Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

As representatives of cultural institutions and museums, how can we meet our audiences in an increasingly fast-paced world? This past summer, I confronted this question during an internship at Hyde Hall, an early nineteenth century mansion (built 1817 to 1834) overlooking scenic Otsego Lake at Glimmerglass State Park in Cooperstown, New York. Mainly, my work at Hyde Hall involved the digitization of the papers of the Clarke family, the home’s founding occupants and longtime land barons in Upstate New York. Beyond digital archiving, additional experiences working at the site included disseminating digitized materials via New York Heritage Digital Collections, brainstorming and event planning, leading tours, and expanding Hyde Hall’s online presence and social media. Simultaneously engaging audiences in physical and virtual spaces proved a challenging endeavor. In tackling these challenges, I piloted some of the ideas that Frank Vagnone and Deb Ryan present in their 2016 work Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Through adapting some of these concepts, I shared Hyde Hall’s story with visitors on the ground and audiences online.

The brunt of my digitization work on the George Hyde Clarke Family Papers (available here) required me to structure a sustainable digital archiving process for future interns or site personnel to follow. This process included organizing previously digitized JPEG files into more manageable PDFs, cataloging the files, and creating metadata for and uploading this material online. Through this process, the history of the family’s business and personal networks in America and England, and details of the mansion’s construction and occupation became accessible online. In this virtual space, this material delivers the story of Hyde Hall to not only scholars and genealogists, but also to visitors should they wish to learn more about the site after their visit. Ultimately, these physical remnants provided our audience with an digitally accessible connection to the past through a variety of documents, papers, letters, and business correspondence involving the Clarke family and their home at Hyde Hall.

Through social media, I worked to share our digital collections, build our following, and actively engage with the surrounding community. To share Hyde Hall’s story and collaborate with our neighbors virtually, I connected with businesses, museums, community organizations, and other cultural institutions in and around Cooperstown and Central New York. Echoing Vagnone and Ryan in the Anarchist’s Guide, I not only attempted to get to know and collaborate with our neighbors, but tried to “Get Chatty” with Hyde Hall’s Facebook and Twitter followers. The authors advocate to meet your audiences where they are online and communicate a more informal and collaborative dialog with followers, visitors, and other institutions [1].

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After reaching over one hundred followers in a week, I experimented with Facebook and Twitter to share “behind-the-scenes” views of Hyde Hall, one that few visitors have seen. Fortunately, the mansion was undergoing substantial renovation as New York State Parks workers installed additional electrical components throughout the house. Their work literally upended floors and revealed the anatomy of the house, as well as the secrets buried within its interior. Visitors to the site enjoyed catching a rare glimpse of these spaces and witnessing more than most visitors see in an average trek through the mansion. This exclusive scene gave both new and repeat visitors a different perspective on the historic house museum and historic spaces. As a result of their reaction during tours, I took this same premise online and created several posts sharing the intimate interaction between the State Park workers and the pieces of history they uncovered throughout the mansion. Sharing these rare pieces of Hyde Hall’s history alongside the details of the home’s life as the domestic sphere of the Clarke family allowed me to interact more informally with followers and past, present, and potential visitors online. By sharing a bit of interpretive authority about the Hall’s physical spaces online, people could make their own conclusions about what the work revealed. Users ultimately responded well to the images, videos, and live-streams of what historic house management looks like under the surface (literally).

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Connecting with community partners and visitors both online and off constituted a challenging endeavor. Armed with a smartphone and insatiable curiosity, melding physical and digital spaces proved easy enough through Facebook and Twitter. However, gauging the diverse response from our audiences, providing fresh and engaging material, and further incorporating the visitor experience remained difficult goals to attain for the duration of my internship. I believe implementing Vagnone’s and Ryan’s approach to historic house museums opens the door for exciting collaborative experimentation on the part of site staff and visitors alike. However, sustaining and democratizing this vision presents a challenge to sites big and small, as everyone needs to be on-board, on the same page, and intimately invested in not only preserving and interpreting, but sharing the diverse narratives and stories inherent in the fabric of historic house spaces. Ultimately, I felt that I had more to build at Hyde Hall in these endeavors, but I left a devoted staff that has all the tools to share the depth of the Clarke family’s stories in elegant nineteenth century home.

