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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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Margo Shea 2In 2015, I set off for south-central Tennessee’s South Cumberland plateau to take up a two-year  Mellon fellowship with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies at Sewanee: the University of the South.  The Collaborative, a partnership with Yale, envisioned starting and sustaining multidisciplinary, community-engaged, curricular projects that had place as their focus. In other words: pretty much any public history endeavor would fit the bill.

I had some basic goals for my Mellon project.  I wanted it to be something I could begin and complete in two years.   I wanted it to be digital.  I wanted it to engage local history and memory.  I wanted students with different interests and strengths to have meaningful roles to play.  Most of all, I wanted to undertake a humanities project that the pragmatic people of the region would see as useful — if not while I was doing it, then at least when it was done.  The long and tortuous history of scholars traveling to Appalachia to study its cultures and leave again seemed like another link in the chain of extractive industries and weighed heavily on me; I hoped to contribute something through my work.

I did not arrive as a scholar of Appalachia.  I am not even, strictly speaking, a U.S. historian.  Prior to Sewanee, my major research and project experiences were in Northern Ireland.  When I discussed this opportunity with David Glassberg, my mentor, he said, “You are a scholar of place and memory whose first project was in Northern Ireland and whose second project will be in Appalachia.”  I was given a chance to broaden and deepen both my scholarship and my public history practice.   It is a rare and wonderful thing to be handed an opportunity to create a project and to have lots of time and money to make it work. The flip side, of course, is that if it fails, fingers are inevitably going to point at you.  Hanging my professional identity on the hook made it all a little scary but exciting.

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The Places Project  emerged  and evolved as a crowd-sourced placemaking project.  A series of digital maps, it collects, shares and preserves stories of places that matter to the people who live and work on and around “the mountain:” south central Tennessee’s South Cumberland plateau.  In eighteen months, it engaged college and high school students and community members to create of a “people’s map” of 600 stories and reflections of significant places and why they matter.   During this time, stories were collected, recorded, geocoded, sorted and visualized using Tableau data visualization software.  Online maps can be searched by a variety of variables, including community, age, theme, etc. We also constructed a physical map —  an aerial photograph of the region with pockets built into it to hold stories and photos and a series of quotations from participants’ stories written on the map itself.  We updated a Facebook page, had a website, talked it up on local television and got mentions in local newspapers.  It became a topic of conversation and a window into possibilities for local residents to think about and reflect on their stories, their histories and what they want for the future.

What made the Places Project particularly significant was place.  The South Cumberland plateau is geographically, historically and culturally uniquely illegible — certainly to outsiders but also to residents.  Outcroppings, bluffs and coves mark a topographically diverse landscape, leading to the development of very small communities with little or no interaction with one another.  It is sparsely populated and is often described in terms of what is wrong with it: poverty, infant mortality, lack of educational and educational opportunity.  And it is home to the University of the South, which was founded on the eve of the Civil War by the Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church so that young men of Southern stock could get a liberal arts education without leaving the region.  The university covers 13,000 acres, provides a liberal arts education, is a major employer and represents a place apart, with gates at its main entrance to sever it from surrounding communities.  

The idea behind the Places Project was to change the story of “the Mountain.”  It invited people to share what mattered to them in a format that brought experiences and narratives together without collapsing them, privileging some over others or pathologizing their tellers.  It did not focus on the university community, nor did it exclude it.  By collecting stories at fairs, festivals and heritage events, a large cross-section of residents were able to participate. People gathered around the booth, looked at maps, listened to each other and shared stories and memories.   In many ways, the open-ended and organic participatory engagements the project made possible actually performed the very functions and forms cultural memory actually takes within community life —- establishing connections, developing usable pasts, bridging the individual and the group and producing a coherent, if oblique, narrative of community values, worries and aspirations.

The stories themselves ran from quotidian patterns: “This is my favorite place to go for a walk with my mom” to epic life-changing moments: “We got married at this construction site.  The Justice of the Peace was the contractor and this was the only time he had to do it, and we really wanted to get married.  So now it is our place.”  There were many stories of places with historical import — the site of the Irish workingman’s camp in the 1870s, the farms where German prisoners of war labored during World War II, the place where African American convict laborers were housed when they were forced to work in coke ovens, the site of the University’s first spring.  Places like the Highlander Folk School, many sites of Jim Crow segregation and a geography of local sites that were erased by the university sit side by side among children’s stories of Grandma’s cooking and memories of the baseball diamond.  In this way, controversial places could be reintegrated into the weft and weave of local history.

