Richard T. Chu, Five College associate professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is teaching and conducting oral history projects in Springfield and Amherst, MA through his course “Asian-Pacific American History, 1850-present” (History 253). When asked about his motivation to document the lives of Asian Americans in Western Massachusetts, Professor Chu tells Past@Present, “Teaching about the history of racism and marginalization of Asian Americans over the course of my career at UMass has helped me realize that the field of Asian American Studies, which was born out of the activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights and against racial prejudice, should remain true to its activist roots, in that teaching ‘about’ Asian Americans means also ‘working in solidarity’ with them outside the classroom.”

Born and raised in the Philippines, Chu moved to the U.S. in 1992, and joined the UMass History department in 2004.  His research and publications focus on Asian American history, the history of the Chinese and Chinese mestizos in the Philippines and of the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, empire, and nationalism. He started teaching Hist 253 as a general education course, focusing primarily on the history of Asian Americans in the whole nation. In Spring 2017, he started to add the civic engagement component to his course, and in Fall 2018, began teaching it as an honors course.

Roeun Chea’s interview, being shown at the culminating event December 8, 2018 at UMass Center in Springfield. Born in Cambodia, Chea was forced into a concentration camp under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, where he remained for three years. Now 50 years old, he came to the U.S. thirty years ago after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. Access interview here.

When asked why he chose to focus his oral history projects on Springfield and Amherst, Chu says, “Springfield and Amherst chose me. These two cities have significant populations of Asian Americans, so it was but natural that the bulk of my work is focused on working with their communities.” Chu believes that it is important to come up with projects that would benefit both these communities and UMass students. That is why he is now engaged with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts; Bayanihan Association of America, Inc.  (a Filipino-American association); the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts; the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts; the Vietnamese Catholic Community of St. Paul’s Church in Springfield; and  the Cambodian American community of Amherst. “Through the years, I hope to expand the outreach to other communities such as the Korean and Indian American communities, which have a significant presence in the Pioneer Valley,” adds Chu.

This semester you are leading a group of students in Springfield to document local history. They conduct oral history interviews to document Asian American community history in Springfield. Why did you decide to take this approach with your students?

This is the third semester that I have been conducting this oral history project with the Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The reason for this approach is two-fold. First, this is a project that the communities identified as benefitting them. For many of these communities—unheard of and unknown by the majority—documenting the lives of their members is one way of getting their voices heard. Community leaders also see the widening gap between the first generation (many of whom went through war, genocide, and other traumatic events back in their home countries) and the next generation, and are concerned that, without preserving the voices of the older generation (many of whom do not speak English), succeeding generations will forget their own past which could result in the loss of their own sense of identity as “Asians” (or as “Bhutanese,” “Vietnamese,” etc.). Second, this project is something that my students can do in a semester.

What is the importance of teaching this course for the local history? In what ways does this course contribute to the people of Springfield?

In the Pioneer Valley, there are a growing number of Asian Americans in the last two decades. U.S. census records from 2010 have shown the Asian American community as having registered the highest percentage of population increase in the state of Massachusetts (47% from 2000-2010). Amherst and Springfield rank among the top 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts with the largest Asian American population. For instance, Springfield has 2,000 Vietnamese living in the city, although this figure is quite conservative. The actual number may be more like 4,000. Go to Springfield and you see neighborhoods with Vietnamese nail salons, restaurants, and grocery stores. There is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Catholic parish, and a community center. Leaders of the  Bhutanese (refugee) community estimate that there are currently 3,000 Bhutanese living in the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, and Westfield. In addition to these communities, there are Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laos, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other ethnic Asians living in the Springfield and Pioneer Valley area. Thus, in order to enrich and complete our local histories, we need to document and recognize the lives and contributions, as well as the hardships and struggles, of these Asian Americans.

This sounds fascinating.  How can other researchers, or people just generally interested in this history in the Valley, learn more about the history you are preserving?

At the end of the project, the videos are uploaded on to the website of the Special Collections and Archives Division of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and hence made available to the public for research and other purposes, but most importantly, for us to learn about the life stories of Asian Americans living in our midst.  

“Meet-and-Greet” event at UMass Center in Springfield with Asian American community leaders, November 2, 2019. Hist253H students have a preliminary activity before conducting their oral histories which brings them to listen to Asian American community leaders give the history and the challenges of their communities. Speaking before the class this Fall semester was Linda Hill, an officer of the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and who holds a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from UMass. 

Your students conduct oral histories with residents of Springfield. Who are the interviewees? What are the challenges of documenting local history in Springfield?

The interviewees are members of the different Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The leaders of these communities identify a member willing to share his/her life-story for the project. The interviewees so far are those who can speak English, as my students are not equipped to act as translators or interpreters for this type of project. This limits in a way whom community leaders can tap for the project.

One of the challenges therefore is the language barrier between my students and some members of these communities. In coming up with the idea of an oral history project, the community leaders also had in mind preserving the voices of the immigrant/first generation, such as members of the Bhutanese community whose families lived for generations in Bhutan before being driven out by an ethnic cleansing policy of the fourth King of Bhutan, then lived for 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before coming as refugees to the U.S. starting in 2008. Many of these refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to name a few) do not speak English, or very minimum English; and they are slowly dying out. But it is also their lives that community members want to preserve. So another challenge is finding appropriate translators/interpreters for such interviewees.

My Hampshire College colleague Professor Kimberly Chang and I, in collaboration with the Bhutanese Society of Massachusetts, have applied to the Mass Humanities Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital History Project that would train bi-lingual local Bhutanese youth on how to conduct oral histories with older members of their community. Through this project, we hope to not only empower members of the Bhutanese community with certain skills (video-recording, interviewing, etc.) but also help preserve the voices of their non-English speaking members.

Another challenge is getting the students from UMass to Springfield, due in terms of the distance between the two places and the lack of affordable transportation facilities to bring them there.

Lastly, some people who are immigrants or refugees are reticent to talk about their experiences, either out of fear of the authorities or trauma, or both. Hence, conducting these oral history projects can be a very sensitive issue, both for the students and the interviewees, but specially the latter. And I have to make sure that the students are equipped to handle uncomfortable or sensitive moments during the interviews because some questions may bring up traumatic or unpleasant memories.

What have been some of the powerful “moments” for you in this project?

There are many powerful moments, but here are three:

  • Toward the end of the semester the students present an edited 20-minute version of their interviews at the UMass Center in Springfield. This event brings together all the interviewees and their families, along with their respective community members and leaders; the students in the class; local officials such as Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman; and the Board members of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Members of the communities always express their gratitude and joy in being able to see one of them telling their life-story, and that these stories will be preserved for others to learn from. Witnessing the culmination of the collaborative efforts between the community members and my students in producing these videos always brings to me a sense of fulfillment in my vocation as a teacher.
  • When students tell me either during or after the semester how much they have learned from the course, or how they were transformed or inspired by it, that is a powerful moment for me.
  • Being nominated and then selected for the 2018 Community Hero Award conferred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission was another powerful moment. It reaffirmed the significance and importance of my work.\

How has this kind of public history work changed your approach to other research and courses that you are teaching?

