Archives and Public History: a Visit to Paley

Archives cause me some issues. I truly struggle thinking about archives as public history institutions, at least not in their current iteration. We defined public history as history done outside the world of academia. While institutes such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and City Archives are technically outside academia, they are certainly not public friendly. In fact, these institutions seem to be so unfriendly to outside use that they make for pretty uncomfortable experiences to average Joe. However, since most universities classify archiving under their public history programs, I digress.

I found the discussion at the end of our tour to be intriguing. The idea of activist archiving reminded me of the film The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye. In the film, Dunye searches for “the watermelon woman” that she saw in an old film. On her search, she delves into archives (specifically a fictitious lesbian archive known as CLIT) to find the actress. The film is an interesting commentary on the erase of narratives by previous archivists and historians a like. Dunye creates her own historical narrative in archives because it simple did not exist. To this day, there is still minimal historical archiving of LGBTQ black women. Here lies the issue of archiving. There is always a preference or a bias (whether inherent or intentional) that affects the choices made in archives. The tumultuous past (and present in most cases) of race relations and sexuality narratives resulted in the erasure of Dunye’s identity from archiving. Also, historical terminology, employed by archives and past societies alike, misplace identities under vague terms or complete medical misdiagnoses.

I can see the idea of activist archiving provide valuable contribution to historical narratives by providing an opportunity to local groups to document themselves. Here, we can see the relation between the “novice” and the “expert” bloom. Communities are the “experts” of their own pasts and have the authority to tell their own stories. They are aware of their own history and know it should be preserved. I believe the information garnered from these communities provides the “raw” material for archivists and historians a like. Archivists can assist the community in detailing their data in its “raw” form. Historians, who Miller says don’t like crossing institutional boundaries (which I think is completely not true), can then “cook” the data.

Philadelphia’s current form of archiving is suffering from a PR-problem. They institutions have made themselves unapproachable. This is something I say from personal experience. Dealing with HSP felt like a nightmare and I am an academic (or someone who hoity-toity types think should be “doing” history). Something I touched on in my practitioner profile rings true here:

Kathleen McLean touches on this haughtiness in her essay “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” briefly. She writes: “And she [a gift writer with a doctorate] was intimidated by museums. ‘I don’t know the rules. I know there’s a code of behavior, but it eludes me.’

I think as long as this code of behavior and perceived superiority is in place, archives will not be enjoyed by the public, and ergo will not be “public history” institutions in my opinion. In fact, half of the reason I am interested in public history, and archiving in particular, is because I would love to break down these barriers.

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The Problem with Preservation

The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia works to “actively promote the appreciation, protection, and appropriate use and development of the Philadelphia region’s historic buildings, communities and landscapes.” I was intrigued by the question posed by Professor Bruggeman at the end of our discussion with Patrick Grossi. How does one balance between the preservation of important historic sites, encourage redevelopment, and avoid indulging in the glorification of a white-washed past? Preservation is a complex problem. Freeman Tilden said the “protection and preservation of the physical memorials of our natural and historic origins is primary, of course.”

But, what if these natural and historic wonders only tell a small percentage of the story?

In a way, I feel that this week’s discussion goes hand-in-hand with last week’s visit to Eastern State Penitentiary. At one point, the Penitentiary entered the National registry of historic places in 1965 (while it was still an active prison). Eastern State’s preservation is a testament to themes discussed in Amy Tyson’s work. How does one preserve the nature of a site, but also create an inclusive experience for all those who visit or engage with the area. As developers gobble up area in developing communities, such as Fishtown and NoLibs, the history of these areas is erased. The history of these areas ranges from the 18th-century farmland to 21st-century urban sprawl.

How can cities avoid the complete obliteration of historic and authentic structures worth saving? They can move towards “adaptive reuse” programs. Adaptive reuse encourages the redevelopment of existing structures to accommodate new use. Adaptive reuse allows for the integral structure to remain while encouraging new development.

But, where do you draw the line?

