By Marla Miller

Now more than ever public attention is drawn to the ways in which public art creates space to talk about a wide range of subjects, past, present and future. Earlier this year in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts—an industrial village within the larger community of Montague—artist Nina Rossi embraced a fleeting moment in the history of Spinner Park to offer a thoughtful, provocative, and even joyful intervention around a local monument that both celebrates and elides histories of women’s work. Though most recently she has embraced multi-media work with a range of materials, including found objects, Rossi here turns to photography, in artwork that invites us to contemplate both idealized and real images of working women, and presents a rich case study of the possibilities when artists work in public history spaces.

Since the mid 1980s, “The Spinner”—a nineteenth-century classical figure holding a drop spindle—has stood near the corner of Avenue A and 4th Street to celebrate the women who once worked in the nearby Griswold Cotton Mill. The town is working this year to update the park, making it safer, more functional, and ADA-compliant. The 700-pound, cast iron Spinner will remain in the newly refurbished park, but is off its base as it is being restored during the construction. The work left the figure’s pedestal in place, but unoccupied. Rossi—never, in her words a “huge fan of the romantic, sentimental version of a mill worker symbolized by the Greek/Roman spinning goddess”—took advantage of the sculpture’s temporary absence to replace it with a succession of local women. Each mounted the empty pedestal holding tools of her trade today, moments Rossi captured in photographs.[1]

Left: The Spinner and Spinner Park before renovations (photo: waymarking.com, 2016). Right: Weaver Peggy Hart (photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

Rossi’s intervention is an important one. Monuments with female figures are far more often allegorical than representational. One study of some “5,575 outdoor sculpture portraits of historical figures identified by the Smithsonian” found that, after subtracting examples of abstract, allegorical, or anonymous figures, fewer than 200 statues (that is, not even 4%) remain that depict identifiable women. Recent attention to the installation of statues of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park (the first women to join nearly two dozen men), or to the highly anticipated monument to Ida B. Wells, planned for the Chicago neighborhood where she lived and worked, shows the high degree of interest in the ways women’s history is marked on the landscape.

The daughter of UMass sociologists Peter H. and Alice S. Rossi—the latter “a founder of the National Organization of Women and specializing in family, sexuality, gender and feminism”—Rossi believes that her work “has that kind of sociological vision. This is where my perspective comes from.” “The drop spindle daintily held by a draped classical figure,” Rossi observes, seems “very unrealistic for what must have been a dirty and mechanical and noisy job tending thundering looms inside the Griswold mill.” “Other women in town worked in the paper mills, mostly in the rag room, slicing up rags by running them up on fixed knives,” she continues, and “I doubt they looked much like this perky nymph, or would have identified with her. But I have always loved the fact that the park and statue was a homage to female workers. So I thought an updated, modern version using living local models would be fun.” And the timing was perfect: not only was the pedestal vacant—and its surrounding azaleas in full bloom—but in the wake of the lock-down associated with the pandemic, “we were coming out of weeks of huddling at home. The idea of doing a public art project where I could interact, however briefly, with people again was very appealing after weeks of solitude and lack of inspiration.”

Rossi began by inviting women whom she knew personally, but word quickly spread, and by the project’s conclusion some forty women embraced the chance to strike a pedestal pose. Rossi has made her photos available as a series on her website. And so we meet musician and poet Nina Gross, copyeditor and grantwriter Trouble Mandeson, town clerk Deb Bourbeau, and chef Ashley Arthur. Clothing and textile makers are still well represented, by corset-maker Jackie Lucchesi and UMass Amherst public history student, weaver Peggy Hart. Artists and musicians hold brushes and instruments; activist Edite Cunha carries the all-important clipboard. Amy Donovan, who works for the Franklin County Solid Waste District, chose a bucket and shovel.

The Spinner statue, purchased in the 1980s, was cast by Alabama’s Robinson Iron Works (who also contributed the lamp posts lining the street) after a sculpture created by 19th-century French artist Louis-Léon Cugnot (1835-1894).[2] Cugnot was well known for his allegorical figures. According to one source, this form, rendered in the Art Nouveau style, was not intended to depict the work of spinning per se, but rather represented Clotho, the “Greek goddess of destiny,” “measuring the thread of human life.”[3] But the statue gained new meaning when installed in a town built upon the labor of female textile workers.

At the same time that Cugnot’s figure was first cast in France, in 1875, a world away the vision for the Turner’s Falls cotton mill took shape. The Griswold Cotton Mills was founded by Joseph Griswold in the nearby town of Colrain in the 1830s. By 1879, the company had moved to a new, larger factory in Turner’s Falls—a planned industrial community founded only a decade before on the banks of the Connecticut River.[4] The 1880 U.S. census counted just over thirty women and girls employed by the cotton mill, the majority of them either Canadian or born to Canadian parents. Mothers and daughters worked alongside one another, as did sisters—sometimes whole families working together in the cotton mill. The 1884 Sanborn map noted that the “carding & spinning rooms” where most of these employees worked “run night and day.” Weaving took place on the ground floor, with the carding and cloth rooms above; the third floor was devoted to spinning, spooling, and warping, and the 4th allocated for storage. By 1891, some 500 mill hands ran 700 looms and 30,000 spindles, producing light weight fabrics and fancy goods.  A large boarding house and tenements housed workers from the Griswold mills.

The Spinner best represents the real women of the town’s cotton mills in that she is depicted as a young woman: In 1880, the median age of women employed as weavers, spinners, spoolers, and warp tenders and web drawers in the cotton mill was twenty, though several workers were as young as twelve and thirteen, and a handful were in their thirties, or had reached forty.[5] But the dangerous work performed by women in these mills certainly looked very different from the spinner of the sculptor’s mythological imagination. Cleaning and preparing fibers, swapping in fresh bobbins, warping and weaving cloth—in contrast to the quiet, contemplative image of the Spinner, this was all difficult and dangerous work, performed around heavy machinery, in deafening environments. Among other risks, the fiber-laden air made cotton workers vulnerable to a range or respiratory illnesses, while the common practice—before the introduction of self-threading shuttles–of sucking thread to bring it through a shuttle contributed to the spread of tuberculosis.[6]

Women in another western Massachusetts mill. (Photo: “A Chicopee Cotton Mill – spinning room – 3 men, 12 women on the production floor,” Chicopee Archives Online, accessed August 6, 2020, https://www.chicopeepubliclibrary.org/archives/items/show/5380)

As textile companies moved their operations from New England to the southern states, plants like Griswold’s could no longer compete. Between 1922 and 1933, some 93 Massachusetts cotton mills closed, including Griswold’s. Most closed before 1928, throwing 40% of the Commonwealth’s textile employees out of work.[7]  By the time the Griswold property was sold to the Kendall Company in 1932, the firm had switched its focus to manufacturing hospital dressings, medical gauze, and related products,.[8] World War II boosted revenues, but soon competition from southern mills caught up, and the company closed it in 1952, forcing some 135 employees to look elsewhere for work .[9]

The post-war decades were difficult for Turner’s Falls economy, as mills closed one by one and jobs vanished. With the assistance of the Massachusetts state government, in the mid-1980s the town launched a revitalization effort that included plans to create a park on an abandoned lot on the main street. Town leaders decided to celebrate the women who had once worked in its textile industry by installing the Cugnot figure in what became “Spinner Park.” A plaque placed at the figure’s 1985 dedication reads “May the charm, grace and elegance of this statue be a lasting symbol of women at work”—language that may seem incongruous with the actual labor of millwork, but the statue’s installation ceremony also brought, and honored, several women who had worked in the Kendall mill, as well as the Esleek and Strathmore paper mills.[10] In their presence, the abstract, allegorical Clotho took on another valence, as the representative of these real, working women.

Thirty-five years have passed since the Spinner’s installation. Today, as the park undergoes renovation, Suzanne LoManto, executive director of RiverCulture (the town’s cultural programming department), notes that “the intention of the Spinner statue has always been to honor Montague’s industrial past, and especially to acknowledge the women who worked in the mills.” As part of work, local sculptor Jack Nelson will refresh and restore the Spinner before it is reinstalled—creating the opportunity embraced by artist Nina Rossi to recognize, and celebrate, the diverse ways in which women work in the contemporary community.

Nina Rossi’s photographs now appear on the wall enclosing the construction site, allowing visitors to imagine contemporary women atop Clotho’s pedestal. (Photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

In summer 2020, Rossi’s photos became part of the physical presence at the site, printed on weatherproof polymer paper with a landscape fabric backing and mounted on the construction fence, along the Fourth Street side of the site.  While Clotho is absent, these photos remind viewers of the working worlds of women today. Meanwhile, Rossi is continuing to contemplate the additional possibilities offered by the moment, such as installing a time capsule inside the refurbished statue, containing these photos alongside perhaps “some survey or written statements from the people who posed,” or other ways to document women’s working lives in 2020. Whatever comes next, Rossi muses, “40 real women being represented inside a statue that is supposed to stand in for dozens or hundreds of 19th-century women” could be “a cool contrast of technology and vision.” 


[1] All quotations from Nina Rossi are drawn from responses to an email interview, June 26, 2020.

[2] See https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMRW3Z_The_Spinner_Turners_Falls_MA

[3] Alternatively, one auction house claims that “The statue represents a girl from an Italian village on the island of Procida.”

