Tag Archives: Student Thoughts

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

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,’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.


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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Dan Allosso, Ph.D. Candidate, UMass History

I was too far away (northern Minnesota) to attend last week’s events, but communicating history to the general public is a topic that interests me, so I thought I’d share some recent experiences.

Before I entered grad school, I spent a couple of decades in the computer industry. My first experiences with the internet involved text-based services such as CompuServe and The Well. I’ve been on the sharp side of “disruption,” selling semiconductors for an industrial distributor paranoid about “disintermediation” and doing systems engineering for Silicon Graphics while their proprietary platform was being end-run by folks rendering movies like Shrek on Linux clusters. But mostly I’ve watched—and helped—people use technology to evade hierarchy and find their markets and affinity groups more easily and directly.

For a few, the web has meant new opportunities to earn a living. For most, it has been about the satisfaction of finding peers who share our enthusiasms and are interested in what we have to say. For others, it has brought a scary breakdown of traditional authority systems. For writers, web-based technology has created a new world of possibilities, but also a new set of frustrations. There are plenty of places on the web where aspiring authors can contribute content. Not as many where they can reap rewards beyond name-recognition for their efforts. And in many cases, the structures of the past continue to hang on, attempting to control credentials and access as they always have.

Whether or not you believe “information wants to be free,” it’s fair to say the broadband web creates opportunities to challenge the status quo. MOOCs have been poorly implemented in America, but look at FutureLearn in England! High school textbooks, the most influential interface between academic history and the general public, are a nightmare. This is certainly a place where a little disintermediation could go a long way. It’s also a place where the battle is often about ideology and always about big money (for publishers, not authors).

Of course, it’s much harder to self-publish and find readers for a new textbook than a new novel. I’ve been turning the American Environmental History course I’ve taught online for the last few years into a textbook, so I’ve had some conversations with librarians and teachers. My main interest is getting Environmental History in front of more people than the few dozen who might take an upper-level History elective at each of the minority of American colleges that actually offer a course. So, what’s the best way to do that? I went through the proposal process with Oxford. A split decision among the readers resulted in no contract, and I basically lack the patience to go through the process again and then wait an additional year for the book to be produced.

Cover of Dan Allosso's new textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

Cover of Dan Allosso’s textbook, American Environmental History: Part One

So I’ve gone ahead and put it out there on my own. There’s an eleven dollar print version on Amazon, and a free iBook version on the Apple store. The iBook interface allowed me to add a link to every image in the book, taking readers directly to more information or the source of the image. And to add videos explaining key ideas. And did I mention, it’s free?

It’s been interesting, working on version after version of this material over a period of years, trying to make it more relevant to readers’ lives and also more understandable and compelling. Since my goal is to attract the general public to Environmental History, style and tone are important concerns. But even more, I think writing for the general public revolves around the “so what?” Unlike academics, regular people don’t seek objectivity and neutrality in their history—and they generally don’t believe it when authors make the claim.

That doesn’t mean that accuracy and truthfulness fly out the window. But I think a substantial part of the reading public has a much better sense of narrative bias than we often suppose. Readers want authors to take a position, and they’re up to the challenge of evaluating it and deciding whether they agree. At least, a portion are. Some are going to stick with Bill O’Reilly’s and Glenn Beck’s type of history, and there’s nothing to be done.

So what happens if readers or high school teachers discover my free stuff out on the iBook store, or my free videos on Vimeo and YouTube? Have I made them interesting enough that people will watch, even if they aren’t required to, to get a grade? Will online teaching allow people to begin building their own portfolios of credentials and skills, bypassing the authority of degree-granting institutions? Will readers and viewers accept material produced by an ABD grad student rather than a famous authority or a team working under the Oxford or Pearson banner? Only time—and trial and error—will tell.

Editor’s Note: Visit Dan Allosso’s blog about environmental history at

Ryan Dorsey, M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This Friday, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will begin hosting its History Communication Summit to explore how “History Communicators, like Science Communicators,…stand up for history against simplification.” As an historian of science, the conference’s timing and topic could barely be more felicitous. Three weeks ago, scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had confirmed the direct detection of a gravitational wave. The reports of science communicators ranged from sound clips of the “chirp” to ramifications for the future of science, but they all made one point very clear: this experiment finally confirms one of the major predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old Theory of General Relativity.

While the coverage on what it means to discover gravitational waves is solid, the coverage on what it means to take a century to make this discovery is not. The journal Nature explains that Albert Einstein formulated general relativity in 1915, Joseph Weber claimed a (false) detection in 1969, and Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse indirectly confirmed the waves’ existence in 1974, winning a Nobel Prize in 1993. The popular science site IFLScience zips through the history in one paragraph: “One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein…thought there were invisible ‘gravitational waves’….For decades…they have never been detected…until now.” And The Guardian reports simply that “all of this follows from a prediction of Albert Einstein’s 100 years ago.”

This historian sits, stewing, “How can this history be so naïve and so sparse!” LIGO’s fact sheet notes that it is the most expensive project ever undertaken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which has invested north of 1 billion USD into LIGO to date. Two pairs of lasers, aimed at mirrors suspended two and a half miles away, help measure changes in distance that are fractions of a percent of a proton’s width. Scientists in fifteen countries collaborate on LIGO. So do tell this perplexed soul, how is it that “all of this follows” from Albert Einstein, who worked nearly alone one hundred years prior? What does it mean that Four Great Men are the history of the gravitational wave, when 950 people work with LIGO now?


Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington's photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington’s photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

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Emily Esten, History Major; Applied Humanities Learning Lab Fellow

In its second year, the Applied Humanities Learning Lab (AppHuLL) seeks to take dynamic and motivated students and allow them to put into practice humanities skills on a real project. Many of this year’s Fellows are undergraduate students from various disciplines in the Five Colleges. The course is half-career prep and half-project management – two vastly different goals, but both addressed in the four-day intensive. Of the course of January 11-14, we fifteen Fellows went from knowing nothing about the Quabbin Reservoir and its history to standing up as scholars and humanists in our own right.

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Our first day, we walked out of the classroom daunted by what seemed an impossible task – I almost felt like I was invading a mostly-forgotten history protected by the few surviving persons. But we were welcomed – by great mentors Cheryl Harned and Mark Roblee, and most importantly, by the community members and leaders who helm the memory of these places today. Between field trips, conversations, activities, and workshops, we accomplished so much in learning where we stood and what we needed in order to move forward.

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

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

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

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

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