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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Having made my way through some of the pile of scholarship on Historic House Museums, I made a foray into Fairmount Park on Wednesday to visit the Chamounix (SHAM-ah-nee) Mansion, which has operated as a hostel since 1965. Abbe, the hostel’s steward, and Andrew, the manager, showed me around the place and then we had a really nice conversation about Philadelphia, historic buildings, Fairmount Park, gentrification, and the Church of the Divine.
Because I’m trying to learn some Google Map APIs, here’s a map of where Chamounix is located in Fairmount Park:
Built in 1803, the mansion has been a summer-home, a year-round residence, a concession stand, a boarding house, a raceway, residence for a park employee, and a condemned fire-damaged shell before it found its current purpose.