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By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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By Jessica Scott

This article was written as a result of a semester long practicum with Associate Professor Sam Redman focusing on research into the original production of Artifacts at the End of a Decade. Professor Redman also serves as a member of the steering committee for the UMCA exhibit opening February 16th.

It was early Fall 2019 by the time co-curator Jill Hughes and I decided to show the artists book Artifacts at the End of a Decade in its entirety for our 2020 UMCA Curatorial Fellow Exhibition. We’d only seen  its “pages” through the thumbnail images on the website for the 5 Colleges Museum’s Digital Database but we were already piqued by how it stood out from the rest of the collection’s 3000 works on paper. Published in 1981 by Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, Artifacts at the End of a Decade is an unbound artists’ book consisting of of 44 unique pieces of photography, ceramics, fiber, print, clothing, painting, and drawing, contributed by artists including Martha Rosler, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, and Robert Kushner, among many others. As a multidisciplinary American survey of the 1970’s in the form of an artists’ archive, it’s a work that was both a response to its time and far ahead of it.

An image of an opened archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio "Artifacts at the end of a Decade."
An image of an to closed archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio with the title "Artifacts at the end of a Decade" on the cover of the box.

Artifacts in its portfolio, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

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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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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. https://learninglab.si.edu/about.

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, https://learninglab.si.edu/about.

[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 https://www.neam.org/shell.php?page=about_us_organization

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. https://doi.org/10.2307/311302

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.

Fahlman, B. (1991). A Plaster of Paris Antiquity: Nineteenth-Century Cast Collections. Southeastern College Art Conference Review, 12(1), 1–9.

Gazda, E. K. (1995). Roman Sculpture and the Ethos of Emulation: Reconsidering Repetition. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 121–156. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/311303

Kent, H. W. (1949). What I Am Pleased to Call My Education. Grolier Club.

Marty, P. F. (2010). Museum Informatics. In M. J. Bates & M. N. Maack (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS3

McNutt, J. K. (1990). Plaster Casts after Antique Sculpture: Their Role in the Elevation of Public Taste and in American Art Instruction. Studies in Art Education, 31(3), 158–167. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/1320763

Nichols, M. F. (2006). Plaster cast sculpture: A history of touch. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 21(1), 114–130.

Norwich Free Academy. (1889). Catalogue and Brief Description of the Plaster Reproductions of the Greek and Italian Sculpture in the Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Conn. J. Wilson and Son, University Press.

Perry, E. E. (2010). Sculptural Copies and Copying. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1137

Seguin, B. (2018). The Replica Project: Building a visual search engine for art historians. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 24(3), 24–29. https://doi.org/10.1145/3186653

Whitehall, W. M. (2013). The Battle of the Casts. In Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History, Volume I. Harvard University Press. https://hup.degruyter.com/view/title/323589

Ross Caputi, a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the co-author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (UMass Press 2019) and the director of the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive. His research on U.S. military operations in Iraq originates from his military experience in Iraq: Caputi is a veteran of the Marine Corps. “Regrettably, I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November, 2004 as a U.S. Marine,” says Caputi in an interview with Past@Present. “I didn’t understand that we were hurting innocent people at the time. But ever since I did come to understand that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against what we did there and to pay reparations, in whatever limited capacity I’m capable of, to the people of Fallujah. That sense of responsibility has only deepened the more I’ve come to understand the historical significance of the sieges of Fallujah. The attacks came at a pivotal moment in the occupation, and I think the sieges of Fallujah occupy an important place in our collective memory of the occupation. So, rather than opposing the war in a more general way, I’ve decided to focus on Fallujah.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, Caputi became active in the antiwar movement and formed a group called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which hosted public speaking events to raise awareness about the human costs of the operations in Fallujah, among other important initiatives. Later he joined a nonprofit organization called the Islah Reparations Project and organized a series of grassroots reparations projects with the Fallujah General Hospital.

Portrait of Ross, taken in Fitchburg, MA in 2018

Caputi is now pursuing a PhD in History, and a Graduate Certificate in Public History at UMass Amherst, concentrating on oral and digital history. He hopes that by using different media, he can bring historical perspective to new audiences. Besides coauthoring a book on Fallujah, he has written op-eds and made a documentary film, Fear Not the Path of Truth. He is currently working on a digital archive project, the “People’s History of Fallujah.” Caputi hopes that the digital archive can become a source for educators to teach students about the U.S. wars. “Through all of this work, my greatest frustration has been trying to reach new audiences,” says Caputi. “It’s been easy enough to speak with people who are predisposed to my antiwar message, but, of course, people who already agree with me are not my target audience. And it’s been a struggle to find ways to speak with people who are either supportive of or ambivalent towards the Global War on Terror.”

