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Student Thoughts

We sat down with author, public historian, and PhD student Ross Caputi to discuss his first book, The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History, co-written with Richard Hil and Donna Mulhearn and coming out this year with the University of Massachusetts Press. The Sacking of Fallujah reveals how the people of Fallujah themselves experienced the U.S. sieges and sacking of the city, and the casualties, political destabilization, and infrastructure crises they faced in the aftermath. In this interview, Caputi discusses how the book came to be, and the reparations framework utilized by the Islah Reparations Project, which public historians can use to think about reparations and the forms they should take.

The Sacking of Fallujah is now available for pre-order on Amazon and from the UMass Press website. The book’s official release date is April 8, 2019.

Caputi’s next project focuses on the Italian village of Grumento Nova, and combines historical linguistics with oral history to document its distinctive language and how it has been shaped by modernization. You can find out more about his work here, and follow his Twitter @caputi_ross.

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Public History master’s students Jacob Boucher, Emma Winter Zeig, Amelia Zurcher, Kendall Taivalkoski, and  LJ Woolcock met and reflected on the panel “Getting Sexy At Historic Sites”, a panel that took place at this year’s Association for State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting. UMass students took advantage of our program membership to attend six “hot-topic” sessions, broadcast live at the Kansas City meeting.

The topic of sexuality is not commonly discussed in historic sites and museums, despite its rising importance in academic history. Some sites consider sex & sexuality to be “too sensitive” for a broad public audience; others may take it to be akin to sharing “gossip.” However, the history of sexuality provides us with powerful tools for understanding the lives of the people who inhabited our sites, and to unpack the structures of power which shape society and culture.

For these reasons, we were thrilled to watch and discuss “Getting Sexy at Historic Sites.” The panel focused on how to bring the topic of sexuality into the museum, and especially within historic house museums, where these types of stories are particularly relevant but often go unaddressed. We were expecting to hear about the interpretation of LGBTQ history within historic houses, and looked forward to hearing about interpretive techniques that have been successful in incorporating sexual narratives into museum exhibits and tours.

To open the panel, Susan Ferentino (author of Interpreting LGBT History in Museums & Historic Sites (2015)–winner of the National Council on Public History prize for best book in the field that year) presented an overview of the scholarly study of sexuality, and how it views sexuality as much more than just sex acts. The history of sexuality, she observed, encompasses diverse areas such as childbirth, marriage, love, cultural assumptions and anxieties, gender, and race, all of which are already being interpreted at many sites. She then moved on to discuss why sexuality should be interpreted within the context of the historic house museum. Scholars often look to sexual narratives to discuss power dynamics – how standards of sexuality enforce behavior in men and women, who has access to sex with whom, and how race, class, and gender intersect in matters of sex and sexuality. She pointed out that historic house museums provide wonderful opportunities for the public to experience the intersection between personal intimacy and the broader topics of race, class, the family, and policing. They are the locus of sexuality in people’s lives, and were also the site of a lot of sexual education before that subject was taught in public schools.  

Angela Smith of North Dakota State University then presented on the ongoing research on Melvina Massey, a African American Madam in Fargo, North Dakota, in the late 19th century. She discussed the discovery of Massey in archival sources, the process of research on her life over the course of five years, and the various ways that she and her students interpreted Massey to the community of Fargo, including museum exhibits and documentaries. Smith focused less on Massey herself than how she brought Massey’s story into the college classroom. A good deal of the research was done by her students, and Smith described her undergraduate students’ enthusiasm for uncovering Massey’s life through public records and archives.  

Kaci Lynn Johnson, another member of the panel, was among the students in Smith’s class; she has since become the curator at the Cass County Historical Society, whichhas continued to display exhibits on Melvina Massey. Johnson spoke about the different historic sites in Cass County that are beginning to interpret sexuality, including historic houses, a saloon, and a school.

Ferentino’s analysis of historic house museums made us think about the importance of bringing sexuality into museums and engaging our audience with the stories and questions it brings up. However, we noticed a change between Ferentino’s introduction and the rest of the panel — namely, a difference between the academic definition of the history of sexuality and the one that most visitors carry in their minds. Ferentino described a broad historical purview, while the latter two speakers focused more on the aspects that visitors to their sites would be interested in learning about: how often did people have sex? How do historians know something like that? And how did LGBTQ identities play into the sexual lives of historical figures?  

Angela Smith’s project showed the potential to bring sex and sexuality into a historic landscape by trying to find the present day locations of historic brothels. Her students used mapping and historical archaeology to uncover the site of Massey’s brothel.  More than just illuminating the landscape of the town, this investigation shows how brothels and sexual desire fit into the town’s life and social structure. Johnson’s work built on this initiative, as she showed how the sites run by the Cass County Historical Society provided the opportunity to break down scholarly conceptions underlying the history of sexuality for a broader audience. Further, by interpreting multiple sites in conversation with one another, we can bring together multiple narratives of sexuality in the same geographic area. The home, the saloon, and the brothel speak to different sexual experiences, but exist simultaneously and in relation to one another.

While this panel raised many possibilities for implementing stories of sex and sexuality in historic houses, we found one important narrative largely missing from the discussion: LGBTQ history. None of the panelists directly addressed the unique questions that come with interpreting LGBTQ narratives in a public context, which was concerning, considering the dire need for these stories to become a part of the larger historical landscape. However, it underscored the difficulty of interpreting LGBTQ stories in domestic spaces, and in particular historic house museums. Much of  LGBT history took place in the streets, in bars, clubs, cafeterias, and other public spaces, which are not represented by the home. Some attempts to interpret LGBTQ history came up in the discussion that followed the panel, as members of the audience shared their institutions’ attempts to interpret LGBTQ history for a broad audience. Examples include the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Parkeology’s “Queen’s Circle” exhibit on cruising in San Diego.

Together we wondered what strategies for interpretation were employed, and the individual stories that these institutions had found and presented to the public. We heard about many different types of interpretation–museum exhibits, documentaries, house tours, and more–but presenters did not go into detail about the individual storie they told, or how these broke down the topic of sexuality to a broad audience. For example, how do we address complex topics such as power structures along with the stories of individuals within our sites? Integrating these two together seems to us to be essential to bridging the gap between scholars and museum professionals’ ideas of sexuality, and the ideas that the public brings with them to our institutions.

Sexuality is an essential topic that all historic sites, not just historic house museums, need to begin to address. Sex and sexuality are powerful tools of interpretation, as they are closely linked to our own lives and experiences. The question remains, how can we provide complex and inclusive interpretation that reflects the historical contingency of sexuality, breaks down big concepts, and brings our visitors stories that they will find meaningful and memorable?

Austin Clark, MA Candidate, UMass Amherst

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.

Like this Manatee

 

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Perri Meldon, M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

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 Places program 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.

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Alex Asal, History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

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.

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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.

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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.

Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.

On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.

My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.

I had stumbled into new territory.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

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