by Audrey L. Altstadt

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that an international observer team monitored and assessed the US election of November 3. The team’s preliminary report, issued midday on November 4 noted that elections were “competitive and well-managed” and the media, despite polarization, “made efforts to provide accurate information.” The report did sound the alarm that “evidence-deficient claims about election fraud created confusion and concern” and that “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president… harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

“What international observers?” say many Americans, voicing some mixture of doubt and shock. “How can it be? What do they know?”

Among the many international organizations of which the United States is either a member or participant is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE considers democracy and human rights to be pillars of the rule-of-law state and, therefore, matters of security. Based on that idea, OSCE offers to consult member states on their domestic processes related to democracy and human rights including the conduct of elections. Member states can invite OSCE to their elections, as the US State Department has done since 2002. OSCE teams follow a carefully crafted procedure to examine a country’s election laws and practice, to observe polling and vote counting, and publish reports explaining the election in a dispassionate way.

We who study the USSR and post-communist states are familiar with the OSCE and its election monitoring in Russia and other states formerly ruled by communist-party governments since the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. In my studies of (and experiences living in) post-Soviet Azerbaijan, I have watched or read reports by OSCE teams as they do their complex jobs in election after election. The OSCE office that is charged with election monitoring is the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR – pronounced like “oh, dear”).

Once the host country invites OSCE to monitor its election, ODIHR assembles a Needs Assessment Team to determine specialists and numbers of observers. About two months before the election, a Core Team arrives to set up operations followed by a Long-Term Monitoring team of about 30 that studies conditions, and finally a large Short-term monitoring team is added to expand the number of observers who deploy on the days of balloting and counting. In our recent election, ODIHR deployed 102 observers to various locations as permitted by local laws in most states, though 18 specifically ban international observers including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  (Note 101, p. 19) Among the team members are specialists in law, media, political affairs, and other areas. I have known observers who are permanent OSCE staffers or former diplomats. The team is recruited from member states of the OSCE except for citizens of the host country. The core and long-term teams examine election law and oversight structures, processes for candidate and voter registration, media coverage and campaign atmosphere, and a host of details such as themes of the campaign, and whether an incumbent uses state resources for political purposes.

Since I am most familiar with OSCE-ODIHR monitoring and reports for Azerbaijan, I will explain a few significant features of the process for that post-Soviet country. Since the1990s, ODIHR has reported that structural and practical electoral features favor the ruling party and incumbents to the extent that challenges are extremely difficult and even dangerous. Despite some reform, the Azerbaijani government does not change the features that sustain the lopsided power of the regime. Among the most egregious violations of national law and/or OSCE standards that members agree to follow are the structure of the Central Election Commission which administers elections and is packed with members of the ruling party. The ruling regime consistently uses official resources for political purposes, orchestrates biased media coverage, and threatens critics of the regime. Manipulation goes down to local levels where supervisors in jobs and schools pressure employees and even adult students to vote for incumbents.

Election day shenanigans may be the things we most often associate with stealing elections. Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states including Russia have engaged in overt ballot stuffing, “carousel” voting when a group of voters is bussed from one polling station to another to vote repeatedly, and the failure of poll watchers to check on these fake voters thereby enabling their actions. In virtually every reporting year between 1995 and 2013, ODIHR rated about a quarter to a third of Azerbaijan’s polling stations as bad or very bad.

But the greater manipulation of Azerbaijan’s elections took place in counting. Observers reported the poorly concealed addition of pre-marked ballots to boost totals for an incumbent. In some years, as many as half the counting stations and procedures were rated as bad or very bad. That included two presidential elections casting doubt on the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s current president.

What did the OSCE ODIHR team find in the US? On the day after polling, according to OSCE procedures, team leaders hold a press conference and post a Preliminary Report on the website. The team found that procedures were overwhelming orderly and lawful, but “evidence-deficient” claims of fraud risked undermining public confidence. (Schedule, team members, and reports for the US election are available on the OSCE website)

The 24-page Preliminary Report was posted midday on November 4, before several post-election disputes clearly emerged. The report recapped the complex US electoral structure – with elections run by states and varied levels of discretion over thousands of local jurisdictions – and thus provided detailed information that many Americans probably don’t know about their own country’s system. The general conduct was deemed to be orderly and lawful, despite hundreds of pre-election lawsuits. Most problems were dealt with quickly and in accord with appropriate laws. The campaign, however, was “characterized by deepening political polarization, extremely negative campaigning;” and “the incumbent president’s use of discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin was of particular concern.” (p. 11)

Because OSCE focuses on democratic process, it included in this report many examples of statements that it considered threatening, specifically the president’s allegations “that the electoral process, and postal voting in particular, would be open to widespread fraud, while not providing any further information or evidence…” and his suggestion that he would not honor the outcome and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Noted the report: “Statements of this nature by a presidential candidate risk eroding public confidence in democratic institutions and delegitimizing the outcome of the election.” (pp. 11-12)

Among the many areas addressed in the report, those on early and mail-in voting take on added significance in the days after balloting. The OSCE reported that “most states” decided to start processing mailed ballots before election day because of the large number of those ballots. It elaborated variations in Footnote 129 (p. 22), beginning with this important point: “Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania required absentee ballot processing to start only on election day.”  By week’s end, Pennsylvania’s continuing ballot count has become a major focal point of partisan tension.

The OSCE Preliminary Report closed with cautionary comment about the night of balloting:

“Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory. Counting and tabulation are ongoing and should continue in accordance with the law and OSCE commitments. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

As the OSCE ODIHR team worries, the greatest present threat seems to be to the democratic process itself and public confidence in our elections despite the overwhelming evidence that legal procedures have been followed.

Audrey L. Altstadt

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons

Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.

We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”

The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.

While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.

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Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

by Joyce A. Berkman

In 1963 our first son was born. We named him, Jeremy Saul Berkman, in part after Johann Sebastian Bach. My husband, Lenny, and I have always shared a deep reverence for Bach’s compositions, deeming Bach (1685-1750) as the premier composer, the musical fount, of modern Europe.  I trace my devotion to his work not to my early piano study but to my attendance at the Carmel Bach Festival during the 1950s. This internationally acclaimed summer festival, founded in 1935 by two extraordinary female art entrepreneurs and lifelong partners, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous, introduced me to the range and majesty of Bach’s work.  The many concerts, master classes, open rehearsals, recitals, lectures, that took place initially over four days cast a spell on me. This spell strengthened after Lenny’s and my trip to Leipzig, where Bach spent most of his adult career. We visited St. Nicholas Church — where Bach’s works were performed in his lifetime, and whose bells launched the collapse of the Soviet Union — and St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as Cantor in 1723 and where so many of Bach’s Cantatas and Passions premiered.

In this extensive, captivating biography and critical study of Bach, John Eliot Gardiner blends his analysis and performance experience of Bach’s music with his interpretations of Bach’s complex personality, historical situation and musical genius. Gardiner evokes his Dorset, England childhood under the daily gaze of one of the two extant portraits of Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748. Among today’s leading conductors of Bach’s choral compositions, having presented all of Bach’s 200 cantatas in a single year, Gardiner links what he learned through conducting Bach to his evolving grasp of Bach’s musical goals and compositional strategies.[1]

Although Gardiner’s concerts and recordings primarily present Bach’s sacred music, he wards off any conclusion that he or the music itself aims to implement particular church doctrine. Rather, he insists that Bach’s work “springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed.” (15)

Before Gardiner wrote this riveting biographical, historical and musicological study, he had also scoured existing scholarship on Bach and on early modern European history. Gardiner had already published various studies of early modern music and on Bach which had garnered him numerous honors and awards, even knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly after the publication of this biography, Gardiner became the president of the Leipzig-Archiv, which, together with the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, is the central co-holder of Bach primary documents. Bach Digital, a collaborative enterprise of the Leipzig Archive, the computing center at Leipzig University and the Staatsbibliothek, is in the process of digitizing every extant work Bach autographed, making these sources widely accessible.