It has certainly expanded my area of research. My main research areas as a historian are U.S. empire, colonialism in the Philippines, and the Chinese diaspora. But one of my sub-fields is Asian American Studies. I have done some research on Asian American communities in the U.S. For instance, I have published with the Institute on Asian American Studies of UMass-Boston a demographic study on Filipinos in Boston/Massachusetts.

I have yet to write for publication about my work with the Asian American communities here in Western Massachusetts. I already have an outline of what to write and the editor of an Asian American journal has encouraged me to submit an article on the topic. But until I finish my next major monograph, which is on the Chinese in the Philippines during the first decade of American colonization (1898-1908), this project has been placed in the backburner, even as my collaborative work with these Asian American communities continues during the fall semesters when I teach this course. As a Five-College faculty sharing 50 percent of my time with the four colleges, I only get to teach this course at UMass once a year. I hope that I could teach this course every semester at UMass so as to continue my work with the communities, and to help build the department’s public history and oral history programs of the Department. In Spring semester 2020, I will be teaching  this course at Smith College for the first time. In doing so, I hope to sustain the collaborations and continue the relationships that I have built with the different Asian American communities.

Are there other important or interesting aspects of this project that you could share with us?

As a public research and land-grant university, our university has a commitment and responsibility to use our resources and skills to reach out to people living around us, especially from the marginalized sectors, and for us to learn from and be enriched by them. My dream is to be able to institutionalize this course so that it can be taught every semester in order to not break this relationship with Asian American communities in the area, and that this becomes a core subject of our department with adequate funding for anyone to teach the course, especially if I am not around anymore to teach it. People whom I collaborate with in the various communities have told me how much they respect UMass, and that they wish that a stronger relationship could be built between UMass and local Asian American communities. I hope that this public history project is but a step toward developing that synergistic relationship that benefits these communities, our students, our University, the Pioneer Valley, and the whole state of Massachusetts.

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

Past@Present: In September, in connection with an upcoming exhibition at the National Building Museum, Professor Marla Miller undertook a trip to the borderlands separating the U.S. and Mexico. Upon her return, she gave a presentation to the department about this work, and now two of our graduate students are completing internships with the NBM to contribute to this research.  Watch for more on this project from UMass Public History in 2020.

Marla Miller, on Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street Books, 2018)

In September, I had the privilege of accompanying National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt to El Paso, Texas, to contribute to the planning of their 2020 exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall?”  Together we visited the National Border Patrol Museum, Chamizal National Memorial, and (easier said than done, but that’s a story for another time) International Boundary Marker #1, placed in 1855, in the aftermath of the US/Mexican War. We explored the Texas and New Mexico borderlands, crossing into Juarez and passing through several check-points across the region.  We accompanied hardworking attorneys from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the El Paso Processing Center, and observed asylum interviews at the Centro de Atención Integral a Migrantes in Juarez. 

It is difficult to describe the emotional terrain these physical travels covered.  The border is visible everywhere, a scar of steel and concrete across the Rio Grande Valley. A constant tension, even fearfulness, permeated our movements: particularly memorable was a moment when, lost and high over Juarez on an I-10 off-ramp, we were afraid that we were somehow accidentally crossing the border, even though that wasn’t really possible, and we as white history professionals with solid citizenship were never in any real danger.  And yet our hearts raced, our relief palpable as we returned to surface streets.  We felt keenly the weight of our privilege as we moved freely across these lands in ways that so many of the people around us could not.

As we traveled, I thought about books I have read or want to read to better understand this fraught subject. On the flight to Texas, I listened to the riveting podcast Border Trilogy, which explores the fascinating and difficult work Jason De Leon describes in The Land of Open Graves (University of California Press, 2015).  I recalled the powerful study we brought out in our UMass Press Series “Public History in Historical Perspective,” Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, by Michael Scott Van Wagenen (UMass Press, 2012), which contemplates how that conflict appears in expressions of collective memory on both sides of the border. I planned to read other books Sarah recommended, including Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Grove Atlantic, 2019), and Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (Norton, 2018).

But my border reading began sooner than expected.  As Sarah and I parted ways, I wanted to pick something up for the flight home.  And Serendipity was kind, because there it was, in the airport bookshop: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (for a traditional review of the book, click here)Just then anything with “borders” in the title would have appealed, but Harris also promised insight into the Silk Road—a longstanding interest for this historian of material culture.  This stunning memoir of Harris’ travels, on bicycle, with a childhood best friend, across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and the extended contemplation about crossing borders of all kinds, was exactly what I wanted.

Harris’s lifelong fascination with exploration is rooted in her Ontario childhood, as she explored the land in, around, and beyond her family’s home.  She eventually pursued graduate work in science, intending—as part of her lifetime affinity for difficult, unfamiliar horizons—to be part of the team that one day heads to Mars.  But Mars, she realized, would only ever be encountered via the mediated environments necessary to sustain human life, and she wanted to be in and of the landscapes she traversed.  Eventually, this meant travel — inspired by Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” – along the Silk Road. By bike.

Harris takes readers along several journeys all at once, from her evolution from aspiring lab scientist, to historian, to traveler and writer. She narrates other trips made, by bicycle, across the US and abroad, as she traces this journey along the Silk Road and shares what she learned about herself, and what happens when the abstracts of international power relations play out on natural and cultural landscapes.  Harris’ prose is downright lyrical, with long, thoughtful passages that range widely and comfortably across science, history, and philosophy.  Lands of Lost Borders is many things: a travelogue, an adventure tale, a scholar’s contemplation of histories of exploration, and a meditation on science, global environments, and the impacts of political contestation on lands and communities.

A historian of science (which she studied formally at Oxford), Harris is inspired by, and critical of, other explorers and scientists (the career of Charles Darwin, in particular, gains scrutiny).  For a reader focused on borders, Harris’ musings are powerful and provocative.  She and her traveling companion were constantly traversing, navigating and evading borders and their accompanying tangible and bureaucratic infrastructures.  The effect of these unseen lines across the very material landscape that she covered pedal by pedal offered constant opportunity for reflection. “We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident,” she writes (33), “maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure.”  But in truth, borders are “ghost-like”—“a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by the wind.” (33) In a passage that flows seamlessly from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) to Hsu Yu (or Xu You, c. 2356–2255 BC),  Harris—quoting the latter’s assertion that “Names are only the guests of reality”— proposes that “boundaries are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, believe are fact” (115).

Harris’s ruminations resonated with our visit to Chamizal National Memorial, which honors the peaceful resolution of a border dispute.  In the years following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as the Rio Grande channel naturally shifted, so too did national land claims.  A century of contention ended in 1962-63 when Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Adolfo López Mateos resolved the dispute: the U.S. returned land to Mexico, and both nations together relocated four miles of the Rio Grande to a more stable, concrete channel. Land that Mexico transferred to the U.S. was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to celebrate the diplomatic success. When Harris asks, on the Aksai Chin, “What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?” (33) she could just as easily be commenting on this effort to pin down the Rio Grande.  

