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

At present, the standard procedure for archival material at a historic site is that it get processed and accessioned into a nearby or relevant archive. This is what I’m doing with two different sites this summer. If there is staff available, they review the materials and use them to create themed fact sheets or design tours. These secondary materials are then distributed to frontline staff or docents who use them to interpret the site for visitors.

This process seems simple enough, but it is made more complicated by the particular history of HHMs. Patricia West’s Domesticating History shows how the power of a reconstructed home, especially one associated with a notable person, has been used for political aims. Among her four case studies, perhaps the most illuminating is the story of Orchard House. The home of Louisa May Alcott was restored and interpreted more as a tribute to Little Women than the life of the author (and her very politically lefty family). A society oversaw the reconstruction, hoping that Orchard House would be seen as a model home. In part the society’s members were reacting to an influx of immigrants who threatened their power and, in their minds, the morality of the community as a whole. Orchard House, then, became a way to inculcate the sorts of values which these women espoused into the receptive minds of immigrants’ children.1

Stuart D. Hobbs picks up the story where West leaves off. In “Exhibiting Antimodernism: History, Memory, and the Aestheticized Past in Mid-twentieth-century America,” Hobbs assembles a convincing narrative of how Adena, a house museum near Chillicothe, Ohio, was proposed as a historical site but quickly became a museum of aesthetics upon its opening to the public. The process of restoration, Hobbs argues, placed the interpretive emphasis on the form and beauty of the house, and that the original goals were laid aside. Much of the blame for this aestheticization of historic sites, he contends, belongs to the growing divide in the early 20th century between scholarly historians and history museum workers. The latter found greater kinship with the broader museum community (of which art museums, Hobbs argues, were king) and the former, reflecting Rankean positivism, rejected object study in favor of archival work. The alliance of HHMs with art museums combined with a virulent strain of anti-modernism to fetishize the past and embrace a narrative of “declension from an artisan past characterized by individuality and beauty to an industrial present characterized by increasing homogeneity and ugliness.”2

This division between aesthetic object study and thesis-driven archival work largely continues today (though it’s been complicated a bit, especially by Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History), resulting in the gap in scholarship about archival work at HHMs. The late 20th century, however, also brought other movements into the history academy. Social history, with its emphasis on portraying the lives of ordinary people, for whom few written records existed, necessitated a broadening of historical method from the rigid Rankean model. Oral history, material cultural studies, and statistical and literary analysis became valuable tools for the historian. The later 20th century also gave birth to the term “public history” and the movement of many academics into museums and historical sites.

Self-identifying Public Historians have sought to expand interpretations at HHMs and other historic sites beyond the “Great Man” history that led to the preservation of many of them, and in this effort archives have been indispensable, offering access to stories that the fine furnishings and reconstructed architectural splendor cannot convey. In several cases, graduate students have been invited to assist in reinterpretations at historic sites. An excellent case study of this kind of project is Janice Williams Rutherford and Steven E. Shay, “Peopling the Age of Elegance: Reinterpreting Spokane’s Campbell House–A Collaboration,” in The Public Historian 26, no. 3 (2004).

Beyond the kinds of conflicts and complications Rutherford and Shay document–the student’s efforts to flesh out broad historical context were trimmed in favor of site specificity and, in some cases, whimsy–there are broader methodological challenges to the present uses of archival materials at historic sites. If most scholars and public historians agree that history is a construct and hope to “teach interpretive skepticism” to visitors to museums and historic sites, Eric Gable and Richard Handler have persuasively argued (in “The Authority of Documents at Some American History Museums” as well in their subsequent The New History in an Old Museum) that it isn’t that simple. In Gable and Handler’s investigations at Colonial Williamsburg, they found that the mega-non-profit worked against the cultivation of skepticism in insidious ways. No matter how much the staff historians sought to add nuance to the site, they were drowned out by a variety of systems that reinforced positivist understandings of history.

In Gable and Handler’s experience, frontline interpreters were stuck enlivening the interpretations of higher ups, with many of the examples of the site’s inaccuracies coming in the form of newly discovered information. Rather than throwing other interpretive choices into question, the frank admissions by interpreters that the site had made errors in the past were undercut by the sense that the site was moving toward perfect historical accuracy.3

Amy Tyson, picking up the baton of anthropological studies of historical sites from Gable and Handler (and Cathy Stanton and Laura Peers), found that the notion of historical authenticity was also problematic at Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota. In The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines, Tyson describes how employees, left to perfect trades and conduct research into various crafting methods and military reenactment on their own time, used the information they found to compete with each other and challenge one another’s authenticity. These interactions, often occurring while in character, nonetheless had serious emotional repercussions for interpreters.

