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!


Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.

Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.

On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.

My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.

I had stumbled into new territory.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

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Katherine Fecteau, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

To someone laying eyes on Historic Deerfield’s newly acquired table-desk for the first time, this artifact appears nothing special.  It’s just over three feet tall and runs three and a half feet in length. Its boards are plain, though the table apron’s detailed edge suggests that its unknown maker took some care in its construction.  The writing surface is well-worn, bearing the marks of centuries of use.  When placed next to some of Historic Deerfield’s more ornate case pieces, the table-desk is an ugly duckling to say the least.  Despite its ungainly appearance, however, I’ve developed a soft spot for this desk in the time I’ve spent as an intern in Historic Deerfield’s curatorial department.  On my first day, I was entrusted with the task of tracing the table-desk through three centuries, filling the gaps in its history. The table-desk’s first known owner was Puritan Minister Nehemiah Bull (1701-1740) of Westfield, Massachusetts, but its very first owner and subsequent holders after Bull were a mystery.  My search through thousands of probate inventory[1] pages and additional secondary sources has been a saga of patience and stubborn determination, punctuated by the occasional heartbreak and exhilarating moments of success.

Table-Desk. Probably Springfield, Massachusetts ca. 1690, hard maple, white pine, yellow pine, iron Museum Purchase with partial funds given in memory of Lawrence K. Wagenseil. Photograph courtesy of Historic Deerfield.  The upper portion of this piece was made with writing in mind.  By designing the middle drawers to open sideways, the unknown craftsman made sure that anyone writing at the table-desk would not have to move his or her papers in order to access the drawers.  Similarly, the upper drawers are high enough above the writing surface to prevent paper-shuffling.  Additionally, the two long, side drawers span the width of the table-desk, offering ample room for storing books and materials.

Table-Desk. Probably Springfield, Massachusetts ca. 1690, hard maple, white pine, yellow pine, iron. Museum Purchase with partial funds given in memory of Lawrence K. Wagenseil. Photograph courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
The upper portion of this piece was made with writing in mind. By designing the middle drawers to open sideways, the unknown craftsman made sure that anyone writing at the table-desk would not have to move his or her papers in order to access the drawers. Similarly, the upper drawers are high enough above the writing surface to prevent paper-shuffling. Additionally, the two long, side drawers span the width of the table-desk, offering ample room for storing books and materials.

Although I am still searching for definitive information concerning the table-desk’s commission and early years, its construction holds several clues.  The style of its turned legs, for example, is highly suggestive. These ball-and-ring turnings stylistically resemble others from the William and Mary period built between 1680 and 1700, narrowing the initial search window.  Additionally, the upper right drawer bears the handwritten inscription “Nehemiah Bull,” which provides a helpful starting point.  Nehemiah Bull was born in 1701 and graduated from Yale College in 1723.  He was ordained in Westfield in 1726 to assist the then-ailing Reverend Edward Taylor with his ministerial duties.  Taylor died in 1729, and Bull succeeded him as full-time minister.  When Bull subsequently died in 1740, his probate inventory indicates that he owned a “scrutoire,” or writing desk, worth five pounds.

These few facts raise a number of critical questions.  Since Bull was born in 1701 and the table-desk was likely made around the turn of the eighteenth century, it follows that he was not the first owner.  Who, then, commissioned and first owned the table-desk?  Furthermore, who inherited it after Bull’s death? Read More

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

On June 17, 2016, the Smithsonian American Art Museum unveiled its new exhibition dedicated to painter Romaine Brooks, a late 19th century and early 20th century American expatriate who lived in Paris, France, during the belle époque. Among the pantheon of queer women who lived during this period of particularly high artistic and cultural development–Gertrude Stein, Radcliffe Hall, Alice B. Toklas, Colette–Brooks is perhaps less well known and less likely to conjure romantic visions of Sapphic love but whose erotic depictions of nude women and the wealthy Parisian lesbian subculture will leave you rushing to the American Art Museum, or at least their online exhibition, to experience her art.

