Research Notes: Rough Thoughts on Archives and HHMs

I promised a while back that I’d be braver in putting my research process out in front of the world, and I have been lousy at keeping that vow. The point of pulling back the veil is to open oneself up to counsel, collaboration, and transparency. I like the veil right where it is, closely shrouding my haphazard and deeply flawed process until on the day before it’s due, I decide a paper is ready, and then only for the audience of one who determines my grade. I think I am not alone. History writing can be a bit of a solitary endeavor and I think many of my ilk consider themselves auteurs. I certainly do, in my more confident moments. Usually I operate in fear: fear that I’m not making enough headway on the stack of books I have identified as relevant, worry that those aren’t the right books anyway, terror that this work doesn’t matter at all (or more frighteningly, matters a great deal). This is as good a place as any to wrestle with a couple of ideas and try to assemble my thoughts so that I can test them out on colleagues in person too.

I have been writing for the last ten months or so about historic sites, particularly historic house museums (HHMs). I’ve thought about the extant studies of the field (anthropological studies from Handler and Gable, Stanton, Peers, and Tyson; theoretical taxonomic work from Pavoni and Young; practical advice from Butcher-Younghans and Harris; plus many more) and moved on to examining one particular site, the Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel. My working thesis has been that the mansion’s use as a hostel provides it with historic power ( or perhaps the more problematic “authenticity”) based on that usage. I recently submitted a proposal to the Public History commons, hoping I might find collaborators for NCPH 2018. See my post here:

As I work with archival materials this summer at two historic houses, I’ve been wondering how this concept of usage as historical method can connect with archives and preservation/reconstruction, two methodologies that have a tricky enough time coexisting at historic sites. Before I get to how usage might join this method mess, I want to sum up the status quo of archives at historic sites and where I think they could go.

Account books and pinned notes of Elizabeth Willing Powel, currently in the care of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, photographed by the author

Continue reading “Research Notes: Rough Thoughts on Archives and HHMs”

I wrote an Exhibit Label!*

*Sort of.

Way back in my youthful days of last fall, I drafted a label for an exhibit as part of “Managing History” the introduction to Public History course at Temple University. I wrote about the process here on my blog, and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of that little label I’d written when I was invited to a sneak peek of the exhibit (“World War I: USS Olympia”) as it opened at the Independence Seaport Museum. While the label had gone through quite a bit of work since I’d been involved, I saw vestiges of my work in the final product.

Continue reading “I wrote an Exhibit Label!*”

Citron Cake and Guestbooks: Summer Practicum Part I

Update: PhilaLandmarks wrote about me (and mostly these documents) on their blog! If you want to learn more about these account books and Elizabeth Powel, check it out!

Perched on an office chair on the third floor of the Keith-Hill-Physick (henceforth “Physick”) House, I gingerly pulled off the lid of the box–one of those boxes that letterhead comes in, with “Powel 2006” scrawled on it in sharpie–and peeked inside. Two account books with marbled boards, and a loose stack of letters, loosely held by a bit of twine that had kept them together for two centuries and was enjoying its retirement.

These documents were found by some Powel heirs in a false bottomed trunk and made it to the Powel House and PhilaLandmarks in the last year.

Continue reading “Citron Cake and Guestbooks: Summer Practicum Part I”

Walking Tour of West Fairmount Park

Memorial Hall and surrounding area (HABS PA,51-PHILA,265B–34, Jack E. Boucher, Photographer, April 24, 2003)

Almost two months ago now I posted my proposal for my Digital History final project and I’ve finally wrapped it up. First of all, here it is!

I was steered toward StoryMap.js as an alternative to my original Omeka concept (for several reasons) and it was a really good decision. The StoryMap format is designed for a linear tour like this and works pretty smoothly on mobile devices. While I wasn’t able to incorporate the original map artwork as I had planned, I was still able to include an image for each stop and some text. One unexpected perk of using StoryMap was that it uses Open Street Map and several enterprising individuals have mapped lots of hidden Fairmount Park stuff (old trolley paths, hiking routes, etc) onto the map. So if you are the urban explorer type, use Open Street Map the next time you’re venturing around Fairmount Park!

I think the power of walking tours is that the act of walking triggers different types of sensory learning and spacial reasoning. For instance, I learned during an Irish Literature course at Goshen College that James Joyce’s Ulysses makes more sense if you’re walking while reading it. We accomplished this by having two walkers flank a reader, guiding them as they read aloud.

By connecting various sites in a linear path, the tour makes some sense of what might otherwise simply be scattered dots on a map.

While the original WPA walking tour is great–and I plan on following a couple of the tours myself–it is woefully out of date,  and includes relatively limited pictures. Plus one of my goals for this project was to get this sort of a tour in the hands of folks whose primary tool is the smartphone. StoryMap achieves that and allows me to draw from public image sources to craft what I think is a pretty good tour.

One of my favorite things about the final product is that there are a whole lot of things included in the 1937 tour that aren’t there anymore, despite their seeming timelessness. The number of sculptures that have been relocated out of Fairmount Park would put many other city parks to shame. We often think of bronze and concrete as permanent, but they aren’t, and this tour is a sharp reminder of that. I hope that people who embark on this tour find themselves mulling how quickly the built landscape (and at this point all of Fairmount Park is built) can change. There used to be a lake that’s no longer there!

