On Signage

Signs are important. They let you know where the fire exit is or, more importantly, the location of the nearest bathroom. They tell you to stop or to yield. They tell you where you are or where you’re going.

In an exhibit, signs raise questions, provide some answers, and connect ideas. The amalgamated text and icons of an exhibit provide just as much structure as headings and topic sentences in an essay but what works for one medium does not work for the other.

Freeman Tilden, the grandfather of the interpretive division of the National Parks Service, begins his essay on interpretive signage (Chapter 8 of Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957) with some ruminations on epigraphy. This is indicative both of Tilden’s affection for the classics and the combination of wit, poetry, clarity, and brevity that he thinks makes up the perfect sign. Tilden worries that the sign might say too much, that it could confuse readers with too much specificity. He hopes that the sign may be fully understood by all those who pass by (Sorry Freeman, no Greek!).

Tilden considers all of these parameters during the thinking stage, which he thinks should be 90% of the sign-writing process. Perhaps this ratio is what causes Tilden’s own writing to be composed of nearly standalone sentences, a series of guidelines.

“Axiom: whatever is written without enthusiasm will be read without interest.” (93)

In general, the signs Tilden likes use quotations or are composed by his friend Bob Mann “mit beer.” One that he and I both like is the following:

 A Building Stood Here Before 1680.

It was Wrecked in

The Great Indian Uprising.

This House Incorporates

What Remains.

While I’m not a fan of the capitalization protocol in evidence and I don’t know enough about the “Great Indian Uprising” in question to know if that’s an accurate name for it, this label accomplishes what it needs to: It gives us a point of reference in time, tells us what used to be in the space, and acknowledges what is currently there to look at.

So Freeman Tilden’s been telling you since 1957 that that complex string of dependent clauses with a semi-colon that captures all the nuance of your thesis just isn’t going to work on an interpretive panel. Why do you think that is?

Beverly Serrell, veteran exhibit designer, has many answers to that question and others in her second edition of Exhibit Labels. Complex sentences are a no-go for several reasons:

– They are likely to be skipped over for more interesting visuals and pithier labels

– They are not well-suited to being read aloud (as by a parent to a child) or translated

– If used as a central theme of an exhibit, complex sentences can lead to various interpretations of the theme by different members of the team rather than a unified, focused idea.

Exhibit Labels impressed me at every turn, anticipating any problems an exhibit designer, curator, or writer might run into. Broken down into bite-size portions for easy reference, and often employing memorable case-studies as evidence, Serrell’s book will certainly be an asset as my classmates and I tackle several interpretive tasks this semester.

 As I was reading this week, I found the lessons of Exhibit Labels applicable beyond my work for Managing History. I kept seeing connections between my weekend job as a tour guide and this text and vice versa.

 For example, when Serrell was discussing the various pitfalls of segmenting one’s audience (she counsels aiming for the “commonest common denominator”, an idea that will certainly stick with me), I was reminded of an image from one of the PowerPoint presentations I was shown at work. The numbers 1 to 5 appeared on the screen.

 1  2  3  4  5

 The 5’s, explained the presenter, are visitors who worked in issues of criminal justice and prisons (the topic of our historic site) and who are well-versed in the history and the contemporary issues around incarcerations. 4’s are people who, while not employed in fields associated with our topics, are very familiar with the information and come to the site wanting to know more. The 1’s, on the other hand, are totally uninterested or actively hostile to discussing incarceration, perhaps especially our institution’s current emphases and take-away messages. At this point, the presenter clicked his controller and an underline appeared under the 2 and 3.

 1  2  3  4  5

“These are the people we want to try to engage,” he said. “They didn’t come here today expecting to have a conversation about mass incarceration and they might not leave here wanting to talk about it, but if we can give them a tool kit to talk about it at some point, we’ve done our job.”*

I kept remembering that formulation of the audience question and thinking that it might be a nice complement to the various ways others have discussed how to reach a broad swath of the audience (which Serrell summarizes). For instance, I agree that it makes sense to engage various methods (sound, visuals, interactives, etc.) to convey a single piece of information; not only do you ensure that more folks connect to the information but you give individuals multiple ways to approach that datum. How could an aim of reaching the 2’s and 3’s enhance those methods?

