Selena Moon, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

Why does metadata matter?  I learned part of the answer to that question this summer when I interned at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), part of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian was founded with funds from British scientist James Smithson’s (1765-1829) estate to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington. The National Museum of American History, initially named the Museum of History and Technology, opened in January 1964 as the sixth Smithsonian building on the National Mall. In 1980, the Museum’s name changed to the National Museum of American History to encompass its goal to collect objects that reflect the lives of all Americans.  For my internship, I helped produce the Executive Order 9066 exhibit, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

The Order, along with Public Law 503 signed on March 9, led to 120,000 Japanese Americans being uprooted from their homes and placed in temporary camps throughout the west coast before being moved to 10 camps further inland. Most of my work involved cataloguing donated materials and artifacts relating to the Japanese American incareceration that may be used for the exhibit. Some came from individuals or their families, others from organizations; they include everything from military records and memorabilia to family albums and scrapbooks. Collections ranged from fewer than five to the hundreds. It was fascinating— if a little intrusive — to have such intimate contact with personal belongings that chronicled years or sometimes decades of people’s lives. But it is such artifacts that give the Japanese American incarceration a human element.


A Buddha statue currently on display at the National Museum of American History

Metadata is important because it gives an institution a standardized means of documenting, tracking and managing a collection while giving context to and relating various artifacts in a collection, which is especially helpful for researchers. To catalogue the materials, I entered metadata into the Smithsonian’s database. Some of the metadata to be entered was obvious – e.g., the owner’s name, donor’s name, date and location. But others parts of the description were not things I had thought about. I was surprised at how detailed some of the fields, especially with regard to materials used, could be.

Read More

Shakti Castro, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

Next Wednesday, November 30th, the UMass Oral History Lab will be hosting a workshop at the UMass Center in Springfield, MA. I am so excited to take part in helping to introduce this democratic methodology to community members and professionals in the Springfield area! We hope to expound on the tremendous possibilities of oral history for documenting and sharing often overlooked histories, as well its use in connecting people and communities. This all day event will (attempt to) define what oral history is, teach methods and best practices, and discuss the ethics surrounding the recording of life histories.


This crash course in Springfield is a wonderful chance for us, faculty and attendees alike, to explore what it means to tell a story about a community, place, or event, and how those stories help to shape historical perspective. It’s also a great opportunity for those interested in using oral history interviews in their research or nonprofit work, or those looking to preserve their own family’s history. When I came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it was with the intention of learning oral history methods and theories to complement my field work, as well as helping to grow the university’s new Oral History Lab. Because of this, I am especially excited to speak about oral history ethics, and ways to approach interviewing within marginalized communities as a collaborator. Michael Frisch, the famous oral historian, coined the now-famous phrase “shared authority” to refer to the power dynamic that should arise, organically, from an interview session. As my oral history work is based primarily in the Puerto Rican community, I am sensitive to sharing the stories of people who’ve been marginalized because of their race, class, and “national” origin as well as language spoken. Frisch’s concept of sharing authority, as well as the best practices established by the Oral History Association, are what guide me as a public historian of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. At the UMass Oral History Lab, we are aiming to be a partner in collaboration with other departments, faculty, students, staff, and the community.

We hope you’ll join us for a day spent on thinking through how we tell and share history and, of course, why we do it! The UMass Oral History Lab’s Oral History Crash Course will take place Wednesday November 30, 2016, 10am-5pm at the UMass Center in Springfield*. It is open to the public. Registration fee is $45, and includes lunch.

This workshop is made possible by the generosity of Dr. Charles K. Hyde, a great supporter of many of UMass Amherst’s Public History events and projects. Faculty leading the workshop include professors and graduate students in the UMass history department working extensively with the UMass Oral History Lab:

You can read more about this exciting workshop here and register here.

Emily Redman is a historian of science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, focusing on the political and social history of 20th century mathematics education reform in the United States. Her in-progress book manuscript, The Math Mafia: How a Persistent Group of Reformers Standardized American Education, utilizes oral histories conducted for the project as well as other oral histories from the archives. Prior to arriving at UMass, Emily worked at the Regional Oral History Office (now Oral History Center) at the University of California—Berkeley, where she conducted oral history interviews with prominent scientists and helped lead the organization’s Oral History Summer Institute.

Sam Redman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the founder of the UMass Oral History Lab. He teaches modern US history, public history, and oral history courses at UMass. Before coming to Massachusetts, he worked at the Oral History Center of the University of California Berkeley where he managed a variety of oral history projects including the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front Oral History Project, Bay Bridge Oral History Project, and Japanese Americans Confinement Sites Oral History Project. He is the author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums published by Harvard University Press in 2016.

Shakti Castro is a Master’s candidate in the Public History program at UMass Amherst. Her work examines Puerto Rican family relationships in the neoliberal city, as well as the long-time public history practices of communities of color. She has used oral history as a key part of her research methodology for the last several years, recording over 30 oral history interviews at The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in media studies and English literature from Hunter College.

