Public Engagement in Material Culture Institute (PEMCI): 2010 Abstracts
Steven O’Banion is now blogging each day at PEMCI!
Graduate student participants, their departments and topics:
Center for Historic Architecture and Design
“Assessing New England’s Potential for World Heritage Sites”
Research for my thesis falls into two parts. First, I want to determine if inclusion on the World Heritage List affects tourism in a positive capacity. Second, I want to explore possible sites in New England that could qualify for the World Heritage list.
The World Heritage program, part of the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, aims to protect global sites of natural and cultural value for future generations. A site added to the World Heritage List is acknowledged as having significance on a level that transcends national boundaries and cultural biases. It was created in 1972 and currently includes 878 sites, only twenty of which are in the United States. New England, a region especially rich in cultural heritage, is not represented in any capacity on the list.
My research will explore a portion of the United States current World Heritage sites to determine if inclusion on this list affects tourism. Historic tourism generates a considerable portion of a nation’s income. Historic locations across the United States are striving to develop a range of heritage tourism options, however there is not currently a focus on connecting our national sites to a global narrative.
I will also explore heritage sites in New England that are worthy of addition to the list. To be considered, a site must qualify for at least one of the ten criteria for the World Heritage list. Additionally, a site must currently be on the National Landmarks list. There are currently, as of now, 368 sites in New England that have this qualification. I hope this research will prove that joining the World Heritage program can be beneficial economically as well as in the preservation of our history.
“Preserving Domestic Outbuildings”
My research explores domestic outbuildings in the Mid-Atlantic. Springhouses, summer kitchens, bake ovens, smokehouses, root cellars, ice houses, dairies, washhouses, and other small buildings were once sites of intense activity and production, integral parts of farmsteads. Seldom used and largely abandoned, domestic outbuildings are particularly fragile pieces of our historic rural landscapes. My project will provide practical information to people seeking to preserve, interpret, and perhaps even reuse domestic outbuildings. The impetus to preserve this architectural heritage is not simply a matter of enhancing appreciation for an aspect of the past. As we grapple with the environmental and economic challenges of our time, domestic outbuildings are pertinent sources of information and inspiration as we seek ways to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, strengthen local food networks, and reconsider our relationship with regional ecosystems.
My project seeks to engage Mid-Atlantic farm families that have advertently or inadvertently preserved domestic outbuildings. I will conduct oral history interviews in rural communities that continue to use outbuildings or that have strong oral traditions regarding their use, including members of Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities. By conducting oral history interviews with families that have owned and operated their farms for several generations, I hope to uncover undocumented traditions regarding the design, construction, and use of outbuildings.
The results of this project will be shared with area museums and institutions that maintain, or have an interest in, outbuildings, such as the Landis Farm Museum and the Muddy Creek Farm Library in Pennsylvania, the Museum of Rural Life in Maryland, and others. Outreach strategies include giving lecturers at such institutions, developing actual and virtual tours of outbuildings, and creating a website for the project. My project will encourage smaller institutions as well as individuals in the preservation of this overlooked aspect of our architectural heritage. The ultimate preservation of our country’s remaining eighteenth and nineteenth century domestic outbuildings resides with future generations; therefore, I hope to actively engage a wide audience and raise public awareness through this project.
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
“Sounds of A New Republic: The Role of Music in Washington, DC, 1795-1825”
My research project concerns the decorative arts and social role of music in Washington, DC and environs during the early national period, c. 1795-1825. Washington was unique both as a new city and as the nation’s capital, where entertaining often carried political implications, and people used social settings, both private and public, to achieve political gain. The new city’s citizens negotiated an unfamiliar landscape and adapted local customs to establish rules of social etiquette. I am interested in what music can tell us about how elite society formed, set the rules of fashionability and exclusivity, and established standards for entertaining–and how all these ideas relate to politics and the home.
In taking a material culture approach to analyzing Washington’s world of
sociability, my thesis will focus on music, especially pianos. I will
explore pianos as objects of decorative art (asking questions about
materials used, forms, makers, ownership, etc.); as conveyors of music and
singing; as expressions of gender and class; and as one component of a
larger arena of entertaining, associated with dance, card-playing, and
dining. I will investigate how objects like musical instruments were not
culturally neutral, but were invested with all kinds of political and social
Center for Historic Architecture and Design
“Historic Preservation in Urban Revitalization Projects: Developing a Local Identity in Fishtown”
Buildings are such an integral part of our lives we often overlook their importance. Every built environment possesses a unique set of characteristics that informs how we live, work, and play. For my thesis I plan on developing an understanding of the dynamic forces at work within a neighborhood that create healthy (or unhealthy) environments.
I am developing a plan for an urban revitalization project in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. I will look at issues such as urbanism, gentrification, and the power of place cultivated through the preservation of historic structures. The end result will be a before and after streetscape design of a mixed-use block in the neighborhood, supported by research based on the history of the neighborhood, its people, and its architecture. By educating communities about the material culture embodied by the buildings all around them, healthy neighborhoods can be recreated utilizing historic structures.
