Objects are crucial to understanding the past. They can speak to us and pull at us, unlocking histories eclipsed by written sources, at times with unique depth and resonance. In this series of micro essays, four members of the UMass Amherst history department share sources of significance to their teaching and research.

The Story of Two Shells

From Left to Right: Nautilus cup, c. 1630–1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Nautilus Pompilius Shell from the Wreck of the Dutch East India Ship Witte Leeuw, 1613, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

These two nautilus shells are quite different, but they are part of the same story. They both originated in the Dutch colonies in southeast Asia, now the independent nation of Indonesia. The cup was produced by an anonymous artisan in the Netherlands some time in the middle of the seventeenth century. The gleaming, nacreous shell was mounted in a gilded silver stand featuring mythical sea gods, snails, crabs, dolphins, and other marine motifs. It combined a wonder of nature with a wonder of art. It also reminded its owner of the wealth and power of the Dutch seaborne commercial and colonial empire.

The unadorned shell is another reminder of that empire. It was recovered in 1977 from the wreck of the Witte Leeuw (White Lion), an Indiaman (large cargo ship) that belonged to the Dutch East India Company. En route from what is now Indonesia to the Netherlands, the ship’s convoy was attacked and sunk by Portuguese forces near St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, in 1613. For over three and a half centuries it lay on the ocean floor. Had it completed its voyage, it too would have been transformed into an art object. Instead, it reminds us of the costs of empire to both the colonized people who originally caught it and the common sailors who sank with it to their doom. 

Brian W. Ogilvie, Professor and Chair, UMass Amherst History Department

A Chest to Rest One’s Head

Seventeenth-century pine chest, collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation. Photo taken by author.

The material culture of the past contains countless objects with unintended uses; what an object was explicitly created to be or do is not always what it will be actually used for over the course of its lifetime. A plain six-board pine chest residing in the collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum in Hadley, Massachusetts is one such object. 

As part of a NEH grant this semester, I am working to study and reinterpret collection objects at this museum to center histories of labor, both free and unfree, in future site interpretation. Originally a late seventeenth-century construction, this chest’s eighteenth-century uses shifted from a vessel for household goods like textiles to a vessel for human beings. In 1775, a ten-year-old enslaved girl and resident of the home named Phillis fell ill with tuberculosis. Elizabeth Phelps, the house’s mistress and Phillis’ enslaver, recorded in her diary that after several unproductive consultations with doctors, she placed this chest by the kitchen hearth and made it into a bed for Phillis. Cramped inside the thick wooden walls of the chest, Phillis passed away. The next explicit mention of the chest’s use as a bed was later in 1809 (and for all we know, other times in between, as portable beds were not unusual in early America) when a recent widow named Mary Andries who had been on the Phelps’ property needed nursing. 

The story of the chest’s transition to something akin to an adult cradle is also legible in the material itself; the 5 foot chest originally had an outside lock that was removed and patched, and the interior lidded tills that were used to store more valuables were also likely removed to make room and comfort possible for Phillis and Mary.* 

Archival documentation like Elizabeth Phelps’ diary offers filtered historical information about women like Phillis and Mary Andries—that is, it is documentation created about them rather than by them—but when combined with the surviving chest, their experiences are brought to life for visitors at the museum site. 

– Emily Whitted, PhD Student, UMass Amherst History Department

* Portable beds allowed infirm members of a household to be close at hand–more convenient for caregivers than a bedroom in a remote chamber, and more pleasant for their occupants, who could recline near the warmth of a fire, and near the hustle and bustle of the household. Our understanding of this object is indebted to the scholarship of Nicole Belolan, Public Historian in Residence, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden.

Famine’s Pages

Kaifeng Municipal Science and Technology Committee, ed., Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides, August, 1960.

My current book project is titled “Heritage and Survival: The Power of Agricultural Knowledge in the People’s Republic of China.” One chapter focuses on a campaign launched during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) to produce “native insecticides” (土农药) using traditional medical knowledge about the properties of wild plants—one of many initiatives to overcome scarcity and boost production by mobilizing local resources.

One of the sources I’ve collected for this chapter tugs at me, and I find myself returning to it repeatedly—before the pandemic, I even brought it to class to share with students. In August 1960, in the midst of the worst famine in world history, the Municipal Science and Technology Committee of Kaifeng, Henan published this handbook, Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides. The book was hand-written and mimeographed on low-grade recycled paper that is soft, fibrous, and speckled with darker bits of pulp and the occasional scrap of bark or twig.