Fortunately, Gardiner’s university training was as much in history as in musicology, amply evident in this biography. He informs the reader in text and copious footnotes about essential documentary sources, interconnects past and present historiography, and addresses many of the controversies rife among Bach scholars

Unlike the plenitude and diversity of primary sources that bear on Bach’s professional career, primary sources on Bach’s personal life are woefully sparse. Far more documents appear to be extant, especially correspondence between other composers of Bach’s time and their family and friends, than we have for Bach.  Further, Bach did not leave us a memoir or autobiography.  At best we have a hastily written obituary by Bach’s second son and one of his pupils, the Nekrolog.  Gardiner laments that we “know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years.” (xxv)  Equally unavailable are sources on audience response to initial performances of Bach’s works.  With a twinkle, Gardiner muses, “Might one or two adverse, even waspish, comments overheard from the congregation as it filed out of church…goad him towards his own brand of dare-devilry and to still bolder experiments?” (317)

At the heart of Gardiner’s treasure trove of sources, naturally, are Bach’s musical texts and music themselves. Gardiner perceptively infers Bach’s religious outlook and psychological insights from many of these.  As one of countless examples, Bach’s Actus Tragicus, which he composed at age 22,  underscores a lifelong motif in Bach’s approach to death: a desire to soothe and offer hope, yet “never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid.” From the “yearning dissonance given to two gambas, to the ravishing way the recorders entwine and exchange adjacent notes, slipping in and out of unison… we are being offered music to combat grief.” (149) Bach surely had his share of grief. By age nine he had lost both parents. His first wife died early, and 12 of his 20 children died before they turned three. Death was an omnipresent trauma for him and for those he knew.  (I immediately dashed to YouTube to hear Actus Tragicus, which, I feel, does bear out Gardiner’s claim.) Sadly, although we’re overwhelmed by the plenitude of Bach’s compositions, e.g. cantatas composed weekly for two straight years, many of his compositions are lost, including many cantatas and his St. Mark Passion. 

Gardiner’s major thesis is the dual reality of Bach’s unparalleled musical genius and very human, problematic personality: “Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.” (xxv).   Resisting prevalent hagiography of Bach while also utterly in awe of his musical genius, Gardiner treads a middle ground in which he presents Bach’s artistic and personal struggles within a tumultuous political, economic, societal, religious, and cultural historical reality, an array of forces pressuring Bach to conform to ruling religious and artistic beliefs and musical conventions, which he subverts as much as he can. Gardiner faults the hagiographic bias as concealing Bach’s “everyday self, the self that lived beside, beneath and within the narrative of his most un-ordinary music-making” (525) and  offers examples of Bach’s irascible, prickly, petty behavior, (203) epitomized in the chapter  “The Incorrigible Cantor.” When the Leipzig Council hired Bach, his Cantorate included serving as Director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and as Director of Music for the main city churches. Assessing Bach as man and as musician Gardiner deems Bach’s character failures as “less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner”. 

Gardiner the historian emerges definitively in his claim that Bach’s “church music, unique in the history of music, could have happened only at this time, in this place and under these circumstances” (527). Gardiner cites the role of Thuringian geographical and societal landscape on young Bach and the toll of constant warfare and devastation on the lives of prior generations of Bach’s family. Bach was fortunate to be born when many families enjoyed relative freedom from such dire circumstances. 

In accounting for Bach’s creative brilliance and immense compositional legacy, Gardiner explores the complicated interplay between nature and nurture, and compares the Bach family with other famous musical families of his era.  Gardiner describes Bach’s family’s long history of musical performance, including regular family chorale singing. Composed by Martin Luther, these chorales, often adapted folksongs, molded the “close synergy between Luther and Bach.” (129-130)   

Ever widening the frame of his study, Gardiner adds the role of chance.  When nine-year-old Bach was orphaned, he joined the household, in Ohrdruf, of his oldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, which became a most fortuitous turn of events.  This musically talented brother introduced him to Georg Böhm, young Bach’s principal mentor. Böhm eased Bach’s entrée into the “rich cosmopolitan life of Hamburg, with its new opera house and its many fine church organs “.  Bach was privileged to learn from the city’s “great organ-builder Arp Schnitiger at close quarters…” (90)

Bach’s time in Ohrdruf was brief. Family needs, political conflicts, professional ambitions and musical ideals sparked Bach’s sequence of moves around Germany. Even when he settled permanently in Leipzig, his work took him to other cities for short periods of time.  None of these cities met Bach’s musical vision.  Bach, notes Gardiner, had a “lifelong obsession” a “pipe dream” of composing in a paid position that would enable him to compose freely in conformity “with the way the God-inspired Temple music was organized in the time of King David” (195). He wanted the freedom to create music “to the glory of God” in his own distinct way. Though this desire spurred many of his moves, he did not find the freedom he sought anywhere, even in Leipzig, with its “innate conservatism, artistic indifference and discord…a creaky structure, undermanned and underfunded” (196), but he resolved to meet this goal, his “Endzweck” regardless, and soon exhibited a dazzling “fecundity.” (290)

Gardiner deftly places Bach within the wider development of the European Enlightenment.  Its emphasis on science and mathematics posed no problem to Bach. For him, music was a science and pervasively mathematical, at its best expressing the harmony of nature and the cosmos. Gardiner cites Theodore Adorno’s claim that “Bach was the first to crystallize the idea of the rationally constituted work” (14)

German society, including Leipzig’s, was increasingly secular, “the community of belief and convention…was starting to alter, or even to break down.” (278) Although known as the city of churches, Leipzig remained indelibly Lutheran, yet its population of roughly 30,000 experienced no religious consensus. The six main Lutheran churches with 22 services bitterly contested views of Lutheran doctrines. (278). Factions split churches and the local government; tensions divided church and lay authorities.  In countless forms, social class, professional, religious and gender differences stratified the city’s system of status and power.

Bach upheld various older musical conventions while appropriating new musical styles.  Various arresting chapters probe Bach’s Janus-faced musical orientation, looking past and forward.  Opera is one of many examples. Though spurning creating secular opera, he was a superlative dramatist. Using Biblical, rather than secular, narrative as his text, he created an operatic “mutant”. (102).  Gardiner attributes to Bach the creation of “a synthesis” of myriad past and present musical idioms.

In the process of creating this synthesis, however, Bach could not remove himself from the political and ideological tumult that surrounded him.  In one of the most absorbing chapters, “Collision and Collusion,” Gardiner reveals the ways Bach deployed “the interplay – even friction – between words and music in his church cantatas” thereby yielding ambiguous and contradictory meanings from Gospel texts. (439, 447).  Irreverent Bach deliberately altered a key word in a homily (197) or highlighted through musical choices theological confusions and inconsistencies. Bach exploited music’s ability to transcend words so as to “chip away at people’s prejudices and sometimes toxic patterns of thinking” (477). Gardiner lauds Bach’s commitment to the truth of human experience, applying his “boundless invention, intelligence, wit and humanity to the process of composition.”(xxxiv)

In conclusion, a few words about this biography’s title. It derives from Weg zum Himmelsburg (The Way to the Castle of Heaven), the name for the painted cupola in the palace church of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the cupola and court music library destroyed, alas, by fire in 1774. The cupola’s inspired design appears in one of the volume’s many vivid illustrations, inviting the reader to hear the chords from the organ gallery where Bach performed early in his career, 65 feet above floor level, as those chords descended to its listeners below as though from heaven. Ultimately, Gardiner beholds Bach, with all his human deficiencies, striving to compose at a heavenly level of perfection, his efforts yielding triumphs of transcendent glory.

[1] Gardiner focuses exclusively on Bach’s choral work, which reflects Gardiner’s conducting experience.

By Audrey Altstadt

My early summer reading began with three books about women’s lives. One overlapped with my teaching life (Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, about the great codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and yes, that’s how she spelled her name); another overlapped with my travel life (Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders, about her months bicycling the Silk Road, which I never did or would do).  The third book spoke to my writing life, as most books do, but this one resonated in a deeply personal way. Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: a History of Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) is White’s investigation of his Irish mother’s memories and life stories which he scrutinized against the historical record of her birthplace in Ireland and the US where she married and raised her children.

In this book, White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, tackles a problem that all historians face – how do we know what’s true? This book is like none of his others because here he investigates own mother’s stories, at her behest, and with her in tow as he returns to her Irish village to get additional local stories and check state and church records against their memories. With this process, White enters the territory not merely of the biographer, but of the memoirist. White himself is a character is this book. He listens to the stories again and again, but he argues with his mother about his investigations of “truth” in the documentary record. The subtitle “a history of stories” gives us a clue about his intellectual and academic approach to the family lore.

The resonance of this book for me was three-fold. My own mother’s family emigrated to the US from Ireland, from the same county as White’s mother, indeed, from a neighboring village. Like his mother, Sarah Walsh, my mother’s parents settled on Chicago’s south side. But the one forward-looking element of this reading experience was that I am a historian writing a memoir. My memoir is unrelated to my family –that I will save for my golden years – but about my first year in the USSR as a doctoral student in the late Brezhnev era.