Early urban planners quickly learned that urban planning projects were not successful without local support. Public engagement with the planning process, also known as participatory planning, allows for the creation of functional architecture and healthy cities. This approach to planning reintroduces the local population into a position of control over their own environment. With a survey of the local populace and built environment supported by thorough historic research, I will identify material culture resources crucial to renewing the local identity of the Fishtown neighborhood.
“Plastics in Peril”
Plastics exist in almost all international museums and galleries. They can be found in building materials, furniture, house wares, informational technology, sports equipment, modern art, photography, and toys, just to name a few examples. As museums continue to acquire objects, the proportion of plastics in collections will grow. Unfortunately, most condition surveys of plastic collections conclude that approximately 75% of the objects require some form of attention from a conservator.
This summer at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lunder Conservation Center, I will be working on a survey of the 250 plastic objects in their collection. Using mostly empirical methods, such as smell, rigidity, color, and hardness, I will identify the types of plastics present. The goal of this survey will be to aid conservators in making a case for the necessity of cool storage to preserve their plastics. In addition, the data collected will serve as the basis for further research on the types of plastic requiring the most immediate attention.
Center for Historic Architecture and Design
“The McGovern Sister’s store: Exploring Women’s Places in the American West”
My thesis topic will be based in a remarkably well preserved town in southwest Montana. Virginia City was a western mining boom town begun in 1863 coinciding with the discovery of gold in the area. Interest was renewed in the town in the 1940’s when millionaires Sue and Charles Bovey who were passionate about Montana history took interest in the town. They began to purchase properties in Virginia City, eventually turning the town into a popular historic site for Western boom town history.
One of the properties the Bovey’s purchased is the McGovern sister’s women’s store, a false front store on the main street in town. The McGovern sisters opened this store in the early 1900’s, but due to economic difficulties, they locked the doors in the 1930’s leaving most of the stores’ inventory on the shelves. The property has been interpreted as a dress shop from the time the Bovey’s purchased the store, into the present.
I will use the McGovern sisters store and the objects within to explore women’s places in the American west during the early 20th century. I will investigate the store through its architecture, decorative finishes, original store merchandise, account books, and interpretive objects.
History/ American Civilization
“The Religious Furnishings of Tiffany Studies in the Mid-Atlantic”
Numerous religious communities throughout the United States boast of their Tiffany windows and other Tiffany furnishings but often do not know who or what Tiffany was other than a jewelry store in a movie with Audrey Hepburn. My project will be to research the Tiffany furnishings of selected churches in the Mid-Atlantic and share these findings with their respective congregations and surrounding communities to inform them about Tiffany generally, their furnishings in particular, and the nexus of relationships that Tiffany Studios worked in. These furnishings both represented and constituted the power of churches in modern society at the turn of the twentieth century, elite patronage and communal genteel taste, and America’s cultural arrival on the world stage.
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
“Urban Outfitting in Early Philadelphia”
Slop Shops, Vendue Sales, and Secondhand Clothing for the “Lower Sort”
During the colonial and federal periods, the “lower sort” included a wide array of individuals employed as sailors, day-laborers, street vendors, laundresses, and lower craftsmen. As the working poor of early America, the lower sort provided the labor and services necessary to build a new society. Their clothing represented an expression of their most personal beliefs and identities, but was also dramatically affected by impersonal economic, social, and political trends. Unlike the fine silk gowns and velvet suits of wealthy individuals, working clothing rarely survives to be displayed in modern collections.
By examining the clothing trade in one early American port city, Philadelphia, it is possible to recapture the complex network of production, distribution, and use which affected the dress of the urban poor. The lower sort might acquire clothing through a number of means – from the early readymade clothing outlets known as “slop shops,” from the sometimes massive “vendue” estate auctions, or through the often illicit activities of pawnbrokers and an expansive network of thieves.
In a society dominated by readymade and “vintage” fashions, it is easy for us to forget that these same sorts of garments once garnered considerable disdain from stylish individuals. Even faced with considerable handicaps, the lower sort of early Philadelphia managed to assert their own identities through their visual appearance. Tracing the lives of working people and the clothes they wore reminds us that issues like labor, wealth, poverty, and even fashion were as interrelated in early America as they are today.
History (Hagley Program)
“Betting on Computers. Digital Technologies and the Rise of the Casino Industry (1950-2000)”
A social history of computer applications, my dissertation project explores the massive introduction of digital technologies in American casinos as a process that considerably altered the traditional ways of gambling, surveillance, entertainment, and management in gaming establishments nationwide. By focusing on the complex interaction between technology and changes in business, law, and society, I argue that the use of computers in every aspect of casino operation helped the transition of the gaming industry from its early pariah status to that of a legitimate, profitable, and rapidly growing sector of the economy.
