The Embodied Experience of Historical Reenactment

As a Philadelphian, I have had my fair share of run ins with historical reenactors in Old City. These interactions took place primarily during my teens, where I was both downtown, unsupervised by my parents for the first time, and figuring out my own passion for history. I was somewhat at odds with the actors. While I found myself constantly drawn to the colonial history of Philadelphia, I felt uncomfortable interacting with anyone claiming to be Ben Franklin. I still to this day remember my desire to not be noticed by the reenactors in the street, while being simultaneously, intoxicatingly, drawn to them. Today’s readings and watchings made that emotion make sense to me as an adult.

Azie Dungey’s Ask A Slave series was such a fun watch. I enjoyed the way that she framed her answers, her reactions for her web series were in part the answer she wanted to give when she was working at Mount Vernon.[1] While in character at Mount Vernon she had multiple agendas, one of which was to keep her job and adhere to their goal of entertainment; but the Ask A Slave series acts as the counterpart of that experience where she is able to express the internal voice that she carried with her during her time at Mount Vernon. After reading her interview with Amy Tyson I began to think about the level of embodied experience, as a Black woman, that Dungey had gone through.[2] Both at Mount Vernon and at the Smithsonian, she mentally traversed time. Her insight into the way it affected her was powerful. Dungey noted that her experience as a reenactor, as someone who uniquely embodies the experience of a slave and takes off the costume at the end of the day, juxtaposed modern American life. The question of the emotional labor, which Amy Tyson has an entire book about, Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines, is explicit in Dungey’s interview. The point that she made about her roommate remarking on how draining the job was on her was startling.

Tyson’s work makes an incredibly important argument. Her book, constructed as an ethnographic project in which she interviewed (and worked as) historical interpreters at the Historic Fort Snelling in Minneapolis argues that the rise in historical interpretation coincided with the rise of the low wage service industry.[3] These workers, who become so emotionally invested in telling their story (well, at least some of these interpreters) are vulnerable to the low wage labor in the feminized service industry that was nonunionized and lacked a coherent class consciousness (hello Stayin’ Alive & Cowie…. We all should have read that book for 8101 and I will die on that hill).[4] This emotional drive is not monetarily rewarded. The interpreters however are still there to perform a job before they are to teach history, and that often means watering down the history in whcih they have become so invested in. Embodied experiences are draining. & bad historical interpreters do the public a serious injustice, as seen in the other Tyson article that we read for this week. By not integrating slavery explicitly into any narrative of the American experience is to deny the truth.

That is what bothered me about the Ben Franklin interpreter. That is why I personally have such a hard time historical interpretation as work that is useful. But at the same time, reading about Azie Dungey and the degree of preparation and care she put into her work makes me rethink that idea. Will I personally go to an interpreter to ask about slavery? Most definitely not. Will I feel uncomfortable interacting with any interpreter? Most definitely yes. But is the work a worthwhile endeavor? After reading today’s readings, I would say, maybe…. In the rights hands, with the right supervisor, with a nuanced agenda… it has potential.

I’m still creeped out by the Ben Franklin guy though.


Image: http://behindthescenes.nyhistory.org/whats-it-like-being-benjamin-franklin/

[1] Azie Dungey, Ask A Slave, http://www.askaslave.com/about-azie.html.

[2] Amy Tyson, “‘Ask a Slave’’ and Interpreting Race on Public History’s Front Line: Interview with Azie Mira Dungey,” in The Public Historian 36, (2014).

[3] Mary Rizzo, “History at Work, History as Work: Public History’s New Frontier,” American Quarterly 68 (2016): 213.

[4] Ibid.

Lowell NHP & the Historians Duty to The Present

I am a sucker for an industrial labor history. I am especially a sucker for a book that opens its prologue talking about the coal industry. While Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City is outside of my beloved bituminous coal heritage region the story has a similar timetable. Sweeping industrialization capitalizes on a big labor market (for Lowell, it was young women) and over time technology, mechanization and industrial flight bring on deindustrialization in a heart breaking narrative that is all to common across the country. Lowell, like McDowell, Detroit and other areas blighted by deindustrialization encompass communities constantly in flux. Stanton sees flux as an important method of studying public memory.

            In her prologue she opens with a quote from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett that argues that cultural revitalization projects and heritage museums not only show, but do.[1] I saw this quote as a good way to enter the books main objective, to understand what the active role that the Lowell National History Park was taking. In many ways, Stanton sees the Lowell NHP falling short on taking its criticisms of early industrial capitalism into the present; locking their interpretation of industry in the past. Stanton at many junctures argues that in some ways this locking of Lowell’s history in the past is protective of the burgeoning redemptive narrative, a desire for teleology perhaps. She argues that this happens for different reasons by different agents. In part, the narrative that drops off is driven by the public historians who work at the Lowell NHP and help write the story told at the site.

In her “Rituals of Reconnection” chapter, she examines the three categories of identification for historians who worked the site: explicit public historians, historians without graduate degrees, and historians who stumbled in through the National Park Service. She talks about the ways that these historians were hesitant to examine the ways in which they engaged in cultural processes of community identification that bled into the site from the surrounding city.[2] I enjoyed her inclusion of the back and forth between a historian who asked the question of whether or not the process of reinventing the city’s identity should be a conscious or unconscious choice. In these conversations, the insider versus the outsider, the local versus the immigrant contentions shine through. Stanton uses these moments to capture the importance of reflexivity in public history. In this chapter too, she really forces the reader to understand the ways that public historians are active agents in casting memory.

