Research Notes: Rough Thoughts on Archives and HHMs

I promised a while back that I’d be braver in putting my research process out in front of the world, and I have been lousy at keeping that vow. The point of pulling back the veil is to open oneself up to counsel, collaboration, and transparency. I like the veil right where it is, closely shrouding my haphazard and deeply flawed process until on the day before it’s due, I decide a paper is ready, and then only for the audience of one who determines my grade. I think I am not alone. History writing can be a bit of a solitary endeavor and I think many of my ilk consider themselves auteurs. I certainly do, in my more confident moments. Usually I operate in fear: fear that I’m not making enough headway on the stack of books I have identified as relevant, worry that those aren’t the right books anyway, terror that this work doesn’t matter at all (or more frighteningly, matters a great deal). This is as good a place as any to wrestle with a couple of ideas and try to assemble my thoughts so that I can test them out on colleagues in person too.

I have been writing for the last ten months or so about historic sites, particularly historic house museums (HHMs). I’ve thought about the extant studies of the field (anthropological studies from Handler and Gable, Stanton, Peers, and Tyson; theoretical taxonomic work from Pavoni and Young; practical advice from Butcher-Younghans and Harris; plus many more) and moved on to examining one particular site, the Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel. My working thesis has been that the mansion’s use as a hostel provides it with historic power ( or perhaps the more problematic “authenticity”) based on that usage. I recently submitted a proposal to the Public History commons, hoping I might find collaborators for NCPH 2018. See my post here: http://ncph.org/phc/2018-annual-meeting-topic-proposals/usage-as-authenticity-at-house-museums-and-historic-sites/

As I work with archival materials this summer at two historic houses, I’ve been wondering how this concept of usage as historical method can connect with archives and preservation/reconstruction, two methodologies that have a tricky enough time coexisting at historic sites. Before I get to how usage might join this method mess, I want to sum up the status quo of archives at historic sites and where I think they could go.

Account books and pinned notes of Elizabeth Willing Powel, currently in the care of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, photographed by the author

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I wrote an Exhibit Label!*

*Sort of.

Way back in my youthful days of last fall, I drafted a label for an exhibit as part of “Managing History” the introduction to Public History course at Temple University. I wrote about the process here on my blog, and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of that little label I’d written when I was invited to a sneak peek of the exhibit (“World War I: USS Olympia”) as it opened at the Independence Seaport Museum. While the label had gone through quite a bit of work since I’d been involved, I saw vestiges of my work in the final product.

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Citron Cake and Guestbooks: Summer Practicum Part I

Update: PhilaLandmarks wrote about me (and mostly these documents) on their blog! If you want to learn more about these account books and Elizabeth Powel, check it out!

Perched on an office chair on the third floor of the Keith-Hill-Physick (henceforth “Physick”) House, I gingerly pulled off the lid of the box–one of those boxes that letterhead comes in, with “Powel 2006” scrawled on it in sharpie–and peeked inside. Two account books with marbled boards, and a loose stack of letters, loosely held by a bit of twine that had kept them together for two centuries and was enjoying its retirement.

These documents were found by some Powel heirs in a false bottomed trunk and made it to the Powel House and PhilaLandmarks in the last year.

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