An Evening at the Wagner

Last night I finally stepped across the threshold of the Wagner Free Institute of Science after having lived less than five blocks away for over a year. I have been meaning to check the Institute out, and finally had a good excuse: New Perspectives on Historic Collections, an evening of presentations from the recipients of the Temple University – Wagner Free Institute Research Fellowship.

Dermot Mac Cormack shows some of the glyphs of handwriting that would become the Willison font

I remember seeing the request for papers for the fellowship, first last September and then again in January when they did another round. I remember feeling at a loss. What kind of project could I do with the collection of “a Victorian-era natural history museum with more than 100,000 specimens”? In retrospect, I’m glad that these scholars were more creative than me. Their projects ranged from creating a typeface from a curator’s handwritten labels to creating jewelry based on illustrations in the Wagner’s archives.

Emily Cobb took inspiration from scientific illustrations at the Wagner to create some beautiful jewelry.

One project proposed by the Wagner staff and carried out by Tyler professor Byron Wolfe and student Daniel Kraus was the printing of two micro-negatives that hadn’t been viewed for probably a century.

Print made by Byron Wolfe and Daniel Kraus from a microscopic negative produced by the Langenheim brothers.

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and inspiring. It was a reminder that archives contain multiple kinds of information and that I have been looking at archival material in pretty tame ways. The wheels in my head are spinning now, especially in conjunction with the readings for Studies in American Material Culture, and we shall see where they resolve in the near future.

My biggest regret about this evening of magic is that it seems to have almost no presence on the internet; I hope the Wagner puts up some photos on their website soon!

Written, Spoken, Shown, and Remembered: Material Culture at Historic Sites

As an overview of our readings this week for Studies in American Material Culture, we read Cary Carson’s 1997 evaluation of the field of material culture.[^1] In this essay, Carson grapples with material culture’s failure to enter the mainstream of academic history.

One problem, Carson argues, is that scholars working in material culture have often taken shortcuts. Rather than starting with a research question, they have begun with a set of artifacts and attempted to divine the relationships between them. Too often, he continues, they have simply plopped down a fancy philosophical framework (perhaps Foucault!) onto their artifact sample and- Voila!

Photo of a spinning wheel at Colonial Williamsburg by Brian Holland under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bholl7510/9365650434/

These shortcomings could be avoided by beginning with research questions relevant to the broader discipline of history and doing fastidious work to illuminate the particularity of the artifacts’ context. In short, Carson hopes that material cultural theorists will delve into the local while engaging with the national.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich does just this, drawing on rafts of textiles created by women in early 19th century New England and weaving them (excuse the pun) into an exploration of gender, labor, and race of the places and times in which they lived.[^2] Rebecca K. Shrum produces a similar study of the intersection of women’s labor and technology a century and a half after Ulrich’s subjects through analysis of Mr. Coffee’s entry into the kitchen appliance market.[^3]

Continue reading “Written, Spoken, Shown, and Remembered: Material Culture at Historic Sites”

Another Boat

In the ongoing effort to document Lesley, each of us in HIST 8151: Studies in American Material Culture has been assigned a separate object that comes out of the same milieu as the Barnegat Bay sneakbox. Some of my classmates were presented with fishing paraphernalia such as knives or nets or traps, hunting accoutrements such as a fowler and wooden decoys, and a sail with a sailmaker’s stencil and needles.

The idea is for each student to perform object analysis on their artifact(s) and produce a catalog record for the Independence Seaport Museum, as well as a research paper on the item. These individual projects should form a network of scholarship within which to situate the boat we call the Lesley, and a clustered look at the material culture of the Pinelands, at least as it is represented in the artifact collections of the Independence Seaport Museum.

While the original concept (as I understood it) was to engage with artifacts very different than Lesley in order to begin to populate the material world in which she was built. However, one classmate and I were assigned other sneakboxes. I’m excited about this opportunity because these sneakboxes are in much better shape than Lesley and perhaps better documented.

So I turn my attention to another boat. Like the Lesley, this one doesn’t have a recorded name. “Lesley” is simply the surname of the boat’s donor and it conforms to expectation of female names for maritime vessels. This other boat was donated by a “Romano.” I found myself hoping, before I looked at the accession record, that it was comedian Ray Romano, so for my purposes, I’ve decided to call the boat “Ray.”

