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Daniel Ellsberg’s Exclusive Interview with Past@Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Interview by Mohammad Ataie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raad blog post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The history department’s Internship & Career Development Office continues to thrive, offering vital support to history majors by helping them connect their study of history to meaningful work and lifelong learning in the world. Students take advantage of internship and career advising services, workshops, alumni engagement, and a career development practicum offered each semester. Last year, the internship and career development advisor, Mark Roblee ’19PhD, took five history majors to the Mount Ida campus for a three-day “job shadow” over spring break. Making good use of Mt. Ida’s proximity to Boston, students met with history alumni at a variety of work sites, including the Honorable David A. Lowy ’83 at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Jennifer Jordan ’91 at the educational nonprofit, City Year. With support from the Richard W. Bauer Scholarship, summer internship placements this year included the National Archives (Rebecca Simons), the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum (Kathrine Esten), the Council of American-Islamic Relations (Ali Hussein Kafel), Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (William Sennott ’19), the Program on Extremism at George Washington University (Eric Ross), and the UMass Museum of Contemporary Art (Andrea Whalen). New career development workshops included Discrimination and Social Justice in the Workplace, with the department’s lecturer in law and social justice, Jennifer L. Nye), and the UMass Office of Equity and Inclusion’s director of diversity special projects, Emmanuel Adero. Once again students had the chance to mingle with history alumni from a variety of fields at our annual Spring History Alumni Networking Dinner. Traveling from Washington D.C. to UMass each week, alumnus Robert L. LaRussa ’76 engaged history majors in a seminar on international trade designed to help students learn what it takes to navigate a career in Washington. In general, our program focuses on basic skills such as strategic resume writing, networking, and interviewing but also teaches students to articulate the important skills they acquire as history majors that employers value: critical thinking, research, writing, information processing, presentation, and empathy. To learn more about how this support impacts students, we encourage you to visit the “Internship and Career Development” page on the history department website to view video testimony by Kady McGann. This year Heather Brinn will be the Internship Coordinator as Mark steps into his new role as Alumni Relations Coordinator. If you are interested in sharing your career story as a UMass history major out in the world or would like to engage a history intern, please write to mroblee@history.umass.edu.

Thousands Attend Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series on Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present

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Made possible through the generosity of alumnus Kenneth R. Feinberg ’67 and associates, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series is one of the History Department’s signature offerings. The series explores contemporary social and policy issues in historical perspective. Each iteration hones in on a topic of pressing interest to faculty, students, and community members, using sustained and critical historical analysis to deepen our collective understandings.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the mass movements of 1968, last year’s series explored the theme “Another World Is Possible: Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present.” Sigrid Schmalzer, who co-chaired the series with Kevin Young and Jess Johnson, explained, “From climate change to white supremacism to the threat of nuclear war, the future of our society feels increasingly uncertain. But history is filled with precarious situations and uphill battles, and social movements around the world have faced those challenges and dared to envision new worlds based on equity and justice. We focused on this theme so that we might learn from how such movements imagined the future—and how they have worked to create it.”

In order to foster critical conversation on the history of mass social movements and their visions for political transformation, many of the events brought together historians and movement leaders or featured presenters whose work straddles both worlds. The series kicked off in September with a conversation on the reemergence of the black radical imagination, putting organizers Mary Hooks (Southerners on New Ground) and Kali Akuno (Cooperation Jackson) in conversation with historians Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Princeton) and Toussaint Losier (UMass Amherst). The following week featured a panel with Carlos Henríquez Consalvi and Rosa Rivera, two participants in the Salvadoran Revolution who now lead community-based public memory projects in El Salvador.

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Later that month, Rev Dr. William J. Barber II delivered the keynote address and inaugural James Baldwin Lecture, established by Allen J. Davis ’68.  In an event that drew some 1300 people to the Fine Arts Center, Barber, who is co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign and a MacArthur Genius Award winner, discussed the history of Reconstruction that followed Emancipation and the “second” Reconstruction of the 1960s. He then made the case for a “third” Reconstruction in the twenty-first century, entailing “a profoundly moral awakening of justice-loving people united in a fusion coalition powerful enough to reclaim the possibility of democracy.”

Throughout the fall, events continued to demonstrate the significance of historical inquiry for understanding current political movements. In “Imagining Community, Living in Community,” panelists found connections between the Socialist-Zionist kibbutzim of the early twentieth century and 1970s back-to-the-land communities in Vermont, and between Sojourner Truth’s 1840s abolitionist society in Florence, MA, and a current anti-racist intentional community in New York state. A panel titled “Dreams and Nightmares” juxtaposed leftist and rightist movements from around the world (including Nazi Germany, Maoist China, the Salvadoran revolution, and Modi-era India) to ask tough questions about why fundamentally oppressive visions have appeared liberatory to some people, and how movements for liberation have often resulted in maintaining or creating new forms of oppression.  