Being particularly invested in the “Save Jewelers Row” campaign last year at Hidden City Philadelphia (I’m an intern there) has allowed me to really weigh on the options between demolition, redevelopment, preservation, or reuse. When discussing the Jewelers Row campaign, I have encountered various opinions ranging from “yes, save it,” to “no, it’s not worth it.” The most compelling argument to come from my interactions with the Jewelers Row problem is that idea that: “just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s worth saving.” Now, this may be true in some cases. However, I believe we can again return to Tilden to explain this issue: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Grossi discussed his roundabout way to his position at the Preservation Alliance, but in reality, he is working one-in-the-same. Interpretative engagement with audiences (be it visitors, patrons, or clients) can foster understanding about why it is important to preserve sites.

How can we move forward?

Well, we can work to help those understand that certain areas are deserving of preservation. It is also important to understand that redevelopment is not the worst thing in the world in some instances as well. Balance is hard to find, but it is necessary to preserve our past.

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Eastern State Penitentiary

Our visit on Thursday left me with questions.

What is Eastern State Penitentiary?

Is it a museum?

Is it a historic site?

Is it a educational experience or an entertainment enclave?

It’s hard to answer these questions as Eastern State seems to fit them all. Sean Kelley, our guide and Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at ESP, gave us an enlightening peak at what Eastern State is today, and that answer is: all of the above.

To answer if Eastern State is a museum, let’s return to Peale and his museum. His concern, all these years ago, was  “what to collect, how to display it, and how to teach.” Eastern State collects experiences. Experiences of inmates, jailers, and Philadelphians. They display their collection in a historic site, the penitentiary. Inside these walls, Eastern State attempts to teach visitors about the history of criminal justice and the current state of criminal justice in the United States. 

In a past blog post on my blog, I discussed the nuances between history and memory. As academics, we get caught up in defining things. Everything must be defined and fit into categories; however, life isn’t like that. Eastern State’s own mission statement runs the gambit and covers such a wide spectrum of public history fields. It states:

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.

This mission statement has not be updated since 1999, according the site’s personal website. It intrigues me. Has the site’s mission changed at all in the 18 years that have passed since this mission statement was decided upon. Kelley’s talk certainly made it seem like the site is still working on meeting its mission statement. The site’s fear to tackle race related issues shows that there is still room for evolution. Their latest exhibit, Prisons Today, only opened in May 2016 and The Big Graph was installed in 2014. With these dates in mind, I dug into the past exhibits of the site and found a lack of information available (a quick search on Google pulls up pages which reference past exhibits and timelines, but the links are dead). I can’t help but ponder the existence of time between the stated mission statement and the lack of information available. Amy Tyson discussed the grappling boards must do to meet the demands of their visitors while juggling with the intimidating past their sites have. Eastern State seems to struggle with the same problem. The Graph and the new exhibit are fascinating steps in the right direction, but what happened in the years between? I’d love to find out more about this. 

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The Participatory Trump Museum

Is there such a thing of a museum who isn’t participatory these days? Well, if we use Levi Fox’s Trump museum as an example, then no, there isn’t!

Let us first breakdown Nina Simon’s idea of the participatory museum. She writes that the goal of participatory techniques used by museums “is both to meet visitor’s expectations for active engagement and to do so in a way that furthers the mission and core values of the institution.” Mr. Fox’s engagement with the community meets this two-fold. First, his website offers community members an opportunity to tell their “Trump Story” (whatever that story may be). Second, he accepts artifacts pertaining to the various business’s Trump ran in Atlantic City. Fox’s museum’s mission is: “The Project Is A Bi-Partisan Look At The Legacy Of The Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Castle, Trump Marina, and Trump World’s Fair.” By collecting the stories and artifacts, the Trump Museum participates in the participatory field of museum work.

Simon also states, “Rather than delivering the same content to everyone, a participatory institution collects and shares diverse, personalized, and changing content coproduced with visitors.” Here the Trump Museum has room to expand. Perhaps, an online collection which visitors who have contributions can post their artifacts or stories relating to Atlantic City Trump endeavors. This could tie into Simon’s final statement on participation: “It invites visitors to respond and add information about cultural artifacts, scientific evidence, and historical records on display.”