The book’s pages—not just the text, but the stuff on which it was inked—speak to resourcefulness and bring home the true significance of the campaign slogan “make do with available materials” (就地取材). And they speak, painfully, to the deprivation that made frugality ever-more necessary. As land that once supplied paper mills was converted to food production, the mills turned to inferior sources for their raw materials. In especially hard-hit places like Henan, rural people resorted to eating bark, twigs, and some of those same wild plants described in the Kaifeng handbook, sometimes poisoning themselves in the process. Touching the pages of this relic from a time of desperation and determination, my students and I feel the history more deeply than words alone could convey.

Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor, UMass Amherst History Department

A Camera and Cloak

Leica Camera, courtesy of the Freedman family.

“When I was a kid, I always wished I had one of those rings or cloaks that made you invisible. Then I realized years later, I am invisible behind a camera. I am a camera.” —Jill Freedman (1939–2019).

Last winter break, I took an exhibit design course with Professors Marla Miller and Traci Parker. My classmates and I explored the personal and digital archives of New York City-based street photographer Jill Freedman, a prolific and hard-scrabble documentarian who sought out the gritty aspects of everyday life. She lived in Resurrection City, a Washington, DC protest encampment by the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in 1968, embedded for a year with firefighters in Harlem, and spent time in a traveling circus to capture the experiences of carnival workers, just to name a few examples of her commitment to her craft.

Our class had the privilege of meeting her family and friends over Zoom, and they generously shared memories, stories, and images from her personal archives, including photos of her cameras, including this Leica camera, dating to the 1970s. Her many cameras were well-worn and heavily used, and their variety proved that she was not married to a particular brand or model. Rather, Freedman’s family said that she always adopted the latest technology, shifting from film to digital to even using an iPhone in her later years. This practical and receptive attitude towards technology reflects the approach she brought to her photography as well—of rolling with the punches and becoming “invisible” behind her camera—but always maintaining a distinct point of view.

Helen Kyriakoudes ‘21MA

After the winter 2021 class ended, one student in the class — W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and Public History student Yelana Sims — assumed the role of lead curator, developing the exhibit over the course of the ensuing year, with support from a Charles K Hyde Internship Fellowship. The resulting exhibit, Theater of the Streets was on display at the UMass Amherst Augusta Savage Gallery through March 11, 2022. It is currently available online. Yelana Sims reflects further on the exhibit in her curatorial note, Theater of Perspectives.

By Emily Whitted

Person in pink shirt sitting at a dining room table covered with photographs and other materials objects.
One narrator’s collection of material culture—photographs, ephemera, and objects—that documents her family’s agricultural history in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

The setting of my first oral history interview this past summer—a large farmhouse kitchen table—was barely visible underneath a mass of family photographs, objects, and other ephemera that documented over seventy-five years of agricultural life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Planting tools, certificates for growing tomatoes, and photographs of farm buildings, equipment, and family members in their daily work all materially illustrated both a way of life and a landscape that had morphed and adapted significantly in the wake of growing development. But what role can these materials play in an oral history interview, recorded over audio and processed as a written transcript?

This summer I interned at the Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, two concrete castles built by millionaire collector and Arts & Crafts tilemaker Henry Chapman Mercer in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that are operated by the Bucks County Historical Society. To support a future exhibit at the Mercer Museum which will focus on the history of agriculture in Bucks County, I conducted eighteen oral history interviews with a wide variety of residents—dairy farmers, grist millers, orchardists, even ice cream makers—as part of the project “Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture.”

Using only audio recording and photography, I had hoped to capture histories of local events, personal experiences and perspectives on agriculture, and change over time, but I did not anticipate the outpouring of material culture that narrators offered alongside their oral histories or its impact on the project as a whole. When considering oral history interviewing as an indispensable curatorial tool, my time at the Mercer Museum revealed how intertwined material and oral evidence can produce richer oral histories for future archives and potentially lead to future museum acquisitions.

“Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture” was intentionally designed to incorporate material culture, in part because of its future intended use in a museum exhibit but also because the agricultural experience is intimately tied to material. The built environment of Bucks County farms has changed significantly over the last 100 years, and complexes of farmhouses, barns, silos, and workspaces have fluctuated alongside shrinking numbers of farmable acreage in the face of rapid housing development. With COVID-19 safety precautions in place, this project was still able to move forward with in-person interviews and document the built environment as part of the pre-interview process for narrators still actively working in the agricultural sector. For many farmers, their primary material interactions were also with the crops they grow or the animals they raise, and that relationship was a key research theme in each oral history’s line of questioning. When farmers are considered as skilled makers rather than unskilled workers, experiences of handwork, technological advances, seed or animal sourcing, and yearly farming schedules are also evidence of the intensive, careful labor behind the food we purchase. 