Reflexivity is the name of the game in Managing History as of late. I really do love the inclusion of I language in historical works, despite some of our colleagues considering it the antithesis of good scholarship. With ethnography, its truly impossible to not be reflexive. Stanton includes herself and her position, literally and figuratively throughout the book. She even forces the entire museum industry to be reflexive at points: arguing that in a model designed to profit, criticizing capitalism can be challenging.

One question I was left asking, also in connection to the NCPH article, is what will become of cultural heritage sites post COVID19? What will become of heritage memory in the future without these sites of remembrance? I am worried for the future of historians… (I say as I continue down the path towards attempting at finding a teaching job…….. will…. that exist when I graduate in X years?)

Image: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g60891-d105803-i289138291-Lowell_National_Historical_Park-Lowell_Massachusetts.html


[1] Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City, ( Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press): xiii.

[2] Stanton, 147

Exhibit Labels: The Concise Method of Writing for the “Commonest Common Denominator”

Another potential title for Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach could have been Exhibit Labels: An Exhaustive Approach in Finding the Commonest Common Denominator and Then Proving They Don’t Exist. In her preface, Serrell notes that her publisher said Exhibit Labels was the book most frequently stolen from their display. This leaves me wondering… what other books was it up against? With that being said, Serrell’s impressive second edition truly showcases the importance of exhibit labels and the multifaceted approaches that go into creating them.

The main takeaway that I got from Exhibit Labels was the concept of the big idea. The prevalence of this question, which might sound as simple as “sharks are not what you think” takes hours of work to articulate and guides the curator at every turn. The big idea, Serrell argues, is more important for the curatorial team than it is for the audience. Without its clarity, everything else can become jumbled. The labels, the design, the layout, the choice of medium, the aim of meaningful experience and so forth, are all built in the shadow of the big idea.

Another large takeaway, that is connected to the Big Idea, is the concept of the common commonest denominator. I found it incredibly interesting, in chapter 4, “Who is the Audience (and what do they want)?” that Serrell advises curators to appeal to the big question, rather than seeking a primary audience. Rather than considering who is my audience, which Serrell argues is inherently alienating, the questions rather should be, what is the best way for me to communicate my big idea? In this, Serrell points out that you can appeal to the broadest audience possible. The common commonest denominator stretches across gender, age, education, race, class, sexuality, you name it, in order to center the exhibition on being accessible. By using non-exclusionary vocabulary, offering translations when appropriate, and by fostering a meaningful experience, Serrell seeks to appeal to commonality rather than difference. I am still dubious about the color-blind approach Serrell argues for, but maybe it works in museums when it fails to work elsewhere.

I was struck by the amount of time that a visitor typically spends in a single exhibit. Serrell works with roughly 20 minutes of attention, and in that time she manages to convey a Big Idea with concise, concentrated words that reach across difference. Serrell lists (and lists, and lists, and lists) the ways that learning styles differ from person to person, as well as between person and exhibit. Different material will elicit different levels of engagement. With this in mind, Serrell emphasizes utilizing other mediums such as digital interpretive devices, images and the real, all paired with labels. The labels are meant to serve a function: aiding in interpretation. They are not to be too assertive, but not too general as to leave their reader confused. Labels ought to be accessible to most people, while not alienating the reader by assuming they know nothing. Ultimately, they need to be justified. Serrell’s book has many lessons imbedded in it, but one for sure is less is often more.

Ironic, is it not though? That less is more for Serrell across the board. She really works to get her reader to understand that information overload is a missed opportunity in the exhibit world. I would honestly argue that this book is an example of just that. At the same time, I don’t think anyone who focuses on writing exhibit labels in their career would need to buy another book on exhibit labels. Maybe it was that niche group stealing her book from the exhibit she mentions in the preface.

 I found that this text spoke directly to Creating Exhibits, not only in content, but in structure. It reads at times like a textbook, but is also imbued with emotion. They are supplementary to each other because Creating Exhibits functions more in a physical space, while Serrell is in the mental space of her visitor. I also found myself thinking about the podcast “Tribal Historic Preservation office Helps Students Map Seminole Life for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,” and their students use of iPads in the museum. This book, while beckoning to me for critique, has inherent value. Her concepts of label hierarchy, her case studies, thoughtful consideration of the visitor, and emphasis on evaluation are important in this world. This book is packed with lessons and I look forward to pulling more of them apart when we meet to discuss Exhibit Labels.

Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. Lanham, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield. 2015.

Image from https://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/museum-worker-adjusts-the-captions-to-a-modigliani-painting-news-photo/1180485733

Trust & Thoughtfulness: Creating Exhibitions and Fostering Engagement

When I was a senior I worked in the college archives as the archivist assistant. I helped her catalog new materials, but I also created three displays for the library. We did minor planning, talked about the best way to display materials as to preserve them, and created a small exhibit built to foster interaction. As I read Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development, and Design of Innovative Experiences, I thought back on the intentions of her process. That what I perceived to be one of fluid collaboration and honestly, creative friendship, was much more pedagogical in design as shown to me by Creating Exhibitions. (the Ursinus College archives, on a related unrelated note are one of the best kept secrets of the school. Carolyn Weigel is meticulous in her work and has done the school more good than most professors).

            I found Creating Exhibitions to be most importantly thoroughly thoughtful. In the opening chapter “Collaboration,” McKenna-Cress and Kamien get into the nitty gritty of how to fix problems in group based projects. I enjoyed the section “Collaboration Killers to Watch For,” as I found that through reading it I recognized ways that I had potentially participated in these actions in the past. This book, by being so thoughtful throughout, not only gives you pointers on what to look for in others and in group spaces, but also what to look for in oneself. Margaret Middleton’s podcast was all about thoughtfulness. I enjoyed their discussion of language in the museum setting. Using intentional language to foster inclusion, allow children to see themselves as artists or engineers, and to prevent making assumptions about familial roles and gender identity is the epitome of thoughtfulness. I would say that another theme (among many) besides thoughtfulness that runs through Creating Exhibitions is that of trust.

            In all of the advocacy chapters the concept of trust is key. Trust in your teammates, your design, your content, your audience, and your museum is crucial. In the “Advocacy for the Institution” chapter the idea of trust is critical in what you’re doing, selecting staff members, and delegating jobs. For “Subject Matter,” trust might turn more inward, gearing towards believing in one’s ability to work as an expert, make content accessible while not watering it down too much, and being selective when it comes to a range of content materials. “Visitor Experiences,” is a slight departure from “Subject Matter,” in that trust is more in the process: trusting one’s team to build something (with of course your input) relevant to both the institution and the visitor at large. I liked this chapter in the book because it forced me to look at the exhibit with the eyes of the public. While the source material a museum has access to might engage the historian immensely, it might not be suitable for consumption on the general public scale. Positioning the visitor at the center of the exhibit is critical to its effectiveness. I also found interesting in this chapter the discussion of the ways institutions can relate to school curriculum as well as current events. It is crucial in the public history world to make exhibits function to some degree for all ages (Margaret Middleton would sure agree).

            The “Design” chapter was the most fun! I think trust here is actually in the designer. Trust in the designer for the rest of the team is important in the execution of the idea. Using space as a medium of engagement goes way over my head and I found this chapter useful in grounding me to what that means in practice. The social, the touch, the engagement! Oh my!

            Overall, while I despise textbooks, I found this one to be one of the most useful textbooks I have ever encountered. I thought the format was engaging, the language changed frequently enough to keep me mindful of the material, and the content to be concise and thoughtful. I look forward to our discussion!

Image: Image from Margaret Middeton’s Display, “Barbie Gets With The Program,” https://www.margaretmiddleton.com/barbie

McKenna-Cress, Polly and Janet Kamien. Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in Planning, Development, and Design of Innovative Experiences. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2013.

They Are Racists: Patriotic Education and the “Cherished Inheritance”of Trump’s American History

When I was in middle school, I had a social studies teacher who we affectionately called Mr. J. A beyond brilliant man and public education advocate who landed in my Philadelphia public school after getting his Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He was charming, funny but most importantly unbelievably passionate about teaching alternative narratives to disengaged middle schoolers. We read many excerpts from Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States which instilled in me a need, fueled by fire, to follow Zinn and Mr. J in their valiant conquest for the underlying truth: the hidden historical narrative. Trump’s 1776 commission that he announced last Thursday is a right wing nationalist attempt at preventing teachers like Mr. J from molding burgeoning scholars and fostering their fight for pulling historical actors from oblivion. Trump wants to use federal mandates to teach a top-down narrative that replaces Zinn as an attempt to “restore patriotism.”[1] Trump claims that educational curriculum, cancel culture, and the “mob on the street” are trying to “to silence dissent, to scare you out of speaking the truth, and to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life” as if this has not been the American ethos the Founding Fathers had acted on when they included Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution: the Three Fifths Compromise.[2]

            In this essay I intend on using academic scholarship to illuminate the harm that the 1776 commission speech will cause. I argue that the efforts Trump is making appeal to the ultra-right wing nationalists at its core and present to us a new crisis wrought upon the American public by the current administration. Silencing academics, controlling historical narratives taught in schools, and preventing federal institutions from “misrepresenting” our nation’s history as one built upon the backs of slaves will fundamentally alter generations of Americans.[3] The history of the United States in many ways is one of two steps forward, three steps back. As grassroots organizers tirelessly pour their life into work, Trump uses their peaceful protests and calls for action as a methodological device in “combating race” and his speech on September 17th as a way to represent what he sees as “divisive concepts,” “malign ideology,” and the desecration of American ideals. It is critical for us to analyze his use of language in these documents as a way of building hegemony and encouraging his following to adopt a white washed history of the United States in the name of patriotism. Nothing here is coincidence. I will admit that I have no doubt that Trump did not write this speech. But he believes in its content. And so does his following.

            What follows will be a messy, emotional attempt at reading these sources and stuffing them with academic opinion and preexisting historiography that will hopefully prove the utter danger this rhetoric puts our democracy in. In much of my work I end up swimming in Gramsci’s theory of Cultural Hegemony, which I will inevitably impose here as well. Much of Gramsci’s greatest theories were written from his prison cell between 1929 – 1935 after he was arrested by Mussolini’s government in 1926.[4] As Trump’s party begins to look more like Mussolini’s, it is imperative to compare their tactics of control. As you read this, please keep in mind that this is an essay I have written and researched in just a few hours. I am writing this without a working outline, without a peer editor or advisor, so bear with me. Chronology will be as follows: analysis of the speech, potential consequences, and a conclusion. While I initially intended on doing the speech and the Executive Order, I will have to focus on just the speech for now. It is not complete and ultimately will evolve as Trump inevitably gives us more material. It is emotional because I am so invested in preventing historical narratives from being silenced. I am defending Zinn, other scholars, and the teaching of bottom up history in the public education curriculum. I am defending Black and Brown Americans and the emotional labor it takes to run federal bias training programs. I am defending bias training programs. I am working to defend teachers who seek to restore Black and indigenous agents as central figures in American history. I vehemently defend Mr. J and what he did for me and my classmates as if my life depends on it. Because it does.