Like White and his mother, I have memories of my own experiences of that time and I know the stories of others who shared those years of grad school and of research in the USSR. The year I spent in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, was an adventure academically, politically, and personally. I arrived in September of 1980 on the heels of the US boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow which was retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. By going to Baku, in the Soviet south near the Iranian border, I was close to the American hostages then being held in the occupied US Embassy in Tehran. And I arrived weeks after the start of the Iran-Iraq War when the US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranian border just south of Soviet territory. Naturally, I want to get the facts of the time right.

Audrey Altstadt (middle) in Baku, 1992

Although it’s easy to look up the dates of invasions and bombings, or presidential decrees and decisions of the Soviet Communist Party, as White found his mother’s school records, there are a thousand details that cannot be readily verified. Yet those details tell a story of their own.  And so does my memory of them. When I tell my fellow historians that I am writing a memoir, their first question is “do you have diaries, notebooks, letters?” We think about evidence, of course. That’s what we do. And I have those things, which might be considered historical documents and primary sources by some future historian, but they are singularly uninformative. In the Soviet Union in 1980, it would have been foolish for an American to record frankly all the things she did and people she met. Our rooms were searched regularly, our communications monitored. As one of two Americans in Baku, and the only one who spoke the languages, I was followed for months even after I settled into my boring routine of going from dorm to university to market.  Writing about Soviet acquaintances put those people at risk. That was the reality of our lives, it was not some movie fantasy. Memories are my foundation for the memoir – the train across the steppe from Moscow to Baku, my first view of Baku bay in the sunshine, the fragrances of the bazaar, the rickety chairs in the archives and the crooked glass that made car tires look square.  

As White encountered conflicting stories about the family home, Ahanagran, I found disparate memories among old friends.  Wanting to share feelings as well as facts, I tried to lead my reader from the familiar to the new. Take the case of the jetway. When our group arrived in Moscow, we left our Lufthansa flight and spilled out into the new and gleaming Sheremetova-II airport, built for thousands of visitors to the Olympics. How did we get from the plane to the airport corridor? I think we used a jetway as in the US, but I do not clearly recall. I ask friends who were in the group. They say we “must have” deplaned onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal because the USSR had no jetways in 1980.  But I think they are projecting that knowledge backward to our arrival. I had been outside the US only once before and had never deplaned onto the ground. If I had walked down the plane’s stairs onto the cold and, as I recall, snowy ground of the Moscow’s airport, I am confident I would remember. Since I don’t remember such a thing, I think there was a jetway bought and installed specifically for foreign travelers. And that’s what I wrote – we left the familiar jetway behind. We entered a world of novel, even strange, experiences — the airport was empty, the Soviet guards stared us down, the passport control process was intimidating.

White describes reading his mother’s 1936 immigration form with her. She commented, “How much I’m finding out about myself.”  White found out about his mother and Ireland and the immigrant experience in writing this book, but also about himself, and perhaps more from the process than the facts. So it is with all of us who write.

By Marla Miller

Now more than ever public attention is drawn to the ways in which public art creates space to talk about a wide range of subjects, past, present and future. Earlier this year in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts—an industrial village within the larger community of Montague—artist Nina Rossi embraced a fleeting moment in the history of Spinner Park to offer a thoughtful, provocative, and even joyful intervention around a local monument that both celebrates and elides histories of women’s work. Though most recently she has embraced multi-media work with a range of materials, including found objects, Rossi here turns to photography, in artwork that invites us to contemplate both idealized and real images of working women, and presents a rich case study of the possibilities when artists work in public history spaces.

Since the mid 1980s, “The Spinner”—a nineteenth-century classical figure holding a drop spindle—has stood near the corner of Avenue A and 4th Street to celebrate the women who once worked in the nearby Griswold Cotton Mill. The town is working this year to update the park, making it safer, more functional, and ADA-compliant. The 700-pound, cast iron Spinner will remain in the newly refurbished park, but is off its base as it is being restored during the construction. The work left the figure’s pedestal in place, but unoccupied. Rossi—never, in her words a “huge fan of the romantic, sentimental version of a mill worker symbolized by the Greek/Roman spinning goddess”—took advantage of the sculpture’s temporary absence to replace it with a succession of local women. Each mounted the empty pedestal holding tools of her trade today, moments Rossi captured in photographs.[1]

Left: The Spinner and Spinner Park before renovations (photo:, 2016). Right: Weaver Peggy Hart (photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

Rossi’s intervention is an important one. Monuments with female figures are far more often allegorical than representational. One study of some “5,575 outdoor sculpture portraits of historical figures identified by the Smithsonian” found that, after subtracting examples of abstract, allegorical, or anonymous figures, fewer than 200 statues (that is, not even 4%) remain that depict identifiable women. Recent attention to the installation of statues of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park (the first women to join nearly two dozen men), or to the highly anticipated monument to Ida B. Wells, planned for the Chicago neighborhood where she lived and worked, shows the high degree of interest in the ways women’s history is marked on the landscape.

The daughter of UMass sociologists Peter H. and Alice S. Rossi—the latter “a founder of the National Organization of Women and specializing in family, sexuality, gender and feminism”—Rossi believes that her work “has that kind of sociological vision. This is where my perspective comes from.” “The drop spindle daintily held by a draped classical figure,” Rossi observes, seems “very unrealistic for what must have been a dirty and mechanical and noisy job tending thundering looms inside the Griswold mill.” “Other women in town worked in the paper mills, mostly in the rag room, slicing up rags by running them up on fixed knives,” she continues, and “I doubt they looked much like this perky nymph, or would have identified with her. But I have always loved the fact that the park and statue was a homage to female workers. So I thought an updated, modern version using living local models would be fun.” And the timing was perfect: not only was the pedestal vacant—and its surrounding azaleas in full bloom—but in the wake of the lock-down associated with the pandemic, “we were coming out of weeks of huddling at home. The idea of doing a public art project where I could interact, however briefly, with people again was very appealing after weeks of solitude and lack of inspiration.”

Rossi began by inviting women whom she knew personally, but word quickly spread, and by the project’s conclusion some forty women embraced the chance to strike a pedestal pose. Rossi has made her photos available as a series on her website. And so we meet musician and poet Nina Gross, copyeditor and grantwriter Trouble Mandeson, town clerk Deb Bourbeau, and chef Ashley Arthur. Clothing and textile makers are still well represented, by corset-maker Jackie Lucchesi and UMass Amherst public history student, weaver Peggy Hart. Artists and musicians hold brushes and instruments; activist Edite Cunha carries the all-important clipboard. Amy Donovan, who works for the Franklin County Solid Waste District, chose a bucket and shovel.

The Spinner statue, purchased in the 1980s, was cast by Alabama’s Robinson Iron Works (who also contributed the lamp posts lining the street) after a sculpture created by 19th-century French artist Louis-Léon Cugnot (1835-1894).[2] Cugnot was well known for his allegorical figures. According to one source, this form, rendered in the Art Nouveau style, was not intended to depict the work of spinning per se, but rather represented Clotho, the “Greek goddess of destiny,” “measuring the thread of human life.”[3] But the statue gained new meaning when installed in a town built upon the labor of female textile workers.

At the same time that Cugnot’s figure was first cast in France, in 1875, a world away the vision for the Turner’s Falls cotton mill took shape. The Griswold Cotton Mills was founded by Joseph Griswold in the nearby town of Colrain in the 1830s. By 1879, the company had moved to a new, larger factory in Turner’s Falls—a planned industrial community founded only a decade before on the banks of the Connecticut River.[4] The 1880 U.S. census counted just over thirty women and girls employed by the cotton mill, the majority of them either Canadian or born to Canadian parents. Mothers and daughters worked alongside one another, as did sisters—sometimes whole families working together in the cotton mill. The 1884 Sanborn map noted that the “carding & spinning rooms” where most of these employees worked “run night and day.” Weaving took place on the ground floor, with the carding and cloth rooms above; the third floor was devoted to spinning, spooling, and warping, and the 4th allocated for storage. By 1891, some 500 mill hands ran 700 looms and 30,000 spindles, producing light weight fabrics and fancy goods.  A large boarding house and tenements housed workers from the Griswold mills.