When asked, in an interview, about the overriding goal driving her work, Harris responded: “Dissolving the borders that divide people. . . waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation.” “What happens in a factory in Bangladesh,” she continues, “matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. . . .   I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.”

Lands of Lost Borders explores the consequences of such artificial propositions.  “The problem with borders,” Harris proposes, “isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions.”  Rather, their menace is grounded in the same “evil that Hannah Arendt identified—their banality” (245).  “We subconsciously accept them,” she continues, “as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, lease exalted desired, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster?”

In the end, it’s hard not to follow Harris to the end of her through-line.  “The barbed wire begins here, inside us,” she concludes, “cutting through our very core” (245).

“Reliquary of Blackness: An Exhibit of Oral Histories”, curated by UMass PhD student Erika Slocumb, opened to the public and scholars at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, from August 27, until October 23, 2019. The exhibit was based on hours of oral history interviews Slocumb and her colleagues conducted with members of Holyoke’s black community in 2018, a project funded by Mass Humanities. By focusing on the experiences of those living and working in Holyoke during the mid-20th century, the exhibit showcased the results of this year-long project to document the history of Holyoke’s Black residents.

“I think it should inspire history students and scholars to look in places where we think ‘the story has been told’,” Slocumb told Past@Present, reflecting on the significance of her exhibit for history students and their research. “It’s important to look at the histories of spaces, especially local histories, and ask ‘who propped up the prominent figures in this narrative?’ ‘Who is missing?’ and tell their story, let them tell their story.”

Erika Slocumb is a mother, an artist, and a community organizer, from Springfield, Massachusetts. She is a PhD student in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who is beginning work toward the Graduate Certificate in Public History. She is also cofounder of the Western Mass Women’s Collective, a community organization advancing empowerment through “literacy, critical thinking, experiential knowledge, and community engagement.” 

You have conducted many oral history interviews with members of Holyoke’s black community. Several Holyoke residents also shared with you family photos and documents. Please tell us about your project and its importance for preserving local black history. 

I was born and raised in Springfield, and when I look at the documented history of Black folks in Springfield the thing that is missing are people, specifically Black women who had influenced and mentored me. When I was presented with the opportunity to uncover the history of Black people in Holyoke my initial response was “There are no Black people in Holyoke.” I think when you look at the history of Holyoke that has been publicly documented, the Black folks’ stories are missing. And the fact is, that there is so much of a rich Black history that dates back to the eighteenth century and so much that the Black community of Holyoke has contributed that it needs to be told. If not for any other reason, so that Black youth growing up in Holyoke can know their history and generations will have the opportunity to claim space in Holyoke.

How does this project challenge the dominant narratives about Holyoke history? 

I think the project adds to the narrative. It works to fill in holes that exist in the dominant narrative. You can’t tell the history of Holyoke accurately without the history of Black people in Holyoke. There have been too many contributions by Black people to the city of Holyoke going back generations. And we have just scratched the surface with the work we’ve done so far.

One of the themes that you mentioned in your work is that Holyoke is traditionally associated with other populations: the Irish, the French Canadian, and most recently the Puerto Rican community. But there have been African Americans in the area since the 17th and 18th century. What have the challenges been as you try to recover Holyoke’s black past?

The challenge in uncovering the history has been the limited sources of Black Holyoke history. I think the biggest challenge I had with the oral history project that was funded by MassHumanities is that because of resources and time there are so many folks that didn’t get interviewed. I have made connections with so many people who want to have their stories told. I think the other part that was challenging in conducting oral histories is realizing that there is so much that goes into building relationships, and in order to do that, we have to find time in our schedules to bond and to understand the community and the context in which the history is situated and that takes time.

There is no rushing oral histories. These memories, for so many in Holyoke’s Black community are sacred in a way, and I think that is why I named the exhibit “Reliquary of Blackness.” Here you have this whole community of people that have been saving up their stories, collecting their family’s histories and for many they have been waiting for a project like this, for an exhibit, or a space to exhibit, their family’s history. I think in doing something like the exhibit, the challenge for me was making sure that I presented their stories authentically, with as few of my words as possible, because the exhibit was an exhibit of oral histories.

What have some of the most exciting moments been in this process?

I think some of the most exciting moments in the process have been making connections—as well as the face someone makes when they look at a picture that we found in the archives and they recognize themselves or their mother, who they haven’t seen in years, or some obscure childhood friend, and that photo invokes memories of place, and sounds, and brings them back to a time that they had forgotten. Something else that has excited me is the validation I get from the community and the excitement. Ms. Dian McCollum said “Erika was an answer to my prayers. That someone would come to uncover the history of Black Holyoke.” That is something you can’t get from researching a thing that has already been researched, or from using solely secondary sources. There is something about the oral histories, watching the history unfold right before your eyes. There is nothing better.

– Mohammad Ataie

Early afternoon sunlight filtered down through the immense skylight of the former Wilmington Artisans Bank, casting shadows into the musty corners of the Art Deco lobby that now made up the reading room and library of the Delaware Historical Society (DHS). Earlier that morning I had boarded a train from another Art Deco monument—Philadelphia’s 30th Street station—as I began my search for the history of women’s fight for the right to vote in the “First State.”

Figure 1: Numerous afternoons were spent in the muted orange reading room of the Delaware Historical Society’s archives to uncover resources about Delaware’s women’s suffrage movement.

It was here in the solemn atmosphere of the muted orange onetime bank lobby that I found myself poring over the papers of Delaware suffragist Emaela Warner. Mixed in amongst her clippings of “controversial” anti-suffrage tactics and letters with fellow suffragists was a lengthy report written in loopy, scrawling cursive describing the first woman’s suffrage parade held in Delaware. The report, drafted the day after the May 2, 1914 parade, was an important internal record for Delaware’s suffragists as they charted and recorded the history of their movement. As I haltingly read the author’s handwriting, I noticed amongst the list of parade attendees the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club, one of Delaware’s most active black suffrage organizations. The author noted the club was “composed of colored women,” before going back and striking out the entry in a bold, thick line of ink.

Figure 2: Silences in the archive: a report from 1914 crosses out the presence of black women in a suffrage parade.

In that moment I was transported back to my first semester at UMass Amherst and my initial encounter with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “silences in the archive,” described in his landmark Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. This particular “silence” I stumbled across seemed to reverberate around the hushed library of the DHS. More than a list of parade attendees, this report marked one of the exact moments at which Delaware’s black suffragists were deliberately erased from the history of the suffrage movement. This document was both product and producer of the gross power inequities embodied by the suffrage movement.

