Archive

In the Field

By Catherine White

The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.

Black and white photograph of a large clapboard house with front porch and awning. Three people in white sit in the lefthand corner of the image.
Theodor Geisel’s childhood home in Springfield, MA, circa 1906. Courtesy Springfield Museums.

Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.   

During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner. 

I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.

But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.

  • Black and white scan of handwritten 1910 census record.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Contemporary photo of a brown wooden cabinet with the doors open.

And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.

I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.

Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.

Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.

To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.

I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.

Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors. 

  1. Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  2. Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

by Camesha Scruggs

I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.

My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project. 

The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training. 

Camesha Scruggs speaks with the public at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, MA.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.”[1] I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.

Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled. 

Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world. 

As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.

The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot.  Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them. 

As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.

During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations. 

These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.

Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.

Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.

[1] Department of the Interior, National Park Service Du Bois Boyhood Homesite National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form  https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/440b0922-0e6d-4011-95ea-404ec06ef81b Accessed August 2, 2019.

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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By Emily Whitted

Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation.  But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans? 

Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.

Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website
https://www.collingwoodnorrisdesign.com/visible-mending.
Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.

Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or  strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).  

Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair. 

Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia. https://www.librarycompany.org/

Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.

Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.

Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning. 

Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!

Email: ewhitted@umass.edu

Twitter: @knitwhitted

Instagram: @knitwhitted

  1. Kurutz, Steven. “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” The New York Times. March 12, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydx4k63z

By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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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 Sojourner Truth, 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.” 

Note: the first published edition of this article omitted Sojourner Truth’s name from the list of statues honoring women in Central Park. We apologize for this error.


[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.

Helen Kyriakoudes is an M.A. student in History who is pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate, UMass Amherst. Her 2020 internship was supported with a Charles K. Hyde Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

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

Tianna Darling is an M.A. student in History who is pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate, UMass Amherst. Her 2020 internship was supported with a Charles K. Hyde Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

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 Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD candidate in Anthropology, UMass Amherst.  Her 2020 internship was supported with a Judith A. Barter Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

Works Cited

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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