I found further fodder in Exhibit Labels that will inform my work. I’ve begun planning the outline for my first hour-long tour and I found many of Serrell’s insights very timely as I think about how to engage my audience and convey information. For instance, we tour guides are encouraged to foster discussion by posing questions. After reading Serrell, I will be mindful to avoid “Why?” questions that essentially have one answer that no visitors are likely to know. Furthermore, when I use rhetorical questions, I will make sure that they are rooted in the sights, sounds, and surroundings which the visitors do have an authority with and that they are questions that have occurred to at least some subset of visitors.

As I craft the theme of my tour, I will remember Serrell’s guidelines for brevity. A wall of text and a thunderous recitation of facts are different experiences but both obstacles to the visitor. There is a limit to the number of ideas I can throw at a tour group, just as there is a limit to the number of introductory paragraphs a museum visitor will read.

Exhibit Labels has won a long-term spot on my bookshelf but you can be sure it will be pulled out for reference many times before this semester is over.


*Obviously this is not remotely verbatim.

“Bring out your dead!”

Excuse my face-mask, the readings this week in each of my classes brought out my inner hypochondriac. I was reminded of the semester in college when my friend Josh was quarantined with the “Swine Flu” (H1N1) and missed a week of classes and I started shivering. But I had to keep reading, so on I went.

In his hefty tome The Mediterranean, assigned for Historical Methods, Fernand Braudel muses that malaria was both a result and cause of inaction (“Malaria progresses when man relaxes his efforts…”) or civilizations already in decline. Braudel also connects rumored epidemics of the disease with increased movements of people and contagion (the fall of the Roman Empire and the Columbian exchange).

 Aedes Aegypti, male on left and female center and right [Public Domain]

For US History I it was J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, exploring how the sugar plantation boom, with its deforesting effects, compact population, and plentiful mosquito habitats, created ideal conditions for endemic yellow fever. Furthermore, McNeill contends that the prevalence of fever-laden mosquitoes helped colonial powers retain their Caribbean holdings; any invading armies would be febrile and decimated if only the colonial garrison (which had built up immunity to the pathogen) could hold them off long enough. Once the colonists in the region began unburdening themselves of European control, this advantage shifted to them, as colonial forces from across the Atlantic were decimated at an incredible rate when they came in range of  Aedes Aegypti and the pathogens that lurked inside. The home-field advantage of yellow fever persisted until the United States’ occupation of Cuba in 1898. After Walter Reed’s research team identified A. Aegypti as the culprit, William Gorgas, an American army doctor, was tasked with eradicating the pests. Gorgas’ team was extraordinarily successful and when the United States acquired the site of the failed French trans-isthmian canal at Panama (which had faltered due to incredible yellow fever death rates), Gorgas went and killed mosquitoes there too, effectively ending the period of yellow fever’s reign over the Caribbean, or at least for governments that could undertake mosquito eradication efforts.

Gorgas, about to kill a bunch of mosquitoes, probably  [Public Domain]


Gorgas also popped up in The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, the Managing History reading, trying to tackle a significantly harder problem; the “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918. Propelled by unhygienic conditions (especially in military cantonments and urban areas), global mobilization of soldiers and goods, the influenza crossed the globe first in a mild form and then, a few months later, as an angel of death. Gorgas was one of a cohort of doctors, essentially the first generation of modern research medicine, that mobilized to advocate for smart public health policies and to try to find a cure. Braudel blamed the prevalence of malaria on the geography of the plains and McNeill points to human-shaped environments as the catalyst for disease. Barry’s account is all about the chameleon-esque, mutating nature of the influenza virus and the ways in which the global nature of the world of 1918 (and the war that consumed it) collided with naïve public health strategies for an explosion of contagion that made ghost towns of major American cities. Frequent comparisons to the Plague were not unfounded as the sheer logistics of burying the dead led to scenes not dissimilar to this and mass graves.

