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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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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.

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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. Read More