I grappled with Trouillot’s notion of archival silences and the thorny implications of commemoration and memorialization throughout my summer in Philadelphia. As a National Council for Preservation Education intern, I spent my summer in the Northeast Regional Office of the National Park Service (NPS) in downtown Philadelphia helping coordinate efforts to commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. An ongoing NPS initiative, the commemoration of the centennial will conclude in August of 2020, 100 years after the amendment was ratified and added to the United States Constitution. More specifically, I was charged to undertake original research for three relatively new NPS park units: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (HATU) in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman National Historical Park (HART) in Auburn, New York, and First State National Historical Park (FRST) in Delaware. My research sought out connections that all three parks shared with one another through the lens of suffrage and voting rights, and is to be eventually incorporated into the parks’ interpretive agendas. Additionally, I produced digital articles and shared content for the parks to publish on their respective websites and conducted outreach to cultural institutions that could be potential partners with each park in commemorative efforts for the centennial.

Figure 3: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Dorchester County, Maryland.

These cultural and institutional partners presented potentially substantial opportunities for the NPS to share authority in the creation of narratives about the significance of the Nineteenth Amendment conveyed in park interpretation. All three of the park units I researched maintained some kind of partnership with organizations established long before the creation of each specific park: Both Harriet Tubman parks are run in close partnership with other organizations created earlier in the twentieth century to interpret Tubman’s legacy, and FRST’s constellation of sites scattered throughout Delaware are cooperatively managed with other organizations that have long operated them as individual historic sites. Yet it was unclear to what extent these efforts to share authority were the product of necessity, or of a sincere collaborative philosophy. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Limited resources and staff at these parks necessitate that the NPS establish connections to lean on partners as parks “get off the ground,” so to speak. But such partnerships are also the product of a genuine desire to mediate between local and national narratives about the historic sites and places encompassed by the national park system, contributing to the process identified by John Bodnar whereby local and personal pasts are incorporated into a national public memory.[1]

It was these local and personal pasts—the voices, stories, and lived experiences of suffragists—that I was asked to draw from in establishing the ways all three parks were bound together in the broader history of the suffrage movement. The basic structure of this charge from the NPS, to seek out the materials needed to justify and strengthen a particular historical narrative, should be familiar to public historians. Often we are asked in our role as public-facing scholars, preservationists, and historians to connect the dots laid out by whatever agency, organization, or institution we happen to be working for as they pursue their own interpretive agenda. The particular dots I was to connect— HATU, HART, and FRST— initially seemed disparate and dissociated from one another in their geographic locations and historical themes. Researching the vast histories associated with each park was daunting enough, let alone attempting to connect all of them.

There are obvious reasons to feel apprehensive about this approach: putting ourselves to work towards a potentially uncritical or celebratory agenda risks reinforcing the silences in the archive I first noticed in the DHS. In its concern not to alienate potential audiences and work within the stringent parameters of a federal agency, the NPS can err on the side of caution. For example, in recounting suffragists’ split over the enfranchisement of black men through the Fifteenth Amendment, one NPS article couched Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist jeremiads against black enfranchisement and the ensuing fallout with Frederick Douglass as a simple “disagreement with their friend.” The cautionary reticence to unpack the racist history of the suffrage movement embodied by this article is understandable. But at the same time, I worried my research could be put towards reaffirming the entrenched silences around the complex racist history of the mainstream suffrage movement, much like the line of ink that struck out the presence of black suffragists in Delaware’s suffrage movement.

Figure 4: Harriet Tubman’s private residence at the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York.

Despite my initial reservations about forging links among these three parks, there were genuine connections they all shared with one another and I was given wide latitude to research whatever and whomever I wanted. Most obvious was the presence of Harriet Tubman at all three park sites; as she moved back and forth between Auburn, New York, and Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman led formerly enslaved runaways through Delaware by way of Thomas Garret’s home in Wilmington. Likewise, the national organizational infrastructure of the suffrage movement brought suffragists associated with each park into the same physical and institutional spaces as one another. The 1896 founding meeting of the National Association of Colored Women brought Delaware suffragist Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Tubman together in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. in the same way that the Congressional Union and National Woman’s Party linked other suffragists together across space and time.

Suffragists at each park were tied together in much more complex ways as well. As they fought for their right to vote, suffragists constructed a usable past they deployed to justify their activism. But, as the document I stumbled across in the DHS archive suggests, the ways in which suffragists constructed historical narratives about themselves and their movement intersected with the virulent antiblack racism leveled by white suffragists against black enfranchisement. Black suffragists at all three parks were forced to not only weather these attacks from white suffragists, but also navigated the limits and constraints of state violence and neglect, residential segregation, and economic instability. When Harriet Tubman spoke at suffrage events, she rarely spoke about women’s right to vote. Instead Tubman used the suffrage platform to promote her Home for the Aged, an institution she established to provide for indigent and elderly black people in the absence of state provisions for their care. Black suffragists like Tubman maintained a firm belief that access to the vote would not only provide them with increased social and political capital, but more autonomy over their own bodies and wellbeing.

Figure 5: The colonial capital of Delaware in New Castle, Delaware, now part of First State National Historical Park.

At the conclusion of my internship, I was faced with another scenario experienced time and again by public historians: turning over my research to my immediate supervisors. This particular part of my experience raised pertinent questions about what it means to be a public historian. While I could ultimately draw as many conclusions as I wished about the connections all three parks shared to the suffrage movement, in the end it is the NPS that shapes how my research is fused with interpretation. This realization was initially uncomfortable: as university-based scholars, we rarely have to worry (or think) about the ways our research and conclusions will be framed in the final product—we are typically the ones framing them! But as employees of a federal agency, there are more limitations on what NPS employees can or cannot say. At the end of the day, the NPS is also inherently a public agency. My research thus feeds into national initiatives to engage with public audiences, a widely shared goal amongst public historians that impacts far more people than a single journal article or scholarly monograph.

Nor does the NPS shy away from the sticky realities of commemoration; as I was coached early on before meeting with potential park partners, the NPS is commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial in all its complexity and uncomfortable reality, not celebrating some imagined harmonious vision of a unified movement. Despite whatever reservations I had at the beginning of my internship, the NPS does maintain a sincere commitment to critically engage in serious and sometimes discomforting conversations about our nation’s past. It is not a question of if the NPS will hesitate to utilize my research, but rather how the NPS will put it towards a critical reflection of a social movement as complex as women’s suffrage.

Commemorations like the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment provide space to reflect on the complicated trajectories of social movements like the struggle for women’s suffrage. These commemorative initiatives inherently ask us to reflect on our contemporary moment—we look backward at the same time we look forward to the work that remains to achieve any kind of lasting social, political, and racial equity. In this way, public historians can provide success and cautionary tale in equal measure, helping us navigate our present political moment and, in the process, uncovering silences in the archive along the way.

Figure 6: Over the course of the summer I visited Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and now a major hub for contemporary commemorative initiatives for the Nineteenth Amendment.

[1] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

-Brian Whetstone, Ph.D. Student, Department of History, UMass Amherst

Daniel Ellsberg’s Exclusive Interview with Past@Present

Daniel Ellsberg, one of the foremost political activists and whistleblowers in the U.S., is coming to the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Wednesday, October 30 to speak at the Campus Center Auditorium. UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) has recently acquired his invaluable private archive which spans the late 1940s to the 2010s and includes a wealth of material providing insight into the top-secret Pentagon Papers that he leaked to the press in 1971, as well as materials on the Vietnam War more broadly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his criminal trial, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, and more.