Some stories were funny.  One of my favorites was shared by Mrs. Barbara Mooney Myers.  She remembered the place in the yard where her mother hid coffee in an old flour bin, sneaking out to get it every morning after her husband left for work.  He was a strict Seventh Day Adventist, but Barbara’s mother always insisted that “nobody was ever kept out of heaven over a cup of coffee.”  People told stories about where they collected turnip greens to put on the family table, where they had their first kiss, where their Dad would take them for a Sunday drive.  On their own, the stories are interesting.  Taken together, they form a complex and rich tapestry of family and cultural history and create a narrative of place that is both a sum of its parts and a story about how those parts coalesce into something in its own right.

The project wanted to avoid simplified and uncritical celebrations of place and its meanings and to complicate and contextualize memories without diminishing the valence they hold.  I will continue to work on making observations about the stories themselves and am trying to make sure the project continues and the data already collected can be used locally on the mountain.  You can check out the maps here:https://theplacesproject.org/explore-the-maps/ and learn more about how the project evolved here:https://www.facebook.com/theplacesproject/

This summer, Professor Tore Olsson kindly accepted to answer few questions about his experience at UMass and his recent book Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. 

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-Adeline Broussan: First of all, could you tell us a bit about you?

Tore Olsson: Sure thing! I’m currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where I teach modern U.S. history. Considering my personal background that’s a rather unlikely career path – I was born and raised in Sweden and knew essentially nothing about the United States before my family and I emigrated to Brookline, MA, in 1990, at the tender age of eight. However, it wasn’t long before I began to take an interest in American history. I still remember my lovingly-worn trading cards of U.S. presidents from third grade (Franklin Roosevelt was my clear favorite!), and into high school, my favorite classes were always my history classes. But it was really during my years at UMass – 2000-2004 – that I was swallowed whole by history as a discipline and profession, not just a collection of stories. I left UMass with a burning desire to dedicate my life to the study of the past. From there it was on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where I earned my Ph.D. in spring 2013, and that fall I began work at the University of Tennessee, where I’ve taught since. Coming to the United States as an immigrant, it was a career that few would have predicted!

– AB: What led you to study history at our department and what memories do you keep from your time here?

TO: I came to UMass undeclared, and was uncertain – really quite bewildered – about what sort of career I wanted to pursue. I knew I wasn’t a math or science type, but beyond that I had little clue. Then, during my very first semester, I took my first GenEd history class – Leonard Richards’ early American history survey – and was so enthralled by it. I’ll never forget our discussion of Shays’ Rebellion, the 1780s violent uprising against the new U.S. government right there in my new home of western Massachusetts – an episode that was entirely new to me and really opened my eyes to the messiness and unpredictability of the past.

But I was still reluctant about declaring a history major. I was under the impression that it brought limited career options, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to teach, especially at the high school level. (Having just escaped high school, I had no desire to return!) These are stereotypes that still live on, unfairly, today. But I’ll never forget a life-changing conversation I had in Spring 2001 with an older history major. He gave me the same advice that I now give to all of my students pondering a history major: that it’s a discipline that teaches you to read, write, do intensive research, digest vast amounts of information, make arguments, and communicate them effectively to others – in a nutshell, it prepares you for pretty much every career out there!

Having declared my major, I eagerly jumped into coursework. From the smorgasbord of classes offered, I ate a wide and varied diet. I delved deeper into early American history with Prof. Richards and Gerry McFarland. I think I took every course on modern Europe that Neal Shipley offered. Ann Jefferson gave me my first introduction to Latin American history, which was unlike anything I’d studied before. I took a wonderful honors seminar with Larry Owens on science and the state in modern America – a class that I wish I could retake now, considering my current research interests.

– AB: How did your training at UMass shape you as an educator?

TO: What I love most about my job as a history professor is the research – the painstaking but so incredibly exciting work of sifting through the past to find untold stories or new perspectives on why our world looks as it does. And without doubt, I got my taste for it at UMass! The most transformative experience for me came with my senior honors thesis, which I wrote under Gerry McFarland on the topic of “Bleeding Kansas” – the political violence that tore apart Kansas in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. I was trying to tell the story of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a group of antislavery activists who sent settlers to Kansas to vote against the extension of slavery into that territory. I followed the Company’s trail across many floors of the DuBois Library, into newly digitized archives online, and ultimately to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Digging through dusty books and records and records might seem dull to some, but to me it was a thrilling detective adventure. I’ll never forget checking out a library book whose last check-out date was 1913! During that year, I learned the fundamentals of research that I’ve relied upon ever since.

