Research Notes: Repair and Temporal Relativity

As I embark on actually writing my thesis, I have a lot of ideas I’m trying to mesh together. I’m going to use this space as a little sandbox for some of those ideas in a short form to see if that works.

One of the challenges that I see in immersive historic sites is that they seem to erase the time that has intervened between the “period of significance” and the present. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, for instance, describe a visitor to Colonial Williamsburg who directly related the experience of a slave to his childhood hardships during the Great Depression.[1] This visitor wanted to make a connection to what he was seeing but the interpreters and buildings around him eliminated most of his life experience from the conversation rather than offering a sense of perspective. This is most apparent at living history sites where interpreters in character act as if they don’t understand modern technology, but the effect is present at most sites with reconstructed interiors and period furniture.

An interpreter tends a garden at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA. Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism under Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 2.0:

Michael Baxandall describes the interplay between museum object, curator, and viewer, in a way that I think is helpful. Specifically, Baxandall talks about the curatorial choices in an exhibit as a mediation between the artifact and the viewer. “Exhibitions in which different cultures are combined or juxtaposed are inherently more wholesome than exhibitions of a single culture,” writes Baxandall. “The juxtaposition of objects from different cultural systems signals to the viewer not only the variety of such systems but the cultural relativity of his own cultures and values.”[2]

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What I wrote in 2017

In January, I moved my old blog over here to I also began my second semester of grad school and was required to blog for my Digital History class. Highlights of those blogs include my latest (or is it last?) post for Stars Hollow Historical Society and a walking tour of West Fairmount Park.

In February I started writing “Research Notes” posts as a practice of trying to get ideas written out and in front of people.

March brought a little flurry of events as I attended two student-organized conferences, the Public History Community Forum (PubComm) and the Barnes Club Graduate Student History Conference. I also was able to attend an American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) workshop about Historic House Museums at Cliveden, which was a really important event for me as I tried to figure out what to write a thesis on. I wrote about all of those events here.


I was wrapping up the semester in April and May so I wrote only a few last Digital History posts. When I was at the NCPH annual meeting in April, however, I did write a ton of tweet. And in May I found time to pound out a list of online resources for though. Continue reading “What I wrote in 2017”

Who Watches the Watcher?

In a month in which Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott two years ago, was found guilty of second-degree murder and obstruction of justice and video of another fatal police shooting went viral, it was heartening to read the Society of American Archivists’ “Issue Brief: Police Mobile Camera Footage as a Public Record.”

Photo of police uniform with built-in body camera by via CC BY license.

Among the most powerful statements within the brief is this sentence:

“The Society of American Archivists has a vested interest in developing and advocating for comprehensive policies to govern these records in the interest of serving the public good and affirming the importance of Black Lives.”

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The Archives Behind My Favorite Wikipedia Article

I love Wikipedia articles. The weirder and more specific, the better. “William Walker (filibuster),” “New Jersey Generals,” “Crumhorn.”

But my favorite Wikipedia article of all time tells the story of The Emu War. I will let the Wikipedia editors of the page, principally user Nick-D, tell the story.

“The Emu War, also known as the Great Emu War,[1] was a nuisance wildlife management military operation undertaken in Australia over the latter part of 1932 to address public concern over the number of emus said to be running amok in the Campion district of Western Australia. The unsuccessful attempts to curb the population of emus, a large flightless bird indigenous to Australia, employed soldiers armed with Lewis guns—leading the media to adopt the name “Emu War” when referring to the incident. While a number of the birds were killed, the emu population persisted and continued to cause crop destruction.”

Photo from The Land Newspaper via WIkipedia: By Unknown – The Land Newspaper, Public Domain,

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Archiving Twitter

Nearly seven years ago, the Library of Congress announced an ambitious partnership: it would be working with Twitter to archive each 140-character tweet. Some things have changed in the intervening years. Twitter has become a venue for the President of the United States to speak to his constituents. This year tweets doubled in size. And, according to an article in The Atlantic last year, the Library of Congress’ tweet archive is still largely theoretical. While tweets get harvested, they are unprocessed in any way. The current protocol is, in the words of Andrew McGill for The Atlantic, “the digital equivalent of throwing a bunch of paperclipped manuscripts into a chest and giving it a good shake.” Not great.

Photo by Zeyi Fan, used under CC BY-NC 2.0:

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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:

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 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:

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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) :

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