Another panel showcased the ways in which historians are collaborating with activists to explore how historical perspectives can be harnessed in movements for social change, and what historians can learn from today’s activists; Smith College historian Jennifer Guglielmo together with incoming UMass Amherst faculty member Diana Sierra Becerra spoke alongside Linda Burnham (National Domestic Workers Alliance), and Monique Tú Nguyen (Matahari Women Workers’ Center), about (among other things) the powerful ways in which digital timelines of visionary domestic worker organizing to build feminist economies are being used to support domestic workers as they learn about, and engage, the long history of their struggle.  Other events included a lecture on the history of science fiction and social change; a zine-making workshop for high school students on sparking historical creativity; an event exploring Venezuela’s communes in historical perspective; and a dialogue between two historians on the ways enslaved and formerly enslaved African American women conceived and experienced freedom.

“As a 2018 UMass Amherst alum, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series was one of my main connections back to campus last year. The richly contextual histories presented on subjects ranging from Salvadoran revolutionaries, to domestic worker organizing, to the experiences of enslaved African American women, brought new insights and understandings to the underpinnings of this current political moment. Coupled with more participatory events, I was elated that this series brought politically relevant histories and the critical questions of our time to community members and students throughout the Pioneer Valley.”

Most of the fall semester events were panels and lectures. In the spring term, the focus shifted to hands-on workshops. For example, participants aged 8 to 80 explored Mesoamérica Resiste, a narrative poster depicting 500 years of colonialism and resistance, created in part through a nine-year oral history project. The series capstone in Holyoke turned the tables, featuring community members as workshop facilitators.

To facilitate engagement on our campus, 34 UMass and Five College departments and programs co-sponsored the series. Taught by co-chair Kevin Young, the Department of History’s official Feinberg course, “New Approaches to History: Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present,” provided an opportunity for students to deepen their learning while earning General Education credit in history. The course examined when and how revolutionaries have improved society, where they have failed, and why some radical projects have been emancipatory and others oppressive. “I really enjoyed the fact that this course surveyed a lot of different revolutionary movements,” noted an undergraduate enrolled in the class. “Most History majors don’t get exposure to revolutionary movements outside their particular region or theme of interest. This unique course was really valuable in that aspect.” Twenty-two additional UMass and Five College courses — including ten history department classes — were officially affiliated with the series, and numerous others incorporated class field trips to Feinberg Series events into their course syllabi.

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Building on the successful 2016 series on mass incarceration and taking up the charge of the UMass Amherst Campus Strategic Plan, the series prioritized community engagement and outreach. We are proud that upwards of 20 community organizations collaborated with the history department as official co-sponsors of the series!

Alongside members of the history department, community members were involved at every stage: as part of the team that envisioned the series and helped us choose specific event themes; as tablers at events; as panelists on stage alongside nationally and internationally renowned scholars; as the designers and artists who created the series mailer and posters; and as active partners in promoting local engagement with the series. Multiple community groups even organized buses of local K-12 students, community members, and retirement community residents to the various events.

“Since moving to Massachusetts, the Feinberg Series has been one of the most incredible, engaging, and stimulating events in the area — and, frankly — that I have stumbled upon anywhere. Being able to learn from such dynamic thinkers on the most important issues that we face today was an incredible opportunity that has not only deepened my understanding of the world we live in, but also contributed to my work as a coordinator and researcher on a local and international level. The Feinberg Series is truly the nexus for leading intellectual discussions and debate that are crucial for our time. As it came to an end, I was saddened to learn that the theme changes every year, and I hope to be able to attend similar events this coming year and beyond.”

To facilitate attendance by diverse audiences, the series hosted events not only at UMass but also in community venues, offered family-friendly accommodations, conducted several events in Spanish with simultaneous English interpretation, and provided transportation to and from UMass. Audio of the events (soundcloud.com/umass-history) has extended the series into podcast feeds across the U.S. and world. Through a collaboration with the regional library system’s initiative, All Hamptons Read, more than 450 local residents read Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge and attended the associated Feinberg Series event that placed the author, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, in dialogue with UMass historian Barbara Krauthamer.

The series also reached into K-12 classrooms through our annual History Institute, in which 45 local K-12 educators attended Feinberg events and worked together to incorporate the material into their curricula. Participating teachers received professional development points or graduate credit and built lesson plans for students based on the events; all reported that they applied insights from the series in their schools and classrooms. We were grateful to partner with Safire DeJong (the Collaborative for Educational Services) and historian and former teacher Ousmane Power-Greene (Clark University and David Ruggles Center for History & Education) in developing this offering.

As a testament to the series’ success, each event brought together between 200 and 450 students, faculty, and community members. Astoundingly, more than 1,300 people attended the keynote lecture by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. In total, an estimated 4,000 people participated in series events. An additional 1,450 people (and counting) listened to the series podcast, and countless more viewed the Facebook livestream, making it one of the most well-attended academic series ever offered by the UMass Amherst.

