Research Notes: Repair and Temporal Relativity

As I embark on actually writing my thesis, I have a lot of ideas I’m trying to mesh together. I’m going to use this space as a little sandbox for some of those ideas in a short form to see if that works.

One of the challenges that I see in immersive historic sites is that they seem to erase the time that has intervened between the “period of significance” and the present. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, for instance, describe a visitor to Colonial Williamsburg who directly related the experience of a slave to his childhood hardships during the Great Depression.[1] This visitor wanted to make a connection to what he was seeing but the interpreters and buildings around him eliminated most of his life experience from the conversation rather than offering a sense of perspective. This is most apparent at living history sites where interpreters in character act as if they don’t understand modern technology, but the effect is present at most sites with reconstructed interiors and period furniture.

An interpreter tends a garden at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA. Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism under Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/masstravel/8531786440

Michael Baxandall describes the interplay between museum object, curator, and viewer, in a way that I think is helpful. Specifically, Baxandall talks about the curatorial choices in an exhibit as a mediation between the artifact and the viewer. “Exhibitions in which different cultures are combined or juxtaposed are inherently more wholesome than exhibitions of a single culture,” writes Baxandall. “The juxtaposition of objects from different cultural systems signals to the viewer not only the variety of such systems but the cultural relativity of his own cultures and values.”[2]

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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: http://ncph.org/phc/2018-annual-meeting-topic-proposals/usage-as-authenticity-at-house-museums-and-historic-sites/

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

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Writing: “An Assertion of Self”

Each week for my research writing seminar, I complete a short exercise of some kind. The assignments are short, articulating the questions we seek to engage and place them in the contexts of sources and historiography.  It’s throwing me off; I want to explore all of the ideas that I see connections with, and make reference to all of the books that I have checked out of the library (but haven’t opened). That is the point, though: I don’t really know what questions I can answer, let alone which ones I want to answer.

An illustration from Rodwell, G. F.: “South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe” (1877), image in the public domain, accessed and shared via WikiMedia Commons.

So I am finding it tough going. To try to grease the gears a bit, I’m trying to write down lots of things: what I feel about sources, how I’m framing my work against existing scholarship, etc. I am going to try to do this; it’s been mostly theoretical up to this point.

And I’m going to do some of it –maybe most of it– publicly. Here. See, for instance my previous “Research Notes” post. I wrote those few paragraphs because I think Chamounix is a fascinating place and I want to tell everyone about it. But as I think about putting more of my formative research questions out on display, I am influenced by a few key ideas.

For one, I came across Dr. Timothy Burke’s decade-old post “Not a Sandbox” recently.1 The first couple paragraphs concern the “scandal” of Amanda Marcotte’s firebrand stewardship of the John Edwards presidential campaign’s blogging operation, something of which I was totally oblivious in 2007, but Burke uses the topic to explore a more fundamental question about blogging. He writes:

But the one thing I didn’t like from some of Marcotte’s defenders was the proposition that somehow what we have written in the past in our blogs is trivial, or disposable, that our freedom as writers requires that blogging be understood as Not Ready For Prime TimeContinue reading “Writing: “An Assertion of Self””