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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Susan Kaplan, Senior Reporter and Host of All Things Considered, New England Public Radio

“…Out of order we created chaos. Initially that chaos bred an organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in place of Al Qaeda in Iraq we got this new entity called ISIS. I think it is a fair statement that were the US to have not invaded Iraq in 2003 ISIS simply would not exist today.” —Historian, former Army Colonel and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich.[1]

I’m a public radio reporter with a passion for covering veterans and the military. Newly acquired knowledge from graduate work in the UMass Amherst history department has woven into my journalism, for the better.

Interviewing authors goes with my job. Andrew Bacevich’s life trajectory has taken him from West Point to Vietnam, Army Colonel to Boston University professor. This storehouse of experience gives his arguments and analysis on war and the military bricks and mortar credence. Bacevich has walked the walk.

Like many other veterans I’ve interviewed, he seldom speaks and never boasts about his service. We spoke on Wednesday, April 13. I was at New England Public Radio in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bacevich, on a book tour, spoke from a hotel room in Atlanta. In our interview Bacevich said, “The US effort to use military power in an effort to somehow fix the greater Middle East pre dates 9/11 by 20 years.” This point is emphatically illustrated at the start of his newest book, America’s War For the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Andrew J. Bacevich, <i>America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History</i>. New York: Random House, 2016.

Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.

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