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.
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.