Paley Special Collections

The archives at Temple really are an amazing resource, and to tour it getting a better picture of what goes on, seeing the physical rows of boxes makes the information more tangible. As students, when using online databases for the majority of the research we do in classes, disassociates us from the actual physicality of information and primary documents. The idea of an archive as a collection, a curated and connected body gets lost, jumbled in a constant stream of information that can often become confused as objective through isolation and disconnection based only on the researchers perhaps limited idea of what to search. With digitization comes a certain removal, the part separated from the whole, but also from the people, the archivists, who have worked to find connections and contexts in this body of information. John pointed out digitization and other methods to increase accessibility is part of what makes archiving public historical work, yet does this diminish other aspects of that practice, namely interpretation?

More aspects of interpretation were brought up when Josue also mentioned the idea of ownership and the mistrust of institutions pointing out the biases of who does the collecting and how that effects who can work with that material, and therefore interpret it. It asks the questions of who is telling the story through collecting certain things, or not collecting. So not only is there the level of interpretation between the material and the researcher, but between the archivist, the institution where things are being collected, and the people potentially represented through the documents, as well. The archivist has a greater responsibility to then mediate between these forces, mainly those coming in to do research, and the institution it answers to. Especially with people coming in to do research, the archivist has power to sway what they look at, the connections being made, and their overall understanding of how the material being looked at may interact with a larger context. Though the same levels of interpretation exist, this ability to oversee interpretation in a way where the archivist is literally the mediator between material and the individual is different from a museum or historical institution where it’s a given there is only so much a place can control in terms of how people respond to what is presented. So how far does the archivist go in determining how people use materials? Is curating and making that collection accessible enough, or should more be done?

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Patrick Grossi and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

The preservation Alliance works to keep what people love about Philadelphia, yet I’d bet most people don’t know the struggles of the job balancing developers and more extreme historical advocates. To see that arguably the most important type of historic preservation, saving the physical history of the city we live in, is more bureaucratic, run by about two guys, and grossly underfunded was not a shock. But it did reveal a kind of hole in public historical work, or really any sort of non-profit, liberal arts trained, historical themed profession. This is a lack of representation in the larger mainstream, whether media or government, and not only finding ways to make people care, but to work the system. Patrick talked about his experience learning zoning laws and real estate economics, something they most definitely don’t mention in any liberal arts classroom.

Not to knock the educational system, but a sort of fantasy about history or the traditional non-money making jobs exists here, not usually at the fault of those in liberal arts majors or professors, but within the larger university and beyond. Changing people’s idea about why their history matters, especially someone that has no prior interest in historical landscapes, and changing a drive to maximize every financial opportunity they come across means to fundamentally change how success is thought about. This starts in universities, where most people are to either get a good paying, but often soulless job, or do work that they love and has some sort of personal meaning to them. Patrick even talked about terms of success when dealing with developers. Speculative capitalism is their definition of success, and its Patrick’s job to convince them how historic preservation can fit into this idea and actually make them money. How do you convince someone something is important, when they already have a predisposition to think what you’re doing is unsuccessful and a waste of money, all based on the systems of success that are projected with education in this country.

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Eastern State Penitentiary

Even in the daylight Eastern State is tinged with a sort of horror. The lack of restoration makes imagining what used to happen here, the people that passed in and out much easier. I didn’t know how old the prison was, or how long it stayed open, which really changed my perspective of the space and its effect on the neighborhood that surrounds it. In learning about the history briefly, the reason to leave the prison in its abandoned state, and the restoration of the synagogue, Sean mentioned deliberating on which period of interpretation to restore. Though we’ve learned about house museums and other forms of living history, this struck me when talking about Eastern State. Even when walking into sites of preservation or museums, it can be easy and almost automatic to disassociate yourself from the past that happened in that physical location. Eastern State makes this virtually impossible, because no changes were made to the prison to make it more accommodating to visitors. The nature of the prison was to not let people in or out, but also to keep them separated, isolated, and virtually alone in when moving within the complex. This is not very conducive to large crowds of people. The historic site is a prison first, then a means for visitors to learn about the past, making its messages all the more effective. This wouldn’t of course be as effective in a house museum, and if only abandoned towns of the 1860s still were upright and authentic, virtually left untouched, their use consistent over a span of 100 plus years. Because of this definition of historical site is definitely needed to make sure viewers understand where there are, leaving them with the ability to imagine, ask questions, and are not distancing themselves as they might want to in order to remain comfortable, objective, but also complicit in whatever the guides are telling them.