             In the first few seconds of Trump’s speech on September 17th, he says “to grow up in America is to live in a land where anything is possible, where anyone can rise, and where any dream can come true – all because of the immortal principles our nation’s founders inscribed nearly two and a half centuries ago” (emphasis added).[5] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz would argue otherwise. In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States she argues that the United States of America was formed through generations of settler colonialism that emerged out of the active practice of “white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft,” positioning the founding moment as one undetachable from white supremacy and racism.[6] With a founding like this, and an absolute failure on the part of the nation to reconcile with the genocide enacted on indigenous Americans, the nation cannot in any way be understood as one founded on equality. Further in his speech he says

In order to radically transform America, they must first cause Americans to lose confidence in who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. As I said at Mount Rushmore — which they would love to rip down and it rip it down fast, and that’s never going to happen — two months ago, the left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.

If one recalls, Mount Rushmore rests in the Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), a scared site used by the Lakota Sioux, stolen from them effectively in 1876 under the Indian Appropriations Bill. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the site, known as a “shrine for democracy’ by the federal government… is anything but that; rather it is a shrine of in-your-face-illegal occupation and colonialism.”[7]

            What we see here is Trump using the Mount Rushmore memorial as the symbol for democracy without understanding the blatant irony of his own words. The degree of silencing indigenous narratives simply the first few minutes of this speech is unbearable to anyone with any basic knowledge of the founding of our country.

            Next, Trump comes for Zinn. Trump argues that Zinn’s work is meant to make students ashamed of their own history (I want to also note that I do not believe Trump has read Zinn, even seen the book jacket, nor has the intellectual capacity to read a 688 page book). An example of material that makes people feel shame, which most likely set this entire thing off, is the 1619 Project conducted by critical race theorists and recent Howard Law graduates for the New York Times. He exclaims that “This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”[8] The 1619 Project, which if you have not gotten a chance to engage with, you should (I will link in footnotes), aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” a revisionist history that uses first person narrative to animate the continued effects of slavery.[9] The project has shortcomings, especially in its discussion of the American Revolution being fought on the grounds of protecting slavery, but ultimately serves as an interactive site full of first person accounts. If Trump were to have criticized it for its accuracy in representing motives for the break from the British, there could be some legitimacy there. Instead however he lands on the construction of America being one built on freedom. I think that many, many Black Americans would have to disagree with this statement.

            Tiya Miles book The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (2017) argues that even cities like French occupied Detroit in never slave state Michigan constituted a slave society much like the rest of the United States.[10] Through legal loopholes French, British and American colonists owned slaves of both African and indigenous decent in the 1800s in Detroit. African men’s bodies were used as modes of transportation in the French fur trade in the 18th century and therefore occupied a space of constant bodily danger. Slaves in Detroit were constantly separated from their families. Their history is one wrecked by white supremacy. Miles works to reanimate archival silence effectively, giving voice back to those who fought for their freedom. Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism tells a history of the interstate slave trade that followed the closure of the international slave trade (even though America profited more on the international slave trade in the immediate years following its abolition).[11] These books, a tiny tiny minority in the history of slavery in the south emphasize the ways slavery commanded American understanding at every juncture. Slavery was not isolated to cotton plantations in the south. Slavery existed in some form or another in colonial citites in America and was the mode of production for America for centuries. To deny that America is founded on oppression is an ahistorical narrative that should not need to be explained to anyone. A fourth grader should have enough basic history to narrate this. To think that Trump and his administration are attempting to prevent this type of material from circulating is an unbelievably sad thought.

            Trump argues that America’s founding “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history,” which to some of this I don’t even know how to respond. How do we think of Breonna Taylor and read this? How do we consider the forced removal of Mexican women’s reproductive organs in contrast to this? Where do the Native boarding schools fit among “the most fair”? Children starving in ICE deportation camps? Homeless Americans prevented from applying for housing because of their drug addiction? Black women being forced to consent to long acting contraceptive devices in order to receive welfare? Black men being incarcerated at inconceivably high rates? What about the non-violent, immuno-compromised inmates detained during the COVID19 crisis? Modern day slavery that flourishes in the American prison industrial complex? What about your every day museum educator who is paid poverty wages to teach material that is being threatened under Trump? Who’s civil rights have we secured? And, have we really defeated fascism?

            Trump considers teaching K-12 students a doctrine not aligned with the notion of the benign America as “child abuse.”[12] He calls on “patriotic moms and dads” to police their child’s historical education.[13] He tells them to not accept “indoctrination.” Let’s talk about patriotic indoctrination.