But my years as a History major also made me who I am as a teacher. I was particularly inspired by the many lecturers who were able to captivate a large room with their wit, humor, and erudition. It is truly my lifelong ambition as a teacher to replicate the on-the-edge-of-your-seat lecturing style of Neal Shipley explaining Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on crime and punishment, or the subtle brilliance of how Larry Owens mediated a discussion of nuclear arms policy in post-1945 America. I still rely upon many of my old UMass syllabi when crafting my own courses, particularly in terms of assignments and projects that seek to stretch the thinking of students.

– AB: Could you tell us about your hot-off-the-press book “Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside” (Princeton University Press, July 2017)?

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TO: Absolutely! In many ways my book grows from my personal background. As a Swede studying American history, I’ve always been bothered by studies of U.S. history that seem to think that it played out in a vacuum – as if our country existed on a different plane of existence from the world beyond its borders. I think too many folks draw artificial boundaries around American history that can hide what actually happened in the past.

My book explores how such artificial boundaries have hidden the deep entanglement of U.S. history with Mexican history. Today, I think many Americans consider their nation and Mexico as polar opposites – one rich, one poor, one stable, one chaotic – whose histories have entirely distinct trajectories. The rhetoric of our recent election only reinforced that sentiment. In my book I argue the complete opposite – that the histories of the United States and Mexico share far more than we realize. In particular, I look at the 1930s and 1940s, when rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice and agricultural productivity. In the U.S., this was pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt; in Mexico by its president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). My book basically tells the story of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange models, plans, and strategies with their equivalents across the border. It’s very much a book about how Mexican ideas influenced U.S. politics – a very important story to remember today, when the relationship of those two countries seems much more imbalanced.

–  AB: Thank you Professor Olsson!

In spring 2017, alumna Claire Blaylock participated in NextGen 2017, an executive education program for museum leaders offered by the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University. We asked her to share her thoughts. 

Claire Blaylock with fellow NextGen 2017 museum leaders at the Getty Leadership Institute

This past March I had the pleasure of participating in the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University. With an eye towards emerging trends in the museum field, I was excited to spend an intensive month interacting with my peers from around the globe and learning from top notch faculty.

Basically,  I got to go back to graduate school, but without final papers, late nights in a library, or the questionable contents of the student lounge fridge.

As the director of a small museum and historical society, I immediately felt a little like a fish out of water. I had the smallest budget of all the participating institutions, but I quickly learned that my small museum experience actually gave me a leg up since I am involved in literally every aspect of running the institution. In fact, my colleagues from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world expressed genuine admiration for how we (small museums) manage to accomplish so much with few resources.

Regardless of institution size, we were brought together to dissect the field from all angles and address as a group the challenges we ALL face – funding, organizational development, audience engagement, basic management skills, and how technology is playing a more active role in our field.

Taking a page from traditional business school curriculum, we worked our way through market assessments of our institutions. We learned the basics of business strategy and analysis. We read management analysis of large corporations like Microsoft! Much to my surprise, these types of readings really resonated with me. It provided a framework to start thinking about how my organization can take steps toward greater long-term stability. I frequently find myself going back to these texts on a weekly basis to help guide me in my current role. For example, I have started to lead my staff in creating a basic market analysis of the heritage sites in our community. What are the programs and experiences already being offered? Where do we fit in this market? Is there a niche that we can address and better set ourselves apart from the ‘competition?’ This exercise has been illuminating for our organization and has helped guide us toward new programs and curriculum.

How can we guide our institutions forward with this in mind? One way is to start approaching our field like business people. Institutions from small (local historical societies) to large (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) are concerned with long term stability and the solutions to these concerns need to come from our generation of leaders. Think outside the box and look to other fields for answers. What organizations are successful? Why are they successful? Can you mirror any of their same techniques for success? These types of questions may yield surprising but illuminating results!

Want an easy place to start? Does your organization have a business plan or a strategic plan? If not, then it is time to develop a guiding document! One of the best examples of such a document is the Chicago History Museum Visioning Document. This has inspired organizations large and small to take a more holistic approach to organizational development. It should be required reading for everyone involved in historic institutions.

To the shock of no one, my Next Gen classmates and I  came to the conclusion that collections, museums, and organizations can no longer afford to exist as the bastions of antiquarians and enthusiasts – we need have clearly articulated and BOLD vision, missions, and purposes. But just as importantly, we as museum leaders need to be driven by bold vision missions and purposes. The Getty Leadership Institute empowered me to be a stronger leader by giving me access to a whole new tool box of skills. These skills will allow me to take important next steps for my career and the future health of the historic institutions in my community.

