Varnish is a Tricky Mistress, or, My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive, Part 2

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

A summer in Boston can really fly by when you’re exploring beautiful historic homes and encountering new types of furniture. My first blog post about my experience with the Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) covered only our orientation and the first few days of working at a site. Since then, we’ve visited four vastly different locations spanning distinct periods in American material culture. First, the 1749 Spooner House in Plymouth where one family lived for over 200 years. Then, onto the Bostonian Society (est.1881) located in the Old State House, where a dedicated group of antiquarians assembled to preserve the property and create a repository for objects significant to Boston’s history. Along the posh streets of Back Bay lay our next destination, the Gibson House Museum, a snapshot of Victorian domestic life circa 1860 untouched by modern museum interventions. Lastly, we recently finished a week at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain, built in 1760 for Commodore Loring. While its gardens are used primarily as a public recreation space for the community, the house is often closed to visitors and contains both original objects and those collected by the historic Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club.

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough Hosue

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough House

At these sites, we encountered English beds from the seventeenth century, ornately carved Renaissance Revival sideboards, Queen Anne tea tables, and reproduction Chippendales. While I’ve benefited tremendously as a historian from this experience, I have also learned a great deal about what it takes to manage, steward, preserve and interpret collections at small institutions and museums. Curators and board members alike were deeply invested in the holistic mission of their sites and provided us with records, inventories, and family histories so that we could view the objects we catalogued as part of a larger historic and personal narrative, rather than as isolated specimens.

That being said, the day-to-day work of cataloguing and photographing led to some unique learning moments. Rather than recap everything I did, I’ve decided to list some of the important and unexpected lessons I’ve learned which may benefit future scholars in the field.

1) Space is nearly always limited. At the Bostonian Society, we worked in a narrow storage room, with chairs crammed into nearly every available corner. The Society started out collecting objects relevant to the interests of its founders, which included many nineteenth-century pieces. Presently, the Society is focused on building up its Colonial and Revolutionary-era collections, so many of the pieces formerly on view have been placed out of sight of the public. With these challenges, we had to be creative when it came to staging a photography studio, and flexible (literally) about moving around. We encountered similar space issues when it came to shooting furniture too heavy to move. You won’t always have a great space to work in, so come prepared to problem-solve!

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

2) Furniture lies. A piece you thought you examined in one kind of light will end up having a bunch of marks (graphite numbers, signatures, chalk inscriptions) under the super-intense lights of the photo studio. Varnish, especially coatings applied during the late nineteenth to early twentieth-century, will disguise the wood grain and make identification difficult, or may appear to look deceptively like veneer. Additionally, a table that looks steady on its feet in the corner will turn out to have a pin loose, or is held together by some glue.

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

3) Be ready to face years and years of cobwebs built up in every nook and cranny. Likely, there will be some critter still crawling around and angry that you’ve disturbed their home.

Cobwebs, yuck.

Cobwebs, yuck.

4) Strength is key! We often joked that part of our training should have been a furniture boot camp, where we would deadlift armchairs and do squats with pedestal-base tea tables. In order to avoid straining our backs, we had to train ourselves to lift things the right way. Some pieces took all four of us to move, all while half-blind and maneuvering around obstacles.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

5) Drink water, you fool! Summertime in Boston is no joke. You will likely one day work in a historic house with little to no air conditioning, and you’ll probably be working in the attic too. Our time at the Gibson house was punctuated by periodic water breaks and trips downstairs to the small fan for a moment of respite from the humidity. With the bright studio lights adding ten degrees to any space we were in, paying attention to our bodies was crucial.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

6) Communication and Collaboration. At the beginning of the summer, we worked in pairs to catalogue each object and photograph them. Once we grew more confident in our skills, we found it more effective to divide-and-conquer and work solo on smaller objects like chairs and side-tables. However, it is silly to think you alone can know everything there is to know about a piece of furniture. I still have trouble with wood identification, and frequently sought the advice of my cohort. Alternatively, I could helpfully point out the differences in a Federal (1795-1815) vs. Empire (1815-1840) example when asked. We also took turns consulting our traveling library, looking for similar examples to guide our decision-making. When it came to photographing stationary pieces like tall case clocks or secretaries, we all worked together to hold up white backdrops and brown felt to decrease the reflective glare on tabletop surfaces. Tiring work, but worth it for the catalogue-worthy picture.