The collection promises to be a watershed for historians – as well as for SCUA. “This has potential to be transformational for the archive,” remarked SCUA head Rob Cox. The acquisition emerges out of the archive’s longstanding commitment to collecting interconnected histories of social justice work “in the [W.E.B.] Du Boisian fashion of thinking about how social change actually happens,” says Cox, and from the its particular strengths in the areas of work that Ellsberg is engaged in. “There’s been a lot of excitement from researchers already,” he notes.

In an exclusive interview with the UMass History Department’s blog Past@Present, the 88-year-old Ellsberg explains why he donated his documents to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and what they will offer to researchers and historians. “I would like people to come to realize,” he tells Past@Present, “how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is.”

Past@Present: You donated your papers to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to become available to scholars and the public, both in person and digitally, through Special Collections and University Archives at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. This collection, according to UMass News and Media Relations, “is so rich in material that it will take the equivalent of two years of a full-time archivist’s time to fully process and catalogue”. These documents are related to your involvement in important chapters of the U.S. history, including the Vietnam War and Watergate. Please tell us about this extraordinary collection of papers and photographs you gave UMass.

Ellsberg: Well, I’ll tell you something I haven’t had occasion to mention before. At one point, through a complicated process, the FBI got its hands on a large trove of my papers, especially sensitive ones. One of them, who was a security expert, said that “Daniel Ellsberg is what I call in our trade a pack rat”, meaning that I kept hold of notes and documents that passed under my hands in the course of my work.

My goal was to understand how the government works and to improve its performance. This was after seeing a performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which I was a high-level staff person. They came very close to ending most human life on Earth actually, to a nuclear war that would have destroyed civilization. I was trying to see how that came about and how it could be avoided in the future–how we could learn how the government really operates in ways that could improve our performance. And to that end, I have always thought it was essential to compare the organization working over a large sequence or a collection of incidents and not just looking very closely at one particular episode, like the Cuban missile crisis. A comparative study would enable us to see what common factors showed up there and how the systematic performance could be improved. 

For example, in 1964-65 I proposed, and it was supported by the government, a study of nuclear crises. One of those, for example, that I’d participated in as a Marine lieutenant in Alexandria harbor during the Suez Crisis of 1956, turned out to be a nuclear crisis. [former Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev made threats during that time of his ability to wipe out London or Paris if he chose, and he thought that his threats had a major effect on the crisis, which may or may not have been the case. That was just an incident where I had personal involvement and that led me to study that one particularly. I was given access to the State Department library shelves inside what amounted to be a backdoor, like correspondence between [the former U.S. president Dwight D.] Eisenhower and [the former Soviet Premier, Nikolai A.] Bulganin, Eisenhower and Khrushchev, and [the former U.S. president John F.] Kennedy and Khrushchev. I read a great deal of telephone conversation transcripts from that incident, which gave me a very different perspective on what had happened during the Suez Crisis. In any case, I looked at a number of cases, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and others.

After that, I went to Vietnam and saw, as a high-level participant staff, that escalation phase in 1964-65. I was there for two years and saw the horrible human impact of the very bad decision making that had gone on in the previous two years, when I was in Washington. And again, I wanted to take part in a study that would cover a long period of time and not just the period I was in, but all of it from 1945 to 1968. Again, my role, as I saw it, was to look at all the various of the forty-seven volumes of the McNamara study [the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara’s forty-seven-volume study of U.S. decision-making during the Vietnam War], which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, so as to see what patterns of behavior arose. I’m going to be speaking about those in one of my talks for PERI [the Political Economy Research Institute].

In my professional work, I participated in two moral catastrophes: one is the nuclear arms race and the other is the Vietnam War. Of course, the latter has great relevance to the wars we’re seeing now, like the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, which is very similar to Vietnam in many ways. So, I was really a participant observer. My purpose in all of my participation was to take notes and record my reflections and my speculations and my conclusions, as we went along for the purpose of learning lessons. Initially, I did this for the executive branch as I saw classified lessons that would help bureaucrats and officials. But then by the time I released the forty-seven volume Pentagon Papers, of course I felt I was working for the public and the Congress to reveal to them the necessity to rein in the executive branch, to use their constitutional powers as a check on the executive’s extremely bad decisions made in secret which they were badly informed about.

And so here we have not just a collection of historical notes from the period, but more than a half a century of reflections and analysis that I have done.

Past@Present: Why did you give these documents to UMass and why is archiving them important for researchers and historians?

Ellsberg: I wanted the information to be available and UMass offered the chance to do that much faster on a much larger scale. A particular attraction of UMass over a couple of other possibilities was their capacity to digitize this material and make it widely available, so that someone would not actually have to come to UMass Amherst and delve in into boxes, but could access it through the Internet. That was a very great attraction to me. I had already begun to digitize my files with another institution, but the pace was slower than I had hoped. 

Past@Present: Your collection covers many important aspects of the U.S. internal and external policies. How will scholars and especially historians benefit from the collection that you donated to UMass Amherst?

Ellsberg: A good deal of this information, nearly all of it, was classified at the time I worked with it 50 years ago. A lot of it has been declassified since. One aspect that does not generally get declassified or put out are drafts and preliminary versions of reports that show significant differences from the published in many ways from the finished classified reports. There are many objectives and considerations that are really deliberately concealed in the later report. So that’s of interest.

But in particular, I would like people to come to realize how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is. Yes, in many ways it’s more of an offensive policy than defensive policy.

As I look in histories, in the areas that I know about and I observed or participated in, I’m so struck by how little the historians ever really came to realize about what the ultimate objectives were and how the policy was shaped to that end. So, in a way, not only the public, but even historians live with a kind of child’s version of history that they are permitted to know about, which conceals very important aspects of it.

I would like the secrecy system to be subject to a real investigation and criticism hearings, which have never been held as far as I know in Congress. The secrecy system needs investigation and drastic change to enable us to be more of a democracy in which the government is accountable to the public and the public is in a real sense sovereign. That’s not the case now. So much of this is secret. And what is striking in a lot of the decision making, as is apparent in the Pentagon Papers, is that it looks actually terrible.  It is hard to imagine that definitely intelligent men could make judgments that in retrospect are so ill advised and unsound.

That is the reason we need to know more about that [the secrecy system], so Congress and the public can have more of a monitoring and checking effect on policy. It simply is not the case that we can afford to leave these decisions policies in the hands of these relatively small number of people making the decisions in secret. It’s not the case that they are taking good care of us at all. Disasters like our Vietnam policy have been mirrored in the Middle East in the last 20 years–really terrible decision-making. It is evident in my papers that I was part of that for a long time.

