In the year of the Silence Breakers, the Archives can also Protect Evidence of Sexual Violence

Time Magazine named its Person of the Year this week, opting to honor the many individuals and groups of people who had come forward with sexual harassment cases this year. After decades in which accusers of high-profile abusers had been disbelieved by the majority of bystanders, the “silence breakers” of 2017 shifted the narrative. Remarkably, it is the year after “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in which these victims of abuse have finally been believed.

One thing that undoubtedly helped turn the tide of belief was the sheer number of silence breakers. No longer could claims of harassment be belittled as a “he said-she said” toss-up. CNBC correspondent Christina Wilkie summed up the situation best:

 

As more men in powerful positions are rightly toppled, I find myself breaking for the backlash. One of the ways to defend against the argument that these scandals are somehow faddish is to build the historical record of sexual misconduct ranging from assault to repeated harassment. By showing that this is not a new problem, activists can buttress their outrage against those who would belittle it. Archival research is one way to do that.

An archivist at Colorado College recently rediscovered extensive evidence of a past college president’s repeated crimes against women. The evidence was collected by James Hutchinson Kerr, a professor at the college in the 19th century, during the investigation into President Slocum’s abuses which forced him out of his office of 29 years in 1917. The papers, part of Kerr’s bequest to the college, had not been cataloged, perhaps intentionally. While the Slocum scandal was seemingly common knowledge throughout the 20th century, it was often spoken of in inexact terms, without the frank testimony of some of his victims. In 1954, after Slocum’s death, the college even named a dormitory in his honor. Today there is an active campaign to rename the building.

The Mennonite Church has had its own travails with the crimes of powerful men. John Howard Yoder, the leading 20th century Mennonite theologian, was censured and stripped of any official position in the 1990s after his victims were eventually believed and after various previous intercessions had failed to publicly deal with his abuse. More recently, a Mennonite missionary in Haiti was arrested for sexually abusing minors. The church has a long way to go in its reckoning with abuses it has long ignored or covered up. The blog OurStoriesUntold has been a powerful collective voice to draw attention to these abuses and call abusers to account.

All of this context made a recent post on AnabaptistHistorians very important, I think. In a relatively brief essay, David Neufeld shared a centuries-old story of sexual violence within the Anabaptist tradition. Remarkably, two women in Zurich in 1630 went on the record against Jakob Zehnder. Their testimony remains on the record though their abuser avoided serious consequences for his misdeeds.

That the phenomenon of men preying on women (and men), wielding their power in fundamentally violent ways, is centuries old should not come as a surprise. Neither should it blunt the outrage at more recent abuses. Instead, we should seek to expose these crimes in the past and present where we, as researchers, archivists, and citizens, come across them in order to begin some process of justice.

Conspiracy and the Archives

There was a brouhaha in October when the National Archives announced the release of extensive materials surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This release was, bizarrely enough, mandated by federal legislation passed in 1992 following renewed interest in the conspiracy theories surrounding the 1963 assassination stirred up by the Oliver Stone film JFK. Though the Trump administration redacted some of the material through national security concerns, the consensus seems to be that the material released will not confirm the existence of any conspiracy, and perhaps even effectively disprove those theories with the preponderance of banal material. But if you want to look at the documents yourselves, Politico has some tips for you.

Conspiracy theorist spreading the word. Photo by Jamie Kenny, used under CC BY-NC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jakenny/6532480237

While that family of conspiracies has seemingly been put to bed, other conspiracy theories are preserved in archives. Continue reading “Conspiracy and the Archives”

Monuments of Repentance

We set out on a gray Wednesday, ten students bundled up against the wind. Out task was to explore the mnemonic landscape of the area right around Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum.

One of the Philadelphia firsts commemorated at Penn’s Landing.

What we found was a celebratory landscape, marking everything from Philadelphia’s firsts (among them first mustard, first computer), to its immigrants from Ireland and Scotland,  the achievements of Christopher Columbus and the veterans of the Philadelphia area. Because we did this exploration just a few days after Veterans Day, these sites were adorned with flags, flowers, and signs advertising PhillyMemorials.com. Continue reading “Monuments of Repentance”

How do you plan for a wildfire?