During the grant period, I intend to work on a dissertation chapter that discusses the growth of casinos as non-gaming entertainment sites in the 1980s and 1990s. My focus is on the physical transformation of the casino space from the early plain-looking halls amassing mechanical slot-machines and poker tables to the spectacular multi-sensory environment of today, which blends themed entertainment and high-tech wizardry. Using methods specific to history of technology and material culture research I will explore the role played by casino executives, computer software designers, and architects in the re-engineering of the casino space and pay attention to the changes of the modern casino as a business entity and entertainment site in a growingly competitive market.
My summer research will focus on a late-nineteenth-century animated scale model of the Le Creusot factory, one of the largest French factories at the time. The model is a miniaturized representation of the entire forge and its personnel. The room displaying it at the Ecomusée Le Creusot (France) is large enough to allow visitors to walk around and read the various labels describing each worker’s and machine’s activities. When activated by a coin, the model’s invisible engine brings the factory model to life. Workers push steel bars into steam hammers, pull iron rails from rolling mills, repair engines, and perform finishing operations for small parts amidst loud noise. As if battery operated, each worker repeats the same gestures over and over, closely echoing fin-de-siècle factory workers, who were de-skilled to the point of automatically repeating a specific action throughout their daily jobs. weidinger The model embodies the late-nineteenth-century fixation with extending the productivity of workers and transforming them into indefatigable automatons. Combining an analysis of still pictures and short videos of the scale model, my presentation of my summer research will introduce to the American public a recently re-discovered artifact that sheds new light on the ways in which turn of the century culture viewed factory work. My summer project is part of my dissertation, which analyzes the ways in which high art and popular culture visualized the effects of modern labor on workers’ bodies and psyches in France and Belgium in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Fig. 1-3. Joseph Beuchot, Animated scale model of the Le Creusot factory, late 19th century.
Mary C. (“Katie”) Wood
“Benjamin West’s Nelson Memorial: Neoclassical Sculpture and the Atlantic World circa 1812”
My dissertation will explore the Nelson pediment, a significant – though largely unstudied – sculpture designed by Benjamin West that lies at the nexus of many critical political, cultural, and economic impulses circa 1812. West’s pediment was at once a classical monument and a modern paradox. The object was a public sculpture created by an artist who is remembered primarily as a painter. It was a tribute to the preeminence of the British Navy, yet was executed by an expatriate sympathizer of the American Revolution just prior to the War of 1812. Its design looked back to antiquity and the Renaissance while engaging the most technically advanced medium available, namely a new sculptural material called Coade stone. This project will expand upon previous scholarship by integrating West’s sculptures into a dialogue about transatlantic neoclassicism. Building from a close analysis of the pediment and its architectural site, my work will re-position West and his work within both a local London nexus of sculpture, architecture, and space, as well as within a global, imperial contest of British cultural, industrial, technological, and political hegemony. Drawing on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century materials concerning the pediment’s commission, ephemera regarding its reception, and relevant paintings, this dissertation will contribute to studies in American art history and material culture by investigating how West applied his pedagogical methods and formal aesthetic principles, in turn affecting the productive sensibilities of subsequent generations of American artists.
Funding through the PEMCI initiative will support early-stage research in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. A portion of the term will be spent studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ceramic technology and industrial design sources at Winterthur Museum. Following this, I will examine relevant paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art including (but not limited to) Benjamin West’s Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1770), and Death on the Pale Horse (1817). I hope to round out the summer research term by investigating West’s account books and personal papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These resources will ultimately contribute to the larger dissertation by providing insight into West’s working methods, patterns of patronage, and professional associations.
English, John F. Sweeney Fellow, Friends of Rockwood
“Actress for Sale: The Rhetoric of Theatrical Postcards”
My study focuses on the visual component of theatrical culture during the nineteenth century. Theatrical postcards are objects of particular interest because they were obsessively consumed and collected by the general public, reflecting significant trends in aesthetic taste and cultural values. Several albums of theatrical postcards in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware Library provide ideal material for this study. These albums holds postcards ranging from images of well-known actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry to those of actresses whose names were obscure even in their own age. Many of the postcards depict the actress theatrically posed and in costume, raising questions about the implications of gesture and attire that would have been understood by a contemporary audience. For instance, some of these postcards can be seen in a direct conversation with popular Pre-Raphaelite paintings; how, and to what extent, did female performers profit from a relationship with subversive yet popular Pre-Raphaelite stunner? Other postcards are cropped to feature the actress’s face, creating intimacy with the actress and yet others feature the actress on one side and her husband on the other, reminding a spectator that she is unavailable. Still others depict the actress demurely occupied at home. What anxieties are captured in these objects? To what extent did the actress control the production and consumption of her image? How did these images change over the course of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century as actresses became more acceptable in society? To what degree can we examine these images as vehicles for shaping attitudes towards women in the workplace? A study of visual rhetoric, with these postcards in mind, will help us to better understand the various modes by which femininity was constructed and consumed, as well as the evolving attitudes directed towards the female performer.