A key point I’ve been trying to make since I left the government, especially with my recent book, The Doomsday Machine, is to bring out that the decision-making in the area of nuclear weapons and policy is as bad as any decision-making that has ever been made. Let’s look back at the decisions that got us and various empires into World War I and resulted in the destruction of virtually all of those other empires along with 13 million humans. That decision-making does not look good. Well, the decision-making we’re doing now, which threatens not 13 million people but 7 billion people–nearly all life on Earth–is not better than what was made by statesmen who led us into World War I. This nuclear decision-making has been among the most secretive policies of the government–secrecy comparable, let’s say, to covert operations involving assassination. But the nuclear policies, which do not threaten one or ten or a handful of men but all humans, are also super-secret, which conceals extremely bad, unsound, unwise decision-making which threatens us all.

My life is almost coincident with the nuclear era. I was born in 1931. Two years after I was born, Leo Szilard patented the concept of a chain reaction in London. I was a fourteen-year-old when the Hiroshima bombs went off. They made a very strong impression on me of danger to humanity, which I described in my book. Nevertheless, in 1958, when I was 27, I started working directly on nuclear war planning and nuclear command and control at the RAND Corporation. Four years later, I drafted the secretary of defense guidance for the annual operational nuclear war plan. The options include the general framework of a strategy which has been pretty much the framework, ever since. It was a very radical change from the Eisenhower plan.

So that’s when I was 30 in 1961.  The next year I was a high-level staff participant in the Cuban missile crisis and I followed that for the next couple of years with very intense study of that crisis. And I have a great deal of documentation from that period, including my own notes and interviews. Then in 1964, I was invited into the government, as an employee on Vietnam, precisely in order to study the government from inside, in the midst of what was called an ongoing crisis in Vietnam. At the time we didn’t think of it as a nuclear crisis. It turned out to be a nuclear crisis at several points. For the last forty-four years, since the Vietnam war ended, I have been involved in anti-nuclear activism. So I have an enormous collection of material on various anti-nuclear (and anti-war) movements, as part of my overall archive.

Past@Present: All of this is very relevant to the current situation. It seems that a new era of global arms race has started under President Trump, between the U.S., Russia and possibly China. President Trump has also pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite warnings from many experts and former national security officials. Many questions have been raised about the decisions made by the Trump Administration about these critical nuclear issues. How do you see the importance of whistleblowers and their role in revealing the process of decision-making by the president and his officials about these issues? 

Ellsberg: Well, only whistleblowers can reveal to Congress, analysts, and the public vital information that is being wrongly withheld from them, while the information is still timely and urgent. Because if you wait 40 or 30 or 20 years for this information to come out through Freedom of Information Act or trust what the government chooses to reveal then, it’s long past the time when most of that material can still illuminate current events.

Now, that’s not entirely true because these misadventures do occur so frequently in such similar ways that even 50-year old material, like the Pentagon Papers, can be very illuminating and relevant. Still, it’s very important that people make unauthorized disclosures—and that’s really the definition of a whistleblower—particularly revealing wrongdoing that will not be authorized to reveal for decades, if ever. But if it’s revealed without authorization, there is a chance to change the events while they are happening. I think my own life and the papers do bring out the essential reality of the need for whistleblowers and the need, by the way, for a change in legislation that will protect them from prosecution.

What we’re going through right now, for example, about the anonymous whistleblower and the impeachment, the way it was handled shows what happens to information that would reveal wrongdoing. Namely it gets highly classified. And of course, this information did not involve national security. [The content of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president] should not have been classified at all according to the regulations or the criteria for classification. But in fact, it was then locked down in the most protected classification system, the so-called code word classification system, for things like what I said earlier were the most sensitive: assassinations, covert actions, overhearing of foreign leaders, and others. Why was it concealed like that? Well, obviously, because revealing it might lead to impeachment and or prosecution of the president. So, he doesn’t want that.

Is this an abuse of the classification system? Some would say so, but what I know and what my records reveal is that it is a normal use of the classification system. It’s not an aberration. It is the system itself, which is very largely for keeping from Americans Congress, courts, prosecutors, and voters information that might lead to the public’s replacing leadership with either another party or another person. Thus, the person who is the president and has control over information generally does not want that information out.

To a major extent that is what the classification system is for, especially for the overwhelming amount of classified material that is more than several years old. Almost none of it can yet be said after that point to affect national security. But it’s kept classified for decades and more, because it might prove embarrassing. And since you don’t know which parts are incriminating in context and since you can’t know in advance which details will look worst, which promises will not be kept, which predictions will prove stupid, which projects will turn out to be disasters, you classify everything to keep it all secret. 

In fact, criminality will be classified. If you’re a whistleblower exposing criminality, you can only do it at a risk or cost of prison. That’s absurd. And that’s the situation now.

Past@Present: In reference to the whistleblower who revealed Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader, President Trump said, “Why are we protecting a person that tells things that weren’t true?” When you released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, you knew that you would face major consequences and risks. You were accused of theft and conspiracy. Has anything changed since then in terms of protecting whistleblowers in the U.S.?

Ellsberg: Not much, but something on the bad side. President Obama indicted three times as many people for leaking or whistleblowing as all previous presidents put together. So that was a very bad development. And the law itself has evolved since my time in a way that’s unfavorable to leaking. But there has been some extension of the Whistleblower Protection Act for intelligence operatives, which the current whistleblower is using.  That did not exist in my day. So that is a change for the better.

But people have not generally observed the following point. The president and the White House were successfully locking down that complaint [about President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president], keeping it from Congress even though the law demanded that it go to Congress. The White House was successfully claiming, in effect, executive privilege in withholding it, in violation of the Act. It would not have gotten out without unauthorized disclosures, leaks to Congress telling them that the complaint existed, by whistleblowers who were not protected by the Act. In other words, even in this case where the original whistleblower was protected by the Act, it took unprotected leaks to get the information to Congress, which then demanded the information that the Act supposedly guaranteed them.

On the whole I would have to say things have gotten worse, because with the indictment of Julian Assange, who is a journalist, for the first time the Espionage Act is being used as an Official Secrets Act, like the British one, which incriminates journalists. That is a very ominous development. Whatever people think of Assange or what he did, he is in fact a publisher or a journalist. He is the first ever to be indicted as such for his journalism. And if he were extradited and tried here, I think he would be convicted. That would be an extremely ominous precedent for free speech and freedom of the press in this country.

Let me wrap this up. I think a tremendous amount of the material in my archive should have been available to Congress and the public decades ago. When it came across my desk or out of my typewriter, I should have revealed it. And others should have revealed it. Some of it was very little known, but a lot of it was really available to about a thousand other staffers in the Pentagon and in the field. And it did reveal illegal activity and, beyond that, extremely bad and deceptive decisions and lies. So, what my archive demonstrates is to what extent our actual foreign policy is unknown to Congress and the public, which gets a fairy tale account of what our foreign policy actually is. For example, something that’s going on today, who are our allies in the Middle East or in Syria? It’s impossible to know what the meaning of all that is unless you know what our actual covert connections to the Kurds and other combatant factions in the area have been over the last generation. 