[4] “MHC Reconaissance Survey Town Report: Montague,” (1982), pp. 3, 10. For another story related to larger conversations about local history and memory, see this account of an effort to rename Turner’s Falls, in light of a growing effort to disassociate the community from William Turner’s 1676 attack on a Nipmuc encampment during King Philip’s war: Cori Urban, “Turner’s Falls May Be Renamed Because of Association with Native American massacre,” MassLive July 16, 2020.

[5] Interestingly, the work was not as strictly segregated by gender as we might assume: weavers in the census records are identified both as male and female, and the same is true of spinners (at least per the Federal Census of 1900), who could also be male or female, usually in their early teens

[6] Janet Greenlees, “Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, c.1880s–1940s,” International Review of Social History, Volume 61Issue 3 (December 2016) pp. 459-485;.

[7] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (NY: Penguin, 2015), 394.

[8] https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/3/Kendall-International-Inc.html

[9] North Adams Transcript, 26 February 1952.

[10] Tim Hilchey, “Montague Honors its Working Women,” [Greenfield Recorder], May 13, 1985.


By Helen Kyriakoudes

“At the Smithsonian Institution, a new object is digitized every six seconds.”[1] A handwritten letter from Mary Cassatt, the Gemini VIII spacecraft capsule, and a pair of James Brown’s autographed loafers are just a sampling of the more than 5.5 million objects drawn from the nation’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

This ever-expanding trove of resources can be both exciting and daunting. While it includes paintings and artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution’s twenty-nine museums and associated units, there are also articles, blog posts, video, and audio materials drawn from the various institutions under the Smithsonian umbrella. It raises the question – how can an individual researcher, educator, student, or member of the public harness this wealth of information?

The homepage of the Smithsonian Learning Lab invites users to discover, create, share and learn

The answer is the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Created in 2016, this digital learning hub allows users not only to access the millions of Smithsonian resources floating in the cloud, but to use them to build and share original collections and lesson plans that place the Institution’s objects at their center. A user creates a profile and from there can search across the twenty-nine organizations comprising the Smithsonian Institution, saving objects, sorting them into digital “collections,” uploading original materials, and crafting lesson plans that bring the combined resources of the Smithsonian directly into classrooms or living rooms arounds the world. By eschewing a “top-down” approach to museum education, the Learning Lab provides wide-ranging access as it fulfills its mission “to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge.”[2]

 The development of the Learning Lab grew, in part, out of a desire to better connect educators with the full range of the Smithsonian’s digital resources while also creating educational materials that best suited their needs. The site debuted in 2016 after an extensive period of research and development, including three weeks of in-person teacher workshops during which educators tested out site functions and provided feedback to developers as to what would be most helpful in the classroom. By designing the site around what teachers said they needed, the Learning Lab team created a platform that furthers its ultimate goal of educators becoming “active creators and sharers of digital resources personalized for learning in their own classrooms.”[3]

The Learning Lab now has over 6,000 published collections created by both Smithsonian museum staff and members of the public. Places such as the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the National Museum for African American History and Culture use the Learning Lab as a significant piece of their education programming. Smithsonian professional development programs for educators incorporate the tools of the Lab into workshops and seminars. And as activity increases, the Learning Lab staff now host weekly office hours online to field questions and expand collaboration with those using the site.

This summer, I am working remotely with the Learning Lab as a communications and outreach intern. My work includes creating social media content and researching partnerships to expand the lab’s use in classrooms and at home. As part of my work, I’ve spent hours happily scrolling through the materials created by the museums, educators, and students who use the site. The topics range from science to history to the arts, as varied as the museums that line the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One collection explores power and portraiture through works by American painters Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar. Another introduces objects such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” microphone and a Tellatouch braille typewriter as students follow the development of technology over time and ask, “What makes something innovative?”

The “Power and Portraiture” lesson plan from the National Gallery of Art

While exploring this user-created content in the Learning Lab, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of “shared authority” as put forth by public historian Michael Frisch.[4] An often-discussed phrase in museum and cultural heritage circles, the notion of “shared authority” has transformed in meaning in the years since Frisch first examined it in the early 1990s. Frisch interprets shared authority as a noun, a distinct concept acknowledging the inherent power dynamic that exists between institutions and the communities they work with as they present history to the public. Rather than a one-way, directional transfer of information, he describes shared authority as “a more profound sharing of knowledges, an implicit and sometimes explicit dialogue from very different vantages about the shape, meaning, and implications of history.”[5]

The term has since evolved in the public history field, transforming for many from a noun to a verb. Sharing authority is a process of de-centering museums and institutions as the “sole interpreters” of historical narratives, and those who use this evolved meaning strive to empower those with the deepest experience and knowledge to craft the way their histories are told.[6] While the scope of the Learning Lab expands beyond public history into the arts and sciences, this concept is still highly relevant to its work. I find both the noun and the verb interpretations of shared authority useful in my considerations of public history, and see the latter reflected in the Learning Lab’s approach to sharing information. In thinking about how museums and institutions can best serve their publics, I return to questions of access and community engagement.

I see equitable access to information as a crucial starting point for further sharing this authority and the Learning Lab can be a tool in this endeavor. As the world continues to social distance, many museums have opened their doors to visitors digitally, offering a welcome reprieve for those staying at home. It’s now possible to take a virtual stroll through the galleries of the Musée D’Orsay or the National Museum of Natural History – visits that, for many, would not be possible in person even in so-called “normal” times. Similarly, the Learning Lab expands this access to cultural resources. Although it pre-dates the pandemic by four years, the Lab is filling a niche for educators, parents, and caregivers seeking out resources for students who are learning remotely, as well as a means of visiting these institutions via their collections while remaining safely at home.

There are no easy answers and no clear-cut paths towards perfecting the sharing of authority. It would be inaccurate to say that the Learning Lab completely relinquishes all authority to its users, as it ultimately curates the digital objects made available on the site. However, it also provides a framework on which users can build out their own materials. For instance, tools that allow users to upload their own lesson plans, or copy and modify other published collections, ensure that the “implicit and … explicit dialogue” that Frisch observed continues.

Despite these complexities, I see all attempts at expanding access to museums and cultural institutions as steps in the right direction. For the museums and various departments in the Smithsonian Institution, this means offering the public direct access to digitized materials while allowing users to play with and build off of museum interpretations of those items. For educators, it means being able to use those resources to craft Learning Lab collections that best fit their classroom needs. For general users, it means the ability to explore the Smithsonian from the comfort of their own homes, while also creating their own collections from the items they discover. By eliminating as many barriers of entry as possible – distance, cost, and, in 2020, health risk – the Learning Lab takes a step towards making the institution once known as the “nation’s attic” more accessible for all.

Works Cited

“About the Smithsonian Learning Lab: Smithsonian Learning Lab,” Smithsonian Learning Lab. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://learninglab.si.edu/about.

Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Frisch, Michael “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.

Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 2012.


[1] “About the Smithsonian Learning Lab: Smithsonian Learning Lab,” Smithsonian Institution, accessed July 2, 2020, https://learninglab.si.edu/about.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document, 3.

[4] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).

[5] Ibid., xxii.

[6] Michael Frisch, “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), pp. 12-127.

By Tianna Darling

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing a restoration volunteer at the New England Air Museum in his late eighties who has worked here for fifty years. Beginning in 1970, this volunteer has made an impact on most of the aircraft in our collection; when asked what he has worked on over the years he states, “Almost everything. I’ve been involved in one way or another.” He knows where everything is, down to a specific bolt for a specific airplane part: “I remember stuff that I moved 20 years ago. I know right where to go pick it off the shelf.” I soon find out this is not an exaggeration, as he walks me around the storage building he refers to as his home, pointing out every piece of equipment on the numerous shelves. He remembers going to get certain airplanes, showing up to work after the 1979 tornado, what engine he has moved where, and why it was moved. It is all stored safely in his memory.

Photograph of the New England Air Museum, depicting plane parked outside of the hangar doors.

I am lucky to be able to intern this summer at one of my favorite museums, the New England Air Museum (NEAM), supported by a Charles K. Hyde internship fellowship. I may be slightly biased, as I have worked at NEAM for about a year and a half as part of the public programs team. This summer, I get to wear two hats: one on the museum floor interacting with visitors in my public programs team role, and another behind the scenes in my intern role, researching, writing, and interviewing for my project, “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories.”

This year, the New England Air Museum celebrates its 60th birthday, although not quite in the way it expected to. As with other cultural institutions around the world, NEAM closed its doors to the public this March, reopening the outside exhibit Memorial Day weekend. It was the longest closure the museum had seen in its history. By the end of June, we were able to open our indoors to visitors, and are now operating as an “open air” museum. My project will hopefully bring some celebration, albeit virtual, to the site’s 60th year by highlighting some of the fascinating and important stories that have made NEAM what it is today. Through text, audio, and images, this virtual exhibit will bring attention to stories of aircraft, restoration projects, objects in our collection, institutional history, and the incredible people that make up the New England Air Museum.