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Lastly, people really love museum cats…

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[1] Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2016), 71-80.

Maria Bastos-Stanek 
Art History and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Major, UMass Amherst

“Congratulations, Mr. Peter Hujar you have just won one million dollars!” read the first scrap of paper I encountered as I opened my first archival folder at the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections. This semester I had the chance to research the papers of the artist David Wojnarowicz for my art history honors thesis on HIV/AIDS art and activism. Wojnarowicz’s work spans multiple mediums – painting, photography, collage, installation, and performance – not to mention an impressive corpus of writing. His work concerns his involvement in the so-called “downtown scene” of the New York neighborhoods of SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970s and throughout the early 1990s, as well as his political activism during the HIV/AIDS crisis. His work takes on various affective dimensions as well, which is best described through the language of destruction. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Bush Fires in the Social Landscape and Fever are all titles taken from his books and exhibitions.

As an art historian, researching in the archive presents its own set of challenges and possibilities. Unlike historians who construct history through documents, art historians write history through images. We take material objects, whether it is a painting, photograph, collage, installation or decorative object as our primary source material. An image rarely exists in an archive but rather in comparable spaces like museums, galleries, or private collections. Similarly, an image does not spell things out so clearly like a document. Images require careful examination and close inspection. They require looking for long periods, a familiarity with the artist’s hand, and dealing with the affective responses elicited by the images themselves.

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View of my workspace while researching the David Wojnarowicz Papers. Photographed and included with permission from the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

Wojnarowicz’s papers contain these challenges and perhaps even magnify them owing to his rather perilous personal history as a gay man living with AIDS in New York City during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Only by reading through his “dateline,” an autobiographical document written by Wojnarowicz did I begin to understand what is at stake in preserving his papers. Much of his life can be organized through a series of calculated risks. When describing an early period of his life in rural Michigan, for example, Wojnarowicz writes “me and another kid would lie down on the long sloping highway outside our doors to make the enormous trucks that came barreling over the hill hit their brakes. At the last second, we’d jump up and run into the woods.” These lines reveal a queer performance of childhood that in some ways outlines the trajectory of much of his adult life. More importantly, these documents preserve the life of a person who seems never meant to have survived as long as he did, much less thrive.

My goal as an interdisciplinary art historian working with archival materials is to reconstruct what José Esteban Muñoz calls the “structure of feeling,” or the process of relating interconnected social formations and networks embedded into the context and physical qualities of a work of art.[1] Munoz positions this type of ephemera, or “traces of lived experience and performances of lived experience” in opposition to a positivist reliance on empirical evidence. Indeed, it is precisely Wojnarowicz’s resistance to specializing in any one medium or genre, frequently combining multiple mediums through collage, that challenges any positivist attempt to classify his work. Therefore, an ephemeral approach better facilitates what archivist Ben Power Alwin calls the “possibility of discovery” in the archive. [2]

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Contact sheet from the archival binder containing rows of negatives from a roll of film from the David Wojnarowicz Papers Collection. Photographed and included with permission from the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

One of the first archival folders handed to me by the archivist contained a collection of Wojnarowicz’s medical bills. The documents were unexpected but not unwelcome, so I read the stack of notices that ranged from mild to alarming in tone, warning of ominous “actions” that would be taken if Wojnarowicz did not pay his bills. Later the archivist announced that she had accidently handed me the wrong folder. The mix-up proved extremely productive, because it forced me to recognize the utility of alterior documents in art historical study. Wojnarowicz experienced modest commercial success in the 1980s and 1990s, with prices ranging from $4000 and $5500 at the Hal Bromm Gallery in 1984. Yet it seems Wojnarowicz, like so many others, struggled to pay his medical bills under the silent and inactive Reagan administration. I realize now that this was exactly the “process of discovery,” or a queering of conventional archival practices, I had hoped to engage in. Indeed, only through such a mix-up was I able to access those materials. Better yet, only through that process was I able to realize the necessity of such materials in the first place.

While Wojnarowicz’s medical bills provided a rare perspective from which to glimpse the ephemeral traces of his creative life, not all of my discoveries were quite so illuminating. In a folder titled “Bio-Wojnarowicz family,” I had expected to find various biographical documents about the lives of his immediate family, but instead encountered a single piece of junk mail marketing a book with the history of the Wojnarowicz name – for the small price of $19.99.