Figure 1 Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

The Art of Romaine Brooks” features a comprehensive retrospective of the artist, which includes 18 paintings and 32 drawings from the museum’s permanent collection. Brooks primarily painted portraits, a number of which were commissioned and others that include nude women. Brooks’ earlier works, such as Azalées Blanches (White Azaleas) (fig. 1), an oil painting from 1910 of a full-length reclining nude woman next to a vase of white azaleas in a domestic interior, sets the stylistic terms for her later and bolder works. The woman’s body faces towards the viewer in an openly erotic manner, while her face turns away in a three-quarter view that makes it difficult to gauge her emotions but suggests the possibility of a rich interior life. The work features Brooks’ characteristic muted color palette of blacks, greys, and whites. Her extraordinary tonal range is exemplified in the shading of the figure’s body and the brilliance of the white azaleas.

Perhaps what makes Brooks’ paintings so fascinating and daring is her status as a gender non-conforming masculine presenting woman artist. Although I hesitate to impose a modern term on a non-modern woman or time period, Brooks sustained several well documented long term romantic and sexual relationships with woman, making her someone contemporary audiences would recognize as a lesbian or otherwise queer. Brooks’ experiments with variations in gender and sexuality in many of her portraits instill a queer viewer with a deep sense of validation and satisfaction that comes from encountering a work of art that reflects one’s own experiences.

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Sara Patton, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This summer, I am interning with Historic New England, an organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the long and rich history of the region. As the oldest regional preservation organization in the country, their properties also illustrate the history of historic preservation, and, as I quickly learned, preserving something is often much more complicated than you might think. Preservation can be shorthand for many different approaches, including conservation, restoration, reuse, and public programming. My task this summer is to write an interpretive plan that will guide the kinds of events, tours and programs that will take place at the Swett-Ilsley House, located in Newbury, Massachusetts, in the future. At the heart of this task is considering what we should interpret at the site; that is, what are the time periods or big ideas, and who are the historical figures that will feature in programming? What will people learn or experience at the home? As it turns out, a closer study of Swett-Ilsley reveals that it not only has important stories to tell about Newbury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but also about the history of preservation. As I begin to think about how to present this history of preservation, I am struck by how the Swett-Ilsley house offers many windows into different preservation philosophies, and, since, 1911, how the concept of preservation has changed.

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

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Samuel Redman, Assistant Professor, UMass History

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.

Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles.

Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest.

Kennewick Man’s remains had rested in the Columbia River Gorge for millennia.
Bleeding Skies, CC BY

This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections. First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. Read More

Yuri Gama, recently accepted Ph.D. Student, UMass History

Different from the rest of the city, Parramore was always a mixed-use neighborhood. Now, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s like a skeleton. It’s like the community is being squeezed out. —Vencinia Cannady, senior resident at the African-American community of Parramore, Orlando, Florida.

As I browsed through unconnected pieces of files inside libraries and talked with local residents unveiling the story of Parramore, I slowly gathered information about the historical convergence of urban planning, racial segregation and social inequality in Central Florida. Researching African American history for my Master’s thesis in such an understudied place, brought me straight to a public history alley. The more I would find in my research, the more I would feel the need to reveal it publicly. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I intend to delve into Brazil’s modern urban history with the help of my advisor Dr. Joel Wolfe and the digital and public historians at UMass.

During my Masters studies, I studied the process of urban sprawl in the American South and the history of the Jim Crow Era in the United States. My work combined studies of race and public policy to demonstrate how racial oppression and urban transformations pushed an African-American community into an economic, social and cultural decline in Orlando, Florida. During my research, beyond working with libraries, history centers, and museums, I established a connection with the community that I studied by interviewing residents, and publicly presenting my final work there. The several informal conversations with inhabitants of the city helped me grasp the “common sense” narratives running nowadays in order to understand preliminary issues that I could research in the past. Listening and interpreting the interviews and cross-referencing them with historical data allowed me to build a cohesive narrative out of an understudied city such as Orlando. Although oral history appeared just as a short part of my thesis, it was relevant to sew the broad story of Parramore. In this sense, the community indirectly helped me crafting the narrative.

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

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