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

7) Have fun! Once our group started clicking, we could approach our tasks with a good amount of levity and humor. Picture four tired, sweaty young women gazing with intense focus at a chair…inside of a thrift store with pop music blaring. After a day of moving and photographing (hot lights!), we took a well-deserved ice cream break and wandered into a local shop. Secondhand furniture lingered in the corner, and although it was clearly a reproduction, someone wondered aloud what kind of wood it was and the four of us leaned in for a beat of silence, faces screwed in concentration, and then we burst out laughing. Even in our off-hours, we still had furniture on the brain!

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

If this experience has taught me anything, it is to always be looking. Once you know how something is put together, or can recognize its stylistic influences, you see your material environment in a completely new way! One member of the BFA came to work sheepishly admitting she had spent the night before trying to figure out the wood of every piece of furniture in her bedroom; another claimed she couldn’t finish a movie set in the colonial era when she spotted an Eastlake piece in the periphery of the frame. As for myself, going with my mother through the famous annual Brimfield Antique Show became a chance to play “Antiques Roadshow,” to her delight.

With worksheets to transcribe and photos to edit, my summer in Boston will end on a more mundane note. However, I’m proud that my efforts will contribute to future scholarship and discoveries in the field of material culture. I return to the University of Delaware excited and prepared to tackle any new collections that come my way.

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

About the author: This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

Dovetails and Tenons: A Love Story, or My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive Begins

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

Walking into an eighteenth-century house to find three women with their legs sticking out from halfway underneath a sofa makes for an interesting sight. For me, it’s all part of a day’s work. This summer, I’m joined by three other young historians as a member of the Boston Furniture Archive. We will assess, catalogue, and photograph objects from historic institutions throughout the greater Boston area.

The Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) is an extension of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project (organized and operated by the Winterthur Museum), which seeks to explore and celebrate furniture-making in the Bay State. As part of our summer’s duties, we’ve been trained to examine objects ranging from Windsor chairs to high chests. Already in its third year, this is an extensive and ongoing cataloguing project that will benefit scholars of material culture in untold ways.

Before we could even begin, I joined my BFA cohort in Boston for a week-and-a-half-long training session held at various institutions hosted by some of the leading experts in the field. At the Trustees of Reservations, Broke Jobe (who, with others, literally wrote the book on southeastern Massachusetts furniture) took us through a decorative arts boot camp. We learned about handling furniture and conservation practices at Historic New England with Senior Conservator Alex Carlisle and Senior Curator Nancy Carlisle.

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

At the North Bennett Street School, Winterthur’s Gregory Landry and furniture-maker Steve Brown taught us all about craftsmanship and wood identification (one of the trickiest aspects of cataloguing by far).

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

And, finally, at the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston, we had the opportunity to learn professional photography and photoshop techniques so that anyone can access the best quality images and information about the furniture they seek on the BFA’s online database:

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

After that week of intense hands-on training, we were pumped and ready to get on the road! Our first stop was the Spooner House (c.1743) at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society in Plymouth, MA. Right up the road from Plymouth Rock, this lovely historic property features objects descended directly from its original eighteenth-century occupants. Happily, we were welcomed by Am Civ alum Anne Reilly, now the executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our first day was a real eye-opener: thinking we could breeze through catalogue sheets that were as long as eleven pages, we soon learned the challenges of looking at furniture with a critical gaze. Using wood samples, UV flashlights and magnifying glasses, we first looked at every panel, leg, and frame of a seemingly “simple” Federal card table to determine the primary and secondary woods. Often the answers eluded us–was that porous hardwood mahogany? Or walnut? What about the figured veneers–might it be burled maple? Another crucial component was the means of construction, and whether the piece was handcrafted or machine-made.

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types, which is part of our cataloguing kit

Certain things are dead giveaways to the former or latter, such as nail shape and size, saw marks, and joinery techniques. Of course, there’s also the style of a piece. Inlays, banding, and therm legs (or squared, tapered legs) certainly indicate the card table was from the Federal Period (1790-1815), but we might encounter revival styles in the future–or even reproductions!

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Most importantly, our mission is to contribute to Boston’s furniture-making history. It’s been pointed out to us time and time again how little research and scholarship exists for this subject, as most furniture after the eighteenth century is attributed to New York or Philadelphia. The work we do this summer, at places like the Bostonian Society, Gibson House Museum, and New England Historic Genealogical Society, provides much-needed materials for historians of material culture in their ongoing and future projects. My own research examines how historical memory, craftsmanship, and American culture intersect and inform one another, and the benefits of having a resource like the Boston Furniture Archive are not to be underestimated. So often, our education in material culture comes from books, or museums, or the archives. Actually being able to handle furniture and comprehend their design and construction goes a long way towards enriching one’s education.

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

We have a busy summer ahead of us, and I hope to update the Am Civ blog as we make progress!

About the Author: Erica Lome is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

The Inner Workings of the World of Book Collecting at the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

This blog post is by Alexander Ames, Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware.

In a nondescript corner of the University of Delaware’s Morris Library sits one of the greatest private collections of Victorian British books, manuscripts, and artworks in the world: the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. Every year, the Collection employs a graduate assistant to assist with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a significant rare book collection.  During academic year 2015/2016, I had the honor of working in this capacity.  The experience proved to be a valuable complement to my doctoral studies in the History of American Civilization doctoral program at UD.

The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library, is an internationally renowned repository for the study of late-nineteenth-century British art, literature, and culture. The Collection focuses on the period 1850 to 1900, with an emphasis on the Pre-Raphaelites and on the writers and illustrators of the 1890s. Its holdings comprise over 9,000 first and other editions (including many signed and association copies), manuscripts, letters, works on paper, and ephemera.  While rich in works of some of the most famous authors, printers and visual artists of the late Victorian period, including Oscar Wilde, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Collection possesses tremendous breadth and depth, allowing researchers to explore the cultural contributions of lesser-known figures who occupied the same circles as the Victorian age’s most famous men and women.

William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. The book is seen here in a slipcover made in the early twentieth century from William Morris fabric.

William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. The book is seen here in a slipcover made in the early twentieth century from William Morris fabric.

Why would a doctoral student in early American history and material culture wish to spend a year immersed in the decadent world of the late Victorians?  The answer is simple: I hope to pursue a career in a library or archival environment, and work in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection offered an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the world of book collecting.  After nine months in the Collection, I feel well-versed in the ways of the book collector and have gained valuable experience in library tasks such as cataloguing, analog and online exhibitions development, reference work, and reading room supervision.

The most exciting part of the assistantship, however, was doubtless observing and participating in the acquisition of new materials for the Collection. The landmark acquisition of the year was a rare, inscribed copy of William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896.

William Morris’s inscription of the Kelmscott Chaucer to Robert Catterson-Smith, who, together with Edward Burne-Jones, created illustrations for the book.

William Morris’s inscription of the Kelmscott Chaucer to Robert Catterson-Smith, who, together with Edward Burne-Jones, created illustrations for the book.

After it arrived at the UD Library, Mark Samuels Lasner and I drove the book to Manhattan for a welcoming party at The Grolier Club, a bibliophilic organization where the Chaucer was placed on display for an evening for members to study and enjoy.

The Kelmscott Chaucer on display at The Grolier Club, New York City, March 24, 2016.

The Kelmscott Chaucer on display at The Grolier Club, New York City, March 24, 2016.

Another important acquisition was a collection of paintings by British feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a nearly-forgotten radical who was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.  Bodichon’s legacy will live on in the UD Library because of this acquisition.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), The Gatehouse at Michelhaml Priory, ca. 1850. Watercolor on paper, 25 x 30 cm.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), The Gatehouse at Michelhaml Priory, ca. 1850. Watercolor on paper, 25 x 30 cm.

I feel deeply grateful to have matriculated in a doctoral program that encourages students to acquire practical museum and library skills while developing scholarly research expertise in fields related to American material culture.  I am also incredibly thankful to Mark Samuels Lasner and all at the UD Library for working with me over the last academic year as I honed my collections-based career interests.  For more information about the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, visit

About the Author: Alexander Ames is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware and a member of the Grolier Club in New York City. He plans to write a dissertation about Pennsylvania German calligraphy and manuscript illumination practices between ca. 1750 and 1850. He tweets @Alex_L_Ames.

Alumni Profile: Janneken Smucker

The History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware boasts many accomplished graduates currently working in a range of capacities at cultural heritage institutions and in academia. We sat down recently with Dr. Janneken Smucker (Am Civ ’10) to talk about what she’s been doing with her degree as an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University. Here’s what she had to say.

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ '10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ ’10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Am Civ: What attracted you to the University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Program? What had you done before coming to UD?