I am sure that when, in 1960, the original members of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (NEAM’s parent organization) were celebrating their incorporation as a non-profit institution, they could have never imagined the organization would be celebrating its 60th anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic. However, this is not the first time the museum has survived a severe setback. On October 3, 1979, a tornado ripped across northern Connecticut, wreaking havoc to anything in its path. Unfortunately, this included the Bradley Air Museum (as NEAM was called at the time). The tornado upended, twisted, and tossed around enormous aircraft in the outdoor yard, and tore through the indoor hangar. While many aircraft were able to be restored, numerous planes were lost. This, however, did not stop the museum from charging ahead. Opening to the public shortly after the tornado, the museum then went on to open another hangar in a new location only two years after the devastating damage. The New England Air Museum is a resilient institution: in a mere 60 years not only has it handled the changing cultural and economic landscapes that historic institutions deal with every day, but it has also survived a tornado, and is now confronting a pandemic, while only growing stronger.

As a component of “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories,” I am conducting short oral history interviews with a number of docents, restoration volunteers, board members, and staff at the New England Air Museum, both as part of my research and also to preserve the rich knowledge that each person has about different aspects of this museum. At any given time, NEAM has over 100 volunteers, working as restoration crews, craftsmen, docents, and everything in between.[1] My short interviews will not be encompassing this entire group, but will include approximately twenty interviews with volunteers, board members, and past and present staff, with a focus on those involved with stories chosen to tell for the 60th anniversary. These interviews opened my eyes to the amount of history that people have within their own minds that might never be shared if someone doesn’t ask. Institutional history is important to an organization; knowing where you have been can direct where you will go. My classmates in the UMass Public History program have recently worked on similar projects, such as the development of an excellent oral history handbook for Old Sturbridge Village to capture their stories for their upcoming 75th anniversary.[2] These types of projects undertaken with academic programs or with the help of student interns can help sites immensely, as most museums and historic sites may not have the staffing capabilities to undertake this type of project in addition to their own work.

NEAM has an amazing group of volunteers, each with their own rich background both at the museum and in the world of aviation: some have worked on one-of-a-kind aircraft in the restoration hangar; others celebrated their 100th birthday with NEAM friends just this past year; still others flew for Pan Am, worked on gear for the Apollo missions, and/or worked for the numerous aerospace organizations in the state of Connecticut. There are current and former staff members who remember details big and small about the museum’s history. These are the people who were working the day of the tornado, who helped the museum get back on its feet, who saw NEAM into a new generation. They remember details about restoration projects, such as how wheels were acquired for our one-of-a-kind Burnelli CBY “Loadmaster,” and how carefully the plane had to be weighed so as to not tip it over when the massive engines were installed on the front. They even remember details as small as what poem caused a laugh at a Christmas party. While records can tell you quite a bit about an organization’s past, recording these stories feels important on a different level. They are the personal connections people have to an institution, and show why this place matters to so many. Commemoration of an anniversary is an excellent time to emphasize the work done by staff and volunteers, while also thinking about the years to come.

The story of an organization can be lost if it is not preserved as you go along, and the people are the history. As we live through a global pandemic, my attention is drawn to the fact that this is now a part of NEAM’s institutional history, and now more than ever it is important to preserve the memories of the people that make the air museum what it is, both past and present. The New England Air Museum is an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary airplanes, but in my opinion it is the remarkable volunteers and staff that make this place truly special. I sincerely hope that these simple recordings may help someone down the road, asking themselves: what was it like to show up at work after the tornado? How did NEAM acquire the engines for the blimp car? What did it feel like to be a docent at NEAM in 2020? I feel honored to able to preserve even a fraction of these stories in whatever manner I can, and highlight what an outstanding museum NEAM has been over the last 60 years. One docent I interviewed today said it better than I ever could: “I came in earlier, they just opened the doors, and it’s like the place is coming alive. I see you walking by, you know, and I see a couple more coming through, I see the lights coming on, the displays coming on. It’s like the place is waking up.” The New England Air Museum is alive with the stories it has acquired over the last six decades. The common expression “if these walls could talk” could be used for NEAM, except they can: just ask our team.

Photograph of the interior exhibit space of the New England Air Museum

For more information about the New England Air Museum, visit their website at https://www.neam.org/shell.php?page=about_us_organization

By Danielle Raad

I am looking at Apollo Sauroktonos, the Lizard Slayer. He is naked, nonchalantly resting his left arm on a tree trunk, arching his torso, and putting weight on his right foot. His boyish, idealized face is framed by curls and his gaze rests on a lizard climbing up the tree. More specifically, I am looking at an image in the online collections database of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. The photograph is of a plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos located in the museum in Norwich, Connecticut. It is a cast of a Roman marble sculpture made in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. The sculpture is one of several copies of a Greek bronze statue from the 4th century BC. 

Left: Digital photograph of the plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos in the Slater Memorial Museum. Right: Digital photograph of an albumen silver print (ca. 1870-1890) in the Getty Museum of the marble Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums

This summer, I am working remotely as an Education Intern at the Slater Memorial Museum. I am researching and writing sections of a training manual for museum staff and volunteers all from my home office in Amherst. While writing the section on classical art history, I realized just how far removed I am from what would be considered the original work of art. With Apollo Sauroktonos and several other works, I am working from digital photographs of plaster casts of Roman copies of Greek sculptures. 

In this essay, I complicate the concept and value of the “original” and consider copies and representations as products of their times. My lens is that of a public historian and archaeologist of the contemporary and I see these media transformations and reconstitutions of material culture worthy of critical examination in their own right. I’ll zoom out through three levels of abstraction from the lost Greek bronze to the digital photograph. Interrogating each layer of replication reveals entangled stories of classical art, art historiography, and museum studies. 

First abstraction: Roman copies of Greek sculptures

During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, as Rome expanded its reach across the Mediterranean, works of art from conquered cultures were brought back to the capital. Romans had a particular affinity for classical Greek art from half a millennia earlier, and as a result a neoclassical tradition blossomed in Rome. Artists made copies of Greek sculptures, using molds of originals to replicate them (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2002). Roman sculptures were in turn rediscovered by Italians in the Renaissance and taken to be originals. Only after large-scale excavations in Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries did archaeologists and art historians realize that many Roman sculptures were in fact modeled after Greek art. At this time, art historians and archaeologists shifted to Greek, not Roman, art as the classical ideal. Greek art became lauded and Roman art in turn fell in estimation. As Greek bronze statues were often melted down, much of what we know about Greek sculpture actually comes from these Roman copies. They have been practically ignored by students of Rome and rather studied as Greek art (Gazda, 1995).

But Roman sculptures are Roman, not Greek. In recent decades, two long-standing assumptions about Roman sculpture have been challenged. First, that Greek art is original and Roman art is characterized in contrast by copying, imitation, and deviation. Second, that it is possible to learn about lost Greek art by studying Roman sculptures (Perry, 2010). We cannot assume that Roman copies are faithful replicas; some may be composites or otherwise altered. Decisions like recreating a bronze sculpture in marble or altering the size and orientation of a lizard were made by Roman artists. 

Romans consciously chose to copy Greek sculptures. The labels art historians use to describe artwork carry implications, as “classifying an object as a copy incorporates a fundamental denial of the validity of that object as a unique expression of its own time and culture” (Gazda, 1995, p. 124). These objects are more than surrogates for Greek art, they are the material culture of Rome. Instead of viewing sculptures “merely as informants on what has been lost of Greek culture’s artistic heritage we can appreciate them as selective and informed determinants of the artistic legacy of Greece in Rome” (Gazda, 1995, p. 148). By shifting the focus, we can instead investigate how the copy would have functioned in Roman sociopolitical life. We see how visual communication through the distribution of replicas was part of Roman propagandic and economic agendas. We also see how Roman aesthetics were guided by tradition and classical ideals. Emperor Augustus, who transformed Rome into an imperial capital, promoted the emulation of classical Greek styles and motifs. His intention was for Rome to eventually surpass the lauded achievements of ancient Greece (C. Hemingway, 2007). Thus the copying of Greek art is linked to Roman imperial aspirations.

The original Apollo Sauroktonos is attributed to the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, based on passages written by Pliny the Elder. The Cleveland Museum of Art claims to have procured the original Greek bronze sculpture, thought to be lost to time. There is much debate about the validity of this claim and the attribution of the sculpture to Praxiteles. But does it matter? We do not need to identify a definitive first Apollo Sauroktonos for the Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums, excavated in 1778 on the Palatine Hill in Rome, to have value. Not only can we learn about Roman attitudes and aesthetics, but also about the systematic collecting practices of the Catholic church in the 18th century and papal sponsorship of archaeological excavations.

Second abstraction: Victorian plaster casts of Roman sculptures

The Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888 displaying exclusively plaster casts of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculpture. The selection of art was carefully curated with the aim of educating the public and allowing them to contemplate the intrinsic beauty of classical art (Norwich Free Academy, 1889). Henry Watson Kent, the museum’s first curator, reflected in his memoir that it “was to be entirely a museum of reproductions, but of reproductions treated with the gravity and respect due their great originals” (1949, p. 39). Today the Slater Museum boasts one of the largest plaster cast displays in the country. Still on display, the casts continue to be used as teaching tools, a three-dimensional art history textbook, for both the general public and for students at the Norwich Free Academy. 

The history of plaster casts begins centuries earlier, in Renaissance Europe where the wealthy commissioned casts to decorate their homes and gardens. This trend spread to Colonial America; George Washington had casts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar sent over from London to decorate Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson intended to decorate Monticello with casts of classical sculptures (McNutt, 1990, p. 160). Plaster casts were used to teach the values of Western civilization to artists and to “elevate” public taste.

