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Tag Archives: material culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Chelsea Miller, Public History M.A., UMass History

This blog post originally appeared on The Harold, and is part of a series of essays, opinions, and reviews written by students, faculty, and staff of the Institute for Curatorial Practice.

As an intern for the Institute for Curatorial Practice, I am particularly struck by ICP’s ability to bring a wide range of collections into one conversation. I saw this in action during the ICP’s summer program. I received a graduate fellowship that enabled me to attend the five-week program and to lead a co-curated digital exhibition, BODY [IN/AS] LANDSCAPE. My teammates and I created an exhibition that explores how human forms and activities transform landscapes, and what new landscapes are produced by an artist’s intervention in the landscape. The exhibition draws from several collections, including the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Hampshire College Special Collections, Smith College Museum of Art, the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Mead Art Museum. While these collections are part of the Five College Consortium, they remain separate. But the ICP opens up the possibility of bringing them together. After this summer, I felt inspired by the concept of digital exhibitions.

The medium of a digital exhibition prompts questions about the possibilities and anxieties surrounding digital reproductions. Since the emergence of mechanical means of reproduction, specifically photography, there has been debate over whether the reproduced image can substitute for the original work of art. But what I hope to argue is that the digital reproduction is a useful tool for learning, teaching, and preserving objects.

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This post originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s blog O Say Can You See

Smithsonian Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. The blogs are part of the celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act.

Deborah Kallman, M.A. student, UMass History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. 

Turquoise and purple diamond-shaped pin with text:

“The Quilt” button in the museum’s collection

Memorials are…

  • typically permanent
  • sites of mourning
  • places of remembrance

Some memorials…

  • mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn

Few memorials…

  • are living memorials
  • travel
  • are quilts

The AIDS Quilt is all of these things. For me, it is also a story about a sister, a brother, a quilt panel, and a journey to acceptance 20 years after a doctor in Georgia signed the death certificate for my brother, Greg.

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This post originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s blog O Say Can You See

Smithsonian Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. The blogs are part of the celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act.

Rebecca Schmidt, M.A. alumna, UMass History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s collections and write blog posts sharing their research. 

Screenshot of the museum's Pinterest boards, including a

The museum’s Pinterest boards cover a variety of themes, from American flags to retro mathematical devices.

On the surface, disability history and social networks such as Pinterest do not appear to have anything in common. One is a story of a fight for the passage of laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. The other is a popular social media site that allows people to exchange information and ideas on everything from recipes, to crafts, and more.

White pin. Red text in bold typeface:

“Civil Rights Sign the Bill!” Button from 1989, in the museum’s collection.

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