While I’ve been unsettled by the graphic descriptions of hemorrhagic fevers and violent pneumonias (to the extent that I have really come around to the idea of those medical face-masks), I’ve enjoyed the overlapping content represented in the readings. Sure, the same theoreticians pop up in all of the readings (von Ranke, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Kuhn), but it was kind of fun to have a themed week.

And why are we reading about influenza in Managing History? Our class project for the semester is to create a plan for some sort of commemoration for the centennial of the 1918 outbreak, for which Philadelphia was a prominent node of the outbreak. So if anyone has any clever ideas for sources that would be influenza-adjacent, please share them in the comments!

If you need me, I’ll be over here playing Pandemic and trying to channel William Welch’s proteges.

Heritage, nostalgia, and “popular historymakers”

The readings for Managing History this week: The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzwieg and David Thelen, and Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past by Carolyn Kitch

A few years ago, Carolyn Kitch set out to explore the monuments, museums, heritage areas, historic highways, factory tours, tourist trains, and other sites through which the industrial history of Pennsylvania is commemorated and then wrote a book about it. What does Kitch consider “industrial”? The book primarily deals with sites associated with agriculture, lumbering, coal mining, oil drilling, iron working, railroading, steel production, and factories that produce everything from potato chips to motorcycles with a few mentions of textile mills in the conclusion. It seems to me, however, that the uniting principle of Kitch’s study is that these are sites that are, for the most part, created by and for people who are outside of the academy. Thus the themes of these various places to encounter industrial history are more likely to be concerned with nostalgia, patriotism, and the valor of laborers than historiography.


The Presence of the Past is the result of a carefully conducted survey of Americans about how they find “connection” with the “past.” I use quotation marks here because Rosenzwieg and Thelen found in their initial question-testing phase that respondents spoke at greater length when prompted to talk about the “past” than when asked about “history” and the idea of “connection” to that past was what animated them. The survey found that for most Americans, the family was the center of historical authority. Surprisingly, however, that family history was not a vector for strong feelings about national concerns or identity markers like class or ethnicity (with a few major exceptions). Rather the most consistent expression of the importance of history outside of the family unit came from black Americans and American Indians, who referred to group consciousness caused by their status as oppressed peoples. The other major trend was that Evangelical Americans (across racial communities) identified their religion as a major factor in their conception of the past.

Yet Rosenzwieg and Thelen found that despite the idea that the public is uninterested and uninformed about history, many of their respondents were actively involved in some sort of historical inquiry(in the words of one of Rosenzwieg and Thelen’s collaborators, being “popular historymakers”), through genealogy, coin collecting, visiting sites of historical significance or myriad other ways.


I find it difficult, as I flip through the pages of Pennsylvania in Public Memory, to identify too many threads of connection between these places. What do a pretzel factory and the Lincoln Highway have in common? Tourism, perhaps, rooted in a sense of local distinctiveness. When you throw in a coal mining museum that’s open a few hours every month and located in some civic building, what common denominator are you left with? These are all sites that are telling a story or stories of a local, regional, or national past. Some of them are successful in bringing visitors from far away to invigorate the local economy but far more are mostly patronized by locals and out-of-town guests—often family members.

The connections between Kitch’s travelogue and Rosenzwieg and Thelen’s survey are more apparent to me. The roadside interpretive panel and the former steel mill redeveloped into a boutique shopping center are both forms of popular history-making that seek to mark the importance of place. The ride at Hershey Chocolate World is more about commemorating individual entrepreneurship, but it too is staking a claim to relevance. The mine tours convey mining methods but, more importantly, function as a site for remembering and catharsis of the hard work that once was done there and the way of life that has largely disappeared.

While I do not share some of the concerns (politically or culturally) with some of the mine and foundry museums that Kitch described, I was impressed with how some managed to grapple with the environmental concerns and the labor injustices while still taking pride in the industry of the workers and the community. Some of these museums seemed to strike the right balance between sharing authority with community members, providing a tool for local identity, and yet providing specific historical insights as well.

