What’s History Worth?

Reading about the USS Olympia’s preservation history on the heels of Igor Kopytoff’s  work on commodification got me thinking, once again, about why history matters and what it is worth.

Appraising Artifacts

Conversations in the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking and in Studies in American Material Culture have both touched on the practice of appraising materials donated to an institution committed to their preservation. These appraisals are necessary because they allow the donor to quantify their gift when calculating their tax responsibility but they also seem self-defeating. If the aim of the gift is that it be preserved in perpetuity (and there is much debate about that unattainable aim) then the gifted material is assumed to never be available for purchase. It thus becomes priceless, decommodified, not for sale. Users of an archives might find informational or evidentiary value in a document or set of papers, but within the archival context they have no monetary value.

Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols. This process is largely the purview of people in power and serves to reify their position. Even seemingly neutral artifacts in a museum en masse support the status quo. Historic preservation is a singularization process. Individuals can put a lot of time and money into  preservation projects, the result of which is a singularization. Since 1966, however, if preservation is done in accordance with certain guidelines, that investment can earn reward in the form of tax credits.

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Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute

“Make it stop my love, we were wrong to try

Never saw what we could unravel by traveling light,

Or how the trip debrides like a stack of slides

All we saw was that time is taller than space is wide.”

– Joanna Newsom “The Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”

As I read a bit of John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Space, Sense of Time for class last week, I kept thinking of the lyric above.* Jackson argues, in part, that when we think about what makes a location special to us, we are usually remembering events that have occurred there rather than any feature of the place. In a way, Jackson echoes Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, suggesting that it is repeated practices that constitute public space.

Before Jackson gets into the roles of communal memory, he writes a bit about grids. I grew up in an area without any hint of a grid, but I could still recognize the truth of Jackson’s observation that a straight stretch of highway, devoid of distinguishing features, performs a specific role in American popular culture as a sort of zen state.

I don’t drive much, but I do sometimes approach the same introspective limit while walking, particularly on my way to work. Retreading the same mile and a half about eight times a week, I often find myself with my head down, the sidewalk becoming an undifferentiated highway. If I am particularly enraptured in a particular train of thought, this ribbon of concrete acts almost as one of Bruno Latour’s black boxes; I step outside my door and am conveyed to my employment. When I am particularly drowsy, in the morning or late at night, there is an almost alarming quality to the amnesia of the walk.

The police station at 19th Street and Oxford seen in 1961. The station became the Opportunities Industrialization Center a few years later and currently is undergoing redevelopment. Photo from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records via PhillyHistory.org.

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A Method of Analysis for “Ray”

As he introduced us to lofting –boat design–John Brady, president and CEO of the Independence Seaport Museum, referred to four interpretive panels, each with a blueprint and model showing a different set of lines (water lines, etc.). Brady described the painstaking process of moving back and forth between the different sets of lines to rectify them, to create a smooth shape in three dimensions.

“It’s a spiral,” he said, “an iterative process.”

I propose a similarly spiraling method of object analysis for the object I’ve called “Ray.” As Brady moved from line to line to bring dimension to the boat, I will move between four practices, with each circuit of the spiral providing new insights. 

Step 1: Observation/Description

Like Jules Prown, I begin with observation of the object. Looking at it from different perspectives. My first glimpses of Ray came at a distance, which was a useful reminder that seeing an object at different scales is just as important as from different angles. While observing, I sketch, trying to rationalize the curves and angles I’m seeing onto a flat surface; in essence I’m doing John Brady’s work in reverse. I look for things I recognize as evidence–things which I understand, or think I do–and those which mystify me. I pose questions, perhaps, but the emphasis is on documenting the object for easy reference and to make concrete the process of seeing.

Step 2: Thinkfeelgo

Once I have (seemingly) exhausted that path of inquiry, I move on to something akin to Prown’s deduction, but what I will call thinkfeelgo, in which I engage my imagination, sensory memory, and emotions. This step may involve seeking out relevant experiences and places that provide sensory points of reference for this object–taking a ride on a boat, for instance, or visiting the sneakbox’s origins in Barnegat Bay. Like Robin Bernstein I will try to identify ways in which my involvement with this object is scripted. Like Kenneth Ames I may wonder how variation in this object results in variations in the script.