Janneken: Before I applied to the History of American Civilization program at UD, I had earned my MA in Textile History/Quilt Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with the International Quilt Study Center. I knew I wanted to continue to study objects, specifically quilts, but within broader contexts of consumer and visual culture. I sought a program in which my niche research interests would be taken seriously, where professors and other students would understand the merits of studying quilts. But I wanted comprehensive training in the field of American history to accompany my more narrow focus on material culture. UD’s AmCiv uniquely provides this.

Am Civ: Your dissertation, which you published as Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon with Johns Hopkins University Press in 2013, gives readers a scholarly yet accessible take on the production and consumption of Amish quilts in American culture. In your book’s introduction, you explain that you are a fifth-generation Mennonite quiltmaker. How would you say your experience making the things you study has informed your research?

Janneken: First of all, my hobby of making quilts inspired my interest in studying these objects. I didn’t even know the phrase “material culture,” but eventually figured out that I could combine quilts with my academic fields of History and Women’s Studies. Because I make quilts—or at least did when I wasn’t frantically juggling being an Assistant Professor and mother—I understand the process of making choices, adapting patterns, adding personal touches, while maintaining aspects of tradition. I knew that quiltmaking is both an individual act and a communal one, and one influenced by many other media and forms of consumer culture. I find understanding the process an essential part of studying these objects.

Am Civ: Before starting as a professor in the Department of History at West Chester University, you worked for Night Kitchen Interactive, a firm that works with museums and other cultural institutions on producing websites and other types of interactive experiences. Now, you teach courses in history as well as in digital humanities at West Chester University. How do you think digital tools enhance the study of the humanities among scholars and the public alike? 

Janneken: I am most interested in “public humanities” and how digital media and technologies can enhance public engagement with humanities content. New tools and platforms for disseminating historical and cultural content promote not just one-sided consumption of content, but participation and co-production of knowledge. Members of the public can share their own stories and perspectives, contribute by volunteering their own expertise through initiatives like Wikipedia, HistoryPin, and crowdsourced transcription projects. History should not be a conversation only among academics, but one that has relevancy to a broad public, and digital history helps make this possible.

Am Civ: What projects are you working on now?

Janneken: On campus I’ve been working with my colleague Professor Charles Hardy and students to create Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. Our students created a digital archive of images and primary sources, detailed oral history indexes, and imaginative digital storytelling projects, which re-created the world southern newcomers encountered in early 20th-century Philadelphia. The Oral History Association named it the best non-print project of 2015, and we’re planning to expand the project, teaching the course again in Spring 2016.

In my own research, I am continuing to investigate the role of quilts in American culture, analyzing how New Deal era governmental programs including the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration drew on the symbolic power of quilts to help advance the nation’s economic recovery.

Am Civ: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students currently studying for advanced degrees in material culture studies?

Janneken: I encourage students to think imaginatively about what their futures may hold by taking risks and pursuing unforeseen opportunities. We tend to enter grad school with a distinct vision of a future career; but actual paths during and after grad school may lead in unexpected directions. I took a low-paying internship upon defending my dissertation, and this position led me to develop a whole new skill set in digital technologies, which I would have missed if I had stuck to a more conventional path.

Am Civ: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions, Janneken!

Sailing and Sewing aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer

After spending six weeks aboard the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Corwith Cramer, 23 days of which comprised our Atlantic crossing between Gran Canaria and Dominica, I’ve been finding it difficult to quantify all that I experienced and learned. I was aboard the Cramer as a guest “voyager,” a position that combined the roles of deckhand and visiting scholar. The Cramer is one of two ships operated by the Sea Education Association, an organization that runs semester-long programs for undergraduate students. Their voyages emphasize marine science, maritime skills, and cultural studies that vary based on changing cruise tracks.

I expected to learn about sail handling, knots, celestial navigation, the physical world of shipboard life, and how it feels to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. And I did. But I also learned about meteorology, pelagic birds, and the “plastisphere” that develops around discarded plastics in the ocean. I worked on diesel engines, cooked for a crew of thirty, and examined the many tiny creatures that appeared in our net samples (including such bizarre animals as mesopelagic nudibranchs, phronima amphipods, and megalope). It was easy to get excited about such things because everyone on board was passionate about their field of study, be it engineering, history, sailing, or science. Conversations around the dinner table and on deck moved easily from tall ships to Caribbean politics to the physics of rainbows to the Lego movie. I shared a bit of my own passion in such informal conversations and in a presentation about material culture during one of our daily all-hands meetings.