Jason Higgins studies the American War in Vietnam, as a Ph.D student in American History, and works with the Oral History Lab at UMass Amherst. His research involves veteran experiences during the Vietnam War era, Civil Rights, and Disability Rights, and his dissertation addresses the problems of reintegration after war including trauma, disability, and incarceration. Higgins has been conducting oral history interviews with combat veterans for the past five years. He worked at Oklahoma Oral history Research Program in 2014 and gained formal training in oral history methodology. He earned a master of arts in English from Oklahoma State University and a Bachelor’s in history and English from University of Arkansas at Monticello.

*The UMass Center in Springfield is located at 1500 Main St, Springfield, MA 01103, Springfield, Massachusetts

For more information, please contact Dr. Samuel Redman at

Gregg Mitchell, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

What does it mean to do digital history? Since the commercialization of the internet in the 1990s, more and more content has been produced digitally. During this era of technological innovation many museums, historic sites, and other public history institutions began publishing content in cyberspace. As much of the content in the early days of the World Wide Web was written in HTML and CSS, the content matched the limitations of those web programming languages. HTML and CSS are static languages, thus the content produced was also static in nature. As these languages have evolved over time to become more user-friendly and open to new tool-kits, a parallel evolution occurred in the area of content delivery. The largest of these advances was the development of the JavaScript language.

JavaScript facilitates the creation of dynamic content, and allows users to imbed these features within a website. No longer can public history institutions simply write content, upload an image, and post a few hyperlinks. While JavaScript is more difficult than HTML and CSS for the average layperson to pick up, there are institutions that specialize in dynamic content creation for educational institutions.

I had the opportunity to explore this question over the summer, during an internship at Monadnock Media in Hatfield, Massachusetts. During my internship, I learned that many institutions need programming companies that understand the design and implementation of user-friendly interactive web applications. For instance, we created a timeline program focusing on the first days of the Pacific Theater during World War II for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Users can scroll through the first days of the Japanese offensive across the Pacific Ocean, watching as more and more battle points pop up to show where and when conflicts were happening. If users are interested in learning more about one of those events, they can click on the individual battle point to view expanded text and see multimedia content, such as images/videos. I had the opportunity to visit the FDR Presidential Library and Museum as a part of Monadnock’s installation team. Being able to watch individuals interact with the exhibit was quite useful; we could see how they interpreted the navigation and what difficulties they encountered while using the program.

One aspect which stood out was the amount of time individuals spent using the application. Some walked away within ten seconds of touching the screen if the interface seemed too confusing to them or they simply were not interested. If these self-guided tours are to work, they need to draw in the users’ interest right away or all of the work put into them will be for nothing. Another shortcoming was the navigation of the timeline itself. Several users attempted to touch a spot on the timeline to jump to a specific time but the program only allows you to scroll the slider to a new point. This observation about the UI will hopefully be used to improve future projects and allow users to have that additional control over the self-guided tour. If public historians want to relinquish more authority to their museum goers then they will need to design these exhibits to be appealing on their own and be intuitive enough to not cause frustration for the user. Matthew MacArthur addresses these issues in his article, ‘Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age.’ MacArthur describes new technologies as having the capability to “provide a retrieval mechanism that is sophisticated enough to take the data in…and add meaning through automation.” He goes on to explain how allowing “users to frame their own questions and interpret the answers using their own frames of reference are likely to encourage users to stay longer.” By allowing the users to ask their own questions within a digital exhibit they should hopefully spend more time exploring the exhibit in its entirety. One of the biggest challenges when designing any digital medium is trying to get users to want to use the software.


‘The Japanese Offensive’ Exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. As the user moves the curser along the bottom of the screen, more attacks pop up and the user can select the ones they wish to learn more about.

Read More

Sara Patton, MA Candidate, Umass History

Among museum and academic public historians, the idea that historic house museums (HHMs) are a dying breed has become accepted almost without question. Yet, while often describing or delighting in their demise, few public historians have considered what might be the cause of their decline, and how this large group of admittedly small museums might be saved. In this context, Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s work, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums explodes the debate. For the first time, Vagnone and Ryan offer provocative ideas—perhaps even solutions—for small historic house museums experiencing declining visitation. Recently through the combined efforts of the UMass Art History and Public History programs, Frank Vagnone brought his ideas to campus through the Mark Roskill Symposium, including a visit to our foundation seminar Introduction to Public History, a public talk, and panel discussion.


Vagnone’s talk outlined ways in which HHMs fail, and then provided his views on how they can do better. For Vagnone, HHMs fail to communicate effectively online or in person, are disengaged with their communities, and are just plain “boring.” The presentation presented several successful programs, not necessarily museum based, that showed good communication and community engagement; examples included the “Funeral for a Home,” a year-long celebration and reflection on the life of a house (not a museum) slated for demolition, and the conversion of a HHM’s formal garden to a farm stand that offers teens employment and grants the neighborhood access to fresh produce. Engagement and feedback—both positive and negative—is critical, and part of why Vagnone first created the “Museum Anarchist Tag.” Each tag asks the holder to place the tag when they experienced or saw something they did or did not like, and space to respond to the question, “If I ran this place, I would…” By collecting and mapping where these feedback tags are dropped, Vagnone has created some of the first research into how visitors respond to specific aspects of a museum in the same space those reactions occur, rather than on a detached comment board outside of exhibit space. Read More

Ann E. Robinson, PhD Candidate, UMass History

With classes starting, I feel like I should title this post What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Summer is rarely a vacation for graduate students and this summer was no exception for me. I spent part of my summer working on an exhibit with Martha Baker, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at the UMass College of Natural Sciences (CNS), and Jane Markarian, Special Projects & Outreach Manager at CNS. Both also work with the Women in Science Initiative on campus.