The biggest issue that will arise from the Trump Museum’s interactions with the community is that it is a highly politicized individual to be associating with. Fox made a comment on how “names mean something,” and here, it could not be anymore true. The name “The Atlantic City Trump Museum” conjures certain images to mind. The viewer immediately knows that this is a highly localized thing. The museum also states it has to do with Trump, but does not belie any more information. This particular museum will need to hone its name down to a precise reflection to be successful.

Simon states that participatory techniques can eliminate the issue of: “the authoritative voice of the institution doesn’t include my view or give me context for understanding what’s presented.” Here, the museum will gave the most work cut out for it. Fox discussed the use of media sources to get the news out there about the museum. He also discussed how the comment sections of these media sources where incredibly intriguing.

In this day and age, anonymity allows anyone to post anything without much regret. One commenter on an article discussing the museum wrote: “Include a large hall with lifelike statues of everyone he’s stiffed over the years, and the women he’s groped.” Another said, “But if Atlantic City investors want to build one depicting his life up until now, there is nothing with putting that sort of information out there as long as it is done in a nonpartisan manner. Educating the people about Trump’s life is more important for fixing our society than scoring some immediate political points.” Most public responses seem to be, however, aggressively anti-Trump. Posts on Facebook in response to the articles discussing the museum as incredibly against the idea of a museum honoring the current President of the United States.

It’s hard to say how to go ahead with the museum. The participatory model could help those who felt victimized by Trump casino ventures to be heard, but it could also help those who had pleasant experiences at the casinos be heard. For now, it seems the best method would be to stress the museum’s bipartisan nature to usher a feeling of inclusiveness.

 

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Creative Memory: Personal History at Tyler School of Art

 

Memory is a fickle thing. At the beginning of the semester, we established two points. One: history challenges the past. Two: memory reaffirms the past.  At Tyler School of Art, I saw a mix of the two which, I think, lends itself to Michael Frisch’s ideas of shared authority. Frisch defines shared authority as “something that ‘is’–that in the nature of oral and public history, we are not the sole interpreters. Rather, the interpretative and meaning-making process is in fact shared by definition–it is inherent in the dialogic nature of an interview, and in how audiences receive and respond to exhibitions and public history interchanges in general” (127). Art installations at Tyler have a dialogue and it’s intense.

The two exhibits shown here allow for a dialogue to be had between viewer and artist. They play on the idea of memory. Reaffirming the past for myself and transporting me back to nostalgic childhood. However, these pieces also challenge history. The overtly feminized bicycle and accessories speak to gender roles of the past. The piece is so in-your-face about the perceived traditional ‘girly’ toys that it is hard to not question it, or think, “I wanted a pink bike with streamers,
or perhaps, “I would’ve hated this bike as a kid.” This piece is making a claim on feminism, on gender roles, and on history.

Kathleen McLean discusses the power of art in her article Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” In the article she discusses the success of the “conversational nature” (74) of an art exhibit curator by local teens. The same conversational nature is seen at Tyler right now. A simple shelf of Beanie Babies seems innocuous enough, but look closer and one can see commentary on past materialism or dying of a former superstar. Maybe, the idea of consumerism comes to mind. Perhaps, the 1950s boom in buying or 1990s ‘yuppie’ culture. Or, maybe like me, it conjures ideas of childhood, of your own personal history. The viewer applies their version of the past to the piece and passes it on to those around them. For me, the beanie babies evoked memories of time spent with family, but the historian of me questioned the decay of a former idol. A new version of the past is forged through dialogue about the memory evoking pieces which challenge the existing narratives. By allowing a conversation to happen between artist and viewer, Tyler is inadvertently ‘doing’ public history.

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Powel House: Preservation Gone Right?