A person with blue pants, a blue shirt and a legal pad speaks with a person in a red shirt and khaki pants inside a mill-race.
Emily with a narrator standing inside a mill-race during a pre-interview conversation. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

For the interview process itself, I asked every narrator to include material culture they thought would be relevant to their oral history on the table. These objects ranged from photographs and family paintings to scrapbooks and farm tools. Memories shared during the oral history interview were punctuated with visual references and even explanations of how certain objects worked. All visuals were digitized and objects were photographed, then cited in the transcript when they were referenced so that future researchers could view the audio, transcript, and referenced images in tandem. For the exhibition, these visuals and objects may appear on display as valuable aspects of Bucks County farming life in the twentieth century. In some instances, objects and images from this project were also donated to the Bucks County Historical Society collection, and the provenance information for this acquired material culture is greatly enhanced by the oral histories of its living owners, makers, or users.

At the end of my first interview, I was handed three ripe peaches, a generous gift with an extremely limited lifespan in comparison to the gift of their recorded oral history which will stay preserved in the Mercer Museum’s library for future generations to access. I remain conscious that the success of this particular oral history project that involves material beyond what is captured on audio hinges upon local support and trust in partnership with best practices. This project’s methodology was carefully designed in consultation with the Mercer Museum’s curatorial staff, a local advisory committee of Bucks County agricultural community members, and key texts like Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. When conducting interviews in a community that was not my own, clear communication with my narrators was essential, but even then, existing relationships between the Mercer Museum and its local community predated my involvement and made this project possible. Narrators answering my calls, sitting for interviews, or guiding me through haylofts, cornfields and mill races, loaning items for digitalization and even trusting the Mercer Museum with their family’s material history through donation had much more to do with the good faith present in the Mercer Museum’s community interactions and much less to do with my presence this summer. 

But this is where a curator and an oral historian’s responsibilities are most in sync; active collecting and oral history both require right relationships and interfacing with communities. Museums should practice them in tandem more often.

Emily Whitted’s summer internship was supported by a Dr. Judith A. Barter Internship Fellowship from the UMass Amherst Public History Program.

Interview by Asheesh Siddique

Gregg Mitman, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia (The New Press, 2021).

In March of 2021, the award-winning writer, historian and filmmaker Gregg Mitman was the UMass Amherst History Department’s 2021 Writer in Residence. As part of this week-long virtual residency, he delivered a keynote address, “Viral Exchanges: Hotspots, Spillovers, and the Reordering of Life”, co-hosted a writing seminar, held a workshop on nonfiction digital storytelling, met with numerous students and faculty, participated in a screening and panel discussion of his documentary The Land Beneath Our Feet, and more. 

In November of 2021, Mitman, who is Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published his latest book, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia (The New Press), which tells a sweeping story of capitalism, racial exploitation, environmental devastation, and resistance, as Firestone Tire and Rubber Company transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire. UMass historian Asheesh Siddique, who moderated several of Mitman’s events at UMass Amherst, sat down with him to learn more.

Your book, Empire of Rubber, examines the extraordinary story of the Firestone Company’s corporate empire in Liberia and the environmental destruction that it left in its wake. How did you come to this topic?

GM: I came to the topic unexpectedly. I had been asked to serve as a scholar consultant on a film that was to be made on the colonial roots of international conservation. The production company had archival film from three scientific expeditions, one of which was the 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia. I was curious about the purpose and intent of the Harvard expedition to Liberia, which had been led by Richard Pearson Strong, a leading tropical medicine expert in the United States whose career had followed the paths of American empire in the Philippines and Latin America. I then discovered that Strong and his team were guests of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, which, at that time, had recently been granted access to up to one million acres of land in Liberia to grow rubber free from British control. I traveled to Liberia over the course of seven years, retracing parts of the expedition’s route, interviewing elders and retired Firestone workers along the way, and visiting the plantations. Through my travels to Liberia and to archives in the United States and Europe I was able to piece together this story of capitalism, racial exploitation, environmental devastation, and resistance as Firestone transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire.

