Bringing Historic House Museums to Life

In the process of working on a paper for my US History survey class, today I visited the Powel House, located in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. Jennifer Davidson, the Site Manager, gave me a wonderful tour, including lots of sage wisdom about the front lines of public history in addition to the regular historical tour material. The Powel House has had a relatively narrow interpretive focus since it opened as a historic house museum in 1938, focusing primarily on the time period (1769-1798) in which Samuel Powel and Elizabel Willing Powel lived in the house and played host to famous friends such as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin (Samuel Powel was part of Franklin’s Junto), Benjamin Rush, and even the Marquis de Lafayette.

  Continue reading “Bringing Historic House Museums to Life”

The History of the United States is a story of Plunder

I was supposed to blog on the assigned readings for Managing History. Perhaps I will write about them later, but fate, as it does, intervened, and so it will be in another post.

“Are any of you going to the Ta-Nehisi Coates lecture tomorrow night?” asked Cynthia, yesterday.

“Are you going to the Coates thing? Want a ticket?” said Devin, last night.

And so I found myself listening to the esteemed Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates for approximately 2 hours this evening.

First was the more informal gathering in the Center for the Humanities at Temple to which I was half an hour late. Even in the short bit of the Q&A that I caught, Coates came off, as he does in his writing, as a level-headed thinker with a poet’s pen and an honest humility that grounds all he does. He expressed discomfort with the spotlight that has been shined on him after his annus mirabilis in which he earned not only a MacArthur “Genius” Grant but a National Book Award. He declined to speak on topics which he had not exhaustively researched or considered. He articulated a discomfort about being a public intellectual from whom positions of the news of the day are expected in pithy 10-second snippets.

An hour later, I found myself awaiting Coates’ talk in the Liacouras Center, a sports arena in which AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Billy Joel blasted, incongruously, from the massive speakers up near the suspended screens which would magnify Coates’ face. It seemed exactly the kind of venue that would make the writer uncomfortable, and his first comments upon taking the stage acknowledged that discomfort- “-my name is up there-” -before he commenced with a brief reading from Between the World and Me. Continue reading “The History of the United States is a story of Plunder”

Drafting an Exhibit Label

I first posted this without any context. Below you can find the original drafts but I thought it made sense to nest the various iterations of these labels (and also provide more context).

The assignment we have been handed is to write labels that provide context for artifacts without directly referring to the objects. These labels will be “backstories” to supplement the artifacts’ primary labels. I’ve been assigned to present context for a collection of photo postcards taken by one of the sailors on the USS Olympia, Ote Fairbanks.

So here’s the second draft (I welcome any editing suggestions in the comments):

World War I was the first war to feature cameras on the front lines. The Kodak Brownie (1900) had popularized snapshots, and the Vest Pocket Autographic (1914), also from Kodak, was even more portable. The photos that came back from battles were powerful. Many countries hired official photographers to show the heroic images they wanted their citizens to see and forbade soldiers and sailors to carry cameras. However, in remote parts of the war, soldiers and sailors often served as unofficial war photographers for their nations. (84 words)


First Drafts:

World War I was the first war to feature cameras on the front lines. The Kodak Brownie (1900) had popularized snapshots, and the Vest Pocket Autographic (pictured, 1914), also from Kodak was even more portable. Sailors on the USS Olympia had very little space for personal items, but Ote Fairbanks found room for a camera. He documented many of the places the ship visited in its travels around Europe. Many of his photos were printed on photographs which he and his friends could send home to friends and family. (87 words)


Diary of “Cranky” O’Kelly from the archives of the Independence Seaport Museum


World War I was the first war to feature cameras on the front lines. The photos that came back from battles were powerful. The United Kingdom’s government went so far as to hire official photographers to show the heroic images they wanted the citizens to see. Most individual British soldiers were forbidden from taking photos of the battles that they fought in. However, in more remote parts of the war, most countries allowed soldiers and sailors to document their experiences since there were not professional photographers in those places. (89 words)


Preservation and (Re)Development

Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia is likely on borrowed time. The historic district is perhaps the victim of being just one of many historic portions of the city and the ever-present appetite for condo towers. If these buildings, constructed a century ago, are knocked down next summer, they will join many casualties of urban development and redevelopment, alongside New York City’s fallen Penn Station and large swathes of urban America.

It was the demolition of that iconic station and countless neighborhoods over fifty years ago that first sparked the historic preservation movement into action. Fifty years ago this year, the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law, beginning a boom in historic-conscious redevelopment and preservation, but a half-century on, questions–such as those raised in the debate between Herbert J. Gans and Ada Louise Huxtable in the pages of the New York Times in 1975–remain about how best to use historic preservation or how to fight for sites such as Jewelers’ Row.

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley provides a concise history of “urban renewal” and historic preservation before presenting case studies of projects that used methods of preservation and public history to serve the needs of urban communities. Pairing preservation of buildings and beautification of neighborhoods with oral history and archaeology, Hurley sets out the aims, pitfalls, and, ultimately, rewards of combining urban development and public history.

Hurley concerns himself less with Gans and Huxtable’s question (“What should be preserved?”) or even the issue of representation (“Who should be preserving?”) than with methods for effective projects and shared authority (“How should things be preserved?”).

Many of Hurley’s grounding ethics–authority should be shared outside of academia, gentrification is tricky, racial tension shouldn’t be sugar-coated–are largely self-evident (I hope) to anyone who has sought out a degree in Public History, yet it is his very practical concerns that make his book a must-read. Reflecting on the collaboration with the Old North St. Louis Restoration group, Hurley summed up some of the project’s shortcomings thus: “Appeals to more abstract community-building and social reconciliation objectives, while not entirely falling on deaf ears, lacked an immediate and tangible payoff and thus failed to animate the involvement of those on the margins, struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis” (94). A straightforward, if hard to swallow truth. Yet Hurley and his collaborators learned from the lesson, including the goal of “build[ing] greater capacity among local residents and expand[ing] participation” into the heart of their next project.