Powel House sits on 3rd Street in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. Wandering the streets around the house, it’s hard not to feel non-linearity in history–even more so than our previous trip to Independence Mall. Each street is lined with historic homes, intermingled with new condo developments. Physick House, Caldwalder House, and John Penn House are within striking distance of the Powel House’s Georgian bricks. Like Powel House, Physick House is also a historically designated museum, protected by the same non-profit who runs Powel, but the other homes are still private residences (both currently for sale). Powel House got a second chance. After it’s long history of statesmen, lawyers, immigrants, and colonial dames, it now teaches  how preservation works. In that, it just doesn’t work sometimes. 

Powel House’s preservation is a contrived one. Standing outside it, it’s easy to think you’re standing in front of history: real and tangible. But, once you step deeper inside, you realize this isn’t the case. The house feels historic with its sparsely decorated rooms and creaky floors, which you then find out are the only original piece remaining in the home. Preservation for the Powel involved the gutting of the rooms to placed in other, more prestigious museums to display for their very own period rooms. Now, the past battles it out between the standing Georgian home and the PMA and American Wing in telling the story of colonial America. How each tells the story is yet to be seen as a trip to the PMA is ahead for me.

The preservation movement began, as William Murtagh points out, with women. Powel House is an excellent example of this with Francis Wister stepping in and saving the building from demolition. Murtagh’s second assertion is that the movement began thanks to a patriotic drive. Here again, Powel House fits the bill. It’s the house where George Washington danced! Finally, his last point is that the movement was characterized by “its reliance on private citizens, not on government, and especially not federal government.”

How the Powel moves forward interests me the most. Murtagh mentions that historic buildings and interior furnishings “were put on display in a conservative light which limited controversy and played down any unanswered questions about their authenticity.” As Jonathon Burton discussed with us, the Powel also grapples with this same conservative agenda today. Through covert social media posts, the group is able to push a slightly more liberal agenda, but it’s veiled and never mentioned forthright. This is because, as Murtagh asserted earlier, preservation is still very much in the hands of the private citizens. Mr. Burton mentioned the possible issue with being more forthright with their political leanings because of their wealthy, older, patrons would not take to it well. 

If anything, Powel House has taught me how little preservation has changed in Philadelphia since it began in earnest with Wister. Take a peak at PhilaLandmark’s website staff page and find that 10 of the 15 persons listed on the site are women. The original drive of patriotic preservation has fizzled to include movements beyond the great, white, male, America that was preserved before thankfully, but patriotism is still driving museum work in Philly (see the museum of the American Revolution for proof). Finally, as the exchange with Mr. Burton proves, the funding for preservation still sits firmly in the private hands of citizens concerned with saving parts of Philadelphia that are important to its memory.

 

 

 

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The Wagner: a Hat-trick of a Museum

The Wagner Free Institute of Science’s is a living institution with a mission. This mission has been the same for well over a hundred years: free science education for the people of Philadelphia.

Inside the Victorian building, you can find a large lecture hall and an even larger exhibition hall. The exhibition hall is home to a expansive natural history museum which holds a wide array of minerals, rocks, taxidermy, and fossils (using our previous formula established by Kulick, this is what the museum collects). The over 100,000 objects are displayed in systematically-arranged cases. Each case houses multiple groups of various groups of the animal kingdom. They also include certain natural habitats for the creatures (i.e, some of the birds have nests or branches). The museum offers a visceral experience of stepping back in time. It is both a natural history museum and a living history museum.

This living history experience carries throughout the entire building. The lecture hall boasts the seats that transport you back into Victorian Philadelphia. Steven Conn believes the Wagner is the best place “to see—to feel—the particular impulses that drove Philadelphians to build cultural institutions in the nineteenth century.” In this case, I believe the third part of Kulick’s equation comes into play: teaching. The Wagner’s initial introduction served the purpose of free education for the working people of Philadelphia.

Now, the Wagner is on a precipice. It has served its mission statement for almost 160 years, but as the cherry-and-white monster of Temple University continues to gobble up the surrounding area, it is hard to imagine what the future of the Wagner could look like. Perhaps, it could be incorporated into Temple’s world; however, the only outcome I can see from this approach would be the monetization of the wonders inside the building—something William Wagner would certainly disapprove of. Conn calls the Wagner’s dedication to its mission “heroic” and I couldn’t agree more. To fulfill its mission, I believe the Wagner must continue to teach as it does. As Temple’s expansion continues, maybe the lecture hall could be used as a space for science students, or guest speakers for the school. But, the focus should remain on the free programs that are offered to the surrounding area’s schools.

The Wagner remains a cultural institution. It has surpassed its original function of education hall for Philadelphia’s people and evolved into a natural history museum, and now a living history museum of Victorian architecture. What the future holds? Who knows, but for now, I’d say William Wagner would be pleased with his institution of education’s present.

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Independence Mall: the Birthplace of Public History in America

Philadelphians know Independence Mall. Maybe, you’ve been there as a child during a field trip being shuttled between icons and monuments. A past that you were probably in no way interested because Becky was pulling your hair or Jimmy was shooting spitballs at you. As a non-Philadelphian, Independence Mall seems different. It’s what makes Philadelphia special. As an outsider, specifically a Canadian, Philly is known for three things: cheesesteaks, Rocky, and the Constitution.

Today’s experience broadened my view of the Mall as both a new Philadelphian and historian.

We began our walk in front of Independence Hall (well, technically behind it, but who’s judging) and made our way to the American Philosophical Society’s former home and current home. Here, we are introduced to Mr. Charles Wilson Peale and his museum. Peale’s vision birthed the first true public museum in America. In his museum, he attempted to answer three questions “that all subsequent history museums would face: what to collect, how to display it, and how to teach.” Little did he know that this approach to display of history could later be applied to the entire area surrounding his former Long Room gallery.

To answer the “what to collect” question in regards to our current day Mall, we wandered the streets and took in the sites. Independence Mall has “collected” a variety of museums and monuments (which we viewed from the street) from the hallowed Independence Hall  to the Constitution Center, and the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Liberty Bell Pavilion, the President’s House monument, and a forthcoming Bible Museum.

On how to display it, the park is clearly topped with two focal points, the valuable bookends—Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. These are the most important features that the public should see, at least in the eyes of the planners who developed the park after WWII. In Peale’s sense, these buildings are the top of the Linnaean order. Wandering around the former Old State House, it was hard not to feel what Jill Lepore discusses in her book Party Like It’s 1773. A sense of actually being apart of the Founding with the Fathers of the country, a sense of non-linearity. But, to blast this feeling of occupying the same space of the Founding Fathers comes the NMAJH, which stands between the two buildings, and is emblazoned with a message from Washington boldly claiming that there is no place for bigotry and persecution in his new country (oh George, if only).

Fittingly, perpendicular to the NMAJH, is the President’s House monument. It’s home, directly in front of the beacon of freedom for all Americans, the Liberty Bell, is a reminder that freedom was certainly a term of relativity in the 18th-century. One cannot help but be sucked back into the non-linear version of history, where the oppressed feel the tightening noose of the ruling class. This fact is especially apparent as you step, quite literally, in the footsteps of Washington’s own slaves who escaped.

The “teaching” aspect of the Mall was experienced by us only in passing. We got a sense of the importance of the Founders and their Constitution; however, to
fully engage in the education capabilities of the Mall, you must venture into its various museums. If you can learn one thing from the area, as a museum itself, it is that America’s past is fraught with tension between the virtuous Republic, as imagined
by the Fathers, and the Constitution which oppressed and freed. Peale’s dream was to create a “Great School of Nature,” and the Mall that his former museum stands upon is a testament to his
need be orderly, scholarly, and entertaining. The “Nature” Peale sought was a hodgepodge of all that he constituted as important, but the current Mall has it’s obvious directives of “Nature” that are constantly in flux.

In a way, Peale got his wish. Scattered around his former museum’s home are the petrified bodies of the great statesmen of his time: Washington in front of the museum’s second home and Franklin atop the Philosophical Societies new home. Sure, they aren’t real preserved remains, but the marble version seem to have a bit more longevity—and a lot less morbidity.

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