My summer practicum is in the rearview mirror. Two and a half months and 140 hours later, I’ve accomplished quite a lot, but it is still surreal to reach the end. In order to make sense of my work and document it, I am required to assemble a portfolio, and so here it is!
Both of my internship projects began with documents. At Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel, the documents filled 7 filing-cabinet drawers. At the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks), there were only a few account books and a bundle of receipts. In each piece of paper, whether fifty years old or two hundred, I found a spark of connection and revelation. Unfortunately, in neither project did I have the opportunity to dwell too long on any one page.
At Chamounix, my job was to sort through those seven drawers and winnow the accessionable and valuable parts from the filler. Since there seemed to be no organizational scheme, I also tried to impose one. With the help of Margery Sly, I created a rough processing plan which guided my work, but the reality became messier. Many folders and binders contained a variety of documents–board minutes, treasurer’s reports, receipts, catalogs, newspaper clippings, and letters–which had to join larger folders or be set aside for the shredder and/or someone with an affection for vintage invoices. This was time-intensive work, and my desire to extend order to the document level (which was unsustainable) made it more so.
At PhilaLandmarks, the scale was entirely different. My goal was to extract from these account books some sense of Elizabeth Powel’s life between 1812 and 1822. This called for a line by line examination of the books. I quickly abandoned the project of transcribing every entry–there were too many indecipherable words and it took too long–but the work still seemed endless. I took 247 photos of the pages and sat in coffee shops all over the city, carefully noting any unusual or new entries on each page. The work of animating a person’s life through their expenditures is imperfect, but when patterns appear, page after page, each conclusion that I drew seemed less tenuous. I grew more confident, too, in reading Elizabeth’s handwriting.
I started off really slowly, and before long I found myself halfway through the summer and nowhere near halfway through my work. Panic was just around the corner at times, but I managed to continue.
One thing that made it easier to continue was that I was finding super cool stuff.
The above, memorandum, for instance, entranced me. Mrs. Powel bailed out her longtime employee after he plunged all of his assets into his church. One of Mrs. Powel’s maids, Nancy Kennard, was sent away to her family in 1822 because, as Elizabeth noted in a memo, “apparently she is under much mental derangement.” These snippets leave me wanting to know more.
At Chamounix, I found fascinating documents such as a police report that documented a strange night in 1974 when the Chamounix Houseparent called the police to expel a group of youths from the 92nd Street Y in New York. The police suspected that the conflict stemmed from the hostel being overbooked–there was also a girl scout troop there–while the houseparent blamed the youths for harassing the girl scouts and not following direction. The youths’ chaperone, himself a 23-year old, placed the blame on the Girl Scouts’ chaperone.
I was also on the lookout for material that might provide insights to my research questions about the hostel, namely “How do the space’s use and historicity affect each other?” and “To what extent did the hostel founders recognize the mansion as a historic asset?” One flyer in the collection directly answered my questions.
This flier, from the period in the 1980s when Chamounix was included for a time in the Fairmount Park Council for Historic Sites, continued the thought on the inside with “Chamounix Mansion Does Something.” When I posted this photo to Instagram, my colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas simply commented: “Smoking gun.” I was inclined to agree with him.
These last couple of days I have taken over the Chamounix dining room for hours at a time, making stacks–here the Hostel Use committee, there correspondence with the Fairmount Park Commission, on a nearby chair went chaff and duplicate documents–reluctantly returning everything to the filing cabinets when it was time for me to go. I always felt that I was undoing my progress in the clean-up portion.
Even though it still feels like a lot of work needs to be done for the collection to be useful, I have winnowed those seven drawers down to two and a couple boxes. I’ve organized the meeting minutes of the Board and the Women’s Committee of the Friends of Chamounix Mansion chronologically into the mid 1970s and have a near-complete run of each. I’ve separated a few notable exchanges of correspondence, including discussions as early as 1959 of where to make a youth hostel in Philadelphia.
At PhilaLandmarks, I have composed 4 blog posts which, with a little polish, will be posted as a series on their blog (and I’ll add those links in here when those are published). These posts summarize my findings and hopefully serve as a starting point for folks who might look at other Elizabeth Powel documents (there are a lot more similar documents at the Historic Society of Pennsylvania) as well as for the next iteration of the Powel House’s tour.
Speaking of the Powel House and new tour content*, I may not be done with that place yet! I have had some productive conversations with PhilaLandmarks staff toward the goal of conducting an interpretive experiment in the Powel House this fall. I will hopefully have much more to write about here in a couple months!
And of course I’m not done at Chamounix. My next steps are to A) continue my sorting work, especially figuring out what of the extensive American Youth Hostels material directly refers to Chamounix, B) make better contact with the board members in order to agree terms under which the collection can come to Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, C) scan some of the material, probably mostly the oldest stuff, and D) make use of the papers I’ve organized to enrich the work I’ve already been doing on Chamounix.
*It should be noted that the Temple University Public History M.A. class of 2017 and fellow alum Lyell Funk have all worked on new content at the Powel House, that will hopefully get incorporated into the next overhaul of the tour.
In an earlier post this summer, I asked “So how might archives and historic sites do better to collaborate in ways that utilize both institutions’ strengths?” I’m not sure I’ve gotten any closer to the answer, but I’ve certainly become more comfortable with archival work and more familiar with the thrill of discovery that such work enables. Figuring out how to bring that thrill to historic sites is not easy, but represents an immense opportunity, I think.
In my contracts with PhilaLandmarks and the Temple SCRC, I listed a variety of goals for this summer. I succeeded in developing relationships with staff at PhilaLandmarks, the Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel, and Temple SCRC. I practiced various communication skills, particularly writing, through the blog posts I wrote for this course as well as those that will appear on PhilaLandmarks’ website. I learned a lot about the archival process, some of the most effective lessons administered by my own failures. My greatest successes were the gains I made toward my thesis, gaining PhilaLandmark staff interest in my project and fleshing out my understanding of Chamounix’s past.
I fell short of my aims in communicating with the board of the Friends of Chamounix Mansion and collaborating with various scholars and interested parties. While some of these failures were direct results of my hesitancy, those short-comings were exacerbated by the brief nature of this endeavor. While 140 hours became a mountain to climb in July, it is a tiny amount of time to achieve anything, let alone two projects. I feel that I spent significant portions at both placements warming to the tasks at hand. One reason I’m very excited about continuing projects at both sites is that I feel I have foundations for better success moving forward.