During the spring of 2021, I was a women’s history research intern at Historic New England (HNE), an organization committed to sharing New England’s home life and history with national audiences by preserving houses and their landscapes alongside archival items and stories. Working under the direction of Dr. Alissa Butler, manager of the HNE Study Center, I was responsible for two main projects. At Casey Farm, a rural historic site in Saunderstown, RI, I researched women who had lived in the family home. At Otis House, a brick historic house in Boston, MA, I researched the experiences of women in the nineteenth-century Boston medical community.
Due to the remote nature of this internship, I researched Emma Weir Casey using Historic New England’s vast digital collection. Unfortunately, the Casey Family Papers has few of Emma’s first-hand accounts; however, it has dozens of her son’s letters. I read Thomas Lincoln Casey Jr.’s letters from 1877 to 1896 to find information about Emma’s life, hobbies, and personality. By sifting through her son’s perspective, I was able to learn about Emma’s frequent travels to New York, her ability to provide for her sons, her interest in music, and more. I ultimately wrote a subject guide about Emma for Casey Farm staff to incorporate her story in interpretation of the house and farm.
For Otis House, I read secondary source literature on the Boston medical community to contextualize Elizabeth Mott, an alternative medicine practitioner who lived in the house in the early to mid-nineteenth century. With little information available on Elizabeth, Otis House staff hoped to learn more about the world she would have been living and working in. I wrote subject guides on numerous topics that docents could use to illuminate Elizabeth’s role in alternative medicine including women and medical education, medical societies, feminism, and more.
On August 18, President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III to serve as National Park Service Director. The appointment is important for two reasons in particular: first, Sams III could be the first Native American to lead the National Park Service; second, Sams III could be the first person since the Obama administration to hold the position in an official capacity. Both are contingent on the Senate confirmation process, which is a relatively new prerequisite for the top parks job.
On the surface it seems arbitrary that Congress would decide one day in 1996 to throw out the old way of doing things and instead require the president to choose a director with consent of the Senate. Understanding how this came to be is important for understanding the current state of our national parks system and our most treasured landscapes and resources.
US national parks are supremely popular among the American people, and the National Park Service is one of the most favorably viewed of all government agencies. This might lead some to believe that the parks system sits above the political fray. However, America’s parks system has on more than one occasion served as an arena for political posturing and power dynamics, and continues to at present.
Virtually all of the national parks established by Congress prior to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 were headed up by political appointees at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. A notable exception was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, which was overseen for more than two decades by the US Army.
In the case of Yellowstone, park mismanagement and unsatisfactory protection of the environment by its first superintendents in the Department of the Interior convinced Congress in 1883 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to call upon the Secretary of War for assistance if needed. This meant using the strength of the military to preserve the land, conserve wildlife and resources, and exclude, often violently, Native Americans from entering park boundaries. In 1886 the interior department called upon the war department. The Army would occupy and run Yellowstone until 1918.
President Woodrow Wilson enacted the law creating the National Park Service in 1916, granting the interior secretary power to appoint park service directors and assistant directors. Interior secretaries would enjoy this prerogative until the mid-1990s, an 80-year span.
The shape and administration of the park service has evolved since its creation in the early 20th century. It grew in size and scope, added and recategorized sites of national historic significance, and reached into dense urban centers. But the mid-1990s brought on a more divisive brand of politics.
The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.
Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.
During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner.
I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.
But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.
And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.
I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.
Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.
Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.
To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.
I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.
Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors.
Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.
A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.
Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles.
Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest.
This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections. First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. Read More
Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History
Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.
Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.
Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.
Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History
On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison. While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform. This event is a defining moment of our times. Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come. While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.
One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan. Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years. The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994. Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.
This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014. This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration. The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.
The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Sean Kelley.
When Dr. Gunther von Hagens started using “plastination“ in the 1970s to preserve human bodies, he likely did not anticipate the wild success of the Body Worlds exhibitions that stem from his creation. Body Worlds has since hosted millions of visitors to its exhibits, including six spin-offs. The offshoots include a version on vital organs and another featuring plastinated animal remains. The process replaces natural bodily fluids with polymers that harden to create odorless and dry “specimens.”
But Body Worlds – though seemingly an entirely modern phenomenon only made possible with futuristic plastic technology – emerges from a long tradition of popular exhibits featuring actual and simulated human remains. What continues to draw so many people to human body exhibitions – even today?
Early exhibits of human bodies
For nearly as long as physicians and anatomists have attempted to understand the body, they have attempted to preserve, illustrate and present it. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the 16th century frequently included human skulls. As civic museums emerged in cities throughout Europe and the United States, some began to formally organize collections around anatomical questions.
Medical museums were often more interested in pathologies – abnormal medical conditions or disease. They also collected thousands of skulls and bones, attempting to address basic questions about race. Early on, medical museums were generally closed to the public, instead focusing on training medical students through hands-on experience with specimens. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public. Once they did, they were surprised by the relatively large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.
