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Richard T. Chu, Five College associate professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is teaching and conducting oral history projects in Springfield and Amherst, MA through his course “Asian-Pacific American History, 1850-present” (History 253). When asked about his motivation to document the lives of Asian Americans in Western Massachusetts, Professor Chu tells Past@Present, “Teaching about the history of racism and marginalization of Asian Americans over the course of my career at UMass has helped me realize that the field of Asian American Studies, which was born out of the activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights and against racial prejudice, should remain true to its activist roots, in that teaching ‘about’ Asian Americans means also ‘working in solidarity’ with them outside the classroom.”

Born and raised in the Philippines, Chu moved to the U.S. in 1992, and joined the UMass History department in 2004.  His research and publications focus on Asian American history, the history of the Chinese and Chinese mestizos in the Philippines and of the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, empire, and nationalism. He started teaching Hist 253 as a general education course, focusing primarily on the history of Asian Americans in the whole nation. In Spring 2017, he started to add the civic engagement component to his course, and in Fall 2018, began teaching it as an honors course.

Roeun Chea’s interview, being shown at the culminating event December 8, 2018 at UMass Center in Springfield. Born in Cambodia, Chea was forced into a concentration camp under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, where he remained for three years. Now 50 years old, he came to the U.S. thirty years ago after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. Access interview here.

When asked why he chose to focus his oral history projects on Springfield and Amherst, Chu says, “Springfield and Amherst chose me. These two cities have significant populations of Asian Americans, so it was but natural that the bulk of my work is focused on working with their communities.” Chu believes that it is important to come up with projects that would benefit both these communities and UMass students. That is why he is now engaged with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts; Bayanihan Association of America, Inc.  (a Filipino-American association); the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts; the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts; the Vietnamese Catholic Community of St. Paul’s Church in Springfield; and  the Cambodian American community of Amherst. “Through the years, I hope to expand the outreach to other communities such as the Korean and Indian American communities, which have a significant presence in the Pioneer Valley,” adds Chu.

This semester you are leading a group of students in Springfield to document local history. They conduct oral history interviews to document Asian American community history in Springfield. Why did you decide to take this approach with your students?

This is the third semester that I have been conducting this oral history project with the Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The reason for this approach is two-fold. First, this is a project that the communities identified as benefitting them. For many of these communities—unheard of and unknown by the majority—documenting the lives of their members is one way of getting their voices heard. Community leaders also see the widening gap between the first generation (many of whom went through war, genocide, and other traumatic events back in their home countries) and the next generation, and are concerned that, without preserving the voices of the older generation (many of whom do not speak English), succeeding generations will forget their own past which could result in the loss of their own sense of identity as “Asians” (or as “Bhutanese,” “Vietnamese,” etc.). Second, this project is something that my students can do in a semester.

What is the importance of teaching this course for the local history? In what ways does this course contribute to the people of Springfield?

In the Pioneer Valley, there are a growing number of Asian Americans in the last two decades. U.S. census records from 2010 have shown the Asian American community as having registered the highest percentage of population increase in the state of Massachusetts (47% from 2000-2010). Amherst and Springfield rank among the top 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts with the largest Asian American population. For instance, Springfield has 2,000 Vietnamese living in the city, although this figure is quite conservative. The actual number may be more like 4,000. Go to Springfield and you see neighborhoods with Vietnamese nail salons, restaurants, and grocery stores. There is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Catholic parish, and a community center. Leaders of the  Bhutanese (refugee) community estimate that there are currently 3,000 Bhutanese living in the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, and Westfield. In addition to these communities, there are Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laos, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other ethnic Asians living in the Springfield and Pioneer Valley area. Thus, in order to enrich and complete our local histories, we need to document and recognize the lives and contributions, as well as the hardships and struggles, of these Asian Americans.

This sounds fascinating.  How can other researchers, or people just generally interested in this history in the Valley, learn more about the history you are preserving?

At the end of the project, the videos are uploaded on to the website of the Special Collections and Archives Division of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and hence made available to the public for research and other purposes, but most importantly, for us to learn about the life stories of Asian Americans living in our midst.  

“Meet-and-Greet” event at UMass Center in Springfield with Asian American community leaders, November 2, 2019. Hist253H students have a preliminary activity before conducting their oral histories which brings them to listen to Asian American community leaders give the history and the challenges of their communities. Speaking before the class this Fall semester was Linda Hill, an officer of the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and who holds a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from UMass. 