Many museums, like the Slater and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), were founded with collections of casts. During the Victorian era between 1874 and 1905, European museums made casts of sculptures in their collections and sold them to American museums (Born, 2002). This arrangement worked well for Europeans who did not want to lose objects of their cultural heritage to the United States (Fahlman, 1991). Casting studios capitalized on this market. For example, Caproni and Brothers, founded in 1900, traveled around Europe making over a thousand direct molds which they used to create and sell casts out of their Boston studio. The plaster cast industry resulted in a canonization of classical works of art displayed in American museums. 

These museums eventually began acquiring original art and artifacts, and interest in plaster casts declined. In 1904, Matthew S. Prichard, the Assistant Director of the MFA, was vehemently against displaying casts in the galleries. He asserted that casts are “engines of education and should not be shown near objects of inspiration. They are data mechanically produced; our originals are works of art” (Whitehall, 2013, p. 202). He robs the cast of any artistic merit or ability to evoke inspiration. His perception of casts, shared by many others, also applies a double standard. Why not reject, too, works like the Apollo Sauroktonos at the Vatican Museums? Are the Roman marble copies not analogous to the Victorian plaster casts?

While many museums have relegated cast collections to storage facilities, sold them off, or otherwise let them deteriorate, a few like the Slater Museum still attest to the educational use of the replicas. Over a century after the plaster casts were made, they are historical artifacts which “do not merely replicate and embody famous ‘originals.’ Rather they testify to the reception and heritage of sculpture” (Nichols, 2006, p. 127). Looking at the history of casts, for example, we can learn about 19th century aspirations (Born, 2002). Americans attempted to elevate themselves culturally by appreciating a canonized European artistic heritage. Linked to the circulation of casts, we also see a rise in the reproduction of the classical body as an artistic ideal, which was subsequently dismissed by Modernists (Nichols, 2006).

Slater Museum’s casts are reproductions created from molds of the original sculptures, however they are not without some last minute modifications. Henry Watson Kent recounted events that transpired the day before the Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888:

Somebody, somehow, had at the last moment thrown up horrified hands at the unconcealed naturalism of the Greek sculpture that was going to be displayed on the morrow. Cico, the plasterer, was called to the rescue with a sheaf of proper if hastily made fig leaves, and, after a bit of rushing round, the Museum was ready to be opened with, it was hoped, irreprochable dignity. A month later, some of the New York and Boston newspapers raised a hullaballoo about this desecration of pure art, with appropriate sneers at provincial prudery, but Norwich stood its ground. (1949, p. 42).

Alterations such as the addition of censoring fig leaves present on Apollo Sauroktonos and many other nude male sculptures reveal Victorian attitudes toward propriety. In addition, the cast of Apollo Sauroktonos at the Slater Museum differs in a few small ways from the one in the Vatican, namely the placement of the fingers of the right hand, the number and location of the tree branches, and the size of the lizard’s body. An investigation into these differences would elucidate the technology of plaster cast production as well as choices and perhaps shortcuts taken by the cast makers (artists? crafters?).

Third abstraction: Digital photographs of plaster casts

Interest in plaster casts revived in the 1990s, which corresponded both to a renewed interest in Roman sculpture for its own sake and to museum collections going online. As early as 1935, the philosopher Walter Benjamin considered the democratizing potential of photographs of art. He wrote, “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (Benjamin, 1969). In some ways, an online collection mirrors that of a plaster cast exhibit, making art available to more and more people.

Indiscriminate and widespread digitization resists canonization, allowing members of the public and scholars alike to curate their own set of artifacts and artwork with endless possibilities. New advances in the digital humanities have even opened up big data to art historians, like the creation of a visual search engine that can detect attributes of digital representations of art (Seguin, 2018). 

However, along with the push to digitize came hesitations. Museums feared that if their collections were viewable online visitorship would decline. Actually, scholars of museum informatics have found that an online presence increases physical attendance at museums (Marty, 2010). Museums have also grappled with copyright issues and an unease in making images of their artwork available. Others have completely embraced open access, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has waived their copyright for images of artwork in the public domain, and the Getty, which allows anyone to use their digital images for any purpose with no permission under their Open Content Program

During the COVID-19 pandemic, museums have virtually opened their doors to field trips. Especially now, students like myself are able to conduct productive research from quarantine thanks to online collections and archives. In my internship, I am writing the art historical and ethnographic sections of the Slater Memorial Museum Interpretation Manual which will be a training manual for future staff and volunteers. I am tracing the development of art historical trends exhibited within the museum’s permanent collections, including ancient sculpture from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, art from Africa, East Asia, and the Islamic World, and American fine and decorative arts.

In order to continue to act in their role as institutions to serve and educate the public, museums must have a substantial online presence. The images of and information on the plaster casts on the Slater Museum website provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the founding of the museum, the story of the casts, and the attributes and art historical significance of the works in the museum. Cornell University has a database of their bygone plaster cast collection, attempting to digitally reunite damaged and scattered collections and allow for the study of casts as a historical medium of the 19th and 20th century. 

Artwork of the past lives multiple lives (Bergmann, 1995). Their second and subsequent lives may be lived as replicas and photographs. The transition between lives, the act of reproduction, is a rich area of art historical and archaeological attention. The exact identity of the original ceases to be the object of fixation. Whether it be Roman marble replicas distributed through the empire, plaster casts sent off to American museums, or photographs hosted on a server accessible from any device with an Internet connection, copies have their own value.

Danielle Raad is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate at UMass Amherst.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Zohn (Trans.), Illuminations (p. 26). Schocken Books.

Bergmann, B. (1995). Greek Masterpieces and Roman Recreative Fictions. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 79–120. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/311302

Born, P. (2002). The Canon Is Cast: Plaster Casts in American Museum and University Collections. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 21(2), 8–13. JSTOR.

Fahlman, B. (1991). A Plaster of Paris Antiquity: Nineteenth-Century Cast Collections. Southeastern College Art Conference Review, 12(1), 1–9.

Gazda, E. K. (1995). Roman Sculpture and the Ethos of Emulation: Reconsidering Repetition. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 121–156. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/311303

Kent, H. W. (1949). What I Am Pleased to Call My Education. Grolier Club.

Marty, P. F. (2010). Museum Informatics. In M. J. Bates & M. N. Maack (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS3

McNutt, J. K. (1990). Plaster Casts after Antique Sculpture: Their Role in the Elevation of Public Taste and in American Art Instruction. Studies in Art Education, 31(3), 158–167. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/1320763

Nichols, M. F. (2006). Plaster cast sculpture: A history of touch. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 21(1), 114–130.

Norwich Free Academy. (1889). Catalogue and Brief Description of the Plaster Reproductions of the Greek and Italian Sculpture in the Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Conn. J. Wilson and Son, University Press.

Perry, E. E. (2010). Sculptural Copies and Copying. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1137

Seguin, B. (2018). The Replica Project: Building a visual search engine for art historians. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 24(3), 24–29. https://doi.org/10.1145/3186653

Whitehall, W. M. (2013). The Battle of the Casts. In Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History, Volume I. Harvard University Press. https://hup.degruyter.com/view/title/323589

Interview with Amanda Goodheart Parks

“The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area,” says Amanda Goodheart Parks.

An alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department and the Public History Certificate Program, Parks is Director of Education at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT.  She completed her PhD at UMass Amherst with fields in the history of women and gender, public history, nineteenth century U.S. history, and environmental history. She defended her dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whale fishery, 1840-1870,” with distinction in May 2018. Parks has worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter for more than a decade with experience at Mystic Seaport, Strawbery Banke Museum, Historic Deerfield, and the Springfield Museums.

In an interview with Past@Present, Parks shares the trajectory of her research and career as a public historian and museum educator.

You are an alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department (’18PhD, ‘10MA) and the Public History Program (‘10PhCertificate). Your PhD dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whalefishery, 1840-1870,” studied whaling captains’ wives who defied social and industrial norms by going to sea together with their husbands aboard whaleships in the mid-nineteenth century. Why did you choose this topic for your PhD dissertation?

 I first discovered this topic during an internship at Mystic Seaport Museum. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and while I knew I wanted to write my senior honors thesis on women’s history, I had yet to find a topic I was passionate about. That all changed when I began researching the history of women in the whaling industry as part of my internship. When I learned that a small group of American women went to sea with their husbands aboard whaleships during the mid-nineteenth century, I was fascinated. Who were these women? Why did they go to sea? What were their experiences like? How did their decisions impact their husbands, families, and communities? The more I read, the more questions I had, and by the end of the summer, I had spent hours in the Mystic Seaport archives pouring over the letters and journals these women left behind. That research became the basis of my senior honors thesis, which in turn became the writing sample that got me into the UMass Public History M.A. Program.

This topic also played an important role in my decision to pursue my Ph.D. When I first came to UMass in the fall of 2008, my plan was to earn my M.A., build up my network of professional contacts, and begin my career in the museum field. However, after turning my research into a graduate level article (which later won the department’s Caldwell Prize), I realized I was not done studying these remarkable women. Fortunately, I did not have to choose between my professional career and my academic interests. Thanks to the support of my wonderful advisors Joyce Berkman, Marla Miller, Manisha Sinha, and Barry Levy, I was able to continue my research as a Ph.D. student while working full-time in the museum field.  So in a way, could say my background as a public historian led me to my dissertation topic, and my Ph.D. is a result of my personal connections to that topic.