Medical museums were not the sole institutions housing and displaying remains, however. Collections aimed more squarely at the general public often included such items as well. The Army Medical Museum, for instance, located along the National Mall, exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early 20th century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park.
Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also wildly popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics.
Troubling transition from person to specimen
In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields.
In the United States, the human body in the late 19th and early 20th century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with the supposed differentiations between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans – occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.
Some exhibits blended medical science and racial science in a bizarrely inaccurate manner. Medical doctors supported eugenics groups organizing temporary exhibits comparing hair and skulls from different apes and nonwhite humans, underscoring popular notions about the supposedly primitive nature of those outside of Western civilization. To our modern eyes, these attempts are obviously stained by scientific racism.
Eventually, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world came under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race – dominating many early displays of human remains – was largely discredited.
Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods – including more sophisticated models – and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.
By midcentury it was less common to display actual human remains in museum exhibits. The occasional Egyptian mummy notwithstanding, museum remains were largely relegated behind the scenes to bone rooms.
Specimen exhibits fade, temporarily
With largely unfounded concern, museum administrators, curators and other critics worried audiences would be disgusted when shown vivid details about human anatomy. Gradually, as medical illustrations became better and easier to reproduce in textbooks, the need for demonstrations with real “specimens” seemed to dissipate.
First displayed at a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, see-through models of the human body became a favorite attraction at medical exhibits in years to come. Models replicated actual human body parts rather than displaying them in preserved form. Exhibits were sometimes animated with light shows and synchronized lectures.
Later, in the 1960s, new transparent models were created for popular education. Eventually, some of the many transparent medical models wound up in science museums. Although popular, it remains unclear how effective the models were in either teaching visitors or inspiring them to learn more about the human body.
Over the years, methods for teaching anatomy shifted. Many medical museums even closed permanently. Those that could not dispose of collections by destroying them donated or sold them. Human body exhibits generally faded from public consciousness.
But after decades of declining visitor numbers, something surprising started happening at one of the nation’s most important medical museums. The Mütter Museum’s displays continued to draw heavily from its human remains collections even as similar institutions moved away from such exhibits. From the mid-1980s to 2007, the number of visitors entering the Mütter’s galleries grew from roughly 5,000 visitors per year to more than 60,000. Today, the museum is the most visited small museum in Philadelphia, hosting over 130,000 visitors annually.
When Body Worlds began touring museums in the mid-1990s, it tapped into a curiosity in the U.S. that has probably always existed – a fascination with death and the human body.
Adding a gloss of scientization to the dead
People are very often unsettled by seeing what were once living, breathing, human beings – people with emotions and families – turned into scientific specimens intended for public consumption. Despite whatever discomfort emerges, however, the curious appeal of medicalized body displays at public museums lingers, enough so to make them consistently appealing as fodder for popular exhibitions.
The exhibits are partially successful in achieving that mission. In tension with the message about human fragility, though, is the desire to preserve them by preventing their natural decay through technology.
But while charged emotional responses have the potential to heighten curiosity, they can also inhibit learning. While museum administrators voiced concern that visitors would be horrified viewing actual human bodies on exhibit, the public has instead proven to have an almost insatiable thirst for seeing scientized dead.
In the face of this popularity, museums must fully consider the special implications and problems with these exhibitions when choosing to display human bodies.
One basic concern relates to the exact origins of these bodies. Criticisms elicited an official response from von Hagens. Major ethical differences exist between exhibitions including human remains where permission has been granted in advance by the deceased or through descendants and museum displays revealing bodies of individuals offered no choice in the matter.
Spiritually sacred objects and the remains of past people present unique issues which must be dealt with sensitively and on an individual basis. Cultural and historical context is important. Consulting with living ancestors is critical.
Exhibitors also need to do more to put these displays into greater historical context for visitors. Without it, visitors might mistake artfully posed cadavers as art pieces, which they most assuredly are not.
These are all issues we will likely be grappling with for years to come. If past history is suggestive of future trends, visitors will continue to be drawn to these exhibits as long as the human body remains mysterious and alluring.
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.
“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” —Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History
The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).
UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.
Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.
Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:
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.
Charles Weisenberger, Ph.D. Student, UMass History Department
Tactile model of George Washington’s Mount Vernon from the late 1930s. This object is in the museum’s Division of Medicine and Science.
Don’t touch the objects! Many people who have visited a museum have encountered this awful phrase. Charged with preserving the condition of museum collections, curators and museum staff strive at all costs to ensure the safety of the objects in their exhibitions. This usually means concealing priceless artifacts behind glass cases, far from the hands of the public. But what if the public cannot access the information without their sense of touch? Thousands of visually impaired visitors need alternative methods for accessing the objects and information featured in museum exhibitions.