Your students conduct oral histories with residents of Springfield. Who are the interviewees? What are the challenges of documenting local history in Springfield?

The interviewees are members of the different Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The leaders of these communities identify a member willing to share his/her life-story for the project. The interviewees so far are those who can speak English, as my students are not equipped to act as translators or interpreters for this type of project. This limits in a way whom community leaders can tap for the project.

One of the challenges therefore is the language barrier between my students and some members of these communities. In coming up with the idea of an oral history project, the community leaders also had in mind preserving the voices of the immigrant/first generation, such as members of the Bhutanese community whose families lived for generations in Bhutan before being driven out by an ethnic cleansing policy of the fourth King of Bhutan, then lived for 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before coming as refugees to the U.S. starting in 2008. Many of these refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to name a few) do not speak English, or very minimum English; and they are slowly dying out. But it is also their lives that community members want to preserve. So another challenge is finding appropriate translators/interpreters for such interviewees.

My Hampshire College colleague Professor Kimberly Chang and I, in collaboration with the Bhutanese Society of Massachusetts, have applied to the Mass Humanities Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital History Project that would train bi-lingual local Bhutanese youth on how to conduct oral histories with older members of their community. Through this project, we hope to not only empower members of the Bhutanese community with certain skills (video-recording, interviewing, etc.) but also help preserve the voices of their non-English speaking members.

Another challenge is getting the students from UMass to Springfield, due in terms of the distance between the two places and the lack of affordable transportation facilities to bring them there.

Lastly, some people who are immigrants or refugees are reticent to talk about their experiences, either out of fear of the authorities or trauma, or both. Hence, conducting these oral history projects can be a very sensitive issue, both for the students and the interviewees, but specially the latter. And I have to make sure that the students are equipped to handle uncomfortable or sensitive moments during the interviews because some questions may bring up traumatic or unpleasant memories.

What have been some of the powerful “moments” for you in this project?

There are many powerful moments, but here are three:

  • Toward the end of the semester the students present an edited 20-minute version of their interviews at the UMass Center in Springfield. This event brings together all the interviewees and their families, along with their respective community members and leaders; the students in the class; local officials such as Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman; and the Board members of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Members of the communities always express their gratitude and joy in being able to see one of them telling their life-story, and that these stories will be preserved for others to learn from. Witnessing the culmination of the collaborative efforts between the community members and my students in producing these videos always brings to me a sense of fulfillment in my vocation as a teacher.
  • When students tell me either during or after the semester how much they have learned from the course, or how they were transformed or inspired by it, that is a powerful moment for me.
  • Being nominated and then selected for the 2018 Community Hero Award conferred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission was another powerful moment. It reaffirmed the significance and importance of my work.\

How has this kind of public history work changed your approach to other research and courses that you are teaching?

It has certainly expanded my area of research. My main research areas as a historian are U.S. empire, colonialism in the Philippines, and the Chinese diaspora. But one of my sub-fields is Asian American Studies. I have done some research on Asian American communities in the U.S. For instance, I have published with the Institute on Asian American Studies of UMass-Boston a demographic study on Filipinos in Boston/Massachusetts.

I have yet to write for publication about my work with the Asian American communities here in Western Massachusetts. I already have an outline of what to write and the editor of an Asian American journal has encouraged me to submit an article on the topic. But until I finish my next major monograph, which is on the Chinese in the Philippines during the first decade of American colonization (1898-1908), this project has been placed in the backburner, even as my collaborative work with these Asian American communities continues during the fall semesters when I teach this course. As a Five-College faculty sharing 50 percent of my time with the four colleges, I only get to teach this course at UMass once a year. I hope that I could teach this course every semester at UMass so as to continue my work with the communities, and to help build the department’s public history and oral history programs of the Department. In Spring semester 2020, I will be teaching  this course at Smith College for the first time. In doing so, I hope to sustain the collaborations and continue the relationships that I have built with the different Asian American communities.

Are there other important or interesting aspects of this project that you could share with us?

As a public research and land-grant university, our university has a commitment and responsibility to use our resources and skills to reach out to people living around us, especially from the marginalized sectors, and for us to learn from and be enriched by them. My dream is to be able to institutionalize this course so that it can be taught every semester in order to not break this relationship with Asian American communities in the area, and that this becomes a core subject of our department with adequate funding for anyone to teach the course, especially if I am not around anymore to teach it. People whom I collaborate with in the various communities have told me how much they respect UMass, and that they wish that a stronger relationship could be built between UMass and local Asian American communities. I hope that this public history project is but a step toward developing that synergistic relationship that benefits these communities, our students, our University, the Pioneer Valley, and the whole state of Massachusetts.