The theme of this year’s Feinberg Series was ‘Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.’ What lessons do you hope readers of Empire of Rubber will take away from the history of Firestone in Liberia in order to think about the future of the climate crisis?

GM: Perhaps the biggest point I hope readers will come away with from the book in relation to the climate crisis is an understanding of how capitalism, as both an economic and ecological system, is dependent upon inequalities that produce different valuations of life. The racial geography of the Anthropocene—an epoch in which humans have become a geomorphic force in planetary-scale change—is marked by “the uneven and unfair distribution of death,” in the words of geographer Laura Pulido. In the case of Firestone, we see clearly how the different valuation of life, calculated according to enduring racist logics, was built into the industrial ecologies of the rubber plantations, such that people of color were subject to the greatest toxic exposures and environmental burdens. For decades, the threats posed to life on a warming planet have already been felt by many, mostly non-white, people. We cannot address the climate crisis without attending to the ways in which structural racism, inequitable environmental burdens, and inadequate access to medical care produce glaring racial health disparities, both within the United States and across the globe, as we are seeing with the current COVID pandemic.

Due to COVID-19, the Writer-in-Residence events, like so many other meetings, were all conducted remotely via Zoom. This format seems to have both advantages and disadvantages—less opportunity for in person interaction, but benefits for the environment in terms of reducing air / car travel. What are your thoughts on the future of remote meetings as academia grapples with its own impact on the climate crisis?[1] 

GM: I think it is too soon to tell whether the ecological footprint of academia will change in light of the COVID pandemic. I am heartened by the ways in which virtual meetings have enabled people from across the globe, particularly from lower- and middle-income countries, to participate in webinars and events like the Writer-in-Residence Program. I am also seeing colleagues with many frequent flyer miles making conscious decisions not to fly internationally for meetings in response to the climate crisis, decisions made easier by the possibilities for virtual interaction realized during COVID-19. While computer servers certainly generate carbon emissions, a recent study estimated that a one-day virtual conference for 200 people resulted in emissions 66-times less than if the conference took place in person. Nevertheless, we are already seeing professional societies like the American Historical Association, the American Association of Geographers, and the American Society for Environmental History, and others hosting in-person meetings in 2022, indicating a strong inertia for in-person social interaction, although many meetings will include hybrid sessions that will make accessibility easier and reduce carbon footprints.

– Asheesh Siddique

The History Writer In Residence Program is presented annually by the UMass / Five College Graduate Program in History with support from Five Colleges, Inc. The 2021 residency was offered in partnership with the 2020-2021 Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series, Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.

By Allison Smith

Three-story historic brick home in Downtown Boston.
Exterior View, Harrison Gray Otis House, First, Boston, Mass. Historic New England Collections.

During the spring of 2021, I was a women’s history research intern at Historic New England (HNE), an organization committed to sharing New England’s home life and history with national audiences by preserving houses and their landscapes alongside archival items and stories. Working under the direction of Dr. Alissa Butler, manager of the HNE Study Center, I was responsible for two main projects. At Casey Farm, a rural historic site in Saunderstown, RI, I researched women who had lived in the family home. At Otis House, a brick historic house in Boston, MA, I researched the experiences of women in the nineteenth-century Boston medical community.

Due to the remote nature of this internship, I researched Emma Weir Casey using Historic New England’s vast digital collection. Unfortunately, the Casey Family Papers has few of Emma’s first-hand accounts; however, it has dozens of her son’s letters. I read Thomas Lincoln Casey Jr.’s letters from 1877 to 1896 to find information about Emma’s life, hobbies, and personality. By sifting through her son’s perspective, I was able to learn about Emma’s frequent travels to New York, her ability to provide for her sons, her interest in music, and more. I ultimately wrote a subject guide about Emma for Casey Farm staff to incorporate her story in interpretation of the house and farm.

A white two-story historic rural farm site in Rhode Island.
Casey Farm. Image courtesy of Allison Smith. 

For Otis House, I read secondary source literature on the Boston medical community to contextualize Elizabeth Mott, an alternative medicine practitioner who lived in the house in the early to mid-nineteenth century. With little information available on Elizabeth, Otis House staff hoped to learn more about the world she would have been living and working in. I wrote subject guides on numerous topics that docents could use to illuminate Elizabeth’s role in alternative medicine including women and medical education, medical societies, feminism, and more. 

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By Melanie Meadors

Banner image with text "Get Historical With Me! Fashion, Freedom, and Function: Women and Bicycles in the 1890s, Part Two" imposted over an image of women turning a bicycle pedal.