            First I want to position myself as someone who is critical of Gramsci’s cultural hegemony. I do not think it is all encompassing, but an important theoretical lens to talk about Trump. Gramsci theorized that groups in power maintain their position through both coercive power (law enforcement, legal system, carceral state) and consent created by hegemony in civil society.[14] Consent is more important to Gramsci than coercive power. Cultural hegemony is achieved through legitimation by the dominant class through participation in various institutions and social interactions within them.[15] One of the most powerful institutions used to build hegemony is public education. By teaching children “approved” narratives, in this case those that uphold patriotic sentiments and work to make white children feel better, the government builds a consenting, hegemonic cultural force. I think it is important to note that it is not and will not be only children affected by this: parents too will find legitimation in ahistorical narratives. The cultural hegemony that Trump looks to achieve is one bound in nationalism. Nationalism that celebrates the Great White Man and fails to reconcile with Americas original sin.

            Trump argues that “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.” I think Gramsci would be intellectually excited by this statement. It is explicit in its aim: “We will save this cherished inheritance for our children, for their children, and for every generation to come.”[16] The “cherished inheritance” he wishes to save is one that pushes Black Americans to the side. That completely erases the existence of indigenous Americans prior to 1776, perpetuating the violent American genocide at every turn. A “cherished inheritance” that condemns Black Lives Matter for peacefully protesting. The “cherished inheritance” is an American history that starts with George Washington and ends with Trump.

            The “patriotic education” that Trump wants is the opposite of what patriotic education should be. Patriotic education should be work towards illuminating silence in the archive with federally funded projects; it should be K-12 curriculums that include Black and indigenous history at the forefront, not as optional classes; it should be museum work like what the Smithsonian had done that positions America as the country for white men that it is. Patriotic education should not be about silencing academics, teachers, or students. As we veer right on Trump’s path towards ultra-right wing nationalism (one of the most dangerous string of words out there), we look into the void. Though there must be room for hope and counter-hegemony. A carving of action within a system designed to prevent it. Gramsci would call for a “war of position,” a method of radical social change that starts with the way an individual acts within the paradigm of choice. Alternative institutions shape our ability to imagine what is feasible.[17] We must engage in this now.

            Anthony Arnove’s introduction to A Peoples History of the United States reminded me this morning that despite Trump’s attempt at altering the future by silencing the past, the work we do and have done will not be erased. Arnove talks of Zinn’s book as “an embodiment of Howard’s wager on optimism….. we cannot rely on elected officials or leaders but instead have to rely on our individual and collective actions; that change never happens in a straight line but always has ups and downs, twists and turns; and that there are no guarantees in history.”[18] I think I will continue to think about this and the ways in collective action and counter-hegemony community flourishes and work only gets better. I hope with all of my being that nationally imposed history curriculums are never a thing and that the “cherished inheritance” of patriotic education becomes an antique. This essay is not an attempt to say that the education children receive today, or under Obama for example, is complete, because it is not. But there has been room for advocates and activists to force young Americans to reconcile with the truth. By revoking the limited freedom educators have today and exchanging it for patriotic education we enter a new era of silence. And God do I hope that universities receiving federal grant money never have to struggle with making work palatable to Trump. If that becomes the case I am afraid my life in academia may be over before it ever began.

            Finally, I want to thank Mr. J, the late Dr. Doughty, Dr. Onaci, Dr. Daggar, and Dr. Simon for always pushing the boundaries of historical narratives and for inspiring in me the desire to do the same. I worry deeply for the fate of educators who want children and adults to learn the history of Black and Brown Americans. I know what is at stake is limitations are imposed. I hope to come back to this essay to add more narrative, historical voice, and opinion but, I also hope that this stupid little speech given by Trump fades into the oblivion of history like so many forgotten and unrecorded narratives of Americans before us. I hope I never hear the phrase “cherished inheritance” again.


Image: Mark Humphrey/AP

[1] Donald J Trump, “Remarks by President Trump at the White House Conference on American History,” Speech, National Archives Museum, Washington D.C., September 17th 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] Walter Adamson, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory, (Brattleboro, Vermont: Echo Point, 1980): 101.

[5] Trump, “Remarks.”

[6] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press: 2014), 2.

[7] Ibid, 180.

[8] Trump, “Remarks”

[9] 1619 Project, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html, 2019.

[10] Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, (New York, New York: The New Press) 2017.

[11] Eliga Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[12] Trump, “Remarks.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] E Colin Ruggero, “Gramsci and the War of Position,” https://warofposition.com/94#:~:text=Cox%20succinctly%20describes%20a%20’war,Cox%2C%201983%3A165).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Trump, “remarks”

[17] Ruggero, “Gramsci”

[18] Anthony Arnove, “Introduction,” In A Peoples History of the United States by Howard Zinn, (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003): XXI.

Mapping Advocacy for Museum Educators

Mental mapping is something that we do as individuals on a daily basis. There are a multitude of maps flowing freely in our heads that inform the way that we move throughout space, and often the way we interact with others within that space. Museums can employ mental maps made into physical maps, geographically mapping the way content is consumed in in order to place more emphasis some topics, in ways that often go unnoticed by the viewer. There is a lot that goes on within museums that goes unnoticed by their audience.

Margaret & Janaye Evans’ beautiful presentation, “Between Apathy and Action,” utilizes maps both physical and metaphorical.[1] I was impressed by the map of content on the audio tour, which physically embodied the way that visitors can skip over portions of history curated in the museum by simply following the common path. By not forcing visitors to engage in the racist history of prisons at every turn, by failing to take a stance on the prison industrial complex from which they profit, Sanford and Evans argue that the museum is complicit in an educational model built on white supremacy.