This definition though doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, rather like in Eastern State, it can be clear because of the way the experience is set up. No one at the penitentiary ever said, this is a prison first, now lets learn about mass incarceration and the history of criminal reformation in America. The two blended together seamlessly because of that order. Like in the reading about the Dennis Severs house in London, the same thing happened. The house came first, historical interpretation second, and answers were left to the imagination of the visitor. From finding the address, to the entrance and path through the house, it sounded like she was trying to find her estranged great-aunt’s home and awkwardly make herself part of the family. The house is left as is, like the penitentiary, as if it has just been abandoned. The house as a home shows through more than a house as a place where mildly important people lived decades ago and very specific information can be learned.

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Levi Fox and The Atlantic City Trump Museum Project

Levi definitely had a presence, and it was one I feel like I have been unfamiliar with in all our field trips so far through the semester. It was casual, down to earth, invested in researching community in a hands on way, extremely immediate, and more completely broken down to reveal the actual struggles of starting a public history project or museum than any exercise of research of historical sites may prove. Attaching a real live person to founding an institution or collection makes its so more personal, and incentivizes a person to care and provide support. As his goals for what he wanted the museum to be progressed, being involved in discovering what objects mattered, what they were, and what narratives would be told, I found myself wishing I could resurrect my grandmother, a resident of South Jersey and old folk community center leader who frequently organized trips to AC casinos, so much so that most of my childhood with her was spent in casino gift shops and buffets. I wanted to be able to help in some way, though all my resources corresponding to that time in history and my past are dead, except my 7 year old memories of unlimited mashed potatoes and learning why tourist mugs were shaped like women’s breasts. Direct engagement with him, the process of what the museum would be, participating in his struggle, made me want to donate, to help in ways I know have never been stirred by email blasts, advertisements, commercials, or news traffic. This access to the process, which is usually not provided to the community, or all of the community, where as museum is being built was a way of participating I’ve never experienced.

I think to most people this practice of having a museum be effectively participatory is still a radical thing. Even today. This is in part because rarely museum patrons or even students don’t focus on the beginning or founding of the places we so often attend. Most people are not involved in that due to lack of press, missing the available press, and also an institution’s decision to go right for big funding instead of focusing on the populous. The other issue is exactly what Nina Simon points out as the second point of participation, essential, but often ignored, using participatory responses to adapt or provide a different, hopefully better, experience for the visitor. The questions in class pointed out the gap between participation in starting a museum and that of attending through questions about labels, the handling of the objects, knowing where they were received from, all things that are considered good practicing of history and organization, but not necessarily the priority of story telling, participating in an experience, or starting a collection that will engage. The class was clearly focused on presenting the past, but maybe not as Levi was, focused on creating the best experience of the past. In participation and tangibility or maybe some questionable practices of telling history, he will ultimately tell a broader and diverse story, than if this was focused on in presentation alone. I have still been to museums that, in fact most museums I’ve attended in the last year, don’t feel like spaces where there is open encouragement of conversation and discussion. The assumed museum etiquette rules, with no agenda of the institution or exhibition to break through suggesting a different way of acting within a curated space.

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Tyler’s Green Hallway

There were a few works in Tyler’s green hallway that stood out as engaging with the past. Actually I wrote a short piece on Palmyra as a heritage site for one of works in the hallway. Right next to this piece is a series of shelves, one on top of the other with beanie babies. We talked a bit about context, where the works are in the gallery or what they’re next to. We’ve also discussed memory and history, and how they can interact, complimenting each other, informing each other, or even inhibiting what’s being said. This work I think touches on these topics based on its placement between the large picture of Palmyra and architectural blueprints, and its use of beanie babies. The beanie babies immediately made me think of my childhood, all of the stuffed animals and toys I have stuffed in bags in my attic. They are relics of my past, collected objects that stand for specific, personal memories. This memory made my attitude towards the work sentimental. The other aspect that stuck out is how similar the presentation was to how soil layers are shown in archeological museums. From the top shelf to the bottom a gradient is created with plaster, the babies on the last shelf completely covered. The works on either side having to do with archeology and building plans colors this idea of layers of time present in the beanie baby piece.

