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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.

Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.

On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.

My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.

I had stumbled into new territory.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

The crowd at The Happy Dog engrossed in a panel discussion about the history of the Hough Riots. Courtesy of the The Happy Dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Bastos-Stanek, Art History and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Major, UMass Amherst

On June 17, 2016, the Smithsonian American Art Museum unveiled its new exhibition dedicated to painter Romaine Brooks, a late 19th century and early 20th century American expatriate who lived in Paris, France, during the belle époque. Among the pantheon of queer women who lived during this period of particularly high artistic and cultural development–Gertrude Stein, Radcliffe Hall, Alice B. Toklas, Colette–Brooks is perhaps less well known and less likely to conjure romantic visions of Sapphic love but whose erotic depictions of nude women and the wealthy Parisian lesbian subculture will leave you rushing to the American Art Museum, or at least their online exhibition, to experience her art.

Figure 1 Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

The Art of Romaine Brooks” features a comprehensive retrospective of the artist, which includes 18 paintings and 32 drawings from the museum’s permanent collection. Brooks primarily painted portraits, a number of which were commissioned and others that include nude women. Brooks’ earlier works, such as Azalées Blanches (White Azaleas) (fig. 1), an oil painting from 1910 of a full-length reclining nude woman next to a vase of white azaleas in a domestic interior, sets the stylistic terms for her later and bolder works. The woman’s body faces towards the viewer in an openly erotic manner, while her face turns away in a three-quarter view that makes it difficult to gauge her emotions but suggests the possibility of a rich interior life. The work features Brooks’ characteristic muted color palette of blacks, greys, and whites. Her extraordinary tonal range is exemplified in the shading of the figure’s body and the brilliance of the white azaleas.

Perhaps what makes Brooks’ paintings so fascinating and daring is her status as a gender non-conforming masculine presenting woman artist. Although I hesitate to impose a modern term on a non-modern woman or time period, Brooks sustained several well documented long term romantic and sexual relationships with woman, making her someone contemporary audiences would recognize as a lesbian or otherwise queer. Brooks’ experiments with variations in gender and sexuality in many of her portraits instill a queer viewer with a deep sense of validation and satisfaction that comes from encountering a work of art that reflects one’s own experiences.

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Sara Patton, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This summer, I am interning with Historic New England, an organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the long and rich history of the region. As the oldest regional preservation organization in the country, their properties also illustrate the history of historic preservation, and, as I quickly learned, preserving something is often much more complicated than you might think. Preservation can be shorthand for many different approaches, including conservation, restoration, reuse, and public programming. My task this summer is to write an interpretive plan that will guide the kinds of events, tours and programs that will take place at the Swett-Ilsley House, located in Newbury, Massachusetts, in the future. At the heart of this task is considering what we should interpret at the site; that is, what are the time periods or big ideas, and who are the historical figures that will feature in programming? What will people learn or experience at the home? As it turns out, a closer study of Swett-Ilsley reveals that it not only has important stories to tell about Newbury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but also about the history of preservation. As I begin to think about how to present this history of preservation, I am struck by how the Swett-Ilsley house offers many windows into different preservation philosophies, and, since, 1911, how the concept of preservation has changed.

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

Swett-Ilsley House, photo courtesy of Historic New England

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Yuri Gama, recently accepted Ph.D. Student, UMass History

Different from the rest of the city, Parramore was always a mixed-use neighborhood. Now, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s like a skeleton. It’s like the community is being squeezed out. —Vencinia Cannady, senior resident at the African-American community of Parramore, Orlando, Florida.

As I browsed through unconnected pieces of files inside libraries and talked with local residents unveiling the story of Parramore, I slowly gathered information about the historical convergence of urban planning, racial segregation and social inequality in Central Florida. Researching African American history for my Master’s thesis in such an understudied place, brought me straight to a public history alley. The more I would find in my research, the more I would feel the need to reveal it publicly. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I intend to delve into Brazil’s modern urban history with the help of my advisor Dr. Joel Wolfe and the digital and public historians at UMass.

During my Masters studies, I studied the process of urban sprawl in the American South and the history of the Jim Crow Era in the United States. My work combined studies of race and public policy to demonstrate how racial oppression and urban transformations pushed an African-American community into an economic, social and cultural decline in Orlando, Florida. During my research, beyond working with libraries, history centers, and museums, I established a connection with the community that I studied by interviewing residents, and publicly presenting my final work there. The several informal conversations with inhabitants of the city helped me grasp the “common sense” narratives running nowadays in order to understand preliminary issues that I could research in the past. Listening and interpreting the interviews and cross-referencing them with historical data allowed me to build a cohesive narrative out of an understudied city such as Orlando. Although oral history appeared just as a short part of my thesis, it was relevant to sew the broad story of Parramore. In this sense, the community indirectly helped me crafting the narrative.

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

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Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.

Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

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Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History

On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison.  While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform.  This event is a defining moment of our times.  Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come.  While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.

One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan.  Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years.  The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994.  Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.

This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”  The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014.  This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration.  The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.

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The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Sean Kelley.

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