Within Sanford & Evans’ piece, as well as in Lovisa Brown’s research, “Desegregating Conversations about Race and Identity in Culturally Specific Museums” the constriction of the educator, the educator as an agent, is identified. Brown argues that the educator must find comfort in complexity, and that museums function best when they can place their audience in a liminal space, a space of ambiguity and discomfort.[2] Sanford & Evans also talk about the need for Eastern State to problematize their master narrative and imbue their educators with the ability to go off script and make definitive statements about their, and the museums, stance when it comes to racism or the prison industrial complex. I suppose I had never questioned the role, or the scripted nature, of museums. I must admit that I have only been on a few tours in museums, but I guess I imagined that they were able to talk freely about their subject matter. By curtailing the way questions can be answered, institutions that profit on engagement perpetuate the silencing of narrators.

I really enjoyed the museum archipelago episode “Tribal Historic Preservation office Helps Students Map Seminole Life for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,” and their use of mapping as well.[3] The opening of this piece explains to the reader that the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum was operated mainly by white people with community input. Their project to get tribal youth from the local high school to mental map in GIS as a method of story telling is so brilliant. They framed the podcast by telling us initially how the museum was curated. By positioning the teenagers as commanders of their own narrative, the museum takes a radical turn from old age collections into new age GIS maps displayed on iPads. I loved this. I think it is so brilliant. To restore indigenous teens with control of their story must be so empowering. I think this still also speaks to the role of educators. While you may not initially think a high schooler would be the ultimate educator, every situation calls for a unique understanding of the material being presented. Brown would definitely agree with that too.

There is a critical need to advocate for museum educators. It appears to be at a crisis level of intervention, most definitely worsened by COVID19. It is both of intellectual and financial need. I wonder how we can do that on a grand scale.


Image: “Seminole Indian Reserve, 1834,” Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of South Florida, http://fcit.usf.edu/florida/maps/pages/3700/f3704/f3704.htm

[1] Janaye Evans and Margaret Sanford, (2020) “Between Apathy and Action: The Educator and the Museum Mission,

A Case Study at Eastern State Penitentiary.” Death to Museums UnConference, August 2,

2020. https://youtu.be/QlkLGgyk0Ss?t=11328

[2] Lovisa Brown, Caren Gutierrez, Janine Okmin & Susan McCullough (2017) “Desegregating Conversations about

Race and Identity in Culturally Specific Museums,” Journal of Museum Education, 42:2, 123

[3] “Tribal Historic Preservation office Helps Students Map Seminole Life for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,” Episode 53,

Museum Archipelago, November 5, 2018. https://www.museumarchipelago.com/53

A Method Imbued With Emotion: Oral History

Scholars and amateur historians who conduct oral histories, as evident in this week’s readings, often find themselves following a research path that they would not have anticipated. Sommer & Quinlan’s The Oral History Manual meticulously walks their audience through the life cycle of the oral history tradition (employing a graph that I truly adored) that outlines the process of creating an idea, planning, interviewing, preserving that interview & making it accessible (location 195). This life cycle made me think about the Fink and Tucker pieces we read for this week and the ways in which their collected data drew then in a different direction than their initial idea may have hypothesized. The Fink piece explored the trustworthiness of heritage history when collected by those with an underlying agenda, even if those collecting the data may not have be self-conscious enough to articulate said agenda. Fink interviewed Jim & Lynn Rumley about their exercise in oral history as well as their role in the Cooleemee Historical Association (CHA) that is engaging in multiple cultural revival projects (120). Over the course of his work he saw that Lynn in particular tended to emphasize regional heritage traditions even when they should have remained a shibboleth (my new favorite word!!!). It is clear that projects like those the CHA were taking up can air on the side of erasure if it means protecting an overtly positive historical heritage.

            Like Fink’s work, Tucker’s data skewed from what she initially intended to uncover. Tucker arrived at her project of female jazz musicians of the post war era and their relationship with the closet through multiple confusing oral history interviews (295). While speaking to her narrators, she is perplexed by their outset intention of staying away from the personal, even though some of her participants outed others in a betrayal of the personal. Tucker had set on questioning if all female spaces, in this situation jazz bands, allowed gay women a haven in a world where being an out lesbian was still taboo. She ran into roadblocks that ultimately raised more questions than answers and are wrapped intimately in the oral history tradition. Tucker was in situations where ethically she could not push it farther. She ran the risk of alienating her narrator base at the cost of explicitly articulating her hypothesis (301). Through her interviews she found that while many of these women may be gay, their identification with being a professional musician stood in the way of their potential identity as a lesbian (308).

            One element of oral history that is evident in these works as well as the manual is its humanity. Its inseparability both from the narrator and their personal convictions, but also from two distinct historical contexts: the context from which the narrator is speaking, and the context from which the researcher is recording. Unlike a newspaper clipping, the census data, or any other inanimate historical source, the research medium and material that oral historians depend on have feelings. They have opinions. They have a public life and a private life. Fink ultimately alienated his source material and had it revoked after Jim & Lynn saw her take on the CHA. Tucker had to stop herself from asking her narrators what she wanted in order to prevent alienating her subjects. I think I simultaneously love and fear oral history for this exact reason. The answer can be right under the surface but never articulated by those you interview. I do however think oral history is such an important source as these articles uncover such interesting material despite the windy road it took to get there.

image 1: Pictured Mary Osborne, Vi Redd, Dottie Dodgion, Marian McPartland & Lynn Milano. From Tom Marcello, in “10 Female Jazz Musicians You Need To Know,” https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/the-top-10-female-jazz-musicians-you-should-know/.