You’ve worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter. What skills did you build while pursuing your graduate studies to prepare for public history jobs? And how did your experience as a public historian inform your graduate work?

 One of the reasons I chose the UMass Amherst Public History program for my graduate training was its reputation of blending academic theory with hands-on practice in the field. The program did not disappoint me in this regard, as some of my most valuable experiences as a graduate student stemmed from the program’s focus on practice. My field service projects, internships, and part-time work at local museums gave me the practical skills I needed to prepare for a career in this field. Meanwhile, my work as a public historian shaped my academic research in significant ways. I wrote my dissertation with public audiences in mind, and I used material culture as well as print sources in my research. As such, my dissertation reads more like a popular history than a traditional academic work, and includes references to everything from journals and letters to clothing and gravestones.

How can students learn about different career options in the public history job market? In what ways do you think public history programs and history departments can best prepare students for careers outside academia?

 The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area. In addition to internships, volunteering, and part-time or contractual work, I recommend reaching out to local public history practitioners to request informational interviews. I subscribe to the “pay it forward” belief, meaning that because I was so graciously helped by people in the field when I was a student, as an established professional, I now have an obligation to give back. I also really enjoy mentoring students – it’s the educator in me! – and I think many people in our field feel the same, so don’t be shy!

As for graduate programs, I think they need to help students develop the skills non-academic employers want to see in potential job applicants. Things like budgeting, grant writing, and supervisory experience will go a long way in landing a job upon graduation. I also think graduate programs should encourage students to start working in the field as soon as possible, even while pursuing their degree. The job market is very competitive, and the best way to stand out among a sea of newly minted graduates is to have experience on your resume and a network of references who will champion you within their professional networks. Finally, I think graduate programs need to help students master the art of networking. Crafting an elevator speech, developing a professional brand, and knowing how to work a room are all vital to not only getting a job, but growing your network within this field.

Your dissertation explored New Englanders at sea, and today you interpret New Englanders in the air; can you tell us a little about the New England Air Museum?  What are some of your favorite aspects of your work today? 

The New England Air Museum is the largest aerospace museum in our region, home to over one hundred historic aircraft ranging from century old biplanes to modern military aircraft. Founded in 1960, our mission is to preserve and interpret New England’s aerospace history while inspiring the next generation of aerospace innovators. In my role as Director of Education, I create opportunities for visitors to engage with the past, present, and future of aerospace in fun and meaningful ways. Whether it’s field trips for local students or special events like Women Take Flight or scout overnights – yes, I sleep at my museum several times a year! – my department helps the museum fulfill its educational mission. Because we are a relatively small museum, I am involved in all facets of our programming, so while I am a senior staff member, I am not stuck behind a desk everyday. I can see the impact our work has on visitors first hand, which as a public historian and museum educator, is very fulfilling. I also work with a wonderful team of staff and volunteers, many of whom have decades of experience in the aerospace industry, so I am always learning new things about our collection. It’s a fantastic museum, so I encourage you to come see our work for yourself!

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

“I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life,” says Roger Atwood, an independent writer and journalist, who graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History from UMass Amherst in 1984. “I started working in journalism in Argentina about a year after I graduated, liked it, and made a career out of it,” he tells Past@Present.

Atwood’s articles have appeared in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals, including The Guardian, National Geographic, The Washington Post, ARTnews, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and Archaeology, where Atwood is a contributing editor. He is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade, published by St Martin’s Press in 2004. He also co-edited an anthology of non-fiction writing about growing up in the American working class, Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2019.

After you graduated in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you worked as a journalist and correspondent in the U.S. and Latin America, where you reported from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. What made you interested in journalism, especially reporting on Latin American countries?

My original plan when I graduated was to go into an academic career. But I had done an internship at a newspaper in Mexico and written a lot for The Collegian, so when I went to Argentina a few months after graduation, I was drawn to journalism as a way to make a living, and somehow it became a career. I was influenced also by reporters who showed me how journalism could be a way to find an immediate, very fleeting kind of truth about what was happening in politics and society. I saw journalism as a way to grasp and write about what was happening around me, which, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, was the return to democracy and a gradual liberalization of society.  

I worked at a radio station in Buenos Aires, then an English-language newspaper, then found a job as a reporter at the news agency Reuters in 1986, in Buenos Aires. I stayed with Reuters until 2002, but I worked at so many different offices of Reuters that it never felt routine or stale. I was a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and New York, and then bureau chief in Santiago, Chile. Finally I was a senior editor at Reuters in Washington, where I was working on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Much as I loved it, I left Reuters in 2002 because I wanted to grow as a writer, and, after 16 years, it was time for a change. Since then, I’ve written a book called Stealing History, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade; co-edited an anthology of memoirs which was published in 2019 by the University of Georgia Press; and written hundreds of articles in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals. My main job these days is at Archaeology magazine, for which I write about archaeological digs around the world. For an independent writer, it’s a nice gig. I like to work hard, and I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life. So I keep writing. 

You did your undergraduate degree in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. How did your history degree influence your journalism work?

For me, and I’m sure for others, history was a superb preparation for journalism. You learn the historical background of the places or issues you’re reporting on, but even more importantly you learn how to take huge amounts of information and distill it down to a coherent argument or narrative. Historical scholarship teaches you to grapple with information from many different kinds of sources – archives, interviews, published texts – and write about them with accuracy, originality, empathy, and flair, all qualities that go into good journalism. Writing history teaches you to follow the facts where they lead you, to question your own assumptions, and to keep an open mind – again, all qualities that journalists should aspire to. 

Everything I do, every article or book I write, is informed in some way by my UMass education, which taught me the value of scholarly inquiry while exposing me to people and ideas from outside the insular, American middle-class world in which I had been raised. I loved the diversity and progressive spirit of UMass, and in the years since I’ve come to realize what a big impact UMass had on my outlook on the world, how it opened my perspectives and gave me an education in the fullest sense. I had fantastic professors who transmitted their enthusiasm for Latin America to me and many other students, in History and other departments in the humanities and social sciences. My chief mentor was Robert Potash, who taught me to research and write to high standards and helped me win a summer scholarship in Argentina in 1983 that proved really pivotal for me.

How can journalists benefit from history, especially when it comes to analyzing the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in Latin America?

A historical perspective helps to understand the U.S. role in Latin America and how Latin Americans feel about people from the United States. It is a rather complicated relationship, with some inherited resentment at our role in supporting dictatorships during the Cold War and imperial adventures before that. This is more important in some countries than in others. When I was a student at UMass, U.S. policy in Latin America was dominated by the Reagan Administration’s misguided efforts to maintain the traditional, conservative order in Central America and prevent the left from coming to power. UMass was a place of intense activism against U.S. policy and in favor of human rights and a more progressive future for Central America. I have nice memories of traveling with other students to Washington, DC, in 1982 or 1983 to protest against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Although feelings about U.S. influence ran pretty strong, Professor Potash and others at UMass – Jane Rausch in History, Harvey Kline in Political Science, Lawrence Pinkham in Journalism, among others – encouraged us through their example to think about Latin America as not just a place where U.S. influences played out, but rather on its own terms, as a place with cultures and histories of its own. That was an incredibly important perspective. It helped me grasp the complexity and beauty and texture of Latin America in a way that perhaps not many other journalists did.

You frequently speak on radio and television and write for various print media. One of your recent articles was published in The Guardian. It is impressive how you can communicate about your research with various audiences in and outside the United States. What can historians learn from journalists about getting their research findings out to a wider audience?

That article in The Guardian was about organic farming in Cuba, and how Cuba had moved from a cash-crop, sugar monoculture to a food-based model in an attempt to gain some independence over its food supply. I must have interviewed 30 academics in the United States and Cuba for that story, and it was sometimes a challenge to put their very technical language into words that the general public could relate to. For anybody writing for the general public, as opposed to an academic audience, it’s important to use vivid language – active verbs, a sense of the visual, no clichés. There needs to be a compelling point, an argument, if you will. You can assume that readers have more knowledge than maybe we give them credit for, but the narrative has to move quickly and it needs to be focused on people, because that’s what journalists write about, people. It needs good description. Sometimes you have to stop to think: what does this look like? What does it feel like to be here? How would I describe this event or place or person? Put that in your story. Don’t go overboard.

This past October you spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia on your book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Your book sheds light on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites in countries like Iraq, Peru, and Hong Kong, to show how the worldwide antiquities trade is destroying what’s left of the ancient sites before archaeologists can reach them. After your talk at Ursinus College, you wrote on your website that you were struck by how the book’s basic message still resonates: “that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity.” Do you think that your work and reports about the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects has changed the approach of governments and collecting museums to acquiring antiquities?

Museums used to buy antiquities that had been looted from archaeological sites quite brazenly – this is why so many museums found themselves in legal trouble – but I sense they’ve become more circumspect about it. Some of them are still acquiring legally dodgy pieces but are more discreet about it; others, I think, really have tightened up their policies out of an awareness that their acquisition polices in the past were encouraging looting and destruction of archaeological sites by commercial grave-robbers. Did my own reporting contribute to that change? Well, I’d like to think so, but there were many journalists doing excellent reporting that demonstrated the complicity of big art museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Lawsuits brought in U.S. court against museums by countries demanding restitution of looted goods also had a big effect; museums saw themselves as custodians of the treasures of the past, and they did not like getting sued. And pressure from those governments – particularly Italy, as well as Peru and a few others – on the U.S. government to do something about the problem had a decisive effect. All this has changed the climate in which unprovenanced antiquities are bought and sold in the United States. But has it led to a reduction in looting? I think that’s harder to say. In some areas, yes. On the northern coast of Peru, where I reported most of Stealing History, certainly.  