You’ve conducted interviews with Iraqis for your book and the digital archive project. They include five oral history interviews with refugees from Fallujah. Why did you decide to interview people from Fallujah for your project about the siege of this Iraqi city?

One thing that became clear to me the more I researched the sieges of Fallujah was that U.S. information operations were an integral part of the violence. U.S. forces went to great lengths to control the production of information about their operations in Fallujah, particularly during the second siege. This made it very challenging to write a history of these operations, because the vast majority of primary source materials were produced by this propaganda apparatus. And Iraqi voices were intentionally omitted. So, as a methodological choice, we thought that writing a people’s history and trying to recover as many Iraqi voices as possible was the most ethical way to go about telling this story.

My coauthors and I did a number of journalistic interviews with Fallujans while we were working on the book. It didn’t occur to me to try to do a more systematic oral history project until after we had already submitted our manuscript to UMass Press. And then the opportunity presented itself to begin working on this project in the winter of 2018, when the war against the Islamic State was pushing a new wave of Iraqi refugees into Europe. I met up with five men from Fallujah, who were gracious enough to tell me their stories, while they were living in Helsinki. 

How did you address the emotional challenges of interviewing individuals who experienced traumatic war events and witnessed extreme violence during the siege? What were the challenges of conducting these interviews in Arabic?

I didn’t think there was a lot I could do as an interviewer to make the sharing of traumas easier for my narrators. I expected all along that doing so would be uncomfortable for them, and sharing their stories with the public would make them vulnerable. So for me the question wasn’t “How can I make this easier for them?,” but why should they want to do this in the first place?. In other words, what stake do my narrators have in my project? And this question was led to a number of other considerations about how to relate storytelling to reparations.

Telling war stories in an ethical way is very difficult. I’m very aware that Americans are very interested in war stories and will readily consume the most sensational of war stories, if they are made available to them. In my own experience, I find that many people are more interested in hearing about my own personal experience with violence and reintegration into society than they are in hearing about my research, and I can only speculate as to why that is. At the same time, I think there is something exploitive in the way many journalists collect war stories and sell them to their publishers; and the same thing could be said about many scholars who earn their paychecks by gathering other people’s stories and recounting them. So, I began this project trying to be mindful of this double-edged sword: the fact that the stories I collect will be funneled into news feeds that invite passive consumption, and that in this transaction of stories, I’m just a middle-man. I wanted to collect stories from Fallujans, who were often being spoken for by commentators and self-proclaimed Middle East experts in the American news media. But I didn’t want to put their traumas on display, to be mindlessly consumed on social media and yield nothing more than a few likes while I earn a paycheck.

Ross in Fallujah, 2004

I have to thank Kali Rubaii, who cofounded the Islah Reparations Project with me, for helping me think through the ethics of telling war stories in this way. Kali not only came up with our model of grassroots reparations, but she applied that model to her ethnographic work as an anthropologist, calling it “reparative ethnography.” I tried to conceive of my oral history project in a similar fashion, making storytelling a means to an end (reparations), rather than having storytelling be an end in itself.

At the time, I thought that it was necessary to acknowledge that my society was still responsible for the ongoing violence in Iraq, and my primary responsibility to those men was to try to end that violence. Many of my narrators had bad experiences with journalists in the past, who took their stories to make a profit, never to be heard from again. So I began the pre-interview process by acknowledging this and explaining that I intended for these interviews to be part of a broader reparations project. Then we had a conversation about the potential risks of sharing their stories, and many of the men faced serious risks, for their families and for themselves, if they were ever forced to go back to Iraq.

Through these conversations, it never occurred to any of us that something could be done make the exchange of these stories easier, emotionally. The question on my mind was how to make it worth it to them, and the question on their mind was whether or not they could trust me. One man wanted legal assistance with his status as an asylum seeker. Another wanted help finding lost relatives in Iraq. The others just appreciated my acknowledgement that Americans owed reparations and chose to participate for that reason alone.

As far as the translation goes, it required a lot of patience from everyone involved for each sentence to be translated into both English and Arabic. It stretched what should have been a one-hour interview into three hours. But also, it became clear to me that there were a lot of differences in our uses of vocabulary to describe the war that weren’t an issue of translation. For example, the Western news media often described the period from 2005 – 2006 as Iraq’s “civil war,” but Iraqis didn’t experience it as a civil war at all. They called it the “militia war” because the violence was driven by U.S.-backed death squads. It was a striking moment to realize that, as critical as I was of the war, my understanding of it was still very much shaped by outsiders’ perspectives.

Many works have been published in English on the coalition forces attacks on Fallujah. In what ways is your book’s narrative different from other works about the siege of Fallujah and its humanitarian consequences?