Tracking down source material from binders full of contact sheets of photographs, lined in several rows along the paper, the size of thumbnails required a practice in close looking. The images, though, did not lend themselves to easy interpretation. The sheets contained several disparate subjects, styles, and genres, making it hard to know what to make of the images as a whole. Some images included fossils from the Museum of Natural History, Wojnarowicz smoking a cigarette next to a field of cows, or graffiti on the Berlin Wall. Others stuck with me, like the discarded pieces from a color contact sheet, which Wojnarowicz used to cut out the silhouette in his “Untitled” image of two men kissing in an embrace from 1988. While it remains to be seen how such an ephemeral object can be understood within my larger project, it sure feels satisfying to trace the mark of the artist’s hand. I have certainly only begun my ascent into archival research, and I’m grateful to report the warm reception felt and productive time spent researching in the Fales Library and Special Collections.

[1] José Esteban Muñoz. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,” Woman & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 8:2 (1996): 10.

[2] K.J. Rawson. “Accessing Transgender // Desiring Queer(er?) Archival Logics,” Archivaria. 68 (2010): 137.

Selena Moon, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

Why does metadata matter?  I learned part of the answer to that question this summer when I interned at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), part of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian was founded with funds from British scientist James Smithson’s (1765-1829) estate to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington. The National Museum of American History, initially named the Museum of History and Technology, opened in January 1964 as the sixth Smithsonian building on the National Mall. In 1980, the Museum’s name changed to the National Museum of American History to encompass its goal to collect objects that reflect the lives of all Americans.  For my internship, I helped produce the Executive Order 9066 exhibit, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

The Order, along with Public Law 503 signed on March 9, led to 120,000 Japanese Americans being uprooted from their homes and placed in temporary camps throughout the west coast before being moved to 10 camps further inland. Most of my work involved cataloguing donated materials and artifacts relating to the Japanese American incareceration that may be used for the exhibit. Some came from individuals or their families, others from organizations; they include everything from military records and memorabilia to family albums and scrapbooks. Collections ranged from fewer than five to the hundreds. It was fascinating— if a little intrusive — to have such intimate contact with personal belongings that chronicled years or sometimes decades of people’s lives. But it is such artifacts that give the Japanese American incarceration a human element.

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A Buddha statue currently on display at the National Museum of American History

Metadata is important because it gives an institution a standardized means of documenting, tracking and managing a collection while giving context to and relating various artifacts in a collection, which is especially helpful for researchers. To catalogue the materials, I entered metadata into the Smithsonian’s database. Some of the metadata to be entered was obvious – e.g., the owner’s name, donor’s name, date and location. But others parts of the description were not things I had thought about. I was surprised at how detailed some of the fields, especially with regard to materials used, could be.

The sections that I enjoyed working on the most were background research on the object and owner, though sometimes the latter was difficult. The amount of information on the owner varied greatly depending on his or her notoriety, from several sentences to pages of information. I tried to be as detailed as possible so that future researchers would have a lot of the background material about the object and owner when searching through the archives. Other ways to facilitate research included relating objects in a series, such as yearbooks, newspaper and magazines, to each other.

With the objects, there was a lot of guesswork, because the exact dates of photographs especially were hard to determine without notations, so dates were cited within a range. There were several ways to narrow the range, such as knowing the family’s history and determining the possible location based on the background. Additionally, knowing the materials was very useful. In researching the object components, especially photographs, I learned that photographs from different eras were made of a variety of materials. For instance, I learned how to recognize 1940’s photographs from the “silvering” or “mirroring” that gives the photographs a blue-ish sheen. However, in most cases, the dates had to be very broad, sometimes spanning decades.

The artifacts I worked with were only a small portion of the stories of Japanese American history and incarceration While the exhibit space is small, many of the artifacts and documents will be available online. The metadata that I entered will help researchers and site visitors access and explore the artifacts relating to Executive Order 9066. I hope to return next February for the opening. The Executive Order 9066 exhibit runs from February to November 2017 at the National Museum of American History.