The Spinner best represents the real women of the town’s cotton mills in that she is depicted as a young woman: In 1880, the median age of women employed as weavers, spinners, spoolers, and warp tenders and web drawers in the cotton mill was twenty, though several workers were as young as twelve and thirteen, and a handful were in their thirties, or had reached forty.[5] But the dangerous work performed by women in these mills certainly looked very different from the spinner of the sculptor’s mythological imagination. Cleaning and preparing fibers, swapping in fresh bobbins, warping and weaving cloth—in contrast to the quiet, contemplative image of the Spinner, this was all difficult and dangerous work, performed around heavy machinery, in deafening environments. Among other risks, the fiber-laden air made cotton workers vulnerable to a range or respiratory illnesses, while the common practice—before the introduction of self-threading shuttles–of sucking thread to bring it through a shuttle contributed to the spread of tuberculosis.[6]

Women in another western Massachusetts mill. (Photo: “A Chicopee Cotton Mill – spinning room – 3 men, 12 women on the production floor,” Chicopee Archives Online, accessed August 6, 2020,

As textile companies moved their operations from New England to the southern states, plants like Griswold’s could no longer compete. Between 1922 and 1933, some 93 Massachusetts cotton mills closed, including Griswold’s. Most closed before 1928, throwing 40% of the Commonwealth’s textile employees out of work.[7]  By the time the Griswold property was sold to the Kendall Company in 1932, the firm had switched its focus to manufacturing hospital dressings, medical gauze, and related products,.[8] World War II boosted revenues, but soon competition from southern mills caught up, and the company closed it in 1952, forcing some 135 employees to look elsewhere for work .[9]

The post-war decades were difficult for Turner’s Falls economy, as mills closed one by one and jobs vanished. With the assistance of the Massachusetts state government, in the mid-1980s the town launched a revitalization effort that included plans to create a park on an abandoned lot on the main street. Town leaders decided to celebrate the women who had once worked in its textile industry by installing the Cugnot figure in what became “Spinner Park.” A plaque placed at the figure’s 1985 dedication reads “May the charm, grace and elegance of this statue be a lasting symbol of women at work”—language that may seem incongruous with the actual labor of millwork, but the statue’s installation ceremony also brought, and honored, several women who had worked in the Kendall mill, as well as the Esleek and Strathmore paper mills.[10] In their presence, the abstract, allegorical Clotho took on another valence, as the representative of these real, working women.

Thirty-five years have passed since the Spinner’s installation. Today, as the park undergoes renovation, Suzanne LoManto, executive director of RiverCulture (the town’s cultural programming department), notes that “the intention of the Spinner statue has always been to honor Montague’s industrial past, and especially to acknowledge the women who worked in the mills.” As part of work, local sculptor Jack Nelson will refresh and restore the Spinner before it is reinstalled—creating the opportunity embraced by artist Nina Rossi to recognize, and celebrate, the diverse ways in which women work in the contemporary community.

Nina Rossi’s photographs now appear on the wall enclosing the construction site, allowing visitors to imagine contemporary women atop Clotho’s pedestal. (Photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

In summer 2020, Rossi’s photos became part of the physical presence at the site, printed on weatherproof polymer paper with a landscape fabric backing and mounted on the construction fence, along the Fourth Street side of the site.  While Clotho is absent, these photos remind viewers of the working worlds of women today. Meanwhile, Rossi is continuing to contemplate the additional possibilities offered by the moment, such as installing a time capsule inside the refurbished statue, containing these photos alongside perhaps “some survey or written statements from the people who posed,” or other ways to document women’s working lives in 2020. Whatever comes next, Rossi muses, “40 real women being represented inside a statue that is supposed to stand in for dozens or hundreds of 19th-century women” could be “a cool contrast of technology and vision.” 

Note: the first published edition of this article omitted Sojourner Truth’s name from the list of statues honoring women in Central Park. We apologize for this error.

[1] All quotations from Nina Rossi are drawn from responses to an email interview, June 26, 2020.

[2] See

[3] Alternatively, one auction house claims that “The statue represents a girl from an Italian village on the island of Procida.”

[4] “MHC Reconaissance Survey Town Report: Montague,” (1982), pp. 3, 10. For another story related to larger conversations about local history and memory, see this account of an effort to rename Turner’s Falls, in light of a growing effort to disassociate the community from William Turner’s 1676 attack on a Nipmuc encampment during King Philip’s war: Cori Urban, “Turner’s Falls May Be Renamed Because of Association with Native American massacre,” MassLive July 16, 2020.

[5] Interestingly, the work was not as strictly segregated by gender as we might assume: weavers in the census records are identified both as male and female, and the same is true of spinners (at least per the Federal Census of 1900), who could also be male or female, usually in their early teens

[6] Janet Greenlees, “Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, c.1880s–1940s,” International Review of Social History, Volume 61Issue 3 (December 2016) pp. 459-485;.

[7] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (NY: Penguin, 2015), 394.


[9] North Adams Transcript, 26 February 1952.

[10] Tim Hilchey, “Montague Honors its Working Women,” [Greenfield Recorder], May 13, 1985.

By Helen Kyriakoudes

“At the Smithsonian Institution, a new object is digitized every six seconds.”[1] A handwritten letter from Mary Cassatt, the Gemini VIII spacecraft capsule, and a pair of James Brown’s autographed loafers are just a sampling of the more than 5.5 million objects drawn from the nation’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

This ever-expanding trove of resources can be both exciting and daunting. While it includes paintings and artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution’s twenty-nine museums and associated units, there are also articles, blog posts, video, and audio materials drawn from the various institutions under the Smithsonian umbrella. It raises the question – how can an individual researcher, educator, student, or member of the public harness this wealth of information?

The homepage of the Smithsonian Learning Lab invites users to discover, create, share and learn

The answer is the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Created in 2016, this digital learning hub allows users not only to access the millions of Smithsonian resources floating in the cloud, but to use them to build and share original collections and lesson plans that place the Institution’s objects at their center. A user creates a profile and from there can search across the twenty-nine organizations comprising the Smithsonian Institution, saving objects, sorting them into digital “collections,” uploading original materials, and crafting lesson plans that bring the combined resources of the Smithsonian directly into classrooms or living rooms arounds the world. By eschewing a “top-down” approach to museum education, the Learning Lab provides wide-ranging access as it fulfills its mission “to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge.”[2]

 The development of the Learning Lab grew, in part, out of a desire to better connect educators with the full range of the Smithsonian’s digital resources while also creating educational materials that best suited their needs. The site debuted in 2016 after an extensive period of research and development, including three weeks of in-person teacher workshops during which educators tested out site functions and provided feedback to developers as to what would be most helpful in the classroom. By designing the site around what teachers said they needed, the Learning Lab team created a platform that furthers its ultimate goal of educators becoming “active creators and sharers of digital resources personalized for learning in their own classrooms.”[3]

The Learning Lab now has over 6,000 published collections created by both Smithsonian museum staff and members of the public. Places such as the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the National Museum for African American History and Culture use the Learning Lab as a significant piece of their education programming. Smithsonian professional development programs for educators incorporate the tools of the Lab into workshops and seminars. And as activity increases, the Learning Lab staff now host weekly office hours online to field questions and expand collaboration with those using the site.

This summer, I am working remotely with the Learning Lab as a communications and outreach intern. My work includes creating social media content and researching partnerships to expand the lab’s use in classrooms and at home. As part of my work, I’ve spent hours happily scrolling through the materials created by the museums, educators, and students who use the site. The topics range from science to history to the arts, as varied as the museums that line the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One collection explores power and portraiture through works by American painters Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar. Another introduces objects such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” microphone and a Tellatouch braille typewriter as students follow the development of technology over time and ask, “What makes something innovative?”

The “Power and Portraiture” lesson plan from the National Gallery of Art

While exploring this user-created content in the Learning Lab, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of “shared authority” as put forth by public historian Michael Frisch.[4] An often-discussed phrase in museum and cultural heritage circles, the notion of “shared authority” has transformed in meaning in the years since Frisch first examined it in the early 1990s. Frisch interprets shared authority as a noun, a distinct concept acknowledging the inherent power dynamic that exists between institutions and the communities they work with as they present history to the public. Rather than a one-way, directional transfer of information, he describes shared authority as “a more profound sharing of knowledges, an implicit and sometimes explicit dialogue from very different vantages about the shape, meaning, and implications of history.”[5]

The term has since evolved in the public history field, transforming for many from a noun to a verb. Sharing authority is a process of de-centering museums and institutions as the “sole interpreters” of historical narratives, and those who use this evolved meaning strive to empower those with the deepest experience and knowledge to craft the way their histories are told.[6] While the scope of the Learning Lab expands beyond public history into the arts and sciences, this concept is still highly relevant to its work. I find both the noun and the verb interpretations of shared authority useful in my considerations of public history, and see the latter reflected in the Learning Lab’s approach to sharing information. In thinking about how museums and institutions can best serve their publics, I return to questions of access and community engagement.