Since its creation, the ISIS has been profiteering from plundering and selling antiquities in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, UNESCO warned that the looting in Iraq and Syria was taking place on an “industrial” scale. According to various reports, the U.S. and western European countries are the main destination for looted goods and the sales of these goods are said to be funding ISIS activities. What is your take on the role of major U.S. and European museums in enabling the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive? What should museums do to address the illicit antiquities trade which you criticize in your book?

With regard to antiquities pillaged at sites in Syria and Iraq, I think the demand at the moment is more from private collectors than from the big museums. Yet some of those private collectors may later try to sell or donate looted antiquities to museums; this is what happened to the Bible Museum here in Washington, which acquired unprovenanced cuneiform tablets from Iraq and was forced to return them and pay a settlement. Some collectors of Near Eastern antiquities have a great appetite for looted antiquities. They like the feeling of owning things taken freshly from the ground. Maybe they find the legal perils exciting. But the demand for those objects is what fuels the destruction of ancient sites, and, when you buy looted goods, you’re also at risk of buying worthless fakes. My position is that no one should buy antiquities, period. No matter what the dealer says about how the piece has spent decades in someone’s collection, or derived from legitimate sources, the risk that you’re buying a plundered work of art is just too great. If you’re buying an antiquity, most likely it’s looted or fake.   

What dynamics within museums are behind their drive to acquire antiquities from illegal sellers?

Acquiring is in the nature of great museums. That’s what they do, and to ask museums to get out of a whole area of collecting – unprovenanced antiquities – is a pretty big ask. But they have been forced to do so and to revise their whole acquisitions philosophies, because they faced legally enforceable demands from source countries for the return of looted antiquities. For the great collecting museums – the Met, the Getty, the Boston MFA – it has been a sea change. They have learned some hard lessons.

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is the first installment of a new series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.

Ross Caputi, a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the co-author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (UMass Press 2019) and the director of the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive. His research on U.S. military operations in Iraq originates from his military experience in Iraq: Caputi is a veteran of the Marine Corps. “Regrettably, I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November, 2004 as a U.S. Marine,” says Caputi in an interview with Past@Present. “I didn’t understand that we were hurting innocent people at the time. But ever since I did come to understand that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against what we did there and to pay reparations, in whatever limited capacity I’m capable of, to the people of Fallujah. That sense of responsibility has only deepened the more I’ve come to understand the historical significance of the sieges of Fallujah. The attacks came at a pivotal moment in the occupation, and I think the sieges of Fallujah occupy an important place in our collective memory of the occupation. So, rather than opposing the war in a more general way, I’ve decided to focus on Fallujah.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, Caputi became active in the antiwar movement and formed a group called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which hosted public speaking events to raise awareness about the human costs of the operations in Fallujah, among other important initiatives. Later he joined a nonprofit organization called the Islah Reparations Project and organized a series of grassroots reparations projects with the Fallujah General Hospital.

Portrait of Ross, taken in Fitchburg, MA in 2018

Caputi is now pursuing a PhD in History, and a Graduate Certificate in Public History at UMass Amherst, concentrating on oral and digital history. He hopes that by using different media, he can bring historical perspective to new audiences. Besides coauthoring a book on Fallujah, he has written op-eds and made a documentary film, Fear Not the Path of Truth. He is currently working on a digital archive project, the “People’s History of Fallujah.” Caputi hopes that the digital archive can become a source for educators to teach students about the U.S. wars. “Through all of this work, my greatest frustration has been trying to reach new audiences,” says Caputi. “It’s been easy enough to speak with people who are predisposed to my antiwar message, but, of course, people who already agree with me are not my target audience. And it’s been a struggle to find ways to speak with people who are either supportive of or ambivalent towards the Global War on Terror.”

You’ve conducted interviews with Iraqis for your book and the digital archive project. They include five oral history interviews with refugees from Fallujah. Why did you decide to interview people from Fallujah for your project about the siege of this Iraqi city?

One thing that became clear to me the more I researched the sieges of Fallujah was that U.S. information operations were an integral part of the violence. U.S. forces went to great lengths to control the production of information about their operations in Fallujah, particularly during the second siege. This made it very challenging to write a history of these operations, because the vast majority of primary source materials were produced by this propaganda apparatus. And Iraqi voices were intentionally omitted. So, as a methodological choice, we thought that writing a people’s history and trying to recover as many Iraqi voices as possible was the most ethical way to go about telling this story.

My coauthors and I did a number of journalistic interviews with Fallujans while we were working on the book. It didn’t occur to me to try to do a more systematic oral history project until after we had already submitted our manuscript to UMass Press. And then the opportunity presented itself to begin working on this project in the winter of 2018, when the war against the Islamic State was pushing a new wave of Iraqi refugees into Europe. I met up with five men from Fallujah, who were gracious enough to tell me their stories, while they were living in Helsinki. 

How did you address the emotional challenges of interviewing individuals who experienced traumatic war events and witnessed extreme violence during the siege? What were the challenges of conducting these interviews in Arabic?

I didn’t think there was a lot I could do as an interviewer to make the sharing of traumas easier for my narrators. I expected all along that doing so would be uncomfortable for them, and sharing their stories with the public would make them vulnerable. So for me the question wasn’t “How can I make this easier for them?,” but why should they want to do this in the first place?. In other words, what stake do my narrators have in my project? And this question was led to a number of other considerations about how to relate storytelling to reparations.

Telling war stories in an ethical way is very difficult. I’m very aware that Americans are very interested in war stories and will readily consume the most sensational of war stories, if they are made available to them. In my own experience, I find that many people are more interested in hearing about my own personal experience with violence and reintegration into society than they are in hearing about my research, and I can only speculate as to why that is. At the same time, I think there is something exploitive in the way many journalists collect war stories and sell them to their publishers; and the same thing could be said about many scholars who earn their paychecks by gathering other people’s stories and recounting them. So, I began this project trying to be mindful of this double-edged sword: the fact that the stories I collect will be funneled into news feeds that invite passive consumption, and that in this transaction of stories, I’m just a middle-man. I wanted to collect stories from Fallujans, who were often being spoken for by commentators and self-proclaimed Middle East experts in the American news media. But I didn’t want to put their traumas on display, to be mindlessly consumed on social media and yield nothing more than a few likes while I earn a paycheck.

Ross in Fallujah, 2004

I have to thank Kali Rubaii, who cofounded the Islah Reparations Project with me, for helping me think through the ethics of telling war stories in this way. Kali not only came up with our model of grassroots reparations, but she applied that model to her ethnographic work as an anthropologist, calling it “reparative ethnography.” I tried to conceive of my oral history project in a similar fashion, making storytelling a means to an end (reparations), rather than having storytelling be an end in itself.

At the time, I thought that it was necessary to acknowledge that my society was still responsible for the ongoing violence in Iraq, and my primary responsibility to those men was to try to end that violence. Many of my narrators had bad experiences with journalists in the past, who took their stories to make a profit, never to be heard from again. So I began the pre-interview process by acknowledging this and explaining that I intended for these interviews to be part of a broader reparations project. Then we had a conversation about the potential risks of sharing their stories, and many of the men faced serious risks, for their families and for themselves, if they were ever forced to go back to Iraq.

Through these conversations, it never occurred to any of us that something could be done make the exchange of these stories easier, emotionally. The question on my mind was how to make it worth it to them, and the question on their mind was whether or not they could trust me. One man wanted legal assistance with his status as an asylum seeker. Another wanted help finding lost relatives in Iraq. The others just appreciated my acknowledgement that Americans owed reparations and chose to participate for that reason alone.

As far as the translation goes, it required a lot of patience from everyone involved for each sentence to be translated into both English and Arabic. It stretched what should have been a one-hour interview into three hours. But also, it became clear to me that there were a lot of differences in our uses of vocabulary to describe the war that weren’t an issue of translation. For example, the Western news media often described the period from 2005 – 2006 as Iraq’s “civil war,” but Iraqis didn’t experience it as a civil war at all. They called it the “militia war” because the violence was driven by U.S.-backed death squads. It was a striking moment to realize that, as critical as I was of the war, my understanding of it was still very much shaped by outsiders’ perspectives.

Many works have been published in English on the coalition forces attacks on Fallujah. In what ways is your book’s narrative different from other works about the siege of Fallujah and its humanitarian consequences?

The vast majority of the works published on Fallujah are military histories, written by American veterans of these operations or professional military writers. As such, the actions of American soldiers are usually the focus of these books, and the experiences of Iraqis are completely omitted or relegated to the background. What our book offers is a narrative that foregrounds the Iraqi experience. But I think we also have some original things to say about the role of information warfare and the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah.

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around about the weaponization of information in war. But I don’t think many people appreciate how different the use of propaganda was in Fallujah. We go so far as to argue that in Fallujah propaganda truly was a constitutive element of the violence. And it created an enduring mythology, most notably in case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It’s likely that anything you think you know about Zarqawi can be credited to the propaganda campaigns leading up to the second siege of Fallujah.