Step 3: Sources

In the third phase, I avail myself of sources, written or otherwise, which tell the story of this object or others like it already. I am not the first person to interact with this object and I would be a fool to ignore other people’s stories and analysis. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sought out both other failed textile products and archival sources to give context to her unfinished stocking, I will seek out accounts of use of other sneakboxes and the boats themselves.

Step 4: Big Questions

Finally, I turn the focus from the object to the broader region, nation, and globe. I ask, as Cary Carson pleads for material culturalists to ask, the big questions and locate the object within the world.


The circuit done, I widen the gyre and return to step one, noticing things I didn’t pick up on before. Having learned about the lofting process from John Brady (which I’ll shoe-horn into step 3), I look at Ray again and understand its pattern of planking in a slightly different way. This boat is assembled in a somewhat utilitarian way, with planking starting at the keel and tied into a sort of wooden collar called a harpin at the top, rather than being crafted from both top and bottom for a more aesthetically pleasing effect.

Having heard from Brady that sneakboxes in the mid-20th century, especially the 15-foot variety (this category includes Ray), were often purchased by yachting clubs in fleets of ten or so. They served a similar function to go-karts; they were a set of uniform little sailboats to be raced in order to prove who was the most adept sailor. This generalization, while perhaps not directly pertaining to Ray, makes sense of the bright blue hue of this boat. I slide into Step 2 and can imagine ten sneakboxes racing across a bay, each painted a different color so that the sailor’s family and friends on shore can pick them out at a distance.

Each step does not always lead swiftly into the next, but they form a network of meaning around this object. In Step 4, I attempt to use Ray–and the sneakbox form, Barnegat Bay, boatbuilders, and internet forum writers–to learn something about this country. The allure of regionalism, and the resulting commodification of tradition, is certainly a relevant concern of the American republic.

But there are threads of Ray’s stories that pull the opposite way too: a forum poster considering making a sneakbox out of Western Red Cedar rather than Atlantic White Cedar. This particular hobbyist, wherever he lives, accessed the plans for free from the Independence Seaport Museum, a plan based on a 15-foot sneakbox made by Beaton and Sons, the builder of Ray.[^1] These interactions between men on the internet, disengaged from regional particularity, suggest that this “traditional” boat form has been uploaded into the American milieu.

If the object I were analyzing were more familiar to me, my process would require that I distance myself from many of my assumptions about it and focus more on the close looking. A sneakbox is a thing that I have only just encountered, and all of the other boats I’ve ever seen or boarded have been Latour’s black boxes. They signify “boat” and that is all. In order to examine this sneakbox, I must peer into that black box and, coming up for air, compare the pieces I’ve seen to schematic drawings. By lurching from step to step, I facilitate crossover of various kinds of knowledge that, I hope, will help me understand this object more fully–though never completely–and place it in a larger context.

[^1] Unfortunately at this point ISM no longer offers small water craft plans for free online.


Yesterday was apparently #AskAnArchivist day on Twitter (not, as some users thought, #AskAnAnarchist), and the resulting thread gave archivists a chance to show off some of the things from their collections and share a bit of their lives with Twitter users.

Lots of archivists simply wanted to communicate the scale of their collections:

Some archivists posted photos of the sorts of things people might not expect in an archive:

User @EKuzina asked archivists to post Halloweeny archival material:

While I think we may have reached the saturation point of “[Inter]National _____ Day” (Oh please let us have reached saturation point!) hashtags like this one offer a distinct opportunity, not only to reach people outside the archival world but to also connect with colleagues outside of a conference environment. That the exchange occurs on Twitter also enables these conversations to continue throughout the year. I would be very surprised if the archives which participated didn’t gain a bunch of followers. Finally, events such as this encourage archivists, who may be weighed down by the everyday grind of processing, to look at their collection in new ways, to recognize the wacky and poignant material that sometimes blurs together. I enjoyed looking through the feed and I suggest you check it out!

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.

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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.

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