I see equitable access to information as a crucial starting point for further sharing this authority and the Learning Lab can be a tool in this endeavor. As the world continues to social distance, many museums have opened their doors to visitors digitally, offering a welcome reprieve for those staying at home. It’s now possible to take a virtual stroll through the galleries of the Musée D’Orsay or the National Museum of Natural History – visits that, for many, would not be possible in person even in so-called “normal” times. Similarly, the Learning Lab expands this access to cultural resources. Although it pre-dates the pandemic by four years, the Lab is filling a niche for educators, parents, and caregivers seeking out resources for students who are learning remotely, as well as a means of visiting these institutions via their collections while remaining safely at home.

There are no easy answers and no clear-cut paths towards perfecting the sharing of authority. It would be inaccurate to say that the Learning Lab completely relinquishes all authority to its users, as it ultimately curates the digital objects made available on the site. However, it also provides a framework on which users can build out their own materials. For instance, tools that allow users to upload their own lesson plans, or copy and modify other published collections, ensure that the “implicit and … explicit dialogue” that Frisch observed continues.

Despite these complexities, I see all attempts at expanding access to museums and cultural institutions as steps in the right direction. For the museums and various departments in the Smithsonian Institution, this means offering the public direct access to digitized materials while allowing users to play with and build off of museum interpretations of those items. For educators, it means being able to use those resources to craft Learning Lab collections that best fit their classroom needs. For general users, it means the ability to explore the Smithsonian from the comfort of their own homes, while also creating their own collections from the items they discover. By eliminating as many barriers of entry as possible – distance, cost, and, in 2020, health risk – the Learning Lab takes a step towards making the institution once known as the “nation’s attic” more accessible for all.

Helen Kyriakoudes is an M.A. student in History who is pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate, UMass Amherst. Her 2020 internship was supported with a Charles K. Hyde Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

Works Cited

“About the Smithsonian Learning Lab: Smithsonian Learning Lab,” Smithsonian Learning Lab. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed July 2, 2020.

Frisch, Michael, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Frisch, Michael “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.

Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 2012.

[1] “About the Smithsonian Learning Lab: Smithsonian Learning Lab,” Smithsonian Institution, accessed July 2, 2020,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, Digital Learning Resources Project, Volume IV: Technical Specifications Document, 3.

[4] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).

[5] Ibid., xxii.

[6] Michael Frisch, “From ‘A Shared Authority’ to a Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), pp. 12-127.

By Tianna Darling

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing a restoration volunteer at the New England Air Museum in his late eighties who has worked here for fifty years. Beginning in 1970, this volunteer has made an impact on most of the aircraft in our collection; when asked what he has worked on over the years he states, “Almost everything. I’ve been involved in one way or another.” He knows where everything is, down to a specific bolt for a specific airplane part: “I remember stuff that I moved 20 years ago. I know right where to go pick it off the shelf.” I soon find out this is not an exaggeration, as he walks me around the storage building he refers to as his home, pointing out every piece of equipment on the numerous shelves. He remembers going to get certain airplanes, showing up to work after the 1979 tornado, what engine he has moved where, and why it was moved. It is all stored safely in his memory.

Photograph of the New England Air Museum, depicting plane parked outside of the hangar doors.

I am lucky to be able to intern this summer at one of my favorite museums, the New England Air Museum (NEAM), supported by a Charles K. Hyde internship fellowship. I may be slightly biased, as I have worked at NEAM for about a year and a half as part of the public programs team. This summer, I get to wear two hats: one on the museum floor interacting with visitors in my public programs team role, and another behind the scenes in my intern role, researching, writing, and interviewing for my project, “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories.”

This year, the New England Air Museum celebrates its 60th birthday, although not quite in the way it expected to. As with other cultural institutions around the world, NEAM closed its doors to the public this March, reopening the outside exhibit Memorial Day weekend. It was the longest closure the museum had seen in its history. By the end of June, we were able to open our indoors to visitors, and are now operating as an “open air” museum. My project will hopefully bring some celebration, albeit virtual, to the site’s 60th year by highlighting some of the fascinating and important stories that have made NEAM what it is today. Through text, audio, and images, this virtual exhibit will bring attention to stories of aircraft, restoration projects, objects in our collection, institutional history, and the incredible people that make up the New England Air Museum.

I am sure that when, in 1960, the original members of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (NEAM’s parent organization) were celebrating their incorporation as a non-profit institution, they could have never imagined the organization would be celebrating its 60th anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic. However, this is not the first time the museum has survived a severe setback. On October 3, 1979, a tornado ripped across northern Connecticut, wreaking havoc to anything in its path. Unfortunately, this included the Bradley Air Museum (as NEAM was called at the time). The tornado upended, twisted, and tossed around enormous aircraft in the outdoor yard, and tore through the indoor hangar. While many aircraft were able to be restored, numerous planes were lost. This, however, did not stop the museum from charging ahead. Opening to the public shortly after the tornado, the museum then went on to open another hangar in a new location only two years after the devastating damage. The New England Air Museum is a resilient institution: in a mere 60 years not only has it handled the changing cultural and economic landscapes that historic institutions deal with every day, but it has also survived a tornado, and is now confronting a pandemic, while only growing stronger.

As a component of “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories,” I am conducting short oral history interviews with a number of docents, restoration volunteers, board members, and staff at the New England Air Museum, both as part of my research and also to preserve the rich knowledge that each person has about different aspects of this museum. At any given time, NEAM has over 100 volunteers, working as restoration crews, craftsmen, docents, and everything in between.[1] My short interviews will not be encompassing this entire group, but will include approximately twenty interviews with volunteers, board members, and past and present staff, with a focus on those involved with stories chosen to tell for the 60th anniversary. These interviews opened my eyes to the amount of history that people have within their own minds that might never be shared if someone doesn’t ask. Institutional history is important to an organization; knowing where you have been can direct where you will go. My classmates in the UMass Public History program have recently worked on similar projects, such as the development of an excellent oral history handbook for Old Sturbridge Village to capture their stories for their upcoming 75th anniversary.[2] These types of projects undertaken with academic programs or with the help of student interns can help sites immensely, as most museums and historic sites may not have the staffing capabilities to undertake this type of project in addition to their own work.

NEAM has an amazing group of volunteers, each with their own rich background both at the museum and in the world of aviation: some have worked on one-of-a-kind aircraft in the restoration hangar; others celebrated their 100th birthday with NEAM friends just this past year; still others flew for Pan Am, worked on gear for the Apollo missions, and/or worked for the numerous aerospace organizations in the state of Connecticut. There are current and former staff members who remember details big and small about the museum’s history. These are the people who were working the day of the tornado, who helped the museum get back on its feet, who saw NEAM into a new generation. They remember details about restoration projects, such as how wheels were acquired for our one-of-a-kind Burnelli CBY “Loadmaster,” and how carefully the plane had to be weighed so as to not tip it over when the massive engines were installed on the front. They even remember details as small as what poem caused a laugh at a Christmas party. While records can tell you quite a bit about an organization’s past, recording these stories feels important on a different level. They are the personal connections people have to an institution, and show why this place matters to so many. Commemoration of an anniversary is an excellent time to emphasize the work done by staff and volunteers, while also thinking about the years to come.

The story of an organization can be lost if it is not preserved as you go along, and the people are the history. As we live through a global pandemic, my attention is drawn to the fact that this is now a part of NEAM’s institutional history, and now more than ever it is important to preserve the memories of the people that make the air museum what it is, both past and present. The New England Air Museum is an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary airplanes, but in my opinion it is the remarkable volunteers and staff that make this place truly special. I sincerely hope that these simple recordings may help someone down the road, asking themselves: what was it like to show up at work after the tornado? How did NEAM acquire the engines for the blimp car? What did it feel like to be a docent at NEAM in 2020? I feel honored to able to preserve even a fraction of these stories in whatever manner I can, and highlight what an outstanding museum NEAM has been over the last 60 years. One docent I interviewed today said it better than I ever could: “I came in earlier, they just opened the doors, and it’s like the place is coming alive. I see you walking by, you know, and I see a couple more coming through, I see the lights coming on, the displays coming on. It’s like the place is waking up.” The New England Air Museum is alive with the stories it has acquired over the last six decades. The common expression “if these walls could talk” could be used for NEAM, except they can: just ask our team.

