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By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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Rose Gallenberger, Public History MA Candidate, UMass History

Stuff. We all have it. Some accumulate more than others. Some of us may be called “pack rats.” We are a consumer society. But our Anglo-American ancestors were just as concerned with material possessions. Enter the probate inventory, specifically those of Maryland’s first capital, St. Mary’s City. Probate inventories are records taken after the death of an individual to determine the value of his or her estate. During the summer of 2015, I spent hours examining these lists of stuff, a surprisingly fascinating undertaking. While it was interesting reading about five balls of chocolate worth the equivalent of sixty pounds of tobacco (John Deery’s 1678 probate inventory) and spying on William Calvert’s property, I had a greater reason for exploring these records. As a graduate intern at Historic St. Mary’s City, a seventeenth-century living history museum, it was my duty to begin sifting through hundreds of probate inventories to create a master list of the stuff seventeenth-century southern Marylanders owned. The museum staff will use this list to improve the interpretive collections, which consists of historical reproductions that interpreters use while bringing the seventeenth century to life.

Ceramics at the Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City

Ceramics at the Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City

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Emily Esten, Class of 2016, UMass History

I interned at the John Brown House Museum (JBH) in Providence, RI this summer. Interning in a small historic house museum allowed me to be a jack-of-all-trades. I opened and closed the museum, followed and guided tours, attended meetings, met with docents, assisted at events, create education packets…essentially, a little bit of everything.

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

But the most important task I dealt with on a day-to-day basis was manning the front desk. As the first person patrons would see prior to entering the museum, I handled all their questions. Over the course of the summer, I had a running FAQ list of statements I had heard far too often, such as:

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