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]

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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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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”

Practicum 2017 Wrap-Up and Archives Photos

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!

Beginning

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.

This is my workstation in the basement storage room/workshop of Chamounix Mansion as I began to look through the archival materials last spring.

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.

The Elizabeth Powel account books and receipts.

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From the Powel House to Chamounix Mansion to Eastern State Penitentiary in One Map

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:

To get a more zoomable version, click here.

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The Calm Before the Storm

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.

Samuel Paley Library at Temple University, soon to be replaced with robots and limited open stacks. Image via Wikimedia Commons, user Dorevabelfiore under CC-Attribution-ShareAlike License: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Temple_University_Paley_Library_Front_View.JPG

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Losing, Finding, and other thoughts on Archives

“The Art of Losing”

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.

 

Your daily aphorism courtesy of a “losing” search on Flickr. (Image by Abundance Thinkers via Flickr Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/qEWjKs)

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