Past@Present: I have a question about the classification system in the U.S. Do you think that the Congress and the politicians in both parties are ready to change this classification system?

Ellsberg: That’s a good question. First of all, it is certainly the case that they have not made any real effort to do that, even though there have been some resolutions in the past that would affect it. But they haven’t gotten anywhere and they were not passed. There have not been real serious hearings on the subject for at least 50 years. I don’t think they think much about it or know it as a problem. They take it for granted. They are not aware of how abusive and anti-democratic the system is. It is ignorance in the first instance. Whistleblowers are needed to reveal that.

Are they willing to change it? The members of the congress are afraid of what the FBI and the CIA and the NSA can reveal about their own private lives and their own political workings. They are definitely not eager to get in a fight with the intelligence community. They have taken it for granted that it is doing its job and has to be secret.

If this were to be raised, the current situation does provide a way in, because it is revealing so blatantly abuses both by the president and the secrecy system.  I think people would be willing to address that now in a way they wouldn’t have even a year ago or two years ago. So that is brand new.

But let me close with this thought. There were hearings on the classification system by the Government Operations Committee at the time that included testimony from William G. Florence, an official from the Pentagon who just retired after nearly 30 years of being pretty much in charge of writing the security regulations of the secrecy system. He told Congress, under oath, that in his judgment no more than 5 percent of what was marked classified, confidential, secret, or top secret deserved that classification at the time it was classified. By the way, five percent of millions of pages is still a lot of pages. But he said after that three or four years the amount to merit classification was about a tenth of that, or half of one percent, or one out of 200 pages. The Pentagon Papers were all marked top secret. When I put them out, the government was not able to prove that one sentence of the seven thousand pages actually hurt national security to be out. And these were marked Top Secret Sensitive. Nobody has noticed or remarked on that empirical demonstration of how abusive the secrecy system is.

Past@Present: You are visiting UMass Amherst in late October. You have been a political activist, author, and a champion of democracy, truth and free speech. What will you tell UMass students when you visit us here?

Ellsberg: Well, the proposed subject of my talk on the 30th is the ethics of threatening omnicide. The omnicide is the killing and really the murder of most people on earth, which is what our war plans envision. Just recently I’ve decided to make that more personal than I originally intended, less abstract and philosophical, by showing what I learned and the ethical problems I confronted at various points in my own career. So, in that sense it will be a something of a mirror of the entire archives.

I intend to illustrate what is to be revealed in that archive as a whole. Basically, that has to do with how endless wars get started and continue, like Afghanistan, and how catastrophes are prepared and come about as a result of careful planning in secret to implement reckless secret decisions.

– Interview by Mohammad Ataie

UMass History Department Holds Oral History Workshop with the Moving Memories Lab

On October 1st, the UMass Oral History Lab held an oral history workshop to provide introductory level training to students and community partners who are planning to do oral history. Oral History Lab faculty Emily T. Hamilton (an Assistant Professor, oral historian, and historian of science), Samuel J. Redman (Associate Professor and oral and public historian); Jason Higgins (a UMass Ph.D. candidate and Director of the Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project), and Tanya Pearson (a Ph.D. student and Director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project housed at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College) welcomed a group of new oral historians to introduce some basic interview techniques, tips on recording and staging oral history interviews, and an in-depth discussion of oral history ethics.

“The UMass Oral History Lab serves to bring together students, scholars, and community groups to collaboratively improve oral history projects of all kinds,” says Professor Samuel Redman in response to Past@Present’s query about this workshop. “One way we go about doing this is by organizing occasional one-day Oral History Crash Course workshops. Recent UMass Oral History Lab Crash Course workshops have taken place at UMass Amherst, UMass Springfield, Brown University, Clark University, and Berkshire Community College. In the workshop, we practice our interviewing skills and work to develop our approaches to writing about and archiving oral histories. Workshop participants have gone on to establish their own oral history projects and make more accessible existing archival oral histories.”

The October 1st workshop was attended by students and scholars from inside and outside the UMass Amherst. “We were thrilled to welcome a large and diverse group of professionals connected to the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts,” says Redman. “Additionally, we were fortunate to welcome four additional graduate students from the Department of History at UMass Amherst – each with a varying degree of previous oral history experience. Having the opportunity to come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities related to this methodology is exciting. Often, as historians, our work puts us into isolation or in small teams. It is a pleasure, therefore, to have the opportunity to collectively discuss the problems and promise related to recorded interviews with a room full of passionate historians and professionals.”

Jason Higgins, a UMass Ph.D. candidate who was part of organizing and facilitating the workshop, says that the participants learned “to plan oral history projects, ask effective questions, and follow principles and best practices of the Oral History Association.” During his portion of the workshop, Higgins provided in the workshop an introduction to ethical concerns of doing oral history. “While the workshop could not exhaust all of the potential dilemmas, it focused on key issues that oral historians must learn to navigate ethically and responsibility, including trauma and shared authority,” says Higgins. Other topics covered during the workshop included project planning, interview techniques, transcription, recording equipment, privacy and informed consent, and a variety of approaches to making oral history accessible (i.e. documentaries, websites, exhibits, etc.), and more.

Typically, the Oral History Crash Course trains local residents working on a range of different projects. This rendition was different – and special, in that it was undertaken in conjunction with a new collaborative, community-based initiative. Hailing from Forbes Library, Northampton Open Media, Northampton Senior Services, Historic Northampton, the Center for New Americans and the Lilly Library, the local librarians, archivists, and historians in attendance are all partnering on the forthcoming “Moving Memories Lab.” Spearheaded by Forbes Library and supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the lab will eventually enable community members to record and preserve their stories, photos and other memories, and to add these materials to the Forbes Library’s local history collection. Audio recording equipment will be available to borrow via Forbes’ Library of Things program, and project participants will eventually train other community members in using digitization equipment, caring for digital memories and files, and recording oral histories. Informed by the earlier work of the District of Columbia Public Library and Queens Public Library, this project will make the Forbes Library the only public library using the memory lab model in New England.

“We were excited to kick off the activities for the Moving Memories Lab with a day of learning and professional development that brought all our community partners together in one space to get to know each other, share ideas, and hear about the many oral history projects in progress in our area,” noted Heather Diaz of Forbes Library, adding that the projects explored ranged from a teen podcasting workshop to the Baystate Hotel Music History Archive to Historic Northampton’s Single Room Occupancy project. “It was great to take space to explore what a powerful tool oral history can be, and, for public libraries, how we can use this tool to enable our community to record our own histories in our own voices.”

Another participant in the October 1st workshop was Peter Kleeman, a MA Public History student at UMass and co-founder of the Space Age Museum. He says that he found the workshop useful for improving his oral history techniques. “Doing interviews is an art form that requires a combination of soft skills and technical aptitude, so I am eager to continually learn from others with more experience. The workshop provided some insights from four oral historians who have focused on very different types of projects,” Kleeman tells Past@Present. He says that hearing the accounts and strategies helped reinforce aspects of his approach as well as introduce new things to try. “The workshop focused more on interview methods but also offered a general overview of how to use common equipment. Besides developing my own oral history projects for the Space Age Museum, I am hoping my growing experience in this field will qualify me for similar work at other institutions when I graduate,” adds Kleeman.