I met Ray in the ISM boat room, espying it (they?) up on the third tier of the storage racks.

Boats in the ISM racks. I managed to not take a photo of Ray.

From my vantage point below Ray, I began my attempt at Jules Prown’s material culture methodology.

Continue reading “Another Boat”

Schism at the Mennonite Church USA Archives

This week there was major news in the world of Mennonite archives. Or, seen a different way, nothing changed.

Some Prologue:

(WARNING: Initialisms Incoming!)

Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) was a denomination formed in a 2000 merger between the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and the “Old” Mennonite Church (MC). The archival collections of the respective denominations remained on the campuses of two Mennonite colleges: Bethel College (an institution of the GCMC in North Newton, KS) and Goshen College (MC-affiliated in Goshen, IN). A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was developed in which MC USA paid an annual subsidy to the Bethel College Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) to maintain the GCMC papers under the umbrella (and ownership) of the MC USA Archives.

Now, to the present:

In the last year, MC USA moved its holdings off of Goshen College’s campus to its denominational headquarters and, at basically the same time, the MOU with Bethel College expired. The parties struck a deal that relieved MC USA of the burden of the subsidy (which last year amounted to about $42,000) and kept the collections at Bethel College, where they could be utilized by undergraduates. Continue reading “Schism at the Mennonite Church USA Archives”

Archival Process as Plot Mechanism

As I read “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, I thought of my current pleasure read, Lev Grossman’s Codex. One of the plot threads in Codex is a treasure hunt of sorts that takes the protagonists to a rare book library’s off-site storage facility to search the mound of unprocessed material, hoping to find a medieval manuscript that may or may not exist. While Greene and Meissner’s argument–that archives should focus resourcing on quickly, minimally, processing material rather than being exhaustive–applies more to institutional records than rare books, the same potential for a mound of “lost” information exists. The characters have gotten to the point where they’ve broken into a secure facility because they searched through all of the various databases at the library and the card catalog and couldn’t find a trace of this book. The same potential for discovery–and on the other hand, occlusion–rears its head in a whole subgenre of fiction. From Umberto Eco to Dan Brown, the idea that some treasure map might be out there somewhere if you only knew where to look has kept readers turning the page.

One of my favorite books of this ilk is A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which not only delights in archival discovery in a way that would make Arlette Farge proud, but also captures many other facets of archival acquisitions. Continue reading “Archival Process as Plot Mechanism”

Sir Terry’s Hard Drive

A few days ago, a hard drive containing the unfinished novels of Sir Terry Pratchett was crushed by an old-timey steam-roller by the executor of Pratchett’s estate. The event was captured in a series of tweets from the late author’s account and covered by such news outlets as the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, and the Washington Post as well as aggregators such as Mashable The Verge, and The AV Club.

Why did this (admittedly odd) event attract so much attention? I think largely because the crushing had resonance with the “embuggerance” Sir Terry lived with for seven years before his death in 2015: early-onset Alzheimer’s. This loss of memory echoed that one. Sir Terry’s legions of fans took the news hard all the way back in 2007, in part because one of the trademarks of his fiction was the quickness of his wit; it seemed cruel that it should be dulled by something beyond anyone’s control.

Continue reading “Sir Terry’s Hard Drive”

Meeting Lesley

This week brought the beginning of a new semester and, as always, new assignments and challenges. One of the firsts came at the Independence Seaport Museum where HIST 8151 (Studies in American Material Culture) met Lesley, or rather, the Lesley, which is a sneakbox-style boat. This class is meeting at the ISM for the semester, documenting Lesley before she (eye-roll all you want) goes off to the bit marina in the sky. The boat is too damaged to be put to work and ISM lacks the resources to take care of it.

Our documentation of the Lesley will take a variety of forms but we spent the bulk of our first class period at ISM familiarizing ourselves with the boat by doing a lot of silent staring and a bit of silent sketching. We were tasked with picking one piece or facet of the boat and making observational study of it. Here are my notebook pages from the hour-long exercise: Continue reading “Meeting Lesley”