We learned a bit about disaster planning for archives–milk crates full of plastic sheeting, fishing line, chocolate, and many other materials are stashed in many a back corner–but there are some disasters you cannot plan for. The archives of Hewlett and Packard (the people, not the current company) were destroyed by the Sonoma County wildfires last month.

Historic marker outside of the garage in which Hewlett and Packard first began their company. Photo by samkinsley via CC BY-NC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samkinsley/2707592596

Continue reading “How do you plan for a wildfire?”

Mau Mau in the Archives

In class last night, we closed with a conversation about archival power. I’ve read a bit on the topic, notably some of Jarrett M. Drake’s writing in OnArchivy, but last night I was especially struck by the global implications of archival practice, especially as a tool of colonialism. It jogged my memory, and when I went home, I dug out a Radiolab episode from 2015: “Mau Mau.” In less than 45 minutes, this episode shows how archives have been a tool of colonial control, worked to preserve dissent, and ultimately (in this case) became a tool for revealing colonialist abuses (60 years too late).

You should listen to the episode, but if you don’t, here’s a brief version. In the 1950s, a popular rebellion sprang up to the British colonial regime in Kenya. The stories that spread around the world were of a fearsome terrorist group calling itself the Mau Mau committing horrific acts of violence. Those acts happened. Then the Mau Mau went quiet. The British handed over power to Kenyans in 1963 and left. Beginning in the 1990s, historians (such as Caroline Elkins) working in Kenya started to find stray papers in the national archives that documented internment camps. Elkins set out on a massive oral history project to gather the story of the British suppression of the Mau Mau and found horrific tales of torture and concentration camps. Using this evidence, several elderly Kenyans brought suit against the British government. They were told they would lose, but then they didn’t when the British government was required to provide evidence of its own misdeeds from its tightly-held archives.

Photo of Kenya National Archives by Ting Chen, used with permission via CC BY-SA 2.0) : https://www.flickr.com/photos/philopp/5377747222

Continue reading “Mau Mau in the Archives”

What’s History Worth?

Reading about the USS Olympia’s preservation history on the heels of Igor Kopytoff’s  work on commodification got me thinking, once again, about why history matters and what it is worth.

Appraising Artifacts

Conversations in the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking and in Studies in American Material Culture have both touched on the practice of appraising materials donated to an institution committed to their preservation. These appraisals are necessary because they allow the donor to quantify their gift when calculating their tax responsibility but they also seem self-defeating. If the aim of the gift is that it be preserved in perpetuity (and there is much debate about that unattainable aim) then the gifted material is assumed to never be available for purchase. It thus becomes priceless, decommodified, not for sale. Users of an archives might find informational or evidentiary value in a document or set of papers, but within the archival context they have no monetary value.

Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols. This process is largely the purview of people in power and serves to reify their position. Even seemingly neutral artifacts in a museum en masse support the status quo. Historic preservation is a singularization process. Individuals can put a lot of time and money into  preservation projects, the result of which is a singularization. Since 1966, however, if preservation is done in accordance with certain guidelines, that investment can earn reward in the form of tax credits.

Continue reading “What’s History Worth?”

Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute

“Make it stop my love, we were wrong to try

Never saw what we could unravel by traveling light,

Or how the trip debrides like a stack of slides

All we saw was that time is taller than space is wide.”

– Joanna Newsom “The Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”

As I read a bit of John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Space, Sense of Time for class last week, I kept thinking of the lyric above.* Jackson argues, in part, that when we think about what makes a location special to us, we are usually remembering events that have occurred there rather than any feature of the place. In a way, Jackson echoes Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, suggesting that it is repeated practices that constitute public space.

Before Jackson gets into the roles of communal memory, he writes a bit about grids. I grew up in an area without any hint of a grid, but I could still recognize the truth of Jackson’s observation that a straight stretch of highway, devoid of distinguishing features, performs a specific role in American popular culture as a sort of zen state.