A version of this article was originally published by GeekMom. This is part two of a three-part series.

As years went by, more experimentation in bicycle design took place. Gearing systems and chains were introduced, better braking systems were implemented, and springs were installed to cut down on vibration issues. The wheels of the bicycle, rather than having one huge wheel and one small, became more equal in size. Finally, the tire on the bicycle went from a solid rubber tire to one filled with air, which solved multiple issues, including vibration and traction. The safety bicycle had finally come to be, evolving over the course of about eighteen years (the very late 1870s-the early to mid-1890s) to become the bicycle we are more or less familiar with today.

With the safety bicycle being lower to the ground and much easier to ride, it became accessible to many more people, including women. Advertisers latched on to women as a target audience for the bicycle right away, taking advantage of the stylish aspects of it, the fact that it was popular among the upper classes, and using artwork to suggest not only that the bicycles were aesthetically pleasing, but women who rode on bicycles would be decorous as well. While there were detractors and many people who disapproved of women riding bicycles, once women started to ride, nothing seemed to discourage them.

Painting by Alfred Choubrac [Public Domain]

One source of disapproval of women riding was the medical field. Many doctors claimed women were not physically able to ride a bicycle safely. Much of this stemmed from the fact that women had to straddle the bicycle in order to ride. Doctors claimed it was too stimulating for women, that it would affect her childbearing by disfiguring her reproductive organs, and that any sign of slouching in the seat of the bicycle was a sign that a woman was giving in to her devious sexual nature. This is one reason images of the time depicted women sitting straight and tall on their bicycles while their male counterparts are bent closer to the handlebars for better aerodynamics.

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By Brian Whetstone

The following post was originally published by The Metropole. It won the 2021 Graduate Student Blogging Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “Embrace.” Grad students were invited to submit essays about a moment of togetherness in urban history, when individuals, groups, or cities attempted to unite or to try a new idea—even if they didn’t succeed. Judges Heather Ann Thompson, Richard Harris, and Tom Sugrue praised Whetstone for “opening up a new way of thinking about the preservation movement,” and speaking “to a wider national experience and … the broad issue of neoliberalism.” They expressed appreciation for its complexity, calling the post “original and layered.”

Paula Taylor was fed up with absentee landlords. A resident of Forest Park Heights, a large neighborhood of elegant Victorian homes in Springfield, Massachusetts, and leading member of the neighborhood civic association, Paula worked tirelessly to designate a portion of her neighborhood as a local historic district in 1973. But by 1978, Paula could point to a variety of deteriorating multi-family homes throughout Forest Park Heights as evidence of the abuses perpetuated by absentee landlords—landlords who did not live in or near the property they leased. “It was immoral,” Paula remembered, “allowing people to live in those conditions and collecting these gigantic, subsidized rents. It was a travesty.” To solve this “travesty,” Paula became a landlord in 1978, purchasing a two-family house two doors away from her own home, which she began renting to tenants.[1]

Paula’s solution to the problems she observed with rental housing in her neighborhood reflected a transformative development underway in the 1970s and 1980s as community preservationists embraced new roles as landlords to battle the urban housing crisis—a nationwide shortage of affordable, safe, and sanitary rental housing that peaked in the late 1970s. Scholars, social scientists, and tenant activists of the 1970s broadly understood this “crisis” as the cumulative impact of housing abandonment, arson, a dearth of affordable housing, the political villainization of public housing tenants, and abusive absentee landlords.[2] Community preservationists, who operated at the grassroots and approached preservation as an avocation, found themselves especially vexed by the loss of historic housing stock to the wrecking ball. Preservationists united around a common analysis that positioned individual landlords as both the problem and solution to this crisis: if preservationists simply replaced abusive, absentee landlords and took better care of their properties and their tenants, they could diminish the mounting political and infrastructural costs of the urban housing crisis.

Abandoned brick housing with boarded-up windows in Boston's South End, c. 1973.
Policymakers looked to abandoned housing, like the derelict rowhouses pictured here in Boston’s South End, as highly visible symptoms of the urban housing crisis. “Boarded-Up Brick Building in Boston’s South End” (ca. 1973), Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

In boiling their assessment of the urban housing crisis down to landlords, these preservationists shifted the terms of public debate away from more structural or societal solutions for providing safe, affordable housing, and into the realm of individual behavior. Policymakers looking to absolve the state of responsibility for solving urban problems received these arguments with open arms, rewarding preservation-minded property owners with new development tools like tax incentives that maximized their ability to profit as landlords.