Shakti Castro, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

Next Wednesday, November 30th, the UMass Oral History Lab will be hosting a workshop at the UMass Center in Springfield, MA. I am so excited to take part in helping to introduce this democratic methodology to community members and professionals in the Springfield area! We hope to expound on the tremendous possibilities of oral history for documenting and sharing often overlooked histories, as well its use in connecting people and communities. This all day event will (attempt to) define what oral history is, teach methods and best practices, and discuss the ethics surrounding the recording of life histories.

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This crash course in Springfield is a wonderful chance for us, faculty and attendees alike, to explore what it means to tell a story about a community, place, or event, and how those stories help to shape historical perspective. It’s also a great opportunity for those interested in using oral history interviews in their research or nonprofit work, or those looking to preserve their own family’s history. When I came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it was with the intention of learning oral history methods and theories to complement my field work, as well as helping to grow the university’s new Oral History Lab. Because of this, I am especially excited to speak about oral history ethics, and ways to approach interviewing within marginalized communities as a collaborator. Michael Frisch, the famous oral historian, coined the now-famous phrase “shared authority” to refer to the power dynamic that should arise, organically, from an interview session. As my oral history work is based primarily in the Puerto Rican community, I am sensitive to sharing the stories of people who’ve been marginalized because of their race, class, and “national” origin as well as language spoken. Frisch’s concept of sharing authority, as well as the best practices established by the Oral History Association, are what guide me as a public historian of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. At the UMass Oral History Lab, we are aiming to be a partner in collaboration with other departments, faculty, students, staff, and the community.

We hope you’ll join us for a day spent on thinking through how we tell and share history and, of course, why we do it! The UMass Oral History Lab’s Oral History Crash Course will take place Wednesday November 30, 2016, 10am-5pm at the UMass Center in Springfield*. It is open to the public. Registration fee is $45, and includes lunch.

This workshop is made possible by the generosity of Dr. Charles K. Hyde, a great supporter of many of UMass Amherst’s Public History events and projects. Faculty leading the workshop include professors and graduate students in the UMass history department working extensively with the UMass Oral History Lab:

You can read more about this exciting workshop here and register here.

Emily Redman is a historian of science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, focusing on the political and social history of 20th century mathematics education reform in the United States. Her in-progress book manuscript, The Math Mafia: How a Persistent Group of Reformers Standardized American Education, utilizes oral histories conducted for the project as well as other oral histories from the archives. Prior to arriving at UMass, Emily worked at the Regional Oral History Office (now Oral History Center) at the University of California—Berkeley, where she conducted oral history interviews with prominent scientists and helped lead the organization’s Oral History Summer Institute.

Sam Redman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the founder of the UMass Oral History Lab. He teaches modern US history, public history, and oral history courses at UMass. Before coming to Massachusetts, he worked at the Oral History Center of the University of California Berkeley where he managed a variety of oral history projects including the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front Oral History Project, Bay Bridge Oral History Project, and Japanese Americans Confinement Sites Oral History Project. He is the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums published by Harvard University Press in 2016.

Shakti Castro is a Master’s candidate in the Public History program at UMass Amherst. Her work examines Puerto Rican family relationships in the neoliberal city, as well as the long-time public history practices of communities of color. She has used oral history as a key part of her research methodology for the last several years, recording over 30 oral history interviews at The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in media studies and English literature from Hunter College.

Jason Higgins studies the American War in Vietnam, as a Ph.D student in American History, and works with the Oral History Lab at UMass Amherst. His research involves veteran experiences during the Vietnam War era, Civil Rights, and Disability Rights, and his dissertation addresses the problems of reintegration after war including trauma, disability, and incarceration. Higgins has been conducting oral history interviews with combat veterans for the past five years. He worked at Oklahoma Oral history Research Program in 2014 and gained formal training in oral history methodology. He earned a master of arts in English from Oklahoma State University and a Bachelor’s in history and English from University of Arkansas at Monticello.