“This series sparked my interest in history. I left each event with more books I want to read and with historical insights that changed the way I understand the world.”

Beyond the numbers, feedback from participants underscored the impact the series made on their lives and on UMass-community relations. Community members who had not often come to campus for events attended this series regularly, and have since begun attending other university events. “This series sparked my interest in history. I left each event with more books I want to read and with historical insights that changed the way I understand the world,” remarked a local educator who attended all but two events. Participants made new connections, leading to exciting collaborations and projects, including a local history teacher who is proposing a new high school class based on what she learned in the series. Many community members reached out to us to share how the histories presented in the events transformed their understanding of the world. Several went so far as to say that the series changed their life. The history department is honored to have offered such a meaningful series of opportunities for people throughout Western Massachusetts to gather in critical conversation and community collaboration.

Jess Johnson, Sigrid Schmalzer, and Kevin Young, Co-chairs of the 2018 Feinberg Series

We invite you to tune in. Audio of select Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series events is available at www.soundcloud.com/umass-history.

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With the 2019 National Council on Public History Conference located just down the road from Amherst in Hartford, Connecticut, UMass Amherst public historians arrived in impressive numbers. Everywhere I looked at the Connecticut Convention Center, I saw fellow cohort members, faculty, and alumni milling about, presenting their work, attending workshops, exhibiting posters, and otherwise participating in this foremost gathering of U.S. public historians. I joined a panel of public historians, ranging from professors to archivists to students like myself, in developing The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook. This will be a forthcoming free digital booklet for museum professionals and public historians to encourage accessibility, inclusivity, and equity. The environment was supportive and inspiring, as I sat beside alumnus Austin Clark ’18MA and saw Marla Miller and many peers in the audience. Among the dozens of sessions I attended, I found the roundtables “S51: Black Public History from Post-Emancipation to Neo-Emancipation” and “S61: When All is Gone, Whose Story Remains? Protecting Coastal Heritage in a Changing Climate” most informative and thought-provoking. In S51, Hannah Scruggs of Montpelier shared how, as a black woman, working at a former plantation-now-museum feels like an act of spatial reclamation. In S61, Kate Cell of the Union of Concerned Scientists described the emotional and physical toll of losing cultural heritage to rising seas. These two presentations epitomized the reasons I gravitate to public history: how historically marginalized communities claim and make space, and how we can respond to the loss of beloved spaces as climate change continues to threaten their existence. I look forward to exploring these themes deeper in my public history career and as a new member of NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Thank you to all UMass folks who organized the event, especially NCPH President Marla Miller and LJ Woolcock ’19MA for their superb organizational skills and caring.

 

Article Alumni Dinner

In May of 2003, I graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in history. Since that time, I have often thought of Amherst and longed to return. For this reason, I jumped at the chance when asked to attend a history department student-alumni dinner. This April I returned to UMass after my nearly 16-year absence.

To provide a little background, I was born and raised in Central Wyoming and, at the age of 22, I set out on a journey to the unknown. I had never been past the Mississippi River when I packed all my things—and loaded up my young family—into a U-Haul truck and drove the 2,000 miles east to Amherst. I have so many fond memories of being in Western Massachusetts—it is a place where I grew intellectually and into adulthood. Amherst was a wonderful place for me to call “home” for a few years as part of my young life.

This April, after the passage of so much time, I was anxious, and a bit nervous, as I made my way up I-91 from Hartford to Amherst. Driving into town, I took a tour down memory lane. I went by the apartments in South Amherst that I lived in as a student. I went to the park where my young daughter would play. I drove through the Hampshire College campus, which my younger brother briefly attended. And I made my way to the campus where I’d spent most my time while living in Amherst. Parts of the campus were the same as they had been when I was a student. I made the trip up to the W.E.B. DuBois library stacks where I’d spent countless hours studying. It looked unchanged. Other parts of the campus were hardly recognizable. The campus has grown and expanded substantially in the past 15 years.

As for the most important part of my visit, I was privileged to meet current history students and discuss with them their plans, goals, and dreams. What an impressive group of young people! I was struck by their personal stories. Many had overcome substantial obstacles to get to, and excel, at UMass. I was impressed with their character and drive.

In addition to the students, I was privileged enough to get to visit with some of my favorite professors when returning. It was heartening to see that the thoughtful, dedicated, and engaged professors are still shaping the way the young UMass graduates will think about and approach the problems we face in today’s world and political climate. All of this reinforced for me the vital importance of keeping quality public education accessible in our country. It also reminded me of how fortunate I was to have had UMass shape me as a young adult.

To all those who have the opportunity to go back and visit our alma mater, I would strongly encourage them to do so. It was a remarkably rewarding experience. I will not let another 16 years pass before returning.

Ian Sandefer (’03) is a trial lawyer who provides personal injury and criminal defense representation throughout Wyoming.