The vast majority of the works published on Fallujah are military histories, written by American veterans of these operations or professional military writers. As such, the actions of American soldiers are usually the focus of these books, and the experiences of Iraqis are completely omitted or relegated to the background. What our book offers is a narrative that foregrounds the Iraqi experience. But I think we also have some original things to say about the role of information warfare and the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah.

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around about the weaponization of information in war. But I don’t think many people appreciate how different the use of propaganda was in Fallujah. We go so far as to argue that in Fallujah propaganda truly was a constitutive element of the violence. And it created an enduring mythology, most notably in case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It’s likely that anything you think you know about Zarqawi can be credited to the propaganda campaigns leading up to the second siege of Fallujah.

And much of the media discourse about the Islamic State focused on their fanatical religious ideology as a motivator for everything they did. But we tell a different story grounded in the history of social movements in Iraq that explains how ISIS went from being a very unpopular organization in places like Fallujah to a state-like entity encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. We argue that it had little to do with religion and everything to do with the Iraqi government’s oppression (with American assistance) of Sunnis.

You mentioned that some of the interviews you have conducted for your book are journalistic in nature. Tell us about these interviews. How does your journalism background influence and help your research as a historian?

I call these interviews journalistic because they were more topically focused. We sought out certain individuals to gather their insights about specific topics, instead of trying to see their experiences from a historical perspective, as I would in an oral history interview. We interviewed Dr. Muhammad al-Darraji, a former member of the Fallujah City Council and an author of many human rights reports; Dr. Samira Alani, the Head Pediatrician at Fallujah Hospital’s Women and Children’s Ward; and Naji Haraj, a former Iraqi diplomat and the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

I never truly worked as a journalist in Iraq. But following the work of independent journalists in Iraq is what made me appreciate the scope of U.S. information operations in Iraq, and how those operations extended the violence beyond the traditional battlefield. In many instances, U.S. forces regarded independent journalists as enemies. For these reasons, I think historians, to understand the journalism written about the occupation, need to take it in the context of an information war.

Ross interviewing Naji Haraj in his office in Geneva in 2018. Naji, who is from Fallujah, is the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Since 2003, the United States has maintained its military presence in Iraq. President Trump says that he wants to bring back the U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries in the Muslim world, like Afghanistan. This position has met with strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. As a public historian and journalist who has written about the U.S. military and the American role in the Middle East, how do you see this bipartisan insistence to keep the U.S. forces in Iraq? 

It’s implicit in these debates that there is an inter-imperial competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq. There is a bipartisan consensus that withdrawing from Iraq will strengthen Iran’s position there, which is absolutely true. But I think we need to understand that, first of all, this is only possible because our experiment with regime change in Iraq created a weak, corrupt, and unstable country, and continued interference in Iraq’s political and economic life most likely will not help it become capable of managing its relationships with its neighbors.

Second, our misadventure in Iraq was not a mistake, as it is often remembered; it was a war crime. The insistence of Democrats and Republicans that we need to maintain a troop presence in Iraq is an echo of the imperial hubris of the Bush administration. A continued troop presence in Iraq would do nothing to bolster our national security, since neither Iraq nor Iran are a threat to us. But it would strengthen our position as an imperial force in the region, and that’s what this is about.

I think we need to recognize that it was this kind of thinking that led us to invade and destroy Iraq, and we need to break from this delusion of American Exceptionalism. The only thing that the U.S. owes to Iraq is reparations. Apart from that, we need to get out. 

What can your research on the U.S. military operations in Iraq teach policymakers in Washington about the U.S. policy in the Middle East and its involvement in the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria?

I hope the book instills a healthy amount of self-doubt in every policy maker and military leader. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s possible that I didn’t know I was participating in a war crime while it was happening. And through the sieges of Fallujah, all three of them, we see that kind of self-delusion again and again. It’s shocking how wrong we were about who we thought we were fighting against in Fallujah and why. And I’m willing to bet Fallujah is not an isolated incident. I hope it makes others wonder if we’ve made similar mistakes in other countries where we thought we knew what we were doing and decided to wage war.

The Public History in Historical Perspective Series, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has enjoyed many successes and steady growth since its inception in 2009. The significant achievements of the series have not only made it a cornerstone of the UMass publishing program, but have also inspired and shaped new generations of public historians. “I can’t actually believe it’s only ten years old–the series has accomplished so much in that time,” says Seth Bruggeman, the editor of Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, and an associate professor of History at Temple University. “It has, most significantly, established itself as THE series for serious print scholarship in public history.” 