*The UMass Center in Springfield is located at 1500 Main St, Springfield, MA 01103, Springfield, Massachusetts

For more information, please contact Dr. Samuel Redman at sredman@history.umass.edu

Gregg Mitchell, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

What does it mean to do digital history? Since the commercialization of the internet in the 1990s, more and more content has been produced digitally. During this era of technological innovation many museums, historic sites, and other public history institutions began publishing content in cyberspace. As much of the content in the early days of the World Wide Web was written in HTML and CSS, the content matched the limitations of those web programming languages. HTML and CSS are static languages, thus the content produced was also static in nature. As these languages have evolved over time to become more user-friendly and open to new tool-kits, a parallel evolution occurred in the area of content delivery. The largest of these advances was the development of the JavaScript language.

JavaScript facilitates the creation of dynamic content, and allows users to imbed these features within a website. No longer can public history institutions simply write content, upload an image, and post a few hyperlinks. While JavaScript is more difficult than HTML and CSS for the average layperson to pick up, there are institutions that specialize in dynamic content creation for educational institutions.

I had the opportunity to explore this question over the summer, during an internship at Monadnock Media in Hatfield, Massachusetts. During my internship, I learned that many institutions need programming companies that understand the design and implementation of user-friendly interactive web applications. For instance, we created a timeline program focusing on the first days of the Pacific Theater during World War II for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Users can scroll through the first days of the Japanese offensive across the Pacific Ocean, watching as more and more battle points pop up to show where and when conflicts were happening. If users are interested in learning more about one of those events, they can click on the individual battle point to view expanded text and see multimedia content, such as images/videos. I had the opportunity to visit the FDR Presidential Library and Museum as a part of Monadnock’s installation team. Being able to watch individuals interact with the exhibit was quite useful; we could see how they interpreted the navigation and what difficulties they encountered while using the program.

One aspect which stood out was the amount of time individuals spent using the application. Some walked away within ten seconds of touching the screen if the interface seemed too confusing to them or they simply were not interested. If these self-guided tours are to work, they need to draw in the users’ interest right away or all of the work put into them will be for nothing. Another shortcoming was the navigation of the timeline itself. Several users attempted to touch a spot on the timeline to jump to a specific time but the program only allows you to scroll the slider to a new point. This observation about the UI will hopefully be used to improve future projects and allow users to have that additional control over the self-guided tour. If public historians want to relinquish more authority to their museum goers then they will need to design these exhibits to be appealing on their own and be intuitive enough to not cause frustration for the user. Matthew MacArthur addresses these issues in his article, ‘Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age.’ MacArthur describes new technologies as having the capability to “provide a retrieval mechanism that is sophisticated enough to take the data in…and add meaning through automation.” He goes on to explain how allowing “users to frame their own questions and interpret the answers using their own frames of reference are likely to encourage users to stay longer.” By allowing the users to ask their own questions within a digital exhibit they should hopefully spend more time exploring the exhibit in its entirety. One of the biggest challenges when designing any digital medium is trying to get users to want to use the software.

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‘The Japanese Offensive’ Exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. As the user moves the curser along the bottom of the screen, more attacks pop up and the user can select the ones they wish to learn more about.

The push towards more dynamic content aids historians in their quest to put individuals into the psyches of people who lived during other time periods. By giving the user agency over how to interact with the content a more personal connection with the material is formed. When individuals connect with the content, they understand the human aspect of history. These individuals are not just text on a screen; they were living and breathing people just like them. They had to make choices and because of those choices, they have been remembered. This connection to other people across time and place gives the content a personal meaning and makes the individuals more likely to remember it.

While many organizations believe that giving visitors agency in accessing their exhibits is a good thing, there is debate over exactly how much agency should be relinquished. Digital exhibits can be wide and far-reaching, but if the navigation through the exhibit is too ‘open,’ users can get lost in extraneous content. Can the user use the exhibit wrong? If the goal is to allow museum-goers to explore content as they wish in a nonlinear fashion, then there is no need to guide them through what they should see.

This struggle over agency and narrative is at the forefront of many discussions over the creation and implementation of dynamic content in museums. If the goal is to create more dynamic content for the users, in the future everyone who goes to the same exhibit (with no narrative to guide them) may have completely different experiences. As the world becomes more digital, this debate about the degree of agency within museums will only grow.

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Monadnock Media intern, Gregg Mitchell, debugs the code for the West Point Visitors Center project.