And much of the media discourse about the Islamic State focused on their fanatical religious ideology as a motivator for everything they did. But we tell a different story grounded in the history of social movements in Iraq that explains how ISIS went from being a very unpopular organization in places like Fallujah to a state-like entity encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. We argue that it had little to do with religion and everything to do with the Iraqi government’s oppression (with American assistance) of Sunnis.

You mentioned that some of the interviews you have conducted for your book are journalistic in nature. Tell us about these interviews. How does your journalism background influence and help your research as a historian?

I call these interviews journalistic because they were more topically focused. We sought out certain individuals to gather their insights about specific topics, instead of trying to see their experiences from a historical perspective, as I would in an oral history interview. We interviewed Dr. Muhammad al-Darraji, a former member of the Fallujah City Council and an author of many human rights reports; Dr. Samira Alani, the Head Pediatrician at Fallujah Hospital’s Women and Children’s Ward; and Naji Haraj, a former Iraqi diplomat and the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

I never truly worked as a journalist in Iraq. But following the work of independent journalists in Iraq is what made me appreciate the scope of U.S. information operations in Iraq, and how those operations extended the violence beyond the traditional battlefield. In many instances, U.S. forces regarded independent journalists as enemies. For these reasons, I think historians, to understand the journalism written about the occupation, need to take it in the context of an information war.

Ross interviewing Naji Haraj in his office in Geneva in 2018. Naji, who is from Fallujah, is the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Since 2003, the United States has maintained its military presence in Iraq. President Trump says that he wants to bring back the U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries in the Muslim world, like Afghanistan. This position has met with strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. As a public historian and journalist who has written about the U.S. military and the American role in the Middle East, how do you see this bipartisan insistence to keep the U.S. forces in Iraq? 

It’s implicit in these debates that there is an inter-imperial competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq. There is a bipartisan consensus that withdrawing from Iraq will strengthen Iran’s position there, which is absolutely true. But I think we need to understand that, first of all, this is only possible because our experiment with regime change in Iraq created a weak, corrupt, and unstable country, and continued interference in Iraq’s political and economic life most likely will not help it become capable of managing its relationships with its neighbors.

Second, our misadventure in Iraq was not a mistake, as it is often remembered; it was a war crime. The insistence of Democrats and Republicans that we need to maintain a troop presence in Iraq is an echo of the imperial hubris of the Bush administration. A continued troop presence in Iraq would do nothing to bolster our national security, since neither Iraq nor Iran are a threat to us. But it would strengthen our position as an imperial force in the region, and that’s what this is about.

I think we need to recognize that it was this kind of thinking that led us to invade and destroy Iraq, and we need to break from this delusion of American Exceptionalism. The only thing that the U.S. owes to Iraq is reparations. Apart from that, we need to get out. 

What can your research on the U.S. military operations in Iraq teach policymakers in Washington about the U.S. policy in the Middle East and its involvement in the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria?

I hope the book instills a healthy amount of self-doubt in every policy maker and military leader. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s possible that I didn’t know I was participating in a war crime while it was happening. And through the sieges of Fallujah, all three of them, we see that kind of self-delusion again and again. It’s shocking how wrong we were about who we thought we were fighting against in Fallujah and why. And I’m willing to bet Fallujah is not an isolated incident. I hope it makes others wonder if we’ve made similar mistakes in other countries where we thought we knew what we were doing and decided to wage war.

The Public History in Historical Perspective Series, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has enjoyed many successes and steady growth since its inception in 2009. The significant achievements of the series have not only made it a cornerstone of the UMass publishing program, but have also inspired and shaped new generations of public historians. “I can’t actually believe it’s only ten years old–the series has accomplished so much in that time,” says Seth Bruggeman, the editor of Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, and an associate professor of History at Temple University. “It has, most significantly, established itself as THE series for serious print scholarship in public history.” 

Books in the series provide critical perspectives to scholars who seek to understand the role of history and memory in public life. There are currently 23 titles in the series, including the just  published title The Genealogical Sublime by Julia Creet. As Edward T. Linenthal, a member of the series editorial advisory board explains, the titles explore topics such as “the history of history-making in the U.S., layers of remembrance of place and event, the power of material culture, and titles of great interest to me, that focus on remembrance of violence. To mention only a few: Erin Krutko Devlin’s Remember Little Rock, Memoria Abierta’s Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina,  Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War: the Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, and James E. Young’s The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between.

Not only have titles in the series won numerous prizes, including the National Council on Public History’s “best book” prize four times, but they have become standard texts in Public History courses across the country. Some of the award winners were Susan Reynolds Williams’s Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, James E. Young‘s The Stages of Memory, Andrea A. Burns’s  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, and Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War. As Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press says, “The titles in this series do great work in advancing the scholarly conversation, and they are helping to shape the public historians of tomorrow.”

The idea of launching the Public History in Historical Perspective Series emerged in 2009, after author and cultural historian Briann Greenfield approached the UMass Press to publish her book, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England. At that time, Clark Dougan was the senior editor on the Amherst campus, and he raised the idea of creating the series with Marla Miller. “[T]he vision for the series came out of Marla and Clark’s work on my book as both saw the potential for something more,” recounts Greenfield, whose book became the first work in the series. “I’ve been especially lucky to be associated with the series.  The books that followed have furthered our understanding of public history—what it has been and what it can become.” 

The series has developed and grown in relationship to the field of Public History.  “The series is truly remarkable insomuch as it has almost singlehandedly redefined public history historiography during the last decade,” says Bruggeman, a member of the series editorial advisory board. “I cannot imagine a meaningful conversation about public history today that doesn’t somehow reference Denise Meringolo, Amy Tyson, Andrea Burns, Tammy Gordon, and Lara Kelland.”

As Matt Becker, the editor in chief at UMass Press, notes, the books in the series “collectively map out key historiographical and theoretical foundations for the field of public history: Denise D. Meringolo’s, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, for instance, delineates the profession of public history, tracing its roots back to the nineteenth century, while Andrea A. Burns’, From Storefront to Monument offers an overarching history of the black museum as a political movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus the most significant book series in public history because of this role of, essentially, defining the field.”

Many authors choose to publish their work in the series because of the exemplary support and insight they receive from the editors. The acquisitions editors who work on the Series provide detailed comments on manuscripts during the review process, and as some authors point out, help to develop scholars’ arguments.

Of course, the editorial feedback supplied by Marla Miller, Series Editor and Director of the Public History Program at UMass, has been crucial for the series’ success and shaping the scholarly discourse within the field. “I’ve benefited time and time again from my encounters with the series,” says Seth Bruggeman. “As an author, I’ve benefited tremendously from Miller’s editorial insight and her willingness to connect me with colleagues who, in the case of Born in the U.S.A. (2012), became key contributors. As a member of the advisory board, I’ve been so impressed by how quickly and how seriously great manuscripts get reviewed. And, as a teacher, I’ve filled my syllabi with series titles.”

Briann Greenfield tells Past@Present that what made publishing with UMass Press unique was the experience of working with the editorial team who “pushed my interpretive focus, asking careful questions and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the argument.” “My book was a much better book for their insight and support. Marla, especially,” adds Greenfield.

In the same vein, Denise Meringolo, who published her first book in 2012 with the University of Massachusetts Press, describes her experience during the manuscript revision process as “incredibly positive.” She recalls that “David Glassberg encouraged me to submit my proposal to the press, and I was incredibly gratified to receive enthusiastic support from both the then Executive Editor Clark Dougan and from the series editor, Marla Miller. I found the revision process to be daunting, and I honestly might not have succeeded without Marla’s patient support. Not only did she provide detailed written feedback on early drafts, she also met with me on at least two occasions to offer guidance and words of encouragement. Since the publication of my book, I have had experience with a variety of platforms and presses, and I now know how unusual this level of author support is.”

“We are extremely proud to publish the series, Public History in Historical Perspective,” says Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press. According to Dougherty, over 15,700 copies of series titles have been sold, including library copies available to borrow in electronic or paper formats. A number of the books in the series are routinely assigned in courses.  And the press and the series are now poised to drive innovation in the realm of digital scholarship, an area of keen interest among public historians.  A significant collaboration with Greenhouse Studios (at the University of Connecticut, led by series board member Tom Scheinfeldt), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will research and model new approaches to peer review processes and  workflows for digital humanities, work that will support authors whose vision for their scholarship includes a digital component.

“With exciting manuscripts in various stages of completion, readers can look forward to a series of continued excellence,” says Edward Linenthal. “Such case studies transport us into the intimate and at the same time very public ‘predicament of aftermath.’ More generally, they offer stark evidence that the past remains forever dynamic.”

-By Mohammad Ataie

In November 2018, the Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Historians: What Kids Should Be Learning in School Right Now.” In asking this important question, the reporter chose to only ask historians, all of whom were university professors, authors, or filmmakers. The ideas presented were thoughtful. However, none of the people asked were K-12 history teachers.  

The next day, I noticed on social media that some history teachers and teacher educators (which is my line of work; I prepare future history teachers at UMass Boston) were upset with the Washington Post’s snub. One colleague Alex Cuenca posted on Twitter, “Feel free to ask K-12 teachers. … We have a clear stance on what kids should be learning.” Others had similar comments. While the views of historians on the subject are certainly important, it would have been nice to include a very important groups of history educators: K-12 classroom teachers. 