Crowdsourcing, or Can I Be a Part of the Conversation?

We’ve been covering quite a lot of territory in Digital History, blitzing through topics in an attempt to get a little taste of most of the kinds of digital projects that are out there. Last week we did a high-speed drive-by of various humanities crowdsourcing projects and were asked to dip our toe into one of them. I used this assignment as a reason to return to the little corner of Wikipedia that I have contributed to: the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL).

I’ve followed the exploits of this league since its origin in 2012, and found myself frustrated by the lack of a centralized reference site for the teams and the league itself. The league has taken leaps and bounds in the last year and a half to host rosters, past seasons’ results, and various statistics, but I wanted to make some of that data available on Wikipedia. In the past I made significant improvements to the AUDL page as well as pages for each season.

This week, however, I turned my attention to one of the few teams without even a “stub”: the Nashville NightWatch. I copied several features of other AUDL team pages (such as a season schedule and a table of past seasons’ records) but added very little information overall.

Nashville Nightwatch Logo

One topic I did cover, however, was the real reason I chose to create a NightWatch page: this year Nashville became the first AUDL team to include a woman (Jesse Shofner) on their roster, which is a big deal. One of the complaints of the ultimate community about the pro league has been that it is exclusively* men and the broader community is committed to gender equity. Shofner’s inclusion is a huge step forward for professional ultimate.

Jesse Shofner playing for the University of Oregon. Photo by Alex Fraser,

Plus, she’s incredible. Watch her highlight reel from a year ago:

Oh, and here’s the Wikipedia page: 

Omeka exhibit

This post is brought to you by my Digital History class and my determination to show my soft underbelly by putting early drafts of ideas on the internet. In class we’ve been tasked with assembling an Omeka-based exhibit, and I took the opportunity to think about my research paper from slightly different angles. My exhibit is essentially a collection of photos, old and new, of three of the villas in Fairmount Park, with brief histories of the sites and analysis of their preservation stories to this point. Check it out:


This month has been sort of full of professional development, with three very different events providing opportunities to learn from smart people, eat catered food, and network.

On March 8, I went to the Public History Community Forum (PubComm), an annual event put on by Temple’s Center for Public History and Rutgers-Camden’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH). I helped a bit with the event website and helped set up and clean up, but the meat of the work was done by my classmates Cynthia Heider and Chelsea Reed and Rachel Craft of Rutgers-Camden.

Cynthia, Chelsea, and Rachel assembled an amazing little conference (6 workshops, a keynote address, and a panel) on a shoestring budget, and managed to get supremely qualified presenters, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s Annie Polland, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site’s Sean Kelley, and Ismael Jimenez, a high school teacher in Philly and part of the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative.

I spent a lot of my time at PubComm live-tweeting the event and I collected my tweets and those from some other nimble-thumbed folks into a Storify of the day: Continue reading “Conferences!”

More Stuff in Fairmount Park

Bridge #704 in Fairmount Park. Photo by Bradley Maule of

The task: create a simple web map with at least eight points of interest. I elected to use this opportunity to work toward my Digital History final project, and picked eight spots in Fairmount Park that didn’t make the 1937 Philadelphia city guide walking tours of the park (or, in two cases, are used in substantially different ways than they were in 1937). I chose photos to accompany each point, historic photos except where the new use was what interested me. Here’s the map, but I’ll break down the points of interest below: Continue reading “More Stuff in Fairmount Park”

Digital History Project Proposal

I’ve reached the point in the semester where I need to have a good idea of what I’m going to attempt for my final projects and papers. So here is my (ambitious) proposal:

Belmont Mansion in stereo

I want to use the 1937 Federal Writers Project city guide to Philadelphia (or more likely simply the walking tours of Fairmount Park) as a jumping off point for a digital map similar to the Mall Histories project. Among the resources I hope to geolocate are Historic American Building Survey (HABS) images and drawings as well as stereoscopic views of Fairmount Park that are part of the New York Public Library’s online collections. I might also include contemporary photos to highlight attractions that weren’t present in 1937, such as public artworks and graffiti. The mansion called “The Cliffs” was not included in the 1937 guide, likely because it is off the beaten path, but its fire-damaged, graffiti’d shell is a major draw for urban explorer types, and before and after images could be really interesting. Continue reading “Digital History Project Proposal”

Visualizing Public History Participation in Gilmore Girls

This week in Digital History we were tasked with creating simple data visualizations to familiarize ourselves with free tools we’d learned about in class or found on our own. While we were pointed to many really interesting freely-accessible datasets, I wanted to work with something that connected to other things I’ve been working on. While I don’t have data to process on Chamounix Mansion, I do have a (very uneven, very flawed) spreadsheet of public history occurrences in ‘Gilmore Girls.’ And I needed to post something over at Stars Hollow Historical Society because I’d been letting the team down. So I made some charts about Gilmore Girls. My charts (one of which is above) and disclaimers and limited conclusions can be found here: