“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
 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
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.),
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
“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
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?
“So…what is public history?” Folks attending Adirondack Architectural Heritage’s (AARCH) day-long tours ask me this all the time. My sarcastic answer is “it’s the opposite of private history,” followed by a more serious explanation that public history is applied history out in the world. A still unsatisfied, confused look prompts me to further explain that historic preservation projects, working with communities, public stakeholders, and local governments, museums, nonprofits, and other institutions on any project with history at its core qualifies as public history. My work as AARCH’s Educational Programs Director falls under this umbrella through public programming centered on architecture, history, historic preservation, and conservation, as well as institutional outreach toward communities both large and small.
As a public historian, I am used to telling people that defining the field remains tricky. Just as anyone working to use or reuse pieces of the built environment may be a preservationist, anyone using proper methodological processes, interpreting primary and secondary sources, and drawing on wider contexts to create content for varied audiences may serve as a public historian. However, some recent scholars have worked to define public history as a practice. In her work on the early history of National Parks and public history as a profession, Denise Meringolo explains that public history retains its earliest roots in historic preservation. Mid-nineteenth century elite, white women formed the core of the preservation community through the establishment of organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association . In his recent textbook exploring the field, Thomas Cauvin explains that public history emerged professionally during the 1970s. Practitioners initially defined “public history” as history practiced outside of the academy. However, this definition lacks the context of working inside and alongside of the academy out in the public. Cauvin concludes that while public history remains hard to define, “We may all become public historians, but it requires training and awareness of the challenges we can face while working in and for the public” . Like defining oneself as a preservationist working in any capacity to reuse the built environment, defining public history remains in the eye of the beholder. After an AARCH outing, each participant becomes a preservationist and gains the insight to better understand the past in a wider context. They have the tools to explore deeper histories through architecture and become public historians themselves.
Public historian working in preservation are also tasked with mediating the balance between history and the landscape. In the case of an organization with more of a preservationist and advocacy bent like AARCH, promoting the preservation of place itself is as important as conveying the stories that structures convey. For me, negotiating the boundaries between interpreting accurate historical contexts through a particular structure or piece of the built environment is what public history is all about. Just as our expert hosts discuss on AARCH’s summer outings, the built environment in the Adirondacks provides a window in the story of human interaction with the environment. In an era of observable climate change across the globe, understanding the Adirondacks as a space where humans’ interaction with diverse landscapes and environments proves crucial. Providing a history to preservation practice in the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park places the region in a larger context of understanding how communities and environments continuously interact with one another. Built structures and nature exhibit long, interwoven histories across the North Country. Everyone within the Blue Line, both resident and visitor, can gain the ability to become public historians in their own communities through exploring historic structures, buildings, memorials, and other pieces of the built environment.
Ultimately, as a practicing public historian and preservationist, my goal remains to task attendees and Adirondack communities to research, experience, and share their own histories. Simultaneously, I hope to use history as a base for cultivating a strong preservation ethic among regional communities supporting adaptive reuse, green projects, and interpretive progress across the North Country. This is public history and preservation in action. Each borrows from the other. Just as public historians are often preservationists, preservationists practice public history.
Nolan Cool is currently Educational Programs Director at Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). This blog post is also cross-featured on AARCH’s blog at www.aarch.org/blog.
 Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiv; For more on early preservationist groups like to MVLA, see Patricia West’s Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (1999).
 Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook in Practice, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10-11.
This past semester, a group of graduate students from the history department worked on “Gender, Media, and Access to Audience” as a follow-up to the “Women of Rock” project that Tanya Pearson, PhD student, started in 2014 while attending Smith College. She explains below the origins and the process of this project that received great attention.
My group mates and were assigned to a project: To organize a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. So they weren’t working on the Women of Rock Oral History Project collection. We just used the interviews as historical context and had intended to create pages for those women on Wikipedia, and to create a subject page for the collection. But we had hoped to focus equally on local musicians. Wikipedia’s rules and regulations created almost impenetrable hurdles and so we organized the two part event, Gender, Media, and Access to Audience.
I’d also experienced Wikipedia’s gender bias, first hand, when I attempted to update pages and create a page for the Women of Rock Oral History Project (all of this is documented in the articles below).
We pitched the event to local media and advertised it on Twitter and Facebook. We had about 40 people attend the roundtable discussion– musicians, publicists, bookers, fans, and one Wikipedia editor. The conversation centered around the gender bias that exists in local media (and larger media outlets), documentation, “notable” sources and grassroots organizing. The live event featured 22 local bands/musicians and was covered by the Valley Advocate–we intended to draw attention to bands who would not normally be granted access to that kind of exposure.
Finally, a female Wikipedia editor from NYC saw our tweets and Facebook posts and created a page for the Women of Rock Oral History Project. She belongs to a group of women wikipedia editors who prioritize creating and updating pages for ‘marginalized’ individuals (women/queer/trans subjects). We’ll be working together, plotting, scheming and making space for women in the future.
The heat beat down, while an endless stream of tour busses filled the air with an ambient grinding noise. The air also smelled faintly skunky (thanks to recent legislation in Massachusetts). But between it all, I managed to keep the twin speakers booming out the words of Frederick Douglass, rendered in 56 different voices.
This is Boston Common, July 3rd, 2017, and clustered around the 54th Massachusetts Memorial are almost 250 people, gathered to participate in “Reading Fredrick Douglass.” Every year Mass Humanities, the organization where I interned this summer as a Hyde Fellow, coordinates the public reading of Fredrick Douglass’s speech “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro” in almost twenty locations across the state. Boston Common is the flagship event, where people line up to take turns reading a paragraph from the famous speech, or to simply follow along on a on smartphones or printed copies. This program is public humanities in action.
Mass Humanities, like the public humanities, is deceptively complex. When asked to explain what the organization is, I usually start by saying that Mass Humanities is the Massachusetts Humanities Council. If that doesn’t clear things up, I move onto the technical definition: Mass Humanities is a small non-profit organization that distributes grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and numerous other sources (both public and private) in support of public humanities programming throughout Massachusetts. With a description like that, you might be fooled into thinking that the organization is larger than it is. But as it stands, Mass Humanities is 10 employees working out of an 18th century farmhouse in Northampton, MA. It used to be less.
Austin Clark in front of the Mass Humanities farmhouse
Two of those employees were my supervisors, Abbye Meyer and Rose Sackey-Milligan. They worked as Grant Program Officers, in various capacities, and with them I completed most of my work as an intern. It was a diverse array of work, from working out how to giveaway 11,000+ books to editing grant applications, but it all asked the same question, again and again. What is public humanities? Understanding Mass Humanities internal definition of humanities, as well as honing and coming to understand my own, helped make my experience vibrant.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is a monolithic building located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington DC. Its neighbors include the World Bank, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and just down the road the White House and the Washington Monument. The building, constructed in the 1930s, is adorned with paintings from Native American artists and prints from Ansel Adams. It is home to, among other divisions, the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Bureau of American Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service (NPS). Tucked into a wing of the seventh floor is the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education (CROIE), where I had the honor of completing my Hyde Scholarship-sponsored internship in the summer of 2017.
View from the Rooftop of the Department of the Interior Building
The cafeteria of the Department of the Interior features paintings rendered by Native American artists in the 1930s
My supervisors were Barbara Little, an archaeologist and program manager of CROIE, and Paloma Bolasny, youth program coordinator and historian. I worked with a team of inspiring colleagues; they are the innovative minds behind the NPS Teaching with Historic Placesprogram and the NPS LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer) Heritage Theme Study. My assigned tasks with CROIE were two-fold. I was to assist Paloma with DC-area events for other National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE) interns. My internship, though with NPS CROIE, was through the National Council for Preservation Education. My second task was to develop the content for a disability history series on the Telling All Americans’ Stories website.