“Reliquary of Blackness: An Exhibit of Oral Histories”, curated by UMass PhD student Erika Slocumb, opened to the public and scholars at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, from August 27, until October 23, 2019. The exhibit was based on hours of oral history interviews Slocumb and her colleagues conducted with members of Holyoke’s black community in 2018, a project funded by Mass Humanities. By focusing on the experiences of those living and working in Holyoke during the mid-20th century, the exhibit showcased the results of this year-long project to document the history of Holyoke’s Black residents.

“I think it should inspire history students and scholars to look in places where we think ‘the story has been told’,” Slocumb told Past@Present, reflecting on the significance of her exhibit for history students and their research. “It’s important to look at the histories of spaces, especially local histories, and ask ‘who propped up the prominent figures in this narrative?’ ‘Who is missing?’ and tell their story, let them tell their story.”

Erika Slocumb is a mother, an artist, and a community organizer, from Springfield, Massachusetts. She is a PhD student in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who is beginning work toward the Graduate Certificate in Public History. She is also cofounder of the Western Mass Women’s Collective, a community organization advancing empowerment through “literacy, critical thinking, experiential knowledge, and community engagement.” 

You have conducted many oral history interviews with members of Holyoke’s black community. Several Holyoke residents also shared with you family photos and documents. Please tell us about your project and its importance for preserving local black history. 

I was born and raised in Springfield, and when I look at the documented history of Black folks in Springfield the thing that is missing are people, specifically Black women who had influenced and mentored me. When I was presented with the opportunity to uncover the history of Black people in Holyoke my initial response was “There are no Black people in Holyoke.” I think when you look at the history of Holyoke that has been publicly documented, the Black folks’ stories are missing. And the fact is, that there is so much of a rich Black history that dates back to the eighteenth century and so much that the Black community of Holyoke has contributed that it needs to be told. If not for any other reason, so that Black youth growing up in Holyoke can know their history and generations will have the opportunity to claim space in Holyoke.

How does this project challenge the dominant narratives about Holyoke history? 

I think the project adds to the narrative. It works to fill in holes that exist in the dominant narrative. You can’t tell the history of Holyoke accurately without the history of Black people in Holyoke. There have been too many contributions by Black people to the city of Holyoke going back generations. And we have just scratched the surface with the work we’ve done so far.

One of the themes that you mentioned in your work is that Holyoke is traditionally associated with other populations: the Irish, the French Canadian, and most recently the Puerto Rican community. But there have been African Americans in the area since the 17th and 18th century. What have the challenges been as you try to recover Holyoke’s black past?

The challenge in uncovering the history has been the limited sources of Black Holyoke history. I think the biggest challenge I had with the oral history project that was funded by MassHumanities is that because of resources and time there are so many folks that didn’t get interviewed. I have made connections with so many people who want to have their stories told. I think the other part that was challenging in conducting oral histories is realizing that there is so much that goes into building relationships, and in order to do that, we have to find time in our schedules to bond and to understand the community and the context in which the history is situated and that takes time.

There is no rushing oral histories. These memories, for so many in Holyoke’s Black community are sacred in a way, and I think that is why I named the exhibit “Reliquary of Blackness.” Here you have this whole community of people that have been saving up their stories, collecting their family’s histories and for many they have been waiting for a project like this, for an exhibit, or a space to exhibit, their family’s history. I think in doing something like the exhibit, the challenge for me was making sure that I presented their stories authentically, with as few of my words as possible, because the exhibit was an exhibit of oral histories.

What have some of the most exciting moments been in this process?

I think some of the most exciting moments in the process have been making connections—as well as the face someone makes when they look at a picture that we found in the archives and they recognize themselves or their mother, who they haven’t seen in years, or some obscure childhood friend, and that photo invokes memories of place, and sounds, and brings them back to a time that they had forgotten. Something else that has excited me is the validation I get from the community and the excitement. Ms. Dian McCollum said “Erika was an answer to my prayers. That someone would come to uncover the history of Black Holyoke.” That is something you can’t get from researching a thing that has already been researched, or from using solely secondary sources. There is something about the oral histories, watching the history unfold right before your eyes. There is nothing better.