When historians narrate the political shift to conservatism, market-oriented policies, or neoliberalism, in the late twentieth century, rarely do they consider community preservationists as important political actors.[3] But in uniting around their shared interests as landlords, these preservationists were instrumental in this shift in American politics. For community preservationists, embracing roles as landlords was a novel move.[4] It was also incredibly successful. As Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the widely acclaimed Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation, argued: “this is the time for us to tell the government, Spend [sic] your community development dollars not on yourselves but on us; we can get the job done at lower cost and faster.”[5] These arguments convinced policymakers that landlords were better able to take care of urban problems than the state, indicated by the creation of preservation tax incentives in 1976 to subsidize preservationist-landlords in their real estate ventures.

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By Emily Whitted and Marla Miller

Historical engraving of mill workers. Text reads: "Mule spinning."
Mule Spinning | From: ‘History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain’ in 1835 by Edward Baines. (Courtesy of: Wellcome Library, London, no. L0011292).

On November 13–14, 2021, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program will co-host the Industrial Craft Research Network (ICRN)’s inaugural virtual symposium Exhibiting Skill: Understanding, Documenting, and Communicating Skilled Practices of Historical Industrial Environments. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of academics, museum professionals, designers and practitioners from around the globe, the symposium aims to develop conversation and community around the nature of industrial skill, methodologies for accessing and preserving it, and the feasibility of exhibiting it in cultural heritage sites that interpret industrial history.

Over two days, international presenters and attendees will come together to share ideas and build community, tackling a variety of themes ranging from the latest in knowledge capture methodologies, research strategies for accessing industrial skills when no living practitioners survive, the role of living history museums in preserving skill sets, and shared experiences of multiple museums who grapple with exhibiting industrial skill for the general public.

These queries are both timely and urgent. In the wake of deindustrialization for many communities where industrial heritage sites reside, connecting the experiences of industrial workers and their embodied knowledge and skillsets with present-day concerns about capitalism, labor, and vocational training has never been more necessary.

For many specific historic industries, from frame knitting to precision machining, certain skill sets are practiced and preserved by a shrinking number of practitioners, many of whom are also museum professionals. Can we reconstruct embodied knowledge when no skilled practitioners survive using sources in archives, visual and material culture? What combination of methodologies can most accurately document and express skilled practices? Do theories of cognition help us to understand skilled practice? Is it possible to interpret industrial skill in museum settings, where the scale and pace of labor is impossible to replicate? How do we build exhibits that communicate such working knowledges?

Regular readers of Past@Present know that public historians in New England regularly grapple with pressing concerns associated with the industrial history that is ever-present on our landscape. And so we are delighted that several museums and historic sites from Massachusetts will be present in this international conversation, from Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Old Sturbridge Village, and Lowell National Historic Park to our neighbors at the Hatfield Historical Society (the latter thanks to a welcome contribution UMass history alum Robert Forrant, ’94PhD. The rich industrial history present in these sites will gain transatlantic context in conversation with UK-based cultural institutions like the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington, and the National Railway Museum in York. Cathy Stanton’s prize-winning UMass Press title The Lowell Experiment, often required reading for many in this field, is an apt reminder that public historian’s work remains at the heart of post-industrial futures for sites grappling with exhibition of their industrial pasts, and we look forward to their critical voices in the ICRN’s symposium. 

Interested in joining the discussion?  If so, register here.  To sign up for the ICRN’s mailing list, please click here. To follow the conference on Twitter, follow the hashtags #ICRN2021and #ExhibitingSkill.

This free two-day symposium features 24 presenters from a variety of professional backgrounds, academic programs, cultural institutions, and industries from around the world. A schedule of presenters is available below or available for download here with bios and abstracts of presenters. All symposium times listed in US-based EST time.

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By Melanie Meadors

Creative Commons from the collection of Montana State University Library, modified with text by Melanie Meadors.

A version of this article was originally published by GeekMom

In an 1896 interview for the New York Sunday World, the infamous woman reporter Nelly Bly asked famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony what she thought about bicycling, particularly the fact that women were now taking up a hobby once dominated by men. Anthony responded:

“I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world…It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The image of women riding freely on their bicycles, in defiance of social standards that came before, escaping from a life of being stuck at home or under the guard of chaperones does seem refreshing, and indeed, the image is an accurate one. Bicycles did allow women more freedom in the 1890s than they had in the past.

