,” the site of the 1638 Swedish landing in what is now Wilmington, Delaware. This is not terribly surprising when you consider the traditional emphasis placed on the English origins of the United States. Moreover, Swedish control of the region was brief; the Dutch conquered the colony in 1655, only seventeen years after the landing.
Yet there are many reminders of the colonial Swedish presence on Delaware’s landscape today. The river on which the Swedes sailed is still called the Christina, after their young queen. The colors of the Swedish flag can be seen throughout the state. A portion of Route 13 in northern Delaware is named Governor Printz Boulevard, after the man who led the colony between 1643 and 1653. In Wilmington you can visit Old Swedes Church, built in 1699, and Fort Christina State Park. A national historic landmark, the park occupies the site of the first fort built by the Swedish colonists and encompasses “The Rocks”. In my dissertation I explore the creation of this memorial landscape for the New Sweden tercentenary in 1938. It was with a sense of déjà vu that I attended the New Sweden Jubilee, the commemoration of the 375th anniversary of the landing of the Swedes, on May 11. Commemorations are somehow both ephemeral and eternal. Although the pageantry is short lived, they follow the same patterns and take place on the same “sacred” ground.
Since parking is a problem in the neighborhood around Fort Christina, I left my car in a lot on Wilmington’s Riverfront and then jumped on a school bus that took us to the park. I ended up waiting for quite a while for the ceremony to begin, and I was thankful that I could sit in the shade while listening to the First State Symphonic Band. Around 3pm the visiting dignitaries, including King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden and Finland’s Speaker of Parliament Eero Heinaluoma, arrived on the Kalmar Nyckel, the replica of the ship that brought the Swedish and Finnish colonists to the Delaware Valley in 1638. (Finland was under Swedish control at the time of the settlement.)
The delegation had boarded the ship at the Riverfront after being welcomed by Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams and Mayor Johan Persson of Wilmington’s Sister City Kalmar, Sweden. The ship docked at Fort Christina State Park, where it was met by representatives of several American Indian groups and Swedish-American heritage organizations, some of whom were in costume. After the official addresses, the Swedish royals placed a wreath to honor the settlers in front of the monument that had been presented to the United States by the people of Sweden for the tercentenary. Attendees lined the walkway to cheer the dignitaries as they exited the park and carried on to Old Swedes Church for a special service. The day concluded with a formal Jubilee Gala on the Riverfront, attended by Vice President Joe Biden and other leading Delawareans. It must have been a long day for the members of the official delegation, who also attended a symposium entitled “Making it in America” at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum in the morning, followed by a trip to Chester, PA to lay a wreath at the Finnish Monument, a gift of the people of Finland to the United States for the 1938 commemoration, and a luncheon with Delaware Governor Jack Markell.
The participants in this Jubilee Landing in many ways retraced the steps of the commemorators of the 300th anniversary of the Swedish landing in 1938. The tercentenary celebration took place on June 27, 1938, a day of steady rainfall. The royal liner Kungsholm docked on the Christina River near the new park. The guest of honor, the Crown Prince of Sweden, remained on the ship because of a kidney attack; his son, Prince Bertil, took his place on the platform with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard C. McMullen, the governor of Delaware. After a delay of an hour and a half, the dedication of the park and the monument commenced. Military bands played the American and Swedish national anthems and the speakers enthusiastically gave thanks for the heritage of the early settlers. Following the dedication the official delegations from Sweden and Finland gathered for a service in Old Swedes Church. Then there were luncheons at the Delaware State Armory for Swedish tourists and at Hotel Du Pont for official delegates. The afternoon events included an address in Rodney Square by Cordell Hull, U. S. Secretary of State, and a parade of floats depicting the history of Delaware and representing the DuPont Company and other important industrial organizations. Although some highways were flooded, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people entered the city by automobile, 5,000 by rail, and 1,500 by bus to attend the festivities. The celebration concluded with a party for the official delegates and invited guests at Longwood, the estate of philanthropist and businessman Pierre S. du Pont. Following the Wilmington celebration, the Royal Swedish party traveled to Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, and to Swedesboro and Salem, New Jersey, to attend ceremonies commemorating settlements in those areas of the Delaware Valley.
The similarities between 1938 and 2013 did not end with the location and program of the commemoration. Speakers on both occasions emphasized the introduction of the log cabin and peaceful relations with the Lenni Lenape as part of the Swedish legacy. There was even the same trace of defensiveness when it came to New Sweden’s importance in relation to the more celebrated English colonies. (One speaker declared that “The Rocks,” which formed a natural rock wharf for the colonists, “are much more important than Plymouth Rock, which was just a boulder that a few people stepped on.”)
Unlike the tercentenary, however, the New Sweden Jubilee did not seem to involve as many Delawareans. The New Sweden Alliance, the nonprofit organization that orchestrated the commemoration, is an umbrella organization of Swedish- and Finnish-American heritage groups in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Although such groups participated in the tercentenary, the main celebration in 1938 fell under the control of a state commission, sponsored by state and federal funding. Perhaps this accounts for the general lack of awareness about the event among Delawareans and the low attendance at the ceremony. According to the Wilmington News Journal, 1,000 people attended the ceremony, which is only about a quarter of the park’s capacity.
If you are interested in learning more about New Sweden, visit the Delaware Historical Society’s exhibit at the Willingtown Square Gallery in Wilmington. Or come to the University of Delaware in November for the 375th Anniversary New Sweden Conference, entitled “Encountering ‘Others’ in the Atlantic World: Perspectives from the Material World.”