– Mohammad Ataie

Raad blog post

This past summer, I was a Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, which is an outdoor museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley and New England. It is made up of a series of antique houses, some that are interpreted to various periods in the 18th and 19th centuries and some set up with thematic exhibits. I worked in the Curatorial Department in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life—Historic Deerfield’s modern museum facility—under the supervision of the Collections Manager, Kate Kearns. We undertook two projects: the first was completing an inventory of all objects in viewable storage in the attic of the Flynt Center and the second entailed designing and fabricating custom storage mounts to rehouse the shoe collection.

The inventory was a daunting undertaking. Moving case by case, shelf by shelf, we examined over 3,000 objects. We cross-referenced the objects present on each shelf with a printout from the database. These objects ranged from forks to chairs, teacups to clocks. I checked off objects that were in the correct location, took note of objects that were on the shelf but missing from the list, and marked as missing objects that were not actually where they were supposed to be. After each session I would return to the computer to update each object’s record, to verify or update its location. I was surprised by how many objects ended up being missing (many showing up in later cases), and how many objects that were previously marked as missing were right there on the shelf (those records were particularly satisfying to update). 

This was the first comprehensive inventory done on the viewable storage cases in several years. I realized just how challenging it is to keep tabs on every single last item with a small staff and thousands of objects in the collection, some of which are frequently moving around for study, photography, loans, or special exhibits.

I also learned about the nitty-gritty logistics of collections management, from keeping track of different numbering systems used over the decades to accessing a particular case only before the museum opens to the public as not to obstruct the entrance to the elevator. Throughout this process, I became proficient in Mimsy XG, the collections management system shared by the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium. Many times, I had to split one record into multiples, like for tea sets or matching cutlery, so that individual objects could be separately described and tracked. 

I found myself frequently thinking about the cataloging work I did last spring for the Hadley Farm Museum in Prof. Marla Miller’s Museum Studio Practicum. Those of us in the class each chose about 50 objects to document, research, and create records for. The goal was to update the museum’s catalogue from a list typed in the 1960s and added to by hand in a spiral notebook. Even with the amount of time we collectively put into this project, we only but began this large undertaking.

Often, I had to pry myself away from artifact analysis to keep working through the objects. As an archaeologist trained in close observation and materials analysis, I wanted to find out everything I could about each object. The ketchup bottle had a particular scar on the bottom and number stamped in. What machine was it made on and in which factory? I noticed that one pair of ice skates was made from a cut bar of steel. Was it mass-produced as opposed to the other, more carefully handcrafted pairs? These questions for the most part had to be sidelined in order to accomplish the task of cataloguing my share of objects in a reasonable amount of time. 

Museums are so important as repositories and stewards of material culture. I knew this going into the summer, but I did not yet appreciate the magnitude of objects management and care. 

At Historic Deerfield, I also worked on a preventative conservation project where I designed and fabricated custom storage mounts for thirty-four pairs of shoes, approximately one third of the shoe collection. The shoes were in need of attention, housed on crowded shelves and some sagging under their own weight. Kate, along with Ned Lazaro, Curator of Textiles, had identified the shoe collection as a priority for some preventative care and rehousing and I was excited to put my crafting and sewing skills to use. I am proud of the quality of the mounts I created, but am very conscious of the shoes that I did not get to. 

Conservation is an ongoing, iterative process. Museum collections must be frequently reevaluated as they age and within the context of evolving best practices. But given the realities of limited time, staff, and/or money, prioritization becomes a crucial skill to practice.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of prioritization, as well as the volume of collections in museums such as Historic Deerfield, from the perspective of an archaeologist and researcher. Archaeologists approach material culture with different questions than a curator. Context is very important for archaeologists. Historic furniture, decorative arts, and textiles that have changed hands, been bought, sold, collected and never excavated lack archaeological context and sometimes lack any provenance at all. Can archaeologists shift the kinds of questions they ask, and their mindsets, to reduce the amount of destructive excavations? Why are we unearthing more and more artifacts to catalogue, document, and care for in perpetuity while there are so many objects—metal, wood, glass, ceramic—gathering dust on shelves? Can archaeological materials analysis instead focus more on museum collections?

When I was a graduate student in the Archaeological Materials program in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, I took a two-semester series on Materials in Ancient Societies. The theme for the year was metals. For the lab component of the course, we teamed up with the Department of Conservation and Collections Management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to carry out a metallurgical analysis of Nubian mummy-eye inlays in their Ancient Egyptian collection. These were metal frames in the shape of eyes that were inserted into wooden coffins.

