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.


‘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.

The push towards more dynamic content aids historians in their quest to put individuals into the psyches of people who lived during other time periods. By giving the user agency over how to interact with the content a more personal connection with the material is formed. When individuals connect with the content, they understand the human aspect of history. These individuals are not just text on a screen; they were living and breathing people just like them. They had to make choices and because of those choices, they have been remembered. This connection to other people across time and place gives the content a personal meaning and makes the individuals more likely to remember it.

While many organizations believe that giving visitors agency in accessing their exhibits is a good thing, there is debate over exactly how much agency should be relinquished. Digital exhibits can be wide and far-reaching, but if the navigation through the exhibit is too ‘open,’ users can get lost in extraneous content. Can the user use the exhibit wrong? If the goal is to allow museum-goers to explore content as they wish in a nonlinear fashion, then there is no need to guide them through what they should see.

This struggle over agency and narrative is at the forefront of many discussions over the creation and implementation of dynamic content in museums. If the goal is to create more dynamic content for the users, in the future everyone who goes to the same exhibit (with no narrative to guide them) may have completely different experiences. As the world becomes more digital, this debate about the degree of agency within museums will only grow.


Monadnock Media intern, Gregg Mitchell, debugs the code for the West Point Visitors Center project.


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.


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.


Most intriguing is Vagnone’s current exploration into how we live in our homes. The talk highlighted several projects, including one-minute videos participants made to reveal how they live, and current research suggesting how many distinct activities (brushing teeth, cooking dinner, reading the mail) occur within a period of time in a house. When combined with the size of the space, these numbers yield what Vagnone terms “square feet per activity.” Therefore, Vagnone postulates, to engage visitors in a historic house museum, a tour should also include a distinct activity at specific square foot intervals that reflect our usage of space. In these ways, Vagnone suggests that all of us already possess some connection to historic house museums because we all have the experience of living in a house. The challenge for museums is to translate this literal “lived experience” into their program in dynamic ways to spark visitor engagement and curiosity into how others live and reflect on how they themselves live today.

The panel discussion following the talk had excellent potential, as it brought together leaders of a variety of successful historic house museums to respond to the talk. Panelists included Nina Zannieri, Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, best known for the Paul Revere House in Boston; Jane Weld, Executive Director of the Emily Dickenson Museum; and Anne Lanning, Vice President for Museum Affairs and Barbara Mathews, Public Historian, both of Historic Deerfield. Moderator Tim Rohan, Associate Professor of the History of Architecture, opened the panel by asking panelists about the role of objects in their museums, launching a series of responses about how each institution balances object and narrative and programs aimed at “everyone” vs programing for targeted audiences. While each panelist provided thoughtful comments on these topics, a real weakness was the disinclination of the panelists to respond to each other’s ideas in a substantive way, missing the opportunity to see how each of these very different museums found points of similarity or divergence.

One of the most engaging portions of the discussion came when Nina Zannieri and Frank Vagnone began a spirited debate about the role of programing for specific groups, such as programs targeted to LGBT or black audiences. For Zannieri, regardless of our personal identity, we all connect to big “universal” ideas like death, love, loss, and hope. Therefore, by making good use of universals, all programming will connect well with individuals regardless of their background. Zannieri cited several examples of this within her museum. Vagnone’s response acknowledged the importance of universals, but also offered a more nuanced consideration. Certainly, he argued, universals connect with a wide range of people—but what if you could forge even stronger connections if you were to offer programs about gays or enslaved peoples (to think of but two examples) at your site? Such a suggestion argues that by investing in the specific interests and identities of one visitor group, a museum shows investment in a wider range of its community, which could generate increased support for a museum’s presence and mission.


As the panel concluded, the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution for historic house museums was evident in the examples of successful programs each of these museums presented and in their views for how their institution can continue to be successful. Vagnone called upon attendees, particularly students, to embrace the idea that historic house museums can change, and (noting that the panel consisted of older, white individuals) he observed that today’s students will eventually be the individuals filling those roles—what future for Historic House Museums to we want to see? Rather than ancient dwellings near to their last breath, this symposium left attendees with a strong sense that not only do historic house museums have a future, but that it could be an exciting one.

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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