 

Sara Patton, MA Candidate, Umass History

Among museum and academic public historians, the idea that historic house museums (HHMs) are a dying breed has become accepted almost without question. Yet, while often describing or delighting in their demise, few public historians have considered what might be the cause of their decline, and how this large group of admittedly small museums might be saved. In this context, Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s work, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums explodes the debate. For the first time, Vagnone and Ryan offer provocative ideas—perhaps even solutions—for small historic house museums experiencing declining visitation. Recently through the combined efforts of the UMass Art History and Public History programs, Frank Vagnone brought his ideas to campus through the Mark Roskill Symposium, including a visit to our foundation seminar Introduction to Public History, a public talk, and panel discussion.

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Vagnone’s talk outlined ways in which HHMs fail, and then provided his views on how they can do better. For Vagnone, HHMs fail to communicate effectively online or in person, are disengaged with their communities, and are just plain “boring.” The presentation presented several successful programs, not necessarily museum based, that showed good communication and community engagement; examples included the “Funeral for a Home,” a year-long celebration and reflection on the life of a house (not a museum) slated for demolition, and the conversion of a HHM’s formal garden to a farm stand that offers teens employment and grants the neighborhood access to fresh produce. Engagement and feedback—both positive and negative—is critical, and part of why Vagnone first created the “Museum Anarchist Tag.” Each tag asks the holder to place the tag when they experienced or saw something they did or did not like, and space to respond to the question, “If I ran this place, I would…” By collecting and mapping where these feedback tags are dropped, Vagnone has created some of the first research into how visitors respond to specific aspects of a museum in the same space those reactions occur, rather than on a detached comment board outside of exhibit space.

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Most intriguing is Vagnone’s current exploration into how we live in our homes. The talk highlighted several projects, including one-minute videos participants made to reveal how they live, and current research suggesting how many distinct activities (brushing teeth, cooking dinner, reading the mail) occur within a period of time in a house. When combined with the size of the space, these numbers yield what Vagnone terms “square feet per activity.” Therefore, Vagnone postulates, to engage visitors in a historic house museum, a tour should also include a distinct activity at specific square foot intervals that reflect our usage of space. In these ways, Vagnone suggests that all of us already possess some connection to historic house museums because we all have the experience of living in a house. The challenge for museums is to translate this literal “lived experience” into their program in dynamic ways to spark visitor engagement and curiosity into how others live and reflect on how they themselves live today.

The panel discussion following the talk had excellent potential, as it brought together leaders of a variety of successful historic house museums to respond to the talk. Panelists included Nina Zannieri, Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, best known for the Paul Revere House in Boston; Jane Weld, Executive Director of the Emily Dickenson Museum; and Anne Lanning, Vice President for Museum Affairs and Barbara Mathews, Public Historian, both of Historic Deerfield. Moderator Tim Rohan, Associate Professor of the History of Architecture, opened the panel by asking panelists about the role of objects in their museums, launching a series of responses about how each institution balances object and narrative and programs aimed at “everyone” vs programing for targeted audiences. While each panelist provided thoughtful comments on these topics, a real weakness was the disinclination of the panelists to respond to each other’s ideas in a substantive way, missing the opportunity to see how each of these very different museums found points of similarity or divergence.

One of the most engaging portions of the discussion came when Nina Zannieri and Frank Vagnone began a spirited debate about the role of programing for specific groups, such as programs targeted to LGBT or black audiences. For Zannieri, regardless of our personal identity, we all connect to big “universal” ideas like death, love, loss, and hope. Therefore, by making good use of universals, all programming will connect well with individuals regardless of their background. Zannieri cited several examples of this within her museum. Vagnone’s response acknowledged the importance of universals, but also offered a more nuanced consideration. Certainly, he argued, universals connect with a wide range of people—but what if you could forge even stronger connections if you were to offer programs about gays or enslaved peoples (to think of but two examples) at your site? Such a suggestion argues that by investing in the specific interests and identities of one visitor group, a museum shows investment in a wider range of its community, which could generate increased support for a museum’s presence and mission.