Which women, however, did it free, and were these women oppressed to begin with? If not bicycles, would they have just latched on to something else to “liberate” them? In truth, the bicycle was a symbol of both fashion and freedom that crossed class lines, that went beyond consumerism and frivolity to become an emblem of escape not only from patriarchy, but from the struggles of the lower class as well.

Throughout history, people have desired to propel themselves in ways above and beyond their own two feet. Perhaps the most notable ancient example of this is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, who built wings so they could fly under the power of their own arms. Though the technology of the wheel and wheeled vehicles came about long ago, with some evidence pointing to the use of such things in ancient Mesopotamia in 3500 BCE, it wasn’t until the very late 18th century that even a rudimentary vehicle propelled by a man himself was made viable.

This contraption, called a velocipede or hobby horse, consisted of a board between two wheels with a seat in the middle. The wheels were shod with metal, more like wagon wheels of the time than the rubber tires we’re used to today. A person would push off the ground with his feet, alternating between them, and propel himself forward, almost like running. There were no brakes, and there was no steering mechanism. The driver could only lean side to side to change direction. Many men enjoyed using them in England and France, even using them in races, though their popularity was limited by people hurting themselves trying to lift the heavy machines, even to the point of rupturing their groins. These vehicles were dangerous to ride, as well, and accidents happened regularly.

Historical literature makes little mention of women riding these velocipedes, and the only place a woman can be seen in artwork of the time is riding on the back of a three-wheeled version, where a man is powering the front of the machine and she is sitting in a chair perched over the back two wheels. Various other modifications were made to these vehicles, but none that made them safe, easy, or a pleasure to ride. They fell out of style relatively quickly.

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By Nick DeLuca

Coltsville National Historical Park / image by the author.

A version of this post was originally published by History News Network.

On August 18, President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III to serve as National Park Service Director. The appointment is important for two reasons in particular: first, Sams III could be the first Native American to lead the National Park Service; second, Sams III could be the first person since the Obama administration to hold the position in an official capacity. Both are contingent on the Senate confirmation process, which is a relatively new prerequisite for the top parks job.

On the surface it seems arbitrary that Congress would decide one day in 1996 to throw out the old way of doing things and instead require the president to choose a director with consent of the Senate. Understanding how this came to be is important for understanding the current state of our national parks system and our most treasured landscapes and resources.

US national parks are supremely popular among the American people, and the National Park Service is one of the most favorably viewed of all government agencies. This might lead some to believe that the parks system sits above the political fray. However, America’s parks system has on more than one occasion served as an arena for political posturing and power dynamics, and continues to at present.

Virtually all of the national parks established by Congress prior to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 were headed up by political appointees at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. A notable exception was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, which was overseen for more than two decades by the US Army.

Lamar River weaving through the foggy Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park / Image by the author.

In the case of Yellowstone, park mismanagement and unsatisfactory protection of the environment by its first superintendents in the Department of the Interior convinced Congress in 1883 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to call upon the Secretary of War for assistance if needed. This meant using the strength of the military to preserve the land, conserve wildlife and resources, and exclude, often violently, Native Americans from entering park boundaries. In 1886 the interior department called upon the war department. The Army would occupy and run Yellowstone until 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson enacted the law creating the National Park Service in 1916, granting the interior secretary power to appoint park service directors and assistant directors. Interior secretaries would enjoy this prerogative until the mid-1990s, an 80-year span.

The shape and administration of the park service has evolved since its creation in the early 20th century. It grew in size and scope, added and recategorized sites of national historic significance, and reached into dense urban centers. But the mid-1990s brought on a more divisive brand of politics.

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By Tirzah Frank

Visitors to historic house museums often ask what’s “original,” or “real,” or “authentic.” In the Paul Revere House’s Best Chamber, which acted as both master bedroom and parlor space for the Reveres, the answer varies. To start, 90 percent of the house’s posts, beams, and subflooring are original. And according to family tradition, several pieces of furniture in the room belonged to Paul Revere himself, or to his second wife Rachel. There is a grandfather clock in one corner that did not belong to the Reveres, but is quite similar to a clock Paul Revere owned (that piece is still in the family). After that, things get slightly more speculative. A book placed on a chair—a compilation of Massachusetts Magazine—represents a publication to which Paul Revere subscribed. A Masonic bowl sits on the dresser, reflecting Revere’s identity as a Freemason. The other furniture in the room dates to the period (around the 1790s) and was made in Massachusetts. And finally, reproduction fabrics and wallpaper, each based on a popular print that was sold in Boston at the time, have been placed on the bedding and the walls, respectively.

