In April 2017, a record number of UMass Public History students headed to the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History meeting, held this year in Indianapolis.  Our annual gathering of current students, staff and faculty and program alumni brought more than two dozen people together to reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances.  We thought it would be fun to ask the current students who attended the conference about their experiences. Their responses are below!

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UMass Public History faculty, students, and alumni join together for dinner at NCPH 2017

What brought you to the 2017 NCPH?

Alex Asal: I attended NCPH once as an undergrad and was totally overwhelmed by everything that was going on. I wanted to make sure and visit now that I’m at UMass and a little more confident in the public history arena so I could really take advantage of all the exciting things happening there.

Shakti Castro: My poster, “Carlos Vega Oral History Project: Documenting Puerto Rican and Latino History in Holyoke,” was accepted for the poster session. I also serve as a committee member on the Diversity Task Force Committee, and had a committee meeting as well as a session for the task force.

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

What happens when museum professionals and public historians gather to discuss the future of historic house museums and face the challenge of thinking outside the box? To tackle these hard questions head on, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN), New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA), and “Museum Maverick” and co-author of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016) Franklin Vagnone, hosted a “creativity incubator” workshop for regional organizations at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, New York on April 25, 2017. Nearly 40 museum professionals attended the event to explore fresh interpretive ideas and push the boundaries of programming and operations at historic sites and house museums.

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Our eager group started the day with introductions and an exercise making sense of context, interpretation, and examining biases in presenting museum collections. To illustrate his point, Vagnone poured the contents of a bowl (represented a museum collection) out on the floor and asked the group to make sense of it. Naturally, we organized the material by type. Playing the role of a selective funder, Vagnone kicked everything out of order, asserting that he only wanted materials that were white in color. Several minutes later, our group placed the white bowl at the center of the floor, filled it with toilet paper, surrounded it with face down index cards, and sorted out white tic tacs, smarties, and life savers. After we completed this hands-on exercise, Vagnone explained that museums often treat collections selectively, thereby actively omitting narratives, stories, and broader context(s) that contribute to a more interesting interpretive narrative. In this collaborative exercise, he labeled standard curation pratices and institutional bias as one in the same. He also explained that selective periodization narrows interpretive opportunities and creates a bland narrative that loses the human aspects of a historic house museum’s story.

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What do Public History perspectives have to offer contemporary art museums? What do contemporary art museums have to offer public historians?  Recently, Professor Marla Miller sat down with Kelli Morgan and Kiara Hill, both PhD students in the UMass Amherst W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who are pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Public History while also preparing for careers, to talk about those and other questions.

First — Kelli, you’re back on campus to talk about Kara Walker, as part of the University Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” As the Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, can you share a little bit about you see Walker’s work at the intersection of history and art?

KM: Absolutely, I feel like Walker’s work is a dramatic illustration of that intersection, both materially and thematically. Her use and play with shadow through silhouettes – a historical form of portraiture – puppetry, and sculpture, visualizes the antebellum era in ways that trigger us…that force us to see just how much we carry the history of slavery and all its sordid events around with us in our contemporary moment. 

In your coursework, you contributed to several “field service” projects in partnerships with area museums…how do your experiences with public history practice inform your work now, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts?

KM: Tremendously. I say all the time that one can’t responsibly engage with historical or contemporary African American art without having a sound command of the history of Black people in this country. For instance, while working on the permanent exhibition for the Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA, I learned how to read objects within the contexts from and for which they were made. You can read history books that will inform you of Harrison’s diligence as a chaplain and an abolitionist, but it was his meager shoe workshop that illuminated why he was so dedicated to his community and the greater cause of abolition. He didn’t make enough money to support his family on his activism alone, so both he and his wife had to supplement their income – he as a cobbler and she a seamstress – because even in “liberal” New England, a hotbed of abolition, racism prevented them from receiving equal wages.

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Kelli Morgan from her lecture last February: “The Art of Kara Walker”

Thus, my curatorial philosophy is firmly rooted in history first. My visual analyses typically begin with the object’s broader cultural and sometimes political context, then I move into its aesthetic and formal value. For example, now on view at PAFA is our WWI exhibition, which includes several pro-war posters commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois in efforts to encourage Black men to enlist. I often lead tours that offer visitors a brief but detailed overview of the racial mythologies surrounding the Black male body during the first two decades of the 20th century, and how these mythologies were visually perpetuated through minstrelsy. This way, viewers come to understand that these posters functioned not simply as war propaganda, but as visual evidence of Black middle class families and Black men’s bravery and intelligence, as a means to show white American audiences that Black men and women were everything but stereotypical minstrel caricatures.

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Recently, UMass Amherst Public History Professor Marla Miller interviewed Jessie MacLeod (M.A., 2012),  Assistant Curator, Historic Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, about their new slavery exhibit “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” (October 1, 2016 – September 30, 2018 ) and how her education and training in the UMass Amherst Public History Program prepared her for this challenging project.

MM: Jessie, you’ve served as the lead curator for the exhibition “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Tell us a little bit about the exhibition’s history. When did the staff start planning for this?

JM: Since our museum facility opened in 2006, we have had a series of temporary exhibitions. In 2013, staff voted on what the topic of next show should be, and slavery was the unanimous choice. Slavery wasn’t a new topic—Mount Vernon staff have been doing research on slavery for decades, and it is part of the interpretation in the historic area—but this was the first large-scale exhibition on the subject.

In 2014, about a year into the planning, we decided to expand the exhibit from one 1,100 square foot gallery to the entire museum: seven galleries encompassing almost 5,000 square feet. Expanding the footprint was critical because we had so much information and so many powerful stories to tell.

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MM: Tell us a little bit about the exhibition itself. What were some of the project’s biggest challenges?

JM: The exhibition explores how the lives of George Washington and the men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon were deeply interconnected. We examine the labor, living conditions, and personal lives of enslaved people, as well as Washington’s changing views on slavery. Visitors see original furnishings, artwork, archaeological artifacts, documents, and interactives that help interpret these topics. The show opened on October 1 and will be up through the fall of 2018.

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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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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.

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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.

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