It was in this moment that I realized that we need to do much more to connect historians and history teachers. So, I started a hashtag and a social media campaign…

Realizing that many teachers (#SSChat) and historians (#twitterstorians) are now using Twitter and other social media sites to learn and share, I decided to try and connect the two using the hashtag #BridgingHistoriansAndTeachers. I asked the teachers who I followed on Twitter to tell me what historians they followed. I then chose a new historian each day, Tweeted at them that I was following them as part of this campaign, and I challenged them to follow back any K-12 teacher who followed them. Of the 42 historians from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that I followed, 33 followed me back and promised to follow K-12 teachers. I then made a Twitter list for historians to join and teachers to subscribe to; we currently have 136 teachers (teachers: consider subscribing) and 49 historians (historians: you can e-mail me to join) included. I received many messages from K-12 history teachers and historians that they were thankful for this campaign and that we needed more ways like this to work together.

In January 2020, I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting about my social media campaign and possible ways to build bridges between historians and history teachers. I argued that this must be a two-way bridge. Historians and history teachers need to start collaborating around historical research, pedagogy, and public history. They should be learning from each other. More teachers should be invited to work on historical research projects. More professors should visit K-12 classrooms and observe some of the creative teaching techniques that are being used. Both groups should work together by designing history curriculum and materials from kindergarten to graduate school.

At the AHA Annual Meeting, I argued that K-12 schools are where people first learn history in a serious way, including where they begin to develop their historical thinking skills and interpretations of the past. Sadly, many Americans never study history beyond high school (at least in an academic way, many adults report routinely visiting historical sites and museums, discussing history with their families, or watching history media). 

At the same time, history education is facing some serious challenges. We have all heard the troubling statistics about the decline in history majors and the number of college students taking history courses (which may also be related to a decline in future teachers-who make up a large percentage of history majors and students taking history courses).

Historians and history teachers are in this boat together, yet we rarely work (or even talk) to each other. We need to be allies in the important mission of educating the public about the past. While there are about 3,300 Americans who identify as historians, there are 232,000 middle and high school history teachers and 1.1 million generalist elementary teachers. As an undergraduate student in history and education at UMass Amherst years ago and now a professor at UMass Boston, the history professors whom I have worked take seriously their role in educating future and current teachers. However, at many colleges and universities, history faculty do not see themselves as teacher educators and rarely collaborate with education faculty). 

If we regard historians to be historical experts, then it makes sense that they would want to work regularly with teachers (who are providing most of the academic history instruction to the public). The work of the historian is one of investigation, questioning narratives, and seeking new understandings of the past. History teachers often have a thirst to learn new information about or interpretations of past events. Most history teachers’ summer reading lists are full of the latest history books (it is also important to note that there are many K-12 history teachers and teacher educators who are also historians; they may be well positioned to help connect the two groups). 

If we regard teachers to be pedagogical experts, then it equally makes sense that historians might want to learn new methods of teaching from them. In my research, which focuses on elementary- and secondary-level history teaching, I have found that classroom teachers (especially here in Massachusetts) are making progress in more regularly using inquiry-based methods and teaching traditionally underrepresented groups’ histories (i.e. people of color, women, the poor and working classes, LGBTQ people). They certainly could serve as models for many university history professors and historians, where lecture is still the most common form of instruction and many voices are still left out of their courses.

My hope is that this small social media campaign might lead more collaboration between historians and K-12 history teachers, with the ultimate goal of improve history education for everyone. It may take a major culture change in the academy to happen, but I certainly believe it is possible (and know others agree).

Christopher C. Martell is an assistant professor of social studies education at UMass Boston and an alumni of the UMass Amherst History Department (’02). 

by Danielle Raad

In November 2019, I spent ten days in the Alps. I landed in Munich and took a train south into the mountains. Mountains were a constant presence, in the abstract and the physical, the focus and the backdrop, on the trip.

I headed to Innsbruck, Austria, to attend the Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies hosted by the University of Innsbruck. The theme of this year’s conference was Mediating Mountains. The conference organizers, in their call for papers, wrote: “Mountains are not only objects of reflection that mirror, archive, and project human and cultural investments, but they can also be conceived of as ‘hyperobjects’ that affect the ways we come to think about existence, earth, and society”.  

Raad, Figure 1

My route through the Alps. A = Munich, Germany; B = Innsbruck, Austria; C = Verona, Italy; D = Milan, Italy; E = Morbegno, Italy; F = Sondrio, Italy. 

My weekend in Innsbruck was invigorating. I met people from different fields in the humanities and social sciences who study mountains in some guise or other. And while we scholars conferred, the snow-capped Alps loomed in the not-so-distance, visible from the room in which I gave my talk on the role of visual media and collective vision on the creation of mountains in 19th-century America. I also chaired a session called “Commodifying Verticality,” which included talks by three historians. Dr. Carolin Roeder, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, spoke on climbing grades, Dr. Rachel Gross, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, presented on commercial sponsorship on Everest, and Jesse Ritner, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin talked about making artificial snow. At the conference and in the weeks since, I have been thinking a lot about orogenesis, or the creation of mountains, quite a bit. Both the geologic movement of tectonic plates, which I know well from my days as a science teacher, but also in terms of the processes by which societies construct their mountains.

After the conference ended, I took a funicular and two cable cars up Hafelekar Peak, part of the Nordkette, or North Chain. I trudged through the snow to summit the 7,657-foot tall mountain. A Gipfelkreuz, or summit cross, greeted me at the top and signaled the primary religion of the community thousands of feet below. I could see before me all of the Inn Valley, the River Inn, and the city of Innsbruck. I also saw the elevated train tracks heading south through a mountain pass to Italy, which I would be on the next day. 

Raad, Figure 2

The view of Innsbruck from Hafelekar Peak.  

There is a tension between the Romantic gaze of mountains as unreachable, unknowable symbols of nature’s power, and the modern gaze of mountains as controlled and managed landscapes [4]. I was standing on Hafelekar Peak in a conference outfit and was carried most of the way there by machines. I also arrived and departed Innsbruck via machine. The construction of the railroads and trains which have transported myself and many others in and out of the Alps opened up the area to tourism and outdoor recreation.

But looking down from the cable car at the Nordkette below, I saw evidence of a massive avalanche in the form of hundreds of flattened trees, and was reminded of the awesome power of the mountains. They also dictate human movement through the Alps, forcing us to jump from valley to valley. The train that I took from Innsbruck south, headed for Verona, went through the Brenner Pass. Despite technological advancements, and indeed many tunnels have been carved straight through the rock, for the most part humans must react to the physical mass and resulting weather systems of the mountains.

On the way to Verona, I passed by the Italian town of Bolzano and stared wistfully out the window towards where Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified 5,000 year old proto-mountaineer, lay in a closed-on-Mondays museum. I emerged from the Alps momentarily and spent a day in Verona before taking another train west to Milan and yet another north, back into the mountains. I reconvened with my family and spent several days in Morbegno, the Italian village in the Valtellina valley where my father-in-law is from. 

One day we drove to Sondrio, the capital of the region, to visit Il Castello Delle Storie Di Montagna in Sondrio (CAST). This is a museum that tells the story of the changing perception of mountains. It is a sort of museum within a museum; it is housed in the Castello Masegra, a Renaissance villa. Interpretive signage provides information on the historic building as well as the mountain-related theme on each floor.

The first floor focused on the climbing (bouldering, sport climbing, and ice climbing). Against a backdrop of faded Renaissance frescoes, exhibits mirrored the tactile nature of the sport. Interactive touch screen maps displayed videos about climbing sites around the world. The theme of the second floor was mountaineering expeditions, global in scope yet emphasizing the Alps. In the banquet hall room, under an ancient wooden vaulted ceiling, were interactive timelines of the history of mountaineering and a virtual reality telescope. Visitors could take books on various topics off shelves and insert them into slots to activate videos on a screen, or place film negatives on a lightbox to trigger content on the role of cinema in mountaineering. The final floor dealt with the topic of environmental protection and the origin of parks, focusing on the protected areas of Valtellina and featuring interactive components as well.

Raad, Figure 3

View of the Tartano Valley from the Ponte nel Cielo. 

At sunset, we took a sickening car ride up the face of a mountain on what felt like a pilgrimage to the Ponte nel Cielo, or bridge in the sky. We took numerous switchbacks, which triggered my motion sickness and my thoughts about the futile nature of human insistence on dominating these mountains. The Ponte nel Cielo is the highest and longest suspension footbridge in Europe and connects two sides of the Tartano Valley. We paid to walk across it and to look out at the expansive view of the valley with Lake Como in the distance, then to walk right back. The bridge seems to exist for the sake of being a bridge, as an expression of the ability of humans to manage the mountain landscape. My nausea on the way down served as a reminder of the ways that the mountains, however, manage our bodies and our movements. 

Danielle Raad is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate at UMass Amherst.

Sources:

Anderson, B. M. (2012). “The Construction of an Alpine Landscape: Building, Representing and Affecting the Eastern Alps, c. 1885–1914.” Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(2), 155–183.

Austrian Association for American Studies. (2019). AAAS Conference 2019. Mediating Mountains. Universität Innsbruck. Retrieved from https://www.uibk.ac.at/projects/mountainfilmstudies/2019-aaas-conference-mediating-mountains/index.html.en

Debarbieux, B., & Rudaz, G. (2015). The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (J. M. Todd, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, J. E. T. (2011). Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.