I was most frustrated by the sites that uncritically offered up a nostalgic version of the past. The agritourism that nods to a vague agrarian past, or as Donna Haraway once put it, “seductions to organic wholeness,” carries with it baggage of racism, patriarchy, and general exploitation, yet it is reassuring. The agrarian countryside is not the only route to “the good old days.” Kitch herself observes that “very much railroad heritage today is unmoored from its historical context” (51). I recognize in this vague nostalgic business model that of Amish tourism that Susan Trollinger and others have explored (I reviewed Trollinger’s Selling the Amish recently) and find its conflation with identity-making and history-telling disturbing. I am left wondering: Is this kind of nuance-free nostalgic simulacra is what the American public wants from its history? If so, are we public historians compelled to indulge those comforting (enabling?) impulses? Or to what extent are we compelled to honor shared authority if a community wants to a mythical feel-good past that reinforces oppression today?

Managing History

I’ve just begun graduate school and first impressions are mostly that it’s a ton of reading. Which might have meant, but for a bit of deus ex machina*, that this blog would slowly crumble from neglect as it fell to the bottom of my to-do list. But it doesn’t, because one of my courses, “Managing History” (the introductory Public History class in the M.A. sequence) requires, not only that we keep a blog (Hey, presto! one requirement down!) but that we also use it to respond to each week’s readings. So I’ll actually be posting a bunch more than usual, aided by a lengthy booklist, writing prompts, and deadlines!

I’ll be tagging all of these posts “Managing History” in case you want to read through them all at once (you’ll have to wait until December for that, you binge-readers). There will be a sprinkling of non-class blogs maybe, but my calendar is filling up and my bookshelf is groaning.

*I.e. the class syllabus, which fell to Earth from the 9th floor of Gladfelter Hall.

Introducing AnabaptistHistorians.org!

Today a new collaborative blog launched! My good friend Joel Nofziger tapped a couple of historians (who were all interested in studying various Anabaptist denominations) on the shoulder and several months later, there’s an actual thing! After a lot of fruitless brainstorming (looking for that perfect catchy name that would nonetheless represent the breadth of our scope) we settled on the typo-inviting AnabaptistHistorians.org. There are a couple posts up already and we have some more in the pipeline by a bunch of wonderful scholars (and they’re wonderful people too!*). I’m not sure exactly how often I’ll find time to post something over there during this school year, but maybe I’ll find time for an occasional short essay.

*It’s seriously a great list, with a bunch of friends and colleagues (past and present!): https://anabaptisthistorians.org/contributors/

Revisiting ‘Partly Dave’

I’m working on a paper for my methods course and decided to revisit an old project. I realized that while I posted about it on a previous blog (hopefully lost to history), I haven’t put anything on here. 

A few years ago, Colleen McFarland Rademaker, then the archivist at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen, Indiana,[1] approached me with the idea of digging through a recently donated box of materials connected to a hippy-era coffee house ministry in nearby Elkhart, Indiana and write something about the endeavor. The result was published in the Mennonite Historical Bulletin.[2] That particular version is probably lost but for a few copies on my shelf and in some Mennonite libraries, but a shorter version, shorn of its footnotes,[3] was published in The Mennonite and lives online: https://themennonite.org/feature/love-friends-questions/

More interesting is the collection of photos that live on the Mennonite Church USA Archives’ Flickr page[4]: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mennonitechurchusa-archives/sets/72157630409068298/

So today, after a week in which I’ve heard all about how non-profits run on volunteers and how unsustainable that is, I’m remembering the little coffee house that persisted on the backs of its volunteers until it simply couldn’t continue. *Raises cup of coffee in the general direction of Indiana*


[1] Both Colleen and the Archives have moved on; Colleen to Kansas, as Head Archivist at Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and the archival materials are in the process of moving to the MCUSA offices in Elkhart, IN. Crying Face Emoji!

[2] In the last ever issue. Crying Face Emoji again!

[3] Who’s cutting onions in emoji land?

[4] That collection of photos is great, especially the rapid evolution of Peter Stucky’s beard between 1971 and 1973.