Fink, Leon. “When Community Comes Home To Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause.” Journal of Social History 40 (Autumn 2006): 119 – 145.

Sommer, Barbara and Mary Kay Quinlan. The Oral History Manual. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. Kindle Edition.

Tucker, Sherrie. “When Subjects Don’t Come Out.” In Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, edited by Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, 293 – 311. Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. 2002.

Heritage Tourism & Deindustrialization: What’s Next?

As someone who has studied deindustrialization in West Virginia’s bituminous coal regions, Carolyn Kitch’s book Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past struck a chord with me. I have attended coal museums that act as heritage tourism destinations. I have done highway tours through old coal towns & have seen the scars left behind by an industry who’s heyday ended in the early 1980s. I grew up on the same block as Dr. Walter Licht & have been heavily influenced by his work in the anthracite region since I found my love of history in the 5th grade. This book was something I wish I had read when it was published in 2012.

Robert Weible’s article, the NCPH piece on public history & Rosenzweig and Thelen introduction all speak to one of Kitch’s main points on audience. The question of who is public history for, and how does audience shape what becomes memorialized is something I have failed to acknowledge prior to these readings. The example of the Strasbourg train museum, which should be in Altoona where the railroad history is richer, makes me think about the reenacting of historical reality being utterly fixed in a world centered on capital (Kitch, 176). These historic sites that seem to often emerge out of industrial dearth are both testaments to what was and an attempt to play a role in what is to become. In the Weible article, he quotes Orwell in what seemed to me to be a great way to summarize Kitch’s book: “he who controls the present controls the past, he who controls the past controls the future.” When reading this I thought of the Harley Davidson factory, the Hersey factory, Pittsburgh & her steel memorials and the coal tours (often run by former coal miners themselves).

In the same way, the heritage tourist sites are so locally driven it is impossible not to see audience when reading about them. I found it interesting when Kitch was recounting her time in a steel museum that she was the only one who seemed to come into the experience without the background knowledge of how steel was made, proving to her that the audience of many of these sites is locals. Local residents of deindustrialized spaces are caught in a liminal zone: on one hand they want to preserve the identity that their family built over generations, or maybe the identity that their immigrant ancestors depended on to make it in America’s workforce. On the other hand however these sites invoke a sense of communal anger (Kitch, 139). These memorials, museums & heritage sites have a duplicitous meaning. They are meant to remind its audience of the everlasting presence of industrialization while simultaneously remembering the fact that it no longer exists like it once did. Kitch is right in that these heritage/cultural (a contesting term I need to have flushed out) tourist sites make it feel that these extractive industries have fallen to the wayside, rather than emphasizing the reality that they still exist and are often still environmentally destructive.

I found it difficult to follow Kitch’s terminology when it came to comparing cultural tourism & heritage tourism. In the first half of the book I thought it was clear: cultural tourism refers to things like fairs, where the commodity is goods, food, or immigrant ethnicity (the “Babushkas & Hard Hats” in Pittsburgh for example. Heritage tourism however is entirely place based; that is where the coal museums that emphasize national sacrifice are located. However in her epilogue I thought it became skewed, as she uses the term “cultural tourism” to talk about what I had previously defined as heritage tourism. In this quote she writes “Cultural tourism”… constructs a notion of identity…. certain events also emerge as dominant in heritage memory, not only occupying their own times but oozing into other eras as well” (177). I feel that I need to flesh it out more so, as both of these terms will be so useful to my own research, but only if I am confident in using them correctly.

Ultimately, I adored this book. Her method of travelling to as many cultural/heritage tourist attractions was new and refreshing. I thought her ongoing discussion of the importance of volunteers in the pubic history world is something we need to talk more about. The question of who’s history is it will be something all academics and “amateur” historians should be battling with daily. As we move farther from the deindustrialization of PA, and more Water Front shopping malls are erected in front of old steel mills, it is pertinent to consider the questions Kitch raises. Who’s story is it?

image 1: Erin Hogan. “Old Navy returns to Homestead’s Waterfront, Versona also signs lease” in Trib Live, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/old-navy-returns-to-homesteads-waterfront-versona-also-signs-lease/.

Kitch, Caroyln. Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2012.

Weible Robert. “DEFINING PUBLIC HISTORY: IS IT POSSIBLE? IS IT NECESSARY?” in The Magazine of the American Historical Association Perspectives on History. March 1, 2008. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2008/defining-public-history-is-it-possible-is-it-necessary

9/2 Reading/Listening Reflection

This weeks reading & podcasts had much to reflect on.

First, layout. Hethmon’s how to on podcasting was informative as I listened to both Throughline and the Alley Cast. While I had listened to podcasts before, I hadn’t noticed the divisions of the acts, nor how curating the narrative was with questioning. While doing this work I also listened to a podcast that is connected to my own research, Nice White Parents. While I had not read Hethmon’s piece when I listened to the first episode, by the second I could clearly see both the narrative and the Acts. Nice White Parents’ host Chana Joffe-Walt asks questions that Hethmon invokes, “so you’re saying,” “can you unpack that for me,” and “how so?” which every time get such controversial responses. I enjoyed listening to an on the ground research podcast much more so after I had read Hethmon because I was able to more clearly see the structure behind it. The Alley Cast also employed the narrative structure of Acts, which I found easy to follow and intriguing.