Books in the series provide critical perspectives to scholars who seek to understand the role of history and memory in public life. There are currently 23 titles in the series, including the just  published title The Genealogical Sublime by Julia Creet. As Edward T. Linenthal, a member of the series editorial advisory board explains, the titles explore topics such as “the history of history-making in the U.S., layers of remembrance of place and event, the power of material culture, and titles of great interest to me, that focus on remembrance of violence. To mention only a few: Erin Krutko Devlin’s Remember Little Rock, Memoria Abierta’s Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina,  Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War: the Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, and James E. Young’s The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between.

Not only have titles in the series won numerous prizes, including the National Council on Public History’s “best book” prize four times, but they have become standard texts in Public History courses across the country. Some of the award winners were Susan Reynolds Williams’s Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, James E. Young‘s The Stages of Memory, Andrea A. Burns’s  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, and Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War. As Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press says, “The titles in this series do great work in advancing the scholarly conversation, and they are helping to shape the public historians of tomorrow.”

The idea of launching the Public History in Historical Perspective Series emerged in 2009, after author and cultural historian Briann Greenfield approached the UMass Press to publish her book, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England. At that time, Clark Dougan was the senior editor on the Amherst campus, and he raised the idea of creating the series with Marla Miller. “[T]he vision for the series came out of Marla and Clark’s work on my book as both saw the potential for something more,” recounts Greenfield, whose book became the first work in the series. “I’ve been especially lucky to be associated with the series.  The books that followed have furthered our understanding of public history—what it has been and what it can become.” 

The series has developed and grown in relationship to the field of Public History.  “The series is truly remarkable insomuch as it has almost singlehandedly redefined public history historiography during the last decade,” says Bruggeman, a member of the series editorial advisory board. “I cannot imagine a meaningful conversation about public history today that doesn’t somehow reference Denise Meringolo, Amy Tyson, Andrea Burns, Tammy Gordon, and Lara Kelland.”

As Matt Becker, the editor in chief at UMass Press, notes, the books in the series “collectively map out key historiographical and theoretical foundations for the field of public history: Denise D. Meringolo’s, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, for instance, delineates the profession of public history, tracing its roots back to the nineteenth century, while Andrea A. Burns’, From Storefront to Monument offers an overarching history of the black museum as a political movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus the most significant book series in public history because of this role of, essentially, defining the field.”

Many authors choose to publish their work in the series because of the exemplary support and insight they receive from the editors. The acquisitions editors who work on the Series provide detailed comments on manuscripts during the review process, and as some authors point out, help to develop scholars’ arguments.

Of course, the editorial feedback supplied by Marla Miller, Series Editor and Director of the Public History Program at UMass, has been crucial for the series’ success and shaping the scholarly discourse within the field. “I’ve benefited time and time again from my encounters with the series,” says Seth Bruggeman. “As an author, I’ve benefited tremendously from Miller’s editorial insight and her willingness to connect me with colleagues who, in the case of Born in the U.S.A. (2012), became key contributors. As a member of the advisory board, I’ve been so impressed by how quickly and how seriously great manuscripts get reviewed. And, as a teacher, I’ve filled my syllabi with series titles.”

Briann Greenfield tells Past@Present that what made publishing with UMass Press unique was the experience of working with the editorial team who “pushed my interpretive focus, asking careful questions and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the argument.” “My book was a much better book for their insight and support. Marla, especially,” adds Greenfield.

In the same vein, Denise Meringolo, who published her first book in 2012 with the University of Massachusetts Press, describes her experience during the manuscript revision process as “incredibly positive.” She recalls that “David Glassberg encouraged me to submit my proposal to the press, and I was incredibly gratified to receive enthusiastic support from both the then Executive Editor Clark Dougan and from the series editor, Marla Miller. I found the revision process to be daunting, and I honestly might not have succeeded without Marla’s patient support. Not only did she provide detailed written feedback on early drafts, she also met with me on at least two occasions to offer guidance and words of encouragement. Since the publication of my book, I have had experience with a variety of platforms and presses, and I now know how unusual this level of author support is.”

“We are extremely proud to publish the series, Public History in Historical Perspective,” says Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press. According to Dougherty, over 15,700 copies of series titles have been sold, including library copies available to borrow in electronic or paper formats. A number of the books in the series are routinely assigned in courses.  And the press and the series are now poised to drive innovation in the realm of digital scholarship, an area of keen interest among public historians.  A significant collaboration with Greenhouse Studios (at the University of Connecticut, led by series board member Tom Scheinfeldt), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will research and model new approaches to peer review processes and  workflows for digital humanities, work that will support authors whose vision for their scholarship includes a digital component.

“With exciting manuscripts in various stages of completion, readers can look forward to a series of continued excellence,” says Edward Linenthal. “Such case studies transport us into the intimate and at the same time very public ‘predicament of aftermath.’ More generally, they offer stark evidence that the past remains forever dynamic.”

-By Mohammad Ataie