Anne Reilly is interested in the material culture of memory and the relationship between public commemorations and national identity. Her dissertation explores the creation of memorial landscapes at the sites of the Jamestown, Plymouth, and New Sweden colonies at the time of their tercentenaries in 1907, 1920, and 1938, respectively.
The Second World War generated a lot of paper. You still see it all over the place, littering antique stores and yard sales. I’m not an avid collector of such ephemera, but, almost without noticing, I’ve developed a pretty substantial stack of the stuff over the years. This past semester, when I was a teaching assistant for HIST 206, U.S. History Since 1865, it occurred to me that I might put all these books, pamphlets, calendars, and cards to a better use than gathering dust. It’s not the first time I’ve tried using objects in the classroom. A couple years ago, when I was teaching an archaeological field school in Ohio, I brought in a bunch of artifacts I once collected on the Thames foreshore in London. I asked the students to analyze the artifacts without knowing anything about their context, or where they were discovered. The lesson I wanted to drive home was how important an artifact’s provenience (it’s former location in the ground) is to archaeological conclusions.
This semester, I taught two discussion sections each week. Typically, these involved mini-lectures, multimedia, and reading discussions, so I wanted to ease the students into analyzing material culture slowly. Most of them were newcomers to history, let alone the nuances of material culture, so I worried they might have trouble interpreting complex WWII artifacts such as a helmet or a bakelite compact. So I brought in a dozen books, pamphlets, and other pieces of ephemera dating to WWII, all of which, besides having distinctive physical traits as objects, featured ample printed text. As I passed the objects around to pairs of students, I explained the assignment: to describe and interpret these pieces of WWII history. Each group discussed their objects and presented them to the class.
Some of the WWII items my students analyzed.
For material culture novices, the students made some very astute observations. Some of them noticed that the soldiers’ Bibles, designed for field service, were small and sturdy. Others pointed out the positive and inspirational messages of the music in a songbook. They asked questions about food and gasoline shortages when confronted with booklets of ration stamps. Some pointed out the reassuring subtext in an Air Corps officer’s letter home. They puzzled over the backstory behind a Christmas card from “Betty, Joanna, and Betts Paddock [and] Major Bob, overseas.” They mused over why a set of V-mail letters, from an M.P serving in the Pacific, might have been miniaturized for mailing home (here’s the answer). They enjoyed the tips from General Motors on how to conserve gasoline and tires. One sharp-eyed student, a veteran himself, noticed how all of the sweaters and vests in a knitting guide were named after famous military generals and pointed out how the 1940 Bluejackets’ Manual, a comprehensive how-to guide for Navy sailors, seemed remarkably similar to the Airman’s Manual he was issued just a couple of years ago. The students laughed about how a 1943 kitchen calendar with decadent recipes gave no indication of wartime food rationing.
A lesson like this is effective for several reasons. First of all, the students examined an array of material that touched many different aspects of life during WWII. Moreover, using original objects makes the past seem physical, something you can see and touch. The following week, a student asked me where all that stuff had come from and why I had it at all. That’s a sharp question, especially when you consider that most non-history major undergraduates typically encounter history through a textbook, not in an antique store or even a museum. Most importantly, in my mind, the workshop fostered a collaborative learning environment. I could have told the students about the results of food rationing, about the multiplicity of military manuals, about the mobilization of women on the homefront, or about soldier life in the Pacific. But this way, they noticed things themselves, made observations, floated hypotheses, and asked perceptive questions. They learned not from a traditional lecture but from a dialogue among themselves prompted by the objects. I directed the conversation and filled in the occasional gap. They noticed things about the material that I never had, and I’ve owned this stuff for years. In the end, I learned a lot, too.
From sewing tents to digging up sherds, Ph.D. students in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware’s Department of History know how to keep themselves busy during the summer. Here is a sampling of what we’ll be doing over the next few months:
Nicole Belolan, Elizabeth Jones, and Anne Reilly will all participate as fellows in the University of Delaware’s Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI). DELPHI exposes graduate students studying material culture to a variety of tools for communicating their research to a broad audience. After two weeks of workshops in June, participants purse their research and work on public outreach projects. Nicole, Anne and Liz will all continue to pursue research they are conducting for their dissertations. You can read short descriptions of their research below. You can also learn more at the DELPHI web site.
- Nicole is working on the material culture of physical mobility impairment in early America. She is investigating how early Americans used objects to manage their bodies and how those experiences shaped ideas and practices related to gender roles, citizenship, and identity.
- Liz’s research examines the role of women’s consumption in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century mid Atlantic, utilizing methodologies from both economic history and material culture studies.
- Anne is working on twentieth-century public commemorations. This summer, Anne will continue her research on the 1907 Jamestown Tercentenary. She will begin in Richmond, supported by a research fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.
Alison Kreitzer will be interning at the Hagley Museum and Library this summer. She is part of a team working to finish processing the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection. Researchers will gain access to the 700 cubic feet of transportation (mainly automobile) memorabilia in 2014. In the meantime, learn more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection by visiting Hagley’s blog.
Lisa Minardi is organizing the fifth annual archaeology field school at The Speaker’s House. The house was the home of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801), the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Muhlenberg’s house is located in Montgomery County, PA. The dig runs June 4th through 22th. Visit www.speakershouse.org to learn more.
Tyler Putman will be dusting off his needles to help reproduce the field tent or marquee George Washington used during the American Revolution. The Museum of the American Revolution owns the original “First Oval Office,” which will serve as the project’s model. Several expert “tailor-historians” will sew the reproduction while interpreting the process at Colonial Williamsburg this summer. You can read more about the project here, and you can “follow” the tent on its Facebook page here. In addition,check out the project’s progress throughout the summer via the web cam.
Be sure to check back during the summer to read some reports from the field!