I’m working on several reflective essays about my experience. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss what I worked on in spare moments between standing watch on the voyage: sewing and thinking about how and what sailors sewed at different points in history. During my time aboard the Cramer, I completed a reproduction of a sailor’s jacket recovered from the wreck site of the General Carleton, a British vessel that sank in 1785. Historians Lawrence Babits and Matthew Brenckle documented the jacket in a chapter of the archaeological report available here. You’ll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses in the images below.

I wanted to sew on board the Cramer as a way of thinking about what it must have been like for sailors aboard earlier ships to make and repair their clothing amidst their many other duties. Shipboard life and labor meant sailors often wore peculiar styles of clothes, garments that distinguished them from other workers. Clothing still matters to sailors. Today’s professional tall ship sailors joke about looking like “schooner bums” when in port, and they can still recognize other sailors by the sorts of things they wear.

Ships, historically and today, are cramped places, and people are amazingly creative when they are looking for a place to work. On the Cramer, people played music, wrote in journals, read books, and crafted in their bunks, at the dinner tables in the main salon, on deck, on the “elephant table” (a seven-foot-high platform behind the foremast), and wedged into impossibly small places in the metal and wooden confines of our environment.

Today’s sailors, much like those of the past, sew out of necessity. I was surprised how often I saw people sewing on board, given that most people I meet on land are unable to sew at all. There are several explanations for why sailors sew. First, every crewmember has only a limited wardrobe and no recourse to a clothing store, so they have to repair damaged garments if they wanted to wear them again..

Clothing gets dirty and wears out quickly on board a ship. My own canvas pants, for example, looked like this after only a week’s wear:

We had no washing machines aboard the Cramer, and so crewmembers laundered clothing in the open air of the deck. On any given morning, a handful of people enjoying their time off watch could be found sitting on the foredeck around small piles of dirty clothes or pinning clean ones up to dry on a line. It’s amazing what you can do with two buckets, some soap, and your hands.

But there are other explanations for why people sew so much onboard ship besides functional ones. One afternoon, I watched as a sailor patched a pair of Hawaiian-print shorts on the quarterdeck. The cotton was hopelessly torn in multiple places, and several generations of stitches, sewn cloth patches, and adhesive sail patches covered portions of the seat and leg. But these were a favorite garment, and she had worn them through several voyages. Sailors often live and travel with far fewer belongings that most people on land, so some things take on substantial sentimental value.

Many of the crew and students on our voyage studied how plastics entered and impacted the world’s oceans, and they were especially conscious about the wasteful nature of American consumer culture. All contemporary ships have to be careful with how much waste they generate, because they must transport inorganic trash such as plastics until they find a suitable land depository. We were very careful on the Cramer about what we used and threw away. Crewmembers carefully repaired clothing at sea when such garments might have ended up at Goodwill or the dumpster on land.

Depictions of earlier sailors at work and descriptions of their personal effects often include small boxes containing sewing tools. Almost as soon as I began sewing aboard the Cramer, I wished I had brought more small containers. Sewing doesn’t take many tools, but even a pair of scissors, some thread, and few needles seems like a lot to keep track of when you don’t have much space your whole world is rolling back and forth. I was constantly losing pins, though thankfully all were found by eagle-eyed and patient shipmates, rather than in the soles of some poor sailor’s foot late at night.

The only sewing tool lacked aboard the Cramer was an iron. Historically, irons were just that – bars of iron heated in the coals of a fire or on a stove. I suspect most early sailing ships had one, and my inability to press sewn seams made my Carleton jacket visibly different from the original and other eighteenth-century garments I’ve examined. A talented shipmate was kind enough to make me a wooden seam rubber, a tool that presses linen seams using pressure rather than heat and steam, but it was ineffective in pressing woolen seamst. The most successful effort occurred when the steward, Nina, and I conspired to heat one of her cast-iron pans in our shipboard oven long enough to get it piping hot and use it as a make-do iron.

I had a file of research on the Carleton jacket and brought along all the supplies I would need to recreate it. Other sewing projects on board had less planning behind them. A few hours out of Dominica, we realized that our shipboard stores lacked the flag of that country. Typically, foreign ships visiting a port fly a “courtesy flag” as a gesture of respect to their host. With a small flag identification sheet as our guide, several of us went to work cutting up spare bed sheets and old t-shirts, assembling them into a one-sided rendition of the Dominican flag.