Archival sources were not always the fodder for these contests of authenticity, but were often seen as the final arbiter of contests of authenticity. Tyson tells one story, for instance, of an employee bringing a rooster to the fort after finding “documentation” that there had been poultry there in the period of interpretation.4

One finding of Gable and Handler, echoed in Tyson, is that historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Fort Snelling often create training documents, essentially secondary sources, then treat them as “a collection of incontrovertible facts.”5 This practice stems from logistical need—employees don’t have time to do research on their own time and management won’t pay for them all to research the same topics—but the effect is to move the archive one step further away from the interpreters. Given that an archive is already a selected sample of documents, it is not surprising that Gable, Handler, Tyson, and many of Tyson’s informants found this distance troubling.

So how might archives and historic sites do better to collaborate in ways that utilize both institutions’ strengths? One example that may offer some insights is the Center for Mark Twain Studies and its unusual stewardship of Quarry Farm. The home of Twain’s in-laws and a regular summer writing retreat for the famous author, Quarry Farm is under the stewardship of Elmira College. Quarry Farm operates as a kind of scholars residence, with Twain experts invited to stay in the old house while doing research at Elmira’s archives. Hilary Iris Lowe argues (in both Mark Twain’s Homes and Literary Tourism and the recent volume From Page to Place: American Literary Tourism and the Afterlives of Authors) that the very aura of the house combines with the archive, forming an evidence of its own.

Though certainly an uncommon situation, Quarry Farm shows that there are other bonds that can connect historically evocative buildings, such as HHMs, with extensive archival collections. Archival research can add data points and personal narratives to an otherwise static, empty, preserved house and serve as a way to keep interpretation fresh. Likewise a preserved or reconstructed space can add tactility and emotional resonance to archival material. Managers of historic sites should be careful to foster the interplay between sources written and material rather than wall off frontline interpreters from source material. Hobbs has persuasively argued that a restored space tends toward a focus on aesthetics without archival balance. Gable and Handler suggest that pluralistic history may not be possible at sites that serve as tourist destinations; if they are to be proved wrong then interpreters and visitors alike must be invited to empowered to form historical arguments as well as embrace uncertainty.

As I look through the papers of Elizabeth Willing Powel and the Friends of Chamounix Mansion, I must be conscious of ways to maintain and foster connections between the spaces of Powel House and Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel and the respective homes for their archival papers. At Chamounix I hope to do this by scanning a portion of the documents so that digital copies (and likely physical printouts) remain at the hostel for the use of staff and visitors. At PhilaLandmarks, these connections will have to be more creative as the documents I’m assessing do not even refer to the house in which they may become part of the interpretation. This gap, however, presents an opportunity to make evident the interpretive leaps involved in any sort of historical work. The nature of the materials—account books and receipts—may also be conducive to creative representations within the reconstructed space. Products purchased by Elizabeth Powel could be represented by recreations or some sort of stand-in symbol. The economics of her life could be rendered in 2017 dollars, and connections drawn to economic distribution of the 18th and 21st centuries.

Perhaps both Chamounix and PhilaLandmarks can learn from the Quarry Farm example and invite scholars (other than me!) to encounter these documents in rich historic(al) environments. At Chamounix, overnight stays are easily arranged, and PhilaLandmarks could host day sessions. Like Quarry Farm, these scholars (professional or amateur) would leave their own mark on the sites, their ghosts joining the previous residents of the Powel House and Chamounix.

These potential strategies for enmeshing archive and preserved/reconstructed spaces are untested. Figuring out how to test the feasibility of these ideas will likely form a significant portion of my thesis, as will figuring out how my ideas about usage can also join the party. Currently I have some vague ideas about genealogy tea parties, historical culinary classes, and a library/waiting room that I may get back to you on.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, critiques, or outlandish non-sequiturs, shoot me an email at tedmaust [at] gmail [dotcom]. My comments pending approval are seemingly all spam and number in the upper quadruple digits so email is a better way to reach me.

Works Cited

1 Patricia West, Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington [D.C.]: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), Chapter 2.

2 Stuart D. Hobbs, “Exhibiting Antimodernism: History, Memory, and the Aestheticized Past in Mid-Twentieth-Century America,” The Public Historian 23, no. 3 (2001): 41.

3 Eric Gable and Richard Handler, “The Authority of Documents at Some American History Museums,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (1994): 119–36.

4 Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 120.

5 Tyson, 121.

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