I love making connections between things, and since I’m working on three 19th-century topics this summer (Elizabeth Powel’s account books 1815-1822; Chamounix Mansion, built 1802-1803; Eastern State Penitentiary, built 1820s [my day job]) I’ve been looking for ways to link them all. I’m sure there are many more ways, but one of my recent discoveries is this map from the David Rumsey Map collection, an 1802 map from Charles P. Varle:
I’m into the last two weeks of this practicum and really getting down to the wire a little in terms of getting things done (and logging enough hours). In this last week I’ve started to pivot toward the bigger picture and the true impact–an overused but very important concept in public history–of my two small projects.
So what, Elizabeth?
Having reached a point where I’ve read much of the Elizabeth Powel collection, I turn to the “so what?” phase. Why are these documents important? What do we learn from them that changes the way in which we understand Mrs. Powel?
In attempting to answer these questions, I’m splitting my analysis into three paths of inquiry: the stuff of the Powel household, the people of the Powel household, and the charity of the Powel household. These expenditures provide insights into Mrs. Powel’s life: the things she wore and ate and touched, the people she employed and relied on, and the causes she believed in. But to draw larger meaning from these records, I realized I needed some greater context. I know very little about life in Philadelphia at the turn of the 19th century. So I went to the library.
A few weeks ago, I saw a play. It’s not something I do nearly enough. I went because my brilliant friend Christine directed this play and I wanted to support her but also I know she’s good at what she does and it seemed like a good reason to get out of the house.
The play was called “The Art of Losing,” the title taken from the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Go check out that poem. It’s great. Christine and her collaborators took Bishop’s poem and used it as a central mantra in an impressionistic one-person show about all of the things we have lost, lose every day, and worry we might lose. The play’s great too, and watching it in a dance studio with maybe 8 other people was an experience I’ll (probably) never forget.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how though we often think of archiving as a way to hold on to things, it is really a sort of losing. We have to forget to be able to remember (what will be lost so the memory of the play sticks with me?), and likewise, winnowing and deaccessioning are vital to any archive. Identifying what is important to keep means there is something less important.