I destructively analyzed one metal eye inlay by cutting it into two pieces to reveal a cross-section of the object’s interior. This artifact had been in storage for almost a century. It had never been put on display, and was likely never going to be. The staff at the MFA had decided that the benefits of studying it metallurgically and chemically outweighed the irreversible act of cutting a piece of it off. I determined that the metal was a copper-tin bronze and it was cast into the shape of an eye using a mold. It was a low-quality cast, cooled slowly, and it was not subsequently worked. Our research contributed to understanding the method of production of these metal objects and, in a small way, towards grasping the ritual significance associated with the tombs of Nubian royalty.

In what ways can such partnerships be promoted and fostered between archaeologists and museums of history and art? We should consider how, in the field of archaeology, excavating new sites could be deemphasized with a focus instead turning to existing collections. At the same time, what is the best way to start the conversation with curators and collections managers on the benefits of conducting scientific investigations of (and perhaps destructively sampling) an accessioned object?

Danielle’s summer internship at Historic Deerfield was made possible by a Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Intern Fellowship. To read more about the shoe mounting and rehousing project, check out Danielle’s post on the Historic Deerfield Blog from August 22, 2019: https://www.historic-deerfield.org/blog/2019/8/22/gaining-a-foothold-on-the-shoe-collection

Danielle Raad is a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD student in Anthropology, UMass Amherst

Faculty 2

With the 2019 National Council on Public History Conference located just down the road from Amherst in Hartford, Connecticut, UMass Amherst public historians arrived in impressive numbers. Everywhere I looked at the Connecticut Convention Center, I saw fellow cohort members, faculty, and alumni milling about, presenting their work, attending workshops, exhibiting posters, and otherwise participating in this foremost gathering of U.S. public historians. I joined a panel of public historians, ranging from professors to archivists to students like myself, in developing The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook. This will be a forthcoming free digital booklet for museum professionals and public historians to encourage accessibility, inclusivity, and equity. The environment was supportive and inspiring, as I sat beside alumnus Austin Clark ’18MA and saw Marla Miller and many peers in the audience. Among the dozens of sessions I attended, I found the roundtables “S51: Black Public History from Post-Emancipation to Neo-Emancipation” and “S61: When All is Gone, Whose Story Remains? Protecting Coastal Heritage in a Changing Climate” most informative and thought-provoking. In S51, Hannah Scruggs of Montpelier shared how, as a black woman, working at a former plantation-now-museum feels like an act of spatial reclamation. In S61, Kate Cell of the Union of Concerned Scientists described the emotional and physical toll of losing cultural heritage to rising seas. These two presentations epitomized the reasons I gravitate to public history: how historically marginalized communities claim and make space, and how we can respond to the loss of beloved spaces as climate change continues to threaten their existence. I look forward to exploring these themes deeper in my public history career and as a new member of NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Thank you to all UMass folks who organized the event, especially NCPH President Marla Miller and LJ Woolcock ’19MA for their superb organizational skills and caring.

 

We sat down with author, public historian, and PhD student Ross Caputi to discuss his first book, The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History, co-written with Richard Hil and Donna Mulhearn and coming out this year with the University of Massachusetts Press. The Sacking of Fallujah reveals how the people of Fallujah themselves experienced the U.S. sieges and sacking of the city, and the casualties, political destabilization, and infrastructure crises they faced in the aftermath. In this interview, Caputi discusses how the book came to be, and the reparations framework utilized by the Islah Reparations Project, which public historians can use to think about reparations and the forms they should take.

The Sacking of Fallujah is now available for pre-order on Amazon and from the UMass Press website. The book’s official release date is April 8, 2019.

Caputi’s next project focuses on the Italian village of Grumento Nova, and combines historical linguistics with oral history to document its distinctive language and how it has been shaped by modernization. You can find out more about his work here, and follow his Twitter @caputi_ross.

Public History master’s students Jacob Boucher, Emma Winter Zeig, Amelia Zurcher, Kendall Taivalkoski, and  LJ Woolcock met and reflected on the panel “Getting Sexy At Historic Sites”, a panel that took place at this year’s Association for State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting. UMass students took advantage of our program membership to attend six “hot-topic” sessions, broadcast live at the Kansas City meeting.