Photograph of the interior exhibit space of the New England Air Museum

For more information about the New England Air Museum, visit their website at

Tianna Darling is an M.A. student in History who is pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate, UMass Amherst. Her 2020 internship was supported with a Charles K. Hyde Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

By Danielle Raad

I am looking at Apollo Sauroktonos, the Lizard Slayer. He is naked, nonchalantly resting his left arm on a tree trunk, arching his torso, and putting weight on his right foot. His boyish, idealized face is framed by curls and his gaze rests on a lizard climbing up the tree. More specifically, I am looking at an image in the online collections database of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. The photograph is of a plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos located in the museum in Norwich, Connecticut. It is a cast of a Roman marble sculpture made in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. The sculpture is one of several copies of a Greek bronze statue from the 4th century BC. 

Left: Digital photograph of the plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos in the Slater Memorial Museum. Right: Digital photograph of an albumen silver print (ca. 1870-1890) in the Getty Museum of the marble Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums

This summer, I am working remotely as an Education Intern at the Slater Memorial Museum. I am researching and writing sections of a training manual for museum staff and volunteers all from my home office in Amherst. While writing the section on classical art history, I realized just how far removed I am from what would be considered the original work of art. With Apollo Sauroktonos and several other works, I am working from digital photographs of plaster casts of Roman copies of Greek sculptures. 

In this essay, I complicate the concept and value of the “original” and consider copies and representations as products of their times. My lens is that of a public historian and archaeologist of the contemporary and I see these media transformations and reconstitutions of material culture worthy of critical examination in their own right. I’ll zoom out through three levels of abstraction from the lost Greek bronze to the digital photograph. Interrogating each layer of replication reveals entangled stories of classical art, art historiography, and museum studies. 

First abstraction: Roman copies of Greek sculptures

During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, as Rome expanded its reach across the Mediterranean, works of art from conquered cultures were brought back to the capital. Romans had a particular affinity for classical Greek art from half a millennia earlier, and as a result a neoclassical tradition blossomed in Rome. Artists made copies of Greek sculptures, using molds of originals to replicate them (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2002). Roman sculptures were in turn rediscovered by Italians in the Renaissance and taken to be originals. Only after large-scale excavations in Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries did archaeologists and art historians realize that many Roman sculptures were in fact modeled after Greek art. At this time, art historians and archaeologists shifted to Greek, not Roman, art as the classical ideal. Greek art became lauded and Roman art in turn fell in estimation. As Greek bronze statues were often melted down, much of what we know about Greek sculpture actually comes from these Roman copies. They have been practically ignored by students of Rome and rather studied as Greek art (Gazda, 1995).

But Roman sculptures are Roman, not Greek. In recent decades, two long-standing assumptions about Roman sculpture have been challenged. First, that Greek art is original and Roman art is characterized in contrast by copying, imitation, and deviation. Second, that it is possible to learn about lost Greek art by studying Roman sculptures (Perry, 2010). We cannot assume that Roman copies are faithful replicas; some may be composites or otherwise altered. Decisions like recreating a bronze sculpture in marble or altering the size and orientation of a lizard were made by Roman artists. 

Romans consciously chose to copy Greek sculptures. The labels art historians use to describe artwork carry implications, as “classifying an object as a copy incorporates a fundamental denial of the validity of that object as a unique expression of its own time and culture” (Gazda, 1995, p. 124). These objects are more than surrogates for Greek art, they are the material culture of Rome. Instead of viewing sculptures “merely as informants on what has been lost of Greek culture’s artistic heritage we can appreciate them as selective and informed determinants of the artistic legacy of Greece in Rome” (Gazda, 1995, p. 148). By shifting the focus, we can instead investigate how the copy would have functioned in Roman sociopolitical life. We see how visual communication through the distribution of replicas was part of Roman propagandic and economic agendas. We also see how Roman aesthetics were guided by tradition and classical ideals. Emperor Augustus, who transformed Rome into an imperial capital, promoted the emulation of classical Greek styles and motifs. His intention was for Rome to eventually surpass the lauded achievements of ancient Greece (C. Hemingway, 2007). Thus the copying of Greek art is linked to Roman imperial aspirations.

The original Apollo Sauroktonos is attributed to the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, based on passages written by Pliny the Elder. The Cleveland Museum of Art claims to have procured the original Greek bronze sculpture, thought to be lost to time. There is much debate about the validity of this claim and the attribution of the sculpture to Praxiteles. But does it matter? We do not need to identify a definitive first Apollo Sauroktonos for the Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums, excavated in 1778 on the Palatine Hill in Rome, to have value. Not only can we learn about Roman attitudes and aesthetics, but also about the systematic collecting practices of the Catholic church in the 18th century and papal sponsorship of archaeological excavations.

Second abstraction: Victorian plaster casts of Roman sculptures

The Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888 displaying exclusively plaster casts of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculpture. The selection of art was carefully curated with the aim of educating the public and allowing them to contemplate the intrinsic beauty of classical art (Norwich Free Academy, 1889). Henry Watson Kent, the museum’s first curator, reflected in his memoir that it “was to be entirely a museum of reproductions, but of reproductions treated with the gravity and respect due their great originals” (1949, p. 39). Today the Slater Museum boasts one of the largest plaster cast displays in the country. Still on display, the casts continue to be used as teaching tools, a three-dimensional art history textbook, for both the general public and for students at the Norwich Free Academy. 

The history of plaster casts begins centuries earlier, in Renaissance Europe where the wealthy commissioned casts to decorate their homes and gardens. This trend spread to Colonial America; George Washington had casts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar sent over from London to decorate Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson intended to decorate Monticello with casts of classical sculptures (McNutt, 1990, p. 160). Plaster casts were used to teach the values of Western civilization to artists and to “elevate” public taste.

Many museums, like the Slater and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), were founded with collections of casts. During the Victorian era between 1874 and 1905, European museums made casts of sculptures in their collections and sold them to American museums (Born, 2002). This arrangement worked well for Europeans who did not want to lose objects of their cultural heritage to the United States (Fahlman, 1991). Casting studios capitalized on this market. For example, Caproni and Brothers, founded in 1900, traveled around Europe making over a thousand direct molds which they used to create and sell casts out of their Boston studio. The plaster cast industry resulted in a canonization of classical works of art displayed in American museums. 

These museums eventually began acquiring original art and artifacts, and interest in plaster casts declined. In 1904, Matthew S. Prichard, the Assistant Director of the MFA, was vehemently against displaying casts in the galleries. He asserted that casts are “engines of education and should not be shown near objects of inspiration. They are data mechanically produced; our originals are works of art” (Whitehall, 2013, p. 202). He robs the cast of any artistic merit or ability to evoke inspiration. His perception of casts, shared by many others, also applies a double standard. Why not reject, too, works like the Apollo Sauroktonos at the Vatican Museums? Are the Roman marble copies not analogous to the Victorian plaster casts?

While many museums have relegated cast collections to storage facilities, sold them off, or otherwise let them deteriorate, a few like the Slater Museum still attest to the educational use of the replicas. Over a century after the plaster casts were made, they are historical artifacts which “do not merely replicate and embody famous ‘originals.’ Rather they testify to the reception and heritage of sculpture” (Nichols, 2006, p. 127). Looking at the history of casts, for example, we can learn about 19th century aspirations (Born, 2002). Americans attempted to elevate themselves culturally by appreciating a canonized European artistic heritage. Linked to the circulation of casts, we also see a rise in the reproduction of the classical body as an artistic ideal, which was subsequently dismissed by Modernists (Nichols, 2006).

Slater Museum’s casts are reproductions created from molds of the original sculptures, however they are not without some last minute modifications. Henry Watson Kent recounted events that transpired the day before the Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888:

Somebody, somehow, had at the last moment thrown up horrified hands at the unconcealed naturalism of the Greek sculpture that was going to be displayed on the morrow. Cico, the plasterer, was called to the rescue with a sheaf of proper if hastily made fig leaves, and, after a bit of rushing round, the Museum was ready to be opened with, it was hoped, irreprochable dignity. A month later, some of the New York and Boston newspapers raised a hullaballoo about this desecration of pure art, with appropriate sneers at provincial prudery, but Norwich stood its ground. (1949, p. 42).