I don’t drive much, but I do sometimes approach the same introspective limit while walking, particularly on my way to work. Retreading the same mile and a half about eight times a week, I often find myself with my head down, the sidewalk becoming an undifferentiated highway. If I am particularly enraptured in a particular train of thought, this ribbon of concrete acts almost as one of Bruno Latour’s black boxes; I step outside my door and am conveyed to my employment. When I am particularly drowsy, in the morning or late at night, there is an almost alarming quality to the amnesia of the walk.

The police station at 19th Street and Oxford seen in 1961. The station became the Opportunities Industrialization Center a few years later and currently is undergoing redevelopment. Photo from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records via PhillyHistory.org.

Continue reading “Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute”

A Method of Analysis for “Ray”

As he introduced us to lofting –boat design–John Brady, president and CEO of the Independence Seaport Museum, referred to four interpretive panels, each with a blueprint and model showing a different set of lines (water lines, etc.). Brady described the painstaking process of moving back and forth between the different sets of lines to rectify them, to create a smooth shape in three dimensions.

“It’s a spiral,” he said, “an iterative process.”

I propose a similarly spiraling method of object analysis for the object I’ve called “Ray.” As Brady moved from line to line to bring dimension to the boat, I will move between four practices, with each circuit of the spiral providing new insights. 

Step 1: Observation/Description

Like Jules Prown, I begin with observation of the object. Looking at it from different perspectives. My first glimpses of Ray came at a distance, which was a useful reminder that seeing an object at different scales is just as important as from different angles. While observing, I sketch, trying to rationalize the curves and angles I’m seeing onto a flat surface; in essence I’m doing John Brady’s work in reverse. I look for things I recognize as evidence–things which I understand, or think I do–and those which mystify me. I pose questions, perhaps, but the emphasis is on documenting the object for easy reference and to make concrete the process of seeing.

Step 2: Thinkfeelgo

Once I have (seemingly) exhausted that path of inquiry, I move on to something akin to Prown’s deduction, but what I will call thinkfeelgo, in which I engage my imagination, sensory memory, and emotions. This step may involve seeking out relevant experiences and places that provide sensory points of reference for this object–taking a ride on a boat, for instance, or visiting the sneakbox’s origins in Barnegat Bay. Like Robin Bernstein I will try to identify ways in which my involvement with this object is scripted. Like Kenneth Ames I may wonder how variation in this object results in variations in the script.

Step 3: Sources

In the third phase, I avail myself of sources, written or otherwise, which tell the story of this object or others like it already. I am not the first person to interact with this object and I would be a fool to ignore other people’s stories and analysis. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sought out both other failed textile products and archival sources to give context to her unfinished stocking, I will seek out accounts of use of other sneakboxes and the boats themselves.

Step 4: Big Questions

Finally, I turn the focus from the object to the broader region, nation, and globe. I ask, as Cary Carson pleads for material culturalists to ask, the big questions and locate the object within the world.

Repeat

The circuit done, I widen the gyre and return to step one, noticing things I didn’t pick up on before. Having learned about the lofting process from John Brady (which I’ll shoe-horn into step 3), I look at Ray again and understand its pattern of planking in a slightly different way. This boat is assembled in a somewhat utilitarian way, with planking starting at the keel and tied into a sort of wooden collar called a harpin at the top, rather than being crafted from both top and bottom for a more aesthetically pleasing effect.

Having heard from Brady that sneakboxes in the mid-20th century, especially the 15-foot variety (this category includes Ray), were often purchased by yachting clubs in fleets of ten or so. They served a similar function to go-karts; they were a set of uniform little sailboats to be raced in order to prove who was the most adept sailor. This generalization, while perhaps not directly pertaining to Ray, makes sense of the bright blue hue of this boat. I slide into Step 2 and can imagine ten sneakboxes racing across a bay, each painted a different color so that the sailor’s family and friends on shore can pick them out at a distance.