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As the panel concluded, the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution for historic house museums was evident in the examples of successful programs each of these museums presented and in their views for how their institution can continue to be successful. Vagnone called upon attendees, particularly students, to embrace the idea that historic house museums can change, and (noting that the panel consisted of older, white individuals) he observed that today’s students will eventually be the individuals filling those roles—what future for Historic House Museums to we want to see? Rather than ancient dwellings near to their last breath, this symposium left attendees with a strong sense that not only do historic house museums have a future, but that it could be an exciting one.

Ann E. Robinson, PhD Candidate, UMass History

With classes starting, I feel like I should title this post What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Summer is rarely a vacation for graduate students and this summer was no exception for me. I spent part of my summer working on an exhibit with Martha Baker, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at the UMass College of Natural Sciences (CNS), and Jane Markarian, Special Projects & Outreach Manager at CNS. Both also work with the Women in Science Initiative on campus.

Dean Baker teaches a Commonwealth Honors College seminar on women in science on a semi-regular basis. Last year, she had her students pick a woman scientist, research them, and present their findings to the class. Then the students voted on who was the most important or influential. The students discovered a great variety of women scientists and Dean Baker thought it would be wonderful to make others aware of the many contributions that women have made – and continue to make – to science. The exhibit that was currently on display in the atrium of the Integrated Sciences Building (ISB) was due to come down this summer, so the opportunity presented itself.

The exhibit space in the ISB isn’t very large, so we knew we’d have to be very selective while at the same time trying to be inclusive of as many time periods, disciplines, and ethnicities as possible. It seemed like a daunting task. As the historian, I was charged with coming up with an initial list of 100 women in science. I started with the list compiled by Dean Baker’s students, added the women I was familiar with, and then combed through lists on the Internet. Stopping at 100 was hard – there are a lot of women scientists, once you start looking! I then took the list of 100 and whittled it down to 30. The three of us (very scientifically) voted on each of the 30 and wound up with a list of 12 women in science. Twelve was the magic number that we had decided we could comfortably display in the exhibit cases.

The exhibit cases in many ways shaped what our exhibit would look like. We opted for portraits of our 12 women with accompanying text in the four vertical cases. That would make them rather 2-dimensional, however, so we decided to add what we referred to as stuff on the bottom of each case. Most science departments don’t throw away all of their old equipment – it gathers in storerooms and hallways and faculty offices – and we were fortunate to locate things that related to the work of our women, including old chemistry glassware, a broken bit from a mass spectrometer, and a space shuttle model.

Along with the four vertical cases, there is one horizontal case. This is the case that holds the narrative of the exhibit. In some ways this was the hardest part of creating the exhibit. From the beginning, the one question we kept asking was: what are we trying to say with this exhibit? Is it about the challenges faced by women who work in science? Is it showing how the role of women in science has changed over time? We weren’t sure until the project was well under way. It all started to come together when I was researching the women we had chosen and putting together the text to accompany their images. A narrative developed naturally from there and after some discussion, we had the exhibit theme and title: Women in Science: The Stories Are All Around Us.

And there are a lot of stories. Women have been making significant contributions to science since the beginning of recorded history. Consider Hypatia, the Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who was murdered in 415 CE. Or Wang Zhenyi, the 18th century Chinese astronomer who explained lunar eclipses. Or Ynes Mexia, who began her career in 1925 at the age of 55 and is considered to be the most accomplished plant collector of her time. Or Roger Arliner Young, the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Zoology and the first to publish in the journal Science.

There are many, many, many stories of women in science – you just have to take the time to look for them. We had the space to tell only a handful of them, so we hope this exhibit and the accompanying web site pique your interest and serve as a starting point for finding out more about women’s contributions to science.

As can be said about many things, it takes a village to create and install an exhibit. We benefitted from the assistance and experience of many people: Kate Doyle, the Natural History Collections Manager in the Biology department, gave advice on the best way to use the exhibit space and shared her installation tips; the Chemistry and Astronomy departments loaned stuff for use in the exhibit cases; the Instructional Media Lab assisted with getting the web site up and running; and the amazing poster for the exhibit was created by artist Megan Lee (you can find more of her work at her Etsy shop).

The exhibit is on display in the atrium of the ISB through summer 2017. There will be an official opening on Thursday, September 15 at 4pm in ISB 221. The History department’s own Laura Lovett will be giving a talk on women in science, followed by refreshments. I hope to see you there!

women-in-science-poster