Tirzah Frank, UMass Amherst History MA and Public History Certificate student in the Best Chamber, Paul Revere House, Boston.
Tirzah preparing to speak to visitors in the Best Chamber.

Layers of authenticity like this are common in historic house museums, which rarely have all of the relevant family’s furniture, much less know where it was placed. While working at the Revere House, I was fascinated by the space between what the Reveres had and what they might have had—and the mix of careful research and creativity it takes to bridge that gap. The wallpaper and the fabric in particular have a huge impact on how the room feels, but we have no idea what they looked like. The wallpaper pattern dates to the correct period and was found in two different houses in the area (one in Salem and one in Cambridge), suggesting that it was made locally. It is, therefore, certainly in line with what the Reveres could have had on their walls. However, there is no surviving evidence of how the Best Chamber’s walls looked when the Reveres were living there.

Still, it would hardly be more authentic to put the Revere pieces alone in a room with no decoration and tell visitors, “These are the only things we can be sure of.” While that might be an interesting exercise, it’s guaranteed to be further from the Reveres’ experience than the current installation. As curator Laura C. Keim has noted, “furnishings have the power to connect us to people and contexts from another time and bring them into our present reality.”[1] The fully furnished Best Chamber allows visitors to imagine the Reveres in context, especially because it is the room where interpreters describe the Revere family. Explaining the origins of the furniture and other objects in the room also provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain on historical methodology for the public—we don’t know what wallpaper the Reveres had (if any), but we can talk about the research and decision-making process that led to the pattern on the walls right now.

The wallpaper in the Best Chamber (left) and reproduction fabric in the Best Chamber.

Navigating around gaps in the archive and using them to enrich visitors’ experiences is equally important in the Hall, the main room on the house’s ground floor. Here, the furnishings date to the late seventeenth century, when the first owner, Robert Howard, lived in the house. None of the furniture in the Hall is original, but it is designed to reflect Howard’s status as a wealthy merchant. Discussing his wealth as evidenced by the furniture is a useful segue to the fact that that Howard engaged in transatlantic trade, which relied heavily on the transport of enslaved Africans. While Howard’s involvement in the Atlantic slave economy is not fully understood, he owned a ship that frequently transited between Boston and the Caribbean, where he traded rum, tobacco, timber and more; he was an investor in 19 additional ships.[2] Howard also enslaved at least one person, a man named Samuel, who likely lived in the house as well.[3] The Revere House does not have any objects associated with the Howards, much less Samuel, but the furnishings in the room can still help guides illustrate facets of the Howards’ lives and provide some context for Samuel’s as well.

The phenomenon of making well-researched guesses to enrich the public’s experience and circumvent archival gaps is not limited to museums. In writing, historians have to mediate between what they can confidently claim and what they can only suggest. Developing this skill is becoming ever more important as scholars use creative methods to tell the stories of people far less famous than Paul Revere, especially BIPOC individuals like Samuel who may have left no written records.

For instance, Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks incorporated elements of historical fiction in her book Our Beloved Kin, noting that these sections are designed “to bring readers into plausible scenarios, to animate the historical landscape through Indigenous frameworks and to give a sense of humanity to historical characters whose stories have been silenced, repressed or misunderstood.”[4] Brooks’ innovative approach is unusual for academic historical writing, but historic house museums have been bringing visitors into plausible scenarios in order to give a sense of humanity to historical characters for a long time. At the Revere House, this ranges from making décor decisions that show how the Reveres might have lived to connecting the expensive furniture on the ground floor to the atrocities behind Robert Howard’s wealth. There is no reason other genres of history cannot do the same thing, especially in situations where stories have been silenced or repressed. Indeed, taking a creative approach (and inviting visitors or readers into that process) can make history more engaging and provide a more authentic narrative, acknowledging that silences in the archive are not voids where nothing occurred.

Tirzah Frank is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.


[1] Laura C. Keim, “Why Do Furnishings Matter? The Power of Furnishings in Historic House Museums,” in Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, ed. Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 207.

[2] Ruaidhrí Crofton, “The Howards of Clark’s Square,” The Revere Express, June 12, 2020, https://www.paulreverehouse.org/the-howards-of-clarks-square/.

[3] Crofton, “Howards.”

[4] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale University Press, 2018), 140.