Dean Baker teaches a Commonwealth Honors College seminar on women in science on a semi-regular basis. Last year, she had her students pick a woman scientist, research them, and present their findings to the class. Then the students voted on who was the most important or influential. The students discovered a great variety of women scientists and Dean Baker thought it would be wonderful to make others aware of the many contributions that women have made – and continue to make – to science. The exhibit that was currently on display in the atrium of the Integrated Sciences Building (ISB) was due to come down this summer, so the opportunity presented itself.

The exhibit space in the ISB isn’t very large, so we knew we’d have to be very selective while at the same time trying to be inclusive of as many time periods, disciplines, and ethnicities as possible. It seemed like a daunting task. As the historian, I was charged with coming up with an initial list of 100 women in science. I started with the list compiled by Dean Baker’s students, added the women I was familiar with, and then combed through lists on the Internet. Stopping at 100 was hard – there are a lot of women scientists, once you start looking! I then took the list of 100 and whittled it down to 30. The three of us (very scientifically) voted on each of the 30 and wound up with a list of 12 women in science. Twelve was the magic number that we had decided we could comfortably display in the exhibit cases. Read More

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.

Read More

Katherine Fecteau, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

To someone laying eyes on Historic Deerfield’s newly acquired table-desk for the first time, this artifact appears nothing special.  It’s just over three feet tall and runs three and a half feet in length. Its boards are plain, though the table apron’s detailed edge suggests that its unknown maker took some care in its construction.  The writing surface is well-worn, bearing the marks of centuries of use.  When placed next to some of Historic Deerfield’s more ornate case pieces, the table-desk is an ugly duckling to say the least.  Despite its ungainly appearance, however, I’ve developed a soft spot for this desk in the time I’ve spent as an intern in Historic Deerfield’s curatorial department.  On my first day, I was entrusted with the task of tracing the table-desk through three centuries, filling the gaps in its history. The table-desk’s first known owner was Puritan Minister Nehemiah Bull (1701-1740) of Westfield, Massachusetts, but its very first owner and subsequent holders after Bull were a mystery.  My search through thousands of probate inventory[1] pages and additional secondary sources has been a saga of patience and stubborn determination, punctuated by the occasional heartbreak and exhilarating moments of success.

Table-Desk. Probably Springfield, Massachusetts ca. 1690, hard maple, white pine, yellow pine, iron Museum Purchase with partial funds given in memory of Lawrence K. Wagenseil. Photograph courtesy of Historic Deerfield.  The upper portion of this piece was made with writing in mind.  By designing the middle drawers to open sideways, the unknown craftsman made sure that anyone writing at the table-desk would not have to move his or her papers in order to access the drawers.  Similarly, the upper drawers are high enough above the writing surface to prevent paper-shuffling.  Additionally, the two long, side drawers span the width of the table-desk, offering ample room for storing books and materials.

Table-Desk. Probably Springfield, Massachusetts ca. 1690, hard maple, white pine, yellow pine, iron. Museum Purchase with partial funds given in memory of Lawrence K. Wagenseil. Photograph courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
The upper portion of this piece was made with writing in mind. By designing the middle drawers to open sideways, the unknown craftsman made sure that anyone writing at the table-desk would not have to move his or her papers in order to access the drawers. Similarly, the upper drawers are high enough above the writing surface to prevent paper-shuffling. Additionally, the two long, side drawers span the width of the table-desk, offering ample room for storing books and materials.

Although I am still searching for definitive information concerning the table-desk’s commission and early years, its construction holds several clues.  The style of its turned legs, for example, is highly suggestive. These ball-and-ring turnings stylistically resemble others from the William and Mary period built between 1680 and 1700, narrowing the initial search window.  Additionally, the upper right drawer bears the handwritten inscription “Nehemiah Bull,” which provides a helpful starting point.  Nehemiah Bull was born in 1701 and graduated from Yale College in 1723.  He was ordained in Westfield in 1726 to assist the then-ailing Reverend Edward Taylor with his ministerial duties.  Taylor died in 1729, and Bull succeeded him as full-time minister.  When Bull subsequently died in 1740, his probate inventory indicates that he owned a “scrutoire,” or writing desk, worth five pounds.

These few facts raise a number of critical questions.  Since Bull was born in 1701 and the table-desk was likely made around the turn of the eighteenth century, it follows that he was not the first owner.  Who, then, commissioned and first owned the table-desk?  Furthermore, who inherited it after Bull’s death? Read More