Each step does not always lead swiftly into the next, but they form a network of meaning around this object. In Step 4, I attempt to use Ray–and the sneakbox form, Barnegat Bay, boatbuilders, and internet forum writers–to learn something about this country. The allure of regionalism, and the resulting commodification of tradition, is certainly a relevant concern of the American republic.

But there are threads of Ray’s stories that pull the opposite way too: a forum poster considering making a sneakbox out of Western Red Cedar rather than Atlantic White Cedar. This particular hobbyist, wherever he lives, accessed the plans for free from the Independence Seaport Museum, a plan based on a 15-foot sneakbox made by Beaton and Sons, the builder of Ray.[^1] These interactions between men on the internet, disengaged from regional particularity, suggest that this “traditional” boat form has been uploaded into the American milieu.

If the object I were analyzing were more familiar to me, my process would require that I distance myself from many of my assumptions about it and focus more on the close looking. A sneakbox is a thing that I have only just encountered, and all of the other boats I’ve ever seen or boarded have been Latour’s black boxes. They signify “boat” and that is all. In order to examine this sneakbox, I must peer into that black box and, coming up for air, compare the pieces I’ve seen to schematic drawings. By lurching from step to step, I facilitate crossover of various kinds of knowledge that, I hope, will help me understand this object more fully–though never completely–and place it in a larger context.

[^1] Unfortunately at this point ISM no longer offers small water craft plans for free online.

#AskAnArchivist

Yesterday was apparently #AskAnArchivist day on Twitter (not, as some users thought, #AskAnAnarchist), and the resulting thread gave archivists a chance to show off some of the things from their collections and share a bit of their lives with Twitter users.

Lots of archivists simply wanted to communicate the scale of their collections:

Some archivists posted photos of the sorts of things people might not expect in an archive:

User @EKuzina asked archivists to post Halloweeny archival material:

While I think we may have reached the saturation point of “[Inter]National _____ Day” (Oh please let us have reached saturation point!) hashtags like this one offer a distinct opportunity, not only to reach people outside the archival world but to also connect with colleagues outside of a conference environment. That the exchange occurs on Twitter also enables these conversations to continue throughout the year. I would be very surprised if the archives which participated didn’t gain a bunch of followers. Finally, events such as this encourage archivists, who may be weighed down by the everyday grind of processing, to look at their collection in new ways, to recognize the wacky and poignant material that sometimes blurs together. I enjoyed looking through the feed and I suggest you check it out!

An Evening at the Wagner

Last night I finally stepped across the threshold of the Wagner Free Institute of Science after having lived less than five blocks away for over a year. I have been meaning to check the Institute out, and finally had a good excuse: New Perspectives on Historic Collections, an evening of presentations from the recipients of the Temple University – Wagner Free Institute Research Fellowship.

Dermot Mac Cormack shows some of the glyphs of handwriting that would become the Willison font

I remember seeing the request for papers for the fellowship, first last September and then again in January when they did another round. I remember feeling at a loss. What kind of project could I do with the collection of “a Victorian-era natural history museum with more than 100,000 specimens”? In retrospect, I’m glad that these scholars were more creative than me. Their projects ranged from creating a typeface from a curator’s handwritten labels to creating jewelry based on illustrations in the Wagner’s archives.

Emily Cobb took inspiration from scientific illustrations at the Wagner to create some beautiful jewelry.

One project proposed by the Wagner staff and carried out by Tyler professor Byron Wolfe and student Daniel Kraus was the printing of two micro-negatives that hadn’t been viewed for probably a century.

Print made by Byron Wolfe and Daniel Kraus from a microscopic negative produced by the Langenheim brothers.

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and inspiring. It was a reminder that archives contain multiple kinds of information and that I have been looking at archival material in pretty tame ways. The wheels in my head are spinning now, especially in conjunction with the readings for Studies in American Material Culture, and we shall see where they resolve in the near future.

My biggest regret about this evening of magic is that it seems to have almost no presence on the internet; I hope the Wagner puts up some photos on their website soon!