The topic of sexuality is not commonly discussed in historic sites and museums, despite its rising importance in academic history. Some sites consider sex & sexuality to be “too sensitive” for a broad public audience; others may take it to be akin to sharing “gossip.” However, the history of sexuality provides us with powerful tools for understanding the lives of the people who inhabited our sites, and to unpack the structures of power which shape society and culture.

For these reasons, we were thrilled to watch and discuss “Getting Sexy at Historic Sites.” The panel focused on how to bring the topic of sexuality into the museum, and especially within historic house museums, where these types of stories are particularly relevant but often go unaddressed. We were expecting to hear about the interpretation of LGBTQ history within historic houses, and looked forward to hearing about interpretive techniques that have been successful in incorporating sexual narratives into museum exhibits and tours.

To open the panel, Susan Ferentino (author of Interpreting LGBT History in Museums & Historic Sites (2015)–winner of the National Council on Public History prize for best book in the field that year) presented an overview of the scholarly study of sexuality, and how it views sexuality as much more than just sex acts. The history of sexuality, she observed, encompasses diverse areas such as childbirth, marriage, love, cultural assumptions and anxieties, gender, and race, all of which are already being interpreted at many sites. She then moved on to discuss why sexuality should be interpreted within the context of the historic house museum. Scholars often look to sexual narratives to discuss power dynamics – how standards of sexuality enforce behavior in men and women, who has access to sex with whom, and how race, class, and gender intersect in matters of sex and sexuality. She pointed out that historic house museums provide wonderful opportunities for the public to experience the intersection between personal intimacy and the broader topics of race, class, the family, and policing. They are the locus of sexuality in people’s lives, and were also the site of a lot of sexual education before that subject was taught in public schools.  

Angela Smith of North Dakota State University then presented on the ongoing research on Melvina Massey, a African American Madam in Fargo, North Dakota, in the late 19th century. She discussed the discovery of Massey in archival sources, the process of research on her life over the course of five years, and the various ways that she and her students interpreted Massey to the community of Fargo, including museum exhibits and documentaries. Smith focused less on Massey herself than how she brought Massey’s story into the college classroom. A good deal of the research was done by her students, and Smith described her undergraduate students’ enthusiasm for uncovering Massey’s life through public records and archives.  

Kaci Lynn Johnson, another member of the panel, was among the students in Smith’s class; she has since become the curator at the Cass County Historical Society, whichhas continued to display exhibits on Melvina Massey. Johnson spoke about the different historic sites in Cass County that are beginning to interpret sexuality, including historic houses, a saloon, and a school.

Ferentino’s analysis of historic house museums made us think about the importance of bringing sexuality into museums and engaging our audience with the stories and questions it brings up. However, we noticed a change between Ferentino’s introduction and the rest of the panel — namely, a difference between the academic definition of the history of sexuality and the one that most visitors carry in their minds. Ferentino described a broad historical purview, while the latter two speakers focused more on the aspects that visitors to their sites would be interested in learning about: how often did people have sex? How do historians know something like that? And how did LGBTQ identities play into the sexual lives of historical figures?  

Angela Smith’s project showed the potential to bring sex and sexuality into a historic landscape by trying to find the present day locations of historic brothels. Her students used mapping and historical archaeology to uncover the site of Massey’s brothel.  More than just illuminating the landscape of the town, this investigation shows how brothels and sexual desire fit into the town’s life and social structure. Johnson’s work built on this initiative, as she showed how the sites run by the Cass County Historical Society provided the opportunity to break down scholarly conceptions underlying the history of sexuality for a broader audience. Further, by interpreting multiple sites in conversation with one another, we can bring together multiple narratives of sexuality in the same geographic area. The home, the saloon, and the brothel speak to different sexual experiences, but exist simultaneously and in relation to one another.

While this panel raised many possibilities for implementing stories of sex and sexuality in historic houses, we found one important narrative largely missing from the discussion: LGBTQ history. None of the panelists directly addressed the unique questions that come with interpreting LGBTQ narratives in a public context, which was concerning, considering the dire need for these stories to become a part of the larger historical landscape. However, it underscored the difficulty of interpreting LGBTQ stories in domestic spaces, and in particular historic house museums. Much of  LGBT history took place in the streets, in bars, clubs, cafeterias, and other public spaces, which are not represented by the home. Some attempts to interpret LGBTQ history came up in the discussion that followed the panel, as members of the audience shared their institutions’ attempts to interpret LGBTQ history for a broad audience. Examples include the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Parkeology’s “Queen’s Circle” exhibit on cruising in San Diego.