In April 2017, a record number of UMass Public History students headed to the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History meeting, held this year in Indianapolis.  Our annual gathering of current students, staff and faculty and program alumni brought more than two dozen people together to reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances.  We thought it would be fun to ask the current students who attended the conference about their experiences. Their responses are below!

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UMass Public History faculty, students, and alumni join together for dinner at NCPH 2017

What brought you to the 2017 NCPH?

Alex Asal: I attended NCPH once as an undergrad and was totally overwhelmed by everything that was going on. I wanted to make sure and visit now that I’m at UMass and a little more confident in the public history arena so I could really take advantage of all the exciting things happening there.

Shakti Castro: My poster, “Carlos Vega Oral History Project: Documenting Puerto Rican and Latino History in Holyoke,” was accepted for the poster session. I also serve as a committee member on the Diversity Task Force Committee, and had a committee meeting as well as a session for the task force.

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Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

What happens when museum professionals and public historians gather to discuss the future of historic house museums and face the challenge of thinking outside the box? To tackle these hard questions head on, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN), New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA), and “Museum Maverick” and co-author of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016) Franklin Vagnone, hosted a “creativity incubator” workshop for regional organizations at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, New York on April 25, 2017. Nearly 40 museum professionals attended the event to explore fresh interpretive ideas and push the boundaries of programming and operations at historic sites and house museums.

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Our eager group started the day with introductions and an exercise making sense of context, interpretation, and examining biases in presenting museum collections. To illustrate his point, Vagnone poured the contents of a bowl (represented a museum collection) out on the floor and asked the group to make sense of it. Naturally, we organized the material by type. Playing the role of a selective funder, Vagnone kicked everything out of order, asserting that he only wanted materials that were white in color. Several minutes later, our group placed the white bowl at the center of the floor, filled it with toilet paper, surrounded it with face down index cards, and sorted out white tic tacs, smarties, and life savers. After we completed this hands-on exercise, Vagnone explained that museums often treat collections selectively, thereby actively omitting narratives, stories, and broader context(s) that contribute to a more interesting interpretive narrative. In this collaborative exercise, he labeled standard curation pratices and institutional bias as one in the same. He also explained that selective periodization narrows interpretive opportunities and creates a bland narrative that loses the human aspects of a historic house museum’s story.

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What do Public History perspectives have to offer contemporary art museums? What do contemporary art museums have to offer public historians?  Recently, Professor Marla Miller sat down with Kelli Morgan and Kiara Hill, both PhD students in the UMass Amherst W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who are pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Public History while also preparing for careers, to talk about those and other questions.

First — Kelli, you’re back on campus to talk about Kara Walker, as part of the University Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” As the Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, can you share a little bit about you see Walker’s work at the intersection of history and art?

KM: Absolutely, I feel like Walker’s work is a dramatic illustration of that intersection, both materially and thematically. Her use and play with shadow through silhouettes – a historical form of portraiture – puppetry, and sculpture, visualizes the antebellum era in ways that trigger us…that force us to see just how much we carry the history of slavery and all its sordid events around with us in our contemporary moment. 

In your coursework, you contributed to several “field service” projects in partnerships with area museums…how do your experiences with public history practice inform your work now, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts?

KM: Tremendously. I say all the time that one can’t responsibly engage with historical or contemporary African American art without having a sound command of the history of Black people in this country. For instance, while working on the permanent exhibition for the Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA, I learned how to read objects within the contexts from and for which they were made. You can read history books that will inform you of Harrison’s diligence as a chaplain and an abolitionist, but it was his meager shoe workshop that illuminated why he was so dedicated to his community and the greater cause of abolition. He didn’t make enough money to support his family on his activism alone, so both he and his wife had to supplement their income – he as a cobbler and she a seamstress – because even in “liberal” New England, a hotbed of abolition, racism prevented them from receiving equal wages.

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Kelli Morgan from her lecture last February: “The Art of Kara Walker”

Thus, my curatorial philosophy is firmly rooted in history first. My visual analyses typically begin with the object’s broader cultural and sometimes political context, then I move into its aesthetic and formal value. For example, now on view at PAFA is our WWI exhibition, which includes several pro-war posters commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois in efforts to encourage Black men to enlist. I often lead tours that offer visitors a brief but detailed overview of the racial mythologies surrounding the Black male body during the first two decades of the 20th century, and how these mythologies were visually perpetuated through minstrelsy. This way, viewers come to understand that these posters functioned not simply as war propaganda, but as visual evidence of Black middle class families and Black men’s bravery and intelligence, as a means to show white American audiences that Black men and women were everything but stereotypical minstrel caricatures.

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