Secondly, the content of the The Alley Cast in combination with Terkel’s Working. I found the Alley Cast to be well made and extremely informative. While I typically have a hard time staying focused on podcasts, I was able to stay in touch with The Alley Cast as they walked through time in Philadelphia. I found the episode “The Racial Politics of Domestic Labor” to be my favorite. Through all of the episodes following it I kept coming back to its themes of archival silence and articulating the lives of the lost through historically informed speculation and deep dives into the census data. In my cultural history class we are talking about emotional history, incorporating the “what ifs,” and the ethics of applying agency when it is not necessary supported by documentation. I think all of these themes apply here as well. For example, Makuc (a good friend of mine from undergrad, Go Bears!) speculates on what a day in the life of a free Black domestic laborer on Elfreth’s Alley may have been, starting small with what she may have ate. I enjoyed this intimate moment, visual and in some ways almost, relatable, as part of something a podcast can uniquely achieve. Of course rigorous academic written scholarship can animate the small moments, but listening to physically speak it out loud made it more human. More, reachable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ways that Joe & Isabel worked the BLM movement into this piece as well. Joe throughout his piece on domestic labor reminded the listener that while these women were free, they were experiencing great injustices daily, that unfortunately have not subsided today. Making historical work pertinent to the current moment seems to be important in the public history sphere (as it should be in all historical spheres). The Public Universal Friend episode was also riveting. I found the way that Isabel & her colleagues navigated dead naming the PUF as well as using data that referred to their dead name in primary source material to be sensitive and well-informed. It shows a real touch with the current trans scholarship.

What all the episodes, Throughline (fantastic as well, I always heard my parents talk about Three Mile Island, never really knew the history) and Hethmon have in common is one of Terkel’s main questions: does your work make your life? Terkel’s book is such a beautiful ethnographic project. His subjects narratives rarely are interrupted like you often see with interview based projects. Maggie’s story was particularly poignant, as it showed that domestic labor for Black women, even in the 1970s, was still extractive and abusive like the women working on Elfreth’s Alley decades before. It seems that if you work for NPR making podcasts, you’re probably doing what you love. & that you’re good at it because you love it, because you think of it constantly. Nice White Parents (a Serial team podcast) also has that ring to it. Is the value of work based upon what you make? I think to some degree yes, unfortunately. But at the same time I want to say no not at all. I struggle with this question and probably will for the rest of my life. Defining the value of work is something I aim to do every day, to move towards something I love (and that makes me enough money to sustain myself). Ultimately, what I think Terkel would agree with, as well with the history of workers on Elfreth’s Alley is that you determine what the value of your work according to your individual (and historical circumscribed) situation. Working as a waitress may not be meaningful to some, but to others, it is life. And that is for the individual to determine.

Introduction

My name is Gwendolyn Gawarkiewicz-Franklin and I am a masters student at Temple in the history department. I am a Philadelphia native and an avid Phillies fan. I attended Ursinus College and graduated in 2018 with a degree in History and American Studies. At Ursinus, the most important project I conducted was titled “The Death Rattle of West Virginia: The Interlocking Relationships Between the Coal Industry, The Opioid Epidemic, and the Rise of Trump,” which was both my summer fellows project as well as my American Studies capstone paper. It was a content analysis based project that examined documents I collected from the West Virginia Regional History Center. I used these newspaper clippings from big coal sponsored papers (all from 1965 – 1980) to show a trend in symbolic language use during moments of utter distress in the towns they were printed in. I found that during years where coal mines were closing at unprecedented rates as the mechanization was rapidly increasing in the mines, a higher percentage of identity centered language was used. In 2016, Trump used the exact same language to speak to the exact same communities to elicit a very specific response. What was in the 1960s coal centered newspapers, has become massive “grassroots” organizations like Friends of Coal pumping out the same rhetoric 50 years later. This project still needs a lot of work. The connections between post-coal communities and opioid addition are immense. I think that researching how absentee capitalism, addiction, and blue to red political shifts in lower working class white communities is important to understanding how our political climate today functions under Trump.

While this project feels central to my identity as an academic in training, I am shifting my focus to work on a Philadelphia based urban history project. In 1998 the University of Pennsylvania began offering its faculty monetary incentives to move into West Philadelphia as an effort to help “foster the University’s commitment to neighborhood development” (1). With the construction of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (PAS) in 2001 (their current building was built in 2003) in combination with their faculty subsidies, UPenn fundamentally changed West Philadelphia. My potential project will look at the change over time from 1998 to 2013 when the school changed from first come first serve to a lottery registration. The 2013 moment was extraordinary: wealthy neighborhood parents rented RV’s, porta-potties, and many amenities in order to endure waiting in line days before registration opened in the freezing January cold (2). Many working class native Philadelphian parents could not afford to this, leaving their kids to attend the neighborhood school instead. I want to study the impact of catchment areas as well as the role UPenn played in the trajectory towards the 2013 moment. All of this is subject to change.

The history I want to do ultimately has an impact. The most important part of history for me is the way it can inform the future. There is a lot of learn from our past. I look forward to engaging in more public facing historical endeavors through our class.

(1): “Increasing Opportunities for Homeownership and Housing.” Office for the Executive Vice President: Strategic Initiatives. http://www.evp.upenn.edu/strategic-initiatives/housing-and-homeownership.html.

(2): Kristen Graham. “Why Philly Parents Lined Up at 4am To Get Their Kids Into Kindergarten.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 31st, 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/education/kindergarten-philadelphia-schools-line-lottery-greenfield-20200131.html.