 I have a hunch that this blend of pragmatism and optimism is a necessary disposition in public history operatives.


Some of this week’s readings:

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities

Max Page and Marla R. Miller, Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States 

Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

 Jon Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia, Condo Plan Worries Preservationists” in the New York Times:

 “Preservation50: Commemorating 50 years of the National Historic Preservation Act”:

On the Division of Labor

This week’s reading, Creating Exhibitions by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien, picks up right where I left off: consensus building. McKenna-Cress and Kamien begin by articulating all of the ways in which collaboration is necessary in exhibit development. For instance, the more perspectives that are included in an exhibit (by involving a team), the more points of entry there are for visitors to engage the material. Most exhibits also require a variety of skill sets, from research to artifact preservation to writing to editing to design to assembling cabinets and applying fresh paint.

Yet once the authors have made their case in such concrete terms, they pull back and re-examine division of collaborative labor in more abstract terms. This abstraction helps the authors provide guidance to a wide variety of exhibit creators and also provide a division of labor that doesn’t fit within the framework of many position titles today. Instead of breaking the work of exhibit creation into discrete tasks, McKenna-Cress and Kamien divide the larger concerns that must be addressed in any exhibit.

For instance, rather than discussing the role of “director” or “vice president,” the authors argue that all exhibits must have a person or persons who advocate for the institution(s) that are hosting, producing, and/or funding the exhibit. Other advocacy needs that McKenna-Cress and Kamien identify are the subject matter, the visitor experience, the design, and the project/team. By freeing these needs from position titles, the authors allow exhibit teams to think about how best to divide up these responsibilities, perhaps with individuals shouldering multiple advocacies in whole or in part.

As the various advocate roles are largely self-explanatory, I will forego a summary of each, but examine more how these various facets of exhibit creation may map onto our 12-person class for our semester-end project.

Given that we are sort of creating a plan for a plan for an exhibit (or something like an exhibit, at least), and that we will identify a partner organization(s) but not necessarily carry out the work with them, much of the advocacy for the institution will be irrelevant. We will all absorb a bit of the responsibility of making our plan meet professional standards and making it attractive to partners/sponsors (and not embarrassing Temple University) but likely not have a higher-up to approve our work on an institutional level.*

Likewise, while we have at least one artist among us and I imagine we’ll do quite a few concept sketches to communicate our ideas to each other, I doubt that any of us will fully take on the mantle of advocacy for the design. This is the piece most often delegated to outside firms and I can’t see us hiring a design firm by mid-December. That said, some portion of this too will fall to each of us, with a few team members perhaps charged with undertaking some design challenges. Most of the design we do take on will probably be centered around advocacy for the visitor experience. There are firms that can handle this portion of the exhibit process as well, but given limited budget and essentially free labor (i.e. us), I imagine we’ll all tackle this. Because it will involve all (or perhaps only most) of us and we all have different preferences and museum experiences, I imagine this may be the most contentious portion of our process. I think we will all feel very invested–as museum goers and, in some cases, employees ourselves–in our guests’ impressions and take-aways, as well as their comfort and interest levels while engaged in our exhibit.

I think the task of advocating for the subject matter will be shared between us as well, but with divisions based on specific themes or topics within the Spanish Flu tent (there’s an image for you).

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic will be who among us takes on the advocacy for the project and team. This managerial role could become a really heavy burden. I can immediately think of one to three people who could be exceptionally well suited to this role (I am not one of them). If our class leader(s) can do this well (and let Dr. Lowe simply act as a safety net), this could be a very interesting project indeed.**


*This is somewhat speculative. I would not put it past Dr. Lowe to introduce a Mazer Rackham-esque character into our classroom sometime.

**But then again maybe I’m unusually enamored of central authority at the moment having just finished Jessica Choppin Roney’s Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, which portrays the pitfalls of collaborative libertarianism.

On Consensus

On the heels of reading Serrell, our class was introduced to an exhibit that did not spring from the same framework. Rather than defining a simple, digestible theme and working from there, this exhibit works as a cabinet of curiosities in order to make a set of artifacts associated with a group of people accessible to the public. The signage will be split between imagining internal thoughts of the artifacts’ users and providing context.

I was initially very skeptical. Having just read a clearly-written treatise/guide-book on signage, I wanted to jump into using the techniques and strategies of that book. Yet if, as Freeman Tilden put it, “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” this exhibit may be wildly successful. First-person emotions, wherever they come from, are always more provocative than dry context, right? Defined as the exhibit is by a specificity of setting and characters, perhaps this approach best fits the scope of the project.

I am assigned to contribute to this exhibit, about which I had initial reservations. My curatorial concept is not that of the curator, but it is his job, not mine. Even if we were equals, we would still have to mediate curatorial visions. We’re about to confront the difficult process of consensus building in class as we determine a direction for our class project. Thirteen ideas (at least!) enter, one survives. We’ve already seen ways in which various ideas might combine to form a Frankensteinian super-exhibit, that may be the best way forward. Or maybe we’ll all come to the table with Serrell on our minds and depart with a simple, clear, and, most importantly, workable, concept. Perhaps a very small one.

I’m sure not every part of the conversations to come will be fun but we’ll come out of them with something out there on the horizon to aim for. And we’ll have exercised our consensus muscles, the ones we didn’t know we had.