Sailing, I learned, is about teamwork. Moving a ship across an ocean requires you to work with the people who happen to be your shipmates. That was true in 1492, and it’s true today. The Sea Education Association’s motto reminds crewmembers how they should arrange their priorities while on board: “Ship, Shipmate, Self.” You arrive on a ship as strangers, and suddenly you are surrounded by the same small group of people without interruption for weeks at a time. You learn about your shipmates’ idiosyncrasies, and you put up with their flaws in part because you have no other choice. But more importantly, these people, your shipmates, put up with your own failings. You pick up each others’ slack. “Every time you feel like you’re pulling more than your own weight,” our chief mate told us early in the voyage, “That’s good. Because whenever you don’t feel that way, someone else does.”

Teamwork is hard work. Working and living together aboard a ship or otherwise can leave people embittered and unfriendly. But sometimes, the unpredictable chemistry of a crew produces a splendid result. The most valuable thing I learned while sailing aboard the Corwith Cramer had less to do with history, biology, metereology, or navigation. I learned that when you surround yourself with good people, anything seems possible. I did much less sewing on personal projects than I expected. But I’m most proud of a project I hadn’t planned, that Dominica flag. Where else could you find half a dozen people, most of whom had never sewn a stitch in their lives, ready to drop what they were doing, chop up old rags, and assemble a flag at a moment’s notice, all the time smiling? The result, like a good crew, sometimes looks ragged up-close, but when you step back and let the wind do its work, it is something quite beautiful.

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is a Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. In 2014, he sailed aboard the Charles W. Morgan‘s “38th Voyage” and aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer during a transatlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. His research interests include material culture, historical archaeology, and military history. You can read more about his work on his website, here, and his blog, here.

Inside the Decoy Shop: The Period Room at the Upper Bay Museum

Standing inside the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland, in late January, I could not decide where to start our Museum Studies SWAT team Decoy Shop project.

Inside View Decoy Shop

Where should we begin?

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?

Kaey Grier examining duck decoy

University of Delaware Museum Studies Director Kasey Grier examines decoys at the Upper Bay Museum prior to the begin in of the SWAT project

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.

Decoy Shop in gallery area

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, MD

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.

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918  (From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918
(From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000)

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).

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used  between 1850 and 1950

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used between 1850 and 1950

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 Museum of London Jeweler's Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Museum of London Jeweler’s Period, as reported by the Associated Press

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.

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

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.

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

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?

back right corner before

Back right corner BEFORE

Back right corner after

Back right corner AFTER










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).

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson's painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson’s painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

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:

Auto sander


His shaving bench features repurposed moldings:

Shaving bench

Shaving bench

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.

Repurposed containers inside Shop

Repurposed containers inside Shop

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:

Decoy parts

Decoy parts

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.

Semester Roundup

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:

Nicole Belolan

  • “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)

Lisa Minardi

  • “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.

Nalleli Guillen

  • Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern MythologyWinterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.

Tyler Putman

  • “‘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.”

Public History Baths

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

Who is TED? A Crash Course in Articulating “Ideas Worth Spreading”

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.

“TED talk.”

ted talk screen shot

This is a screen shot of the Ted web site. I combed the site for inspiration in preparation for my mini-Ted talk debut.

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.

Presiden Franklin Roosevelt was known for his ability to captivate Americans through his "Fireside Chats." Harris & Ewing,  FDR Fireside Chat, September 6, 1936 (Library of Congress)

Presiden Franklin Roosevelt was known for his ability to captivate and reassure many Americans through his “Fireside Chats” delivered during times of national crisis. Great communicators are both born and made. DelPHI gave us the tools to work on the “making” part of that equation. Harris & Ewing, FDR Fireside Chat, September 6, 1936 (Library of Congress)




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.

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, oil on canvas, 1523-1526 (Muso Nacional de Prado)

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, oil on canvas, 1523-1526 (Muso Nacional de Prado) According to Thomas Campbell’s professor, today, using the word “orgy” to describe this scene helps contemporary minds “mak[e] a lost world relevant.”

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.

Here I am with a nineteenth-century crutch from my personal collection, about to start my mini Ted talk at the Delaware Public Humanities Institute. I even took the time to create my own "TED" sign.

Here I am with a nineteenth-century crutch from my personal collection, about to start my mini Ted talk at the Delaware Public Humanities Institute. I even took the time to create my own “TED” sign.

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.

Thanks, Ted!

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,, and follow her on Twitter @nicolebelolan.

Summer Projects in Material Culture

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 to learn more.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

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!