The summer before I started my career at UMass, I finally got around to reading a book that had been recommended to me a half-dozen times: Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, by Allan Bérubé. I’ve also been interested in the history of LGBT people pre-Stonewall, and this book was particularly fascinating to me because World War II has such a prominent role in Americans’ cultural memory. Immediately I wanted to find more—more stories, more analysis, more intersections, more everything. Unfortunately, scholarly work that looks at LGBT people during the war is relatively thin on the ground, and much of what I found drew almost entirely on Bérubé’s work rather than bringing in new sources.
Therein lies the problem. How can one find “new sources” for this topic and this time period? Bérubé was lucky enough to collect oral histories from gay and lesbian veterans, but in 2017, few WWII vets are left to tell their stories. The federal government may preserve documents about anti-homosexual policies and trials, but those often fail to capture the details of an individual’s lived experience. And in a time when “queer” and “homosexual” were dirty words and related terms were not widely known (or not yet invented), few LGBT people put their identities on paper in clear, readable terms. If historians want to draw any conclusions, they have to dig through mountains of documents, dozens of archives, and a near-impenetrable wall of careful innuendo. It’s almost impossible for someone who doesn’t already know where to look.
So I set the topic aside until the summer of 2017, when it popped up again in an unexpected place.
This summer, I was an intern with the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. Like many archives, the Archives Center frequently fields requests from offsite researchers and provides them with scans of relevant materials. The Archives Center, however, is ahead of the curve when it comes to digitizing their materials. Every scan that is requested is carefully catalogued in the Archives Center database, with the goal of ultimately making it digitally accessible to the public. My job was to process these scans so that they could be uploaded to the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA), which hosts the finding aids for all Smithsonian-related archives.
The first step was to open a collection in Adobe Bridge and add or correct metadata for each image. One collection that fell under my purview was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection, an artificial subject-based collection that aims to collect materials “related to all aspects of the LGBT community and the civil rights issues pertaining thereto.” Not everyone represented in the collection is LGBT, but the accessioning archivists do their best to find as much material as possible to represent the lives of both acknowledged LGBT people, and those who lived in same-sex environments regardless of sexual orientation. By studying these environments, historians can start to theorize what was considered “normal,” slightly suspicious, or definitely “queer” according to the time period in question.
I was going through the collection in Bridge when I first came upon this photo:
A photograph of Billy and Howard, last names unknown, in suits and Navy caps. LGBT Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst
When I first walked into the Belchertown Stone House Museum, its potential hit me from all sides. This unique community fixture proudly houses the material and archival history of its community. After an eventful first year in the Public History Program studying museums, asking questions, and seeking answers about the value of historic house museums to the communities they serve, I viewed the Stone House as a canvass for testing, experimenting, and tinkering with potential ideas. Using the house’s spaces, I wanted to explore how the site could better serve its neighbors and visitors alike. Through several weeks of testing the ideological boundaries with Belchertown Historical Association (BHA) board members and the museum committee, my hope remains that I left a positive institutional impact toward the goal of building and sustaining a greater level of visitor and community engagement.
Although the site is only open one day out of the week, core tasks that I undertook included using PastPerfect software to catalogue documents, photos, and objects in the site’s extensive archives, as well as giving tours to visitors. Alongside developing a more simplified, flexible, and institutionally accessible tour script, I catalogued several historical photographs and some new collection accessions. Working only one day on-site proved challenging, but also provided time to study, and later digest, the ebbs and flows of the BHA’s institutional culture. As a very small organization of roughly twenty engaged representatives, all of whom volunteer, management limitations created some difficulty in figuring out my role as an intern. I opted to work on developing and presenting a core institutional message geared toward reevaluating the site’s relevance to its surrounding community, as well as its visitors. For example, I replaced basic “Do Not Touch” signs with wittier, more light-hearted text. Although only a small step, I believe that these minor actions present a more human side of the organization.