Both Redman and Higgins believe that the importance of oral history for students and scholars and the related challenges make holding similar workshops necessary for students and scholars. “Oral history is an increasingly necessary skill for historians working on topics in modern or recent history,” emphasizes Redman. “Moreover, oral history provides another tool in our toolkits as academic historians, public historians, and history practitioners. By this, I mean that all historians, archivists, and museum professionals can likely benefit from some level of familiarity with oral history.”

“Since about the mid-twentieth century, oral history has grown as both a sub-field in history and a methodological approach to studying the past by recording interviews with first-hand witnesses to past events,” says Redman. “Not only is it the case that many historians (and scholars in other fields) are recording new oral histories, there also exist thousands of oral histories on a wide variety of topics sitting in archives and closets across the United States and around the world. How do we interpret these unique sources? How might we understand the specific legal and ethical challenges relating to using these materials while also embracing the unique potential related to voice and storytelling when teaching about the past?” These are key questions that, according to Redman, students and scholars can discuss in oral history workshops. 

Raad blog post

This past summer, I was a Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, which is an outdoor museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley and New England. It is made up of a series of antique houses, some that are interpreted to various periods in the 18th and 19th centuries and some set up with thematic exhibits. I worked in the Curatorial Department in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life—Historic Deerfield’s modern museum facility—under the supervision of the Collections Manager, Kate Kearns. We undertook two projects: the first was completing an inventory of all objects in viewable storage in the attic of the Flynt Center and the second entailed designing and fabricating custom storage mounts to rehouse the shoe collection.

The inventory was a daunting undertaking. Moving case by case, shelf by shelf, we examined over 3,000 objects. We cross-referenced the objects present on each shelf with a printout from the database. These objects ranged from forks to chairs, teacups to clocks. I checked off objects that were in the correct location, took note of objects that were on the shelf but missing from the list, and marked as missing objects that were not actually where they were supposed to be. After each session I would return to the computer to update each object’s record, to verify or update its location. I was surprised by how many objects ended up being missing (many showing up in later cases), and how many objects that were previously marked as missing were right there on the shelf (those records were particularly satisfying to update). 

This was the first comprehensive inventory done on the viewable storage cases in several years. I realized just how challenging it is to keep tabs on every single last item with a small staff and thousands of objects in the collection, some of which are frequently moving around for study, photography, loans, or special exhibits.

I also learned about the nitty-gritty logistics of collections management, from keeping track of different numbering systems used over the decades to accessing a particular case only before the museum opens to the public as not to obstruct the entrance to the elevator. Throughout this process, I became proficient in Mimsy XG, the collections management system shared by the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium. Many times, I had to split one record into multiples, like for tea sets or matching cutlery, so that individual objects could be separately described and tracked. 

I found myself frequently thinking about the cataloging work I did last spring for the Hadley Farm Museum in Prof. Marla Miller’s Museum Studio Practicum. Those of us in the class each chose about 50 objects to document, research, and create records for. The goal was to update the museum’s catalogue from a list typed in the 1960s and added to by hand in a spiral notebook. Even with the amount of time we collectively put into this project, we only but began this large undertaking.

Often, I had to pry myself away from artifact analysis to keep working through the objects. As an archaeologist trained in close observation and materials analysis, I wanted to find out everything I could about each object. The ketchup bottle had a particular scar on the bottom and number stamped in. What machine was it made on and in which factory? I noticed that one pair of ice skates was made from a cut bar of steel. Was it mass-produced as opposed to the other, more carefully handcrafted pairs? These questions for the most part had to be sidelined in order to accomplish the task of cataloguing my share of objects in a reasonable amount of time. 

Museums are so important as repositories and stewards of material culture. I knew this going into the summer, but I did not yet appreciate the magnitude of objects management and care. 

At Historic Deerfield, I also worked on a preventative conservation project where I designed and fabricated custom storage mounts for thirty-four pairs of shoes, approximately one third of the shoe collection. The shoes were in need of attention, housed on crowded shelves and some sagging under their own weight. Kate, along with Ned Lazaro, Curator of Textiles, had identified the shoe collection as a priority for some preventative care and rehousing and I was excited to put my crafting and sewing skills to use. I am proud of the quality of the mounts I created, but am very conscious of the shoes that I did not get to. 

Conservation is an ongoing, iterative process. Museum collections must be frequently reevaluated as they age and within the context of evolving best practices. But given the realities of limited time, staff, and/or money, prioritization becomes a crucial skill to practice.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of prioritization, as well as the volume of collections in museums such as Historic Deerfield, from the perspective of an archaeologist and researcher. Archaeologists approach material culture with different questions than a curator. Context is very important for archaeologists. Historic furniture, decorative arts, and textiles that have changed hands, been bought, sold, collected and never excavated lack archaeological context and sometimes lack any provenance at all. Can archaeologists shift the kinds of questions they ask, and their mindsets, to reduce the amount of destructive excavations? Why are we unearthing more and more artifacts to catalogue, document, and care for in perpetuity while there are so many objects—metal, wood, glass, ceramic—gathering dust on shelves? Can archaeological materials analysis instead focus more on museum collections?

When I was a graduate student in the Archaeological Materials program in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, I took a two-semester series on Materials in Ancient Societies. The theme for the year was metals. For the lab component of the course, we teamed up with the Department of Conservation and Collections Management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to carry out a metallurgical analysis of Nubian mummy-eye inlays in their Ancient Egyptian collection. These were metal frames in the shape of eyes that were inserted into wooden coffins.

I destructively analyzed one metal eye inlay by cutting it into two pieces to reveal a cross-section of the object’s interior. This artifact had been in storage for almost a century. It had never been put on display, and was likely never going to be. The staff at the MFA had decided that the benefits of studying it metallurgically and chemically outweighed the irreversible act of cutting a piece of it off. I determined that the metal was a copper-tin bronze and it was cast into the shape of an eye using a mold. It was a low-quality cast, cooled slowly, and it was not subsequently worked. Our research contributed to understanding the method of production of these metal objects and, in a small way, towards grasping the ritual significance associated with the tombs of Nubian royalty.

In what ways can such partnerships be promoted and fostered between archaeologists and museums of history and art? We should consider how, in the field of archaeology, excavating new sites could be deemphasized with a focus instead turning to existing collections. At the same time, what is the best way to start the conversation with curators and collections managers on the benefits of conducting scientific investigations of (and perhaps destructively sampling) an accessioned object?

Danielle’s summer internship at Historic Deerfield was made possible by a Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Intern Fellowship. To read more about the shoe mounting and rehousing project, check out Danielle’s post on the Historic Deerfield Blog from August 22, 2019: https://www.historic-deerfield.org/blog/2019/8/22/gaining-a-foothold-on-the-shoe-collection

Danielle Raad is a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD student in Anthropology, UMass Amherst