Together we wondered what strategies for interpretation were employed, and the individual stories that these institutions had found and presented to the public. We heard about many different types of interpretation–museum exhibits, documentaries, house tours, and more–but presenters did not go into detail about the individual storie they told, or how these broke down the topic of sexuality to a broad audience. For example, how do we address complex topics such as power structures along with the stories of individuals within our sites? Integrating these two together seems to us to be essential to bridging the gap between scholars and museum professionals’ ideas of sexuality, and the ideas that the public brings with them to our institutions.

Sexuality is an essential topic that all historic sites, not just historic house museums, need to begin to address. Sex and sexuality are powerful tools of interpretation, as they are closely linked to our own lives and experiences. The question remains, how can we provide complex and inclusive interpretation that reflects the historical contingency of sexuality, breaks down big concepts, and brings our visitors stories that they will find meaningful and memorable?

“So…what is public history?” Folks attending Adirondack Architectural Heritage’s (AARCH) day-long tours ask me this all the time. My sarcastic answer is “it’s the opposite of private history,” followed by a more serious explanation that public history is applied history out in the world. A still unsatisfied, confused look prompts me to further explain that historic preservation projects, working with communities, public stakeholders, and local governments, museums, nonprofits, and other institutions on any project with history at its core qualifies as public history. My work as AARCH’s Educational Programs Director falls under this umbrella through public programming centered on architecture, history, historic preservation, and conservation, as well as institutional outreach toward communities both large and small.

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As a public historian, I am used to telling people that defining the field remains tricky. Just as anyone working to use or reuse pieces of the built environment may be a preservationist, anyone using proper methodological processes, interpreting primary and secondary sources, and drawing on wider contexts to create content for varied audiences may serve as a public historian. However, some recent scholars have worked to define public history as a practice. In her work on the early history of National Parks and public history as a profession, Denise Meringolo explains that public history retains its earliest roots in historic preservation. Mid-nineteenth century elite, white women formed the core of the preservation community through the establishment of organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association [1]. In his recent textbook exploring the field, Thomas Cauvin explains that public history emerged professionally during the 1970s. Practitioners initially defined “public history” as history practiced outside of the academy. However, this definition lacks the context of working inside and alongside of the academy out in the public. Cauvin concludes that while public history remains hard to define, “We may all become public historians, but it requires training and awareness of the challenges we can face while working in and for the public” [2]. Like defining oneself as a preservationist working in any capacity to reuse the built environment, defining public history remains in the eye of the beholder. After an AARCH outing, each participant becomes a preservationist and gains the insight to better understand the past in a wider context. They have the tools to explore deeper histories through architecture and become public historians themselves.

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Public historian working in preservation are also tasked with mediating the balance between history and the landscape. In the case of an organization with more of a preservationist and advocacy bent like AARCH, promoting the preservation of place itself is as important as conveying the stories that structures convey. For me, negotiating the boundaries between interpreting accurate historical contexts through a particular structure or piece of the built environment is what public history is all about. Just as our expert hosts discuss on AARCH’s summer outings, the built environment in the Adirondacks provides a window in the story of human interaction with the environment. In an era of observable climate change across the globe, understanding the Adirondacks as a space where humans’ interaction with diverse landscapes and environments proves crucial. Providing a history to preservation practice in the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park places the region in a larger context of understanding how communities and environments continuously interact with one another. Built structures and nature exhibit long, interwoven histories across the North Country. Everyone within the Blue Line, both resident and visitor, can gain the ability to become public historians in their own communities through exploring historic structures, buildings, memorials, and other pieces of the built environment.

Ultimately, as a practicing public historian and preservationist, my goal remains to task attendees and Adirondack communities to research, experience, and share their own histories. Simultaneously, I hope to use history as a base for cultivating a strong preservation ethic among regional communities supporting adaptive reuse, green projects, and interpretive progress across the North Country. This is public history and preservation in action. Each borrows from the other. Just as public historians are often preservationists, preservationists practice public history.

Nolan Cool is currently Educational Programs Director at Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). This blog post is also cross-featured on AARCH’s blog at www.aarch.org/blog.

[1] Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiv; For more on early preservationist groups like to MVLA, see Patricia West’s Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (1999).

[2] Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook in Practice, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10-11.