Alterations such as the addition of censoring fig leaves present on Apollo Sauroktonos and many other nude male sculptures reveal Victorian attitudes toward propriety. In addition, the cast of Apollo Sauroktonos at the Slater Museum differs in a few small ways from the one in the Vatican, namely the placement of the fingers of the right hand, the number and location of the tree branches, and the size of the lizard’s body. An investigation into these differences would elucidate the technology of plaster cast production as well as choices and perhaps shortcuts taken by the cast makers (artists? crafters?).

Third abstraction: Digital photographs of plaster casts

Interest in plaster casts revived in the 1990s, which corresponded both to a renewed interest in Roman sculpture for its own sake and to museum collections going online. As early as 1935, the philosopher Walter Benjamin considered the democratizing potential of photographs of art. He wrote, “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (Benjamin, 1969). In some ways, an online collection mirrors that of a plaster cast exhibit, making art available to more and more people.

Indiscriminate and widespread digitization resists canonization, allowing members of the public and scholars alike to curate their own set of artifacts and artwork with endless possibilities. New advances in the digital humanities have even opened up big data to art historians, like the creation of a visual search engine that can detect attributes of digital representations of art (Seguin, 2018). 

However, along with the push to digitize came hesitations. Museums feared that if their collections were viewable online visitorship would decline. Actually, scholars of museum informatics have found that an online presence increases physical attendance at museums (Marty, 2010). Museums have also grappled with copyright issues and an unease in making images of their artwork available. Others have completely embraced open access, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has waived their copyright for images of artwork in the public domain, and the Getty, which allows anyone to use their digital images for any purpose with no permission under their Open Content Program

During the COVID-19 pandemic, museums have virtually opened their doors to field trips. Especially now, students like myself are able to conduct productive research from quarantine thanks to online collections and archives. In my internship, I am writing the art historical and ethnographic sections of the Slater Memorial Museum Interpretation Manual which will be a training manual for future staff and volunteers. I am tracing the development of art historical trends exhibited within the museum’s permanent collections, including ancient sculpture from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, art from Africa, East Asia, and the Islamic World, and American fine and decorative arts.

In order to continue to act in their role as institutions to serve and educate the public, museums must have a substantial online presence. The images of and information on the plaster casts on the Slater Museum website provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the founding of the museum, the story of the casts, and the attributes and art historical significance of the works in the museum. Cornell University has a database of their bygone plaster cast collection, attempting to digitally reunite damaged and scattered collections and allow for the study of casts as a historical medium of the 19th and 20th century. 

Artwork of the past lives multiple lives (Bergmann, 1995). Their second and subsequent lives may be lived as replicas and photographs. The transition between lives, the act of reproduction, is a rich area of art historical and archaeological attention. The exact identity of the original ceases to be the object of fixation. Whether it be Roman marble replicas distributed through the empire, plaster casts sent off to American museums, or photographs hosted on a server accessible from any device with an Internet connection, copies have their own value.

Danielle Raad is a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD candidate in Anthropology, UMass Amherst.  Her 2020 internship was supported with a Judith A. Barter Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Zohn (Trans.), Illuminations (p. 26). Schocken Books.

Bergmann, B. (1995). Greek Masterpieces and Roman Recreative Fictions. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 79–120. JSTOR.

Born, P. (2002). The Canon Is Cast: Plaster Casts in American Museum and University Collections. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 21(2), 8–13. JSTOR.

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Interview with Amanda Goodheart Parks

“The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area,” says Amanda Goodheart Parks.

An alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department and the Public History Certificate Program, Parks is Director of Education at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT.  She completed her PhD at UMass Amherst with fields in the history of women and gender, public history, nineteenth century U.S. history, and environmental history. She defended her dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whale fishery, 1840-1870,” with distinction in May 2018. Parks has worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter for more than a decade with experience at Mystic Seaport, Strawbery Banke Museum, Historic Deerfield, and the Springfield Museums.

In an interview with Past@Present, Parks shares the trajectory of her research and career as a public historian and museum educator.

You are an alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department (’18PhD, ‘10MA) and the Public History Program (‘10PhCertificate). Your PhD dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whalefishery, 1840-1870,” studied whaling captains’ wives who defied social and industrial norms by going to sea together with their husbands aboard whaleships in the mid-nineteenth century. Why did you choose this topic for your PhD dissertation?

 I first discovered this topic during an internship at Mystic Seaport Museum. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and while I knew I wanted to write my senior honors thesis on women’s history, I had yet to find a topic I was passionate about. That all changed when I began researching the history of women in the whaling industry as part of my internship. When I learned that a small group of American women went to sea with their husbands aboard whaleships during the mid-nineteenth century, I was fascinated. Who were these women? Why did they go to sea? What were their experiences like? How did their decisions impact their husbands, families, and communities? The more I read, the more questions I had, and by the end of the summer, I had spent hours in the Mystic Seaport archives pouring over the letters and journals these women left behind. That research became the basis of my senior honors thesis, which in turn became the writing sample that got me into the UMass Public History M.A. Program.

This topic also played an important role in my decision to pursue my Ph.D. When I first came to UMass in the fall of 2008, my plan was to earn my M.A., build up my network of professional contacts, and begin my career in the museum field. However, after turning my research into a graduate level article (which later won the department’s Caldwell Prize), I realized I was not done studying these remarkable women. Fortunately, I did not have to choose between my professional career and my academic interests. Thanks to the support of my wonderful advisors Joyce Berkman, Marla Miller, Manisha Sinha, and Barry Levy, I was able to continue my research as a Ph.D. student while working full-time in the museum field.  So in a way, could say my background as a public historian led me to my dissertation topic, and my Ph.D. is a result of my personal connections to that topic.

You’ve worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter. What skills did you build while pursuing your graduate studies to prepare for public history jobs? And how did your experience as a public historian inform your graduate work?

 One of the reasons I chose the UMass Amherst Public History program for my graduate training was its reputation of blending academic theory with hands-on practice in the field. The program did not disappoint me in this regard, as some of my most valuable experiences as a graduate student stemmed from the program’s focus on practice. My field service projects, internships, and part-time work at local museums gave me the practical skills I needed to prepare for a career in this field. Meanwhile, my work as a public historian shaped my academic research in significant ways. I wrote my dissertation with public audiences in mind, and I used material culture as well as print sources in my research. As such, my dissertation reads more like a popular history than a traditional academic work, and includes references to everything from journals and letters to clothing and gravestones.

How can students learn about different career options in the public history job market? In what ways do you think public history programs and history departments can best prepare students for careers outside academia?

 The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area. In addition to internships, volunteering, and part-time or contractual work, I recommend reaching out to local public history practitioners to request informational interviews. I subscribe to the “pay it forward” belief, meaning that because I was so graciously helped by people in the field when I was a student, as an established professional, I now have an obligation to give back. I also really enjoy mentoring students – it’s the educator in me! – and I think many people in our field feel the same, so don’t be shy!

As for graduate programs, I think they need to help students develop the skills non-academic employers want to see in potential job applicants. Things like budgeting, grant writing, and supervisory experience will go a long way in landing a job upon graduation. I also think graduate programs should encourage students to start working in the field as soon as possible, even while pursuing their degree. The job market is very competitive, and the best way to stand out among a sea of newly minted graduates is to have experience on your resume and a network of references who will champion you within their professional networks. Finally, I think graduate programs need to help students master the art of networking. Crafting an elevator speech, developing a professional brand, and knowing how to work a room are all vital to not only getting a job, but growing your network within this field.

Your dissertation explored New Englanders at sea, and today you interpret New Englanders in the air; can you tell us a little about the New England Air Museum?  What are some of your favorite aspects of your work today? 

The New England Air Museum is the largest aerospace museum in our region, home to over one hundred historic aircraft ranging from century old biplanes to modern military aircraft. Founded in 1960, our mission is to preserve and interpret New England’s aerospace history while inspiring the next generation of aerospace innovators. In my role as Director of Education, I create opportunities for visitors to engage with the past, present, and future of aerospace in fun and meaningful ways. Whether it’s field trips for local students or special events like Women Take Flight or scout overnights – yes, I sleep at my museum several times a year! – my department helps the museum fulfill its educational mission. Because we are a relatively small museum, I am involved in all facets of our programming, so while I am a senior staff member, I am not stuck behind a desk everyday. I can see the impact our work has on visitors first hand, which as a public historian and museum educator, is very fulfilling. I also work with a wonderful team of staff and volunteers, many of whom have decades of experience in the aerospace industry, so I am always learning new things about our collection. It’s a fantastic museum, so I encourage you to come see our work for yourself!

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

“I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life,” says Roger Atwood, an independent writer and journalist, who graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History from UMass Amherst in 1984. “I started working in journalism in Argentina about a year after I graduated, liked it, and made a career out of it,” he tells Past@Present.

Atwood’s articles have appeared in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals, including The Guardian, National Geographic, The Washington Post, ARTnews, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and Archaeology, where Atwood is a contributing editor. He is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade, published by St Martin’s Press in 2004. He also co-edited an anthology of non-fiction writing about growing up in the American working class, Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2019.

After you graduated in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you worked as a journalist and correspondent in the U.S. and Latin America, where you reported from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. What made you interested in journalism, especially reporting on Latin American countries?

My original plan when I graduated was to go into an academic career. But I had done an internship at a newspaper in Mexico and written a lot for The Collegian, so when I went to Argentina a few months after graduation, I was drawn to journalism as a way to make a living, and somehow it became a career. I was influenced also by reporters who showed me how journalism could be a way to find an immediate, very fleeting kind of truth about what was happening in politics and society. I saw journalism as a way to grasp and write about what was happening around me, which, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, was the return to democracy and a gradual liberalization of society.  

I worked at a radio station in Buenos Aires, then an English-language newspaper, then found a job as a reporter at the news agency Reuters in 1986, in Buenos Aires. I stayed with Reuters until 2002, but I worked at so many different offices of Reuters that it never felt routine or stale. I was a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and New York, and then bureau chief in Santiago, Chile. Finally I was a senior editor at Reuters in Washington, where I was working on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Much as I loved it, I left Reuters in 2002 because I wanted to grow as a writer, and, after 16 years, it was time for a change. Since then, I’ve written a book called Stealing History, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade; co-edited an anthology of memoirs which was published in 2019 by the University of Georgia Press; and written hundreds of articles in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals. My main job these days is at Archaeology magazine, for which I write about archaeological digs around the world. For an independent writer, it’s a nice gig. I like to work hard, and I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life. So I keep writing. 

You did your undergraduate degree in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. How did your history degree influence your journalism work?

For me, and I’m sure for others, history was a superb preparation for journalism. You learn the historical background of the places or issues you’re reporting on, but even more importantly you learn how to take huge amounts of information and distill it down to a coherent argument or narrative. Historical scholarship teaches you to grapple with information from many different kinds of sources – archives, interviews, published texts – and write about them with accuracy, originality, empathy, and flair, all qualities that go into good journalism. Writing history teaches you to follow the facts where they lead you, to question your own assumptions, and to keep an open mind – again, all qualities that journalists should aspire to. 

Everything I do, every article or book I write, is informed in some way by my UMass education, which taught me the value of scholarly inquiry while exposing me to people and ideas from outside the insular, American middle-class world in which I had been raised. I loved the diversity and progressive spirit of UMass, and in the years since I’ve come to realize what a big impact UMass had on my outlook on the world, how it opened my perspectives and gave me an education in the fullest sense. I had fantastic professors who transmitted their enthusiasm for Latin America to me and many other students, in History and other departments in the humanities and social sciences. My chief mentor was Robert Potash, who taught me to research and write to high standards and helped me win a summer scholarship in Argentina in 1983 that proved really pivotal for me.

How can journalists benefit from history, especially when it comes to analyzing the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in Latin America?

A historical perspective helps to understand the U.S. role in Latin America and how Latin Americans feel about people from the United States. It is a rather complicated relationship, with some inherited resentment at our role in supporting dictatorships during the Cold War and imperial adventures before that. This is more important in some countries than in others. When I was a student at UMass, U.S. policy in Latin America was dominated by the Reagan Administration’s misguided efforts to maintain the traditional, conservative order in Central America and prevent the left from coming to power. UMass was a place of intense activism against U.S. policy and in favor of human rights and a more progressive future for Central America. I have nice memories of traveling with other students to Washington, DC, in 1982 or 1983 to protest against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Although feelings about U.S. influence ran pretty strong, Professor Potash and others at UMass – Jane Rausch in History, Harvey Kline in Political Science, Lawrence Pinkham in Journalism, among others – encouraged us through their example to think about Latin America as not just a place where U.S. influences played out, but rather on its own terms, as a place with cultures and histories of its own. That was an incredibly important perspective. It helped me grasp the complexity and beauty and texture of Latin America in a way that perhaps not many other journalists did.

You frequently speak on radio and television and write for various print media. One of your recent articles was published in The Guardian. It is impressive how you can communicate about your research with various audiences in and outside the United States. What can historians learn from journalists about getting their research findings out to a wider audience?

That article in The Guardian was about organic farming in Cuba, and how Cuba had moved from a cash-crop, sugar monoculture to a food-based model in an attempt to gain some independence over its food supply. I must have interviewed 30 academics in the United States and Cuba for that story, and it was sometimes a challenge to put their very technical language into words that the general public could relate to. For anybody writing for the general public, as opposed to an academic audience, it’s important to use vivid language – active verbs, a sense of the visual, no clichés. There needs to be a compelling point, an argument, if you will. You can assume that readers have more knowledge than maybe we give them credit for, but the narrative has to move quickly and it needs to be focused on people, because that’s what journalists write about, people. It needs good description. Sometimes you have to stop to think: what does this look like? What does it feel like to be here? How would I describe this event or place or person? Put that in your story. Don’t go overboard.

This past October you spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia on your book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Your book sheds light on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites in countries like Iraq, Peru, and Hong Kong, to show how the worldwide antiquities trade is destroying what’s left of the ancient sites before archaeologists can reach them. After your talk at Ursinus College, you wrote on your website that you were struck by how the book’s basic message still resonates: “that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity.” Do you think that your work and reports about the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects has changed the approach of governments and collecting museums to acquiring antiquities?

Museums used to buy antiquities that had been looted from archaeological sites quite brazenly – this is why so many museums found themselves in legal trouble – but I sense they’ve become more circumspect about it. Some of them are still acquiring legally dodgy pieces but are more discreet about it; others, I think, really have tightened up their policies out of an awareness that their acquisition polices in the past were encouraging looting and destruction of archaeological sites by commercial grave-robbers. Did my own reporting contribute to that change? Well, I’d like to think so, but there were many journalists doing excellent reporting that demonstrated the complicity of big art museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Lawsuits brought in U.S. court against museums by countries demanding restitution of looted goods also had a big effect; museums saw themselves as custodians of the treasures of the past, and they did not like getting sued. And pressure from those governments – particularly Italy, as well as Peru and a few others – on the U.S. government to do something about the problem had a decisive effect. All this has changed the climate in which unprovenanced antiquities are bought and sold in the United States. But has it led to a reduction in looting? I think that’s harder to say. In some areas, yes. On the northern coast of Peru, where I reported most of Stealing History, certainly.  

Since its creation, the ISIS has been profiteering from plundering and selling antiquities in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, UNESCO warned that the looting in Iraq and Syria was taking place on an “industrial” scale. According to various reports, the U.S. and western European countries are the main destination for looted goods and the sales of these goods are said to be funding ISIS activities. What is your take on the role of major U.S. and European museums in enabling the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive? What should museums do to address the illicit antiquities trade which you criticize in your book?

With regard to antiquities pillaged at sites in Syria and Iraq, I think the demand at the moment is more from private collectors than from the big museums. Yet some of those private collectors may later try to sell or donate looted antiquities to museums; this is what happened to the Bible Museum here in Washington, which acquired unprovenanced cuneiform tablets from Iraq and was forced to return them and pay a settlement. Some collectors of Near Eastern antiquities have a great appetite for looted antiquities. They like the feeling of owning things taken freshly from the ground. Maybe they find the legal perils exciting. But the demand for those objects is what fuels the destruction of ancient sites, and, when you buy looted goods, you’re also at risk of buying worthless fakes. My position is that no one should buy antiquities, period. No matter what the dealer says about how the piece has spent decades in someone’s collection, or derived from legitimate sources, the risk that you’re buying a plundered work of art is just too great. If you’re buying an antiquity, most likely it’s looted or fake.   

What dynamics within museums are behind their drive to acquire antiquities from illegal sellers?

Acquiring is in the nature of great museums. That’s what they do, and to ask museums to get out of a whole area of collecting – unprovenanced antiquities – is a pretty big ask. But they have been forced to do so and to revise their whole acquisitions philosophies, because they faced legally enforceable demands from source countries for the return of looted antiquities. For the great collecting museums – the Met, the Getty, the Boston MFA – it has been a sea change. They have learned some hard lessons.

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is the first installment of a new series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.