Art and exhibiting objects in an artistic context can address more fragile and subjective concepts like memory and story telling. Art is more likely to take objects and address feeling, or induce the viewer to evaluate their relationship with an object, rather than leave it up to the visitor themselves when in a history museum. In history museums, found objects or objects with sentimental value or stories attached to them are still attempted to fit into a factual context. The viewer is often led to conclusions, rather than left to make their own. This is done by having the function and place of the object emphasized, rather than its story in a person’s life, making it personal. Art using found objects or art museums displaying them are expected to leave things open-ended, not always pointing to political or social connections. But this ability to address more emotive, subjective, and abstract ideas comes with its own difficulties, like showing many perspectives or making sure people understand that what they are looking at. It also causes people to readdress found objects. Are they artifacts, solid history, or art they art, able to be subjective and looked at without their function? Even paintings or sculpture can be reanalyzed, should they be historical documents or can we never really know what a work of art means to its society?

Other examples from Tyler’s hallway are the pieces that addressed feminism or struggles of woman. One work was of a baby deer caught in a garter belt. Garter belts like the one used, white and pink are commonly only used today at marriage receptions. This could be interpreted as how marriage has historically been a trap for women, a death sentence, or taking away their independence and ability to grow. But again, there is a danger of misinterpretation due to artistic freedom, translating history and larger concepts into visual subject matter. While being subjective, art also may not show all sides of an issue, limiting it to one visual representation. A deer caught in a garter belt in no way encapsulates the history of the oppression of women, all women, in America, or the world. Nor does it talk about the history or nature of marriage. But it also doesn’t necessarily have to. Art compared to history doesn’t have the same responsibility to be truthful, trustworthy, or fair to everyone. If anything art can be used to facilitate a conversation, but never answer fully questions about a culture or time, no matter how many people try. History, though it is possible to have subjectivity, create dialogue, and share multifaceted and complex perspectives, has certain expectations at the end of it all to be certain and absolute. When this is shown to be unreasonable, people can be confused and upset.

   

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The Powel House Museum

Walking into the Powel House, it is the high ceilings, unusual for Philadelphia row homes, that struck me first. The décor, the atmosphere seemed like time had stopped. It wasn’t my first time in a house museum, and I was ready to walk through the rooms and here a script that explained the lives the Powel’s, their influence and importance on the surrounding community and to Philadelphia itself, but instead I got story much more complicated than that, and it started with the idea that this house is fake.

 

When I say fake I don’t mean that the preservationist and caretakers of the house are trying to pull the wool over our eyes, replicate things unrealistically, or even show us a false image of what the 18th century in Philadelphia homes might look like, but they are openly admitting to the visual construction of history, catering to a certain narrative that has colored the first moments of preservation in this country around 1876, the centennial. When you think about it, it does make sense that a physical place with a long history, spanning 4 centuries, has to be rebuilt, reconstructed, pieced together to form a whole and palatable image for the house to become a museum, but the museum usually does not share this long complicated period between the time they wish to present and the present day. If anything, part of a house museum is being taught to buy into the fantasy, accepting the reality that usually it is a small, racist woman who helped to create and keep alive early American history.

 

This in itself is a problem though, among other issues, that the Powel House does not shy away from. By sharing its history, openly admitting the faults and complexity, it questions the very nature of preservation. If preservationists have the ability to construct how someone interacts with the past, both literally in a house museum and figuratively in the information that is made public, it gives them a power over how people ingest history, memory, and ultimately identity because of the way the public now interacts with whatever historical object. This is key to keeping a historic institution alive and making relevant to the lives of its visitor’s today. This sounds like an overly simplified idea, but there are many museums, house or otherwise, that cover up and ignore aspects of their history, ultimately making it hard for people today in a socially conscious, truth driven society with many complicated and layered senses of identity to connect.

 

The Powel House’s ability to allow visitors to make their own assumptions, ask the difficult questions, and expose the somewhat dirty history of the institution is what makes it a valuable piece in Philadelphia’s historical landscape, staying relevant in a dying world. I found my own connection, to the Powel House’s history in the small period where a Russian-Jewish immigrant owned the house. My father’s side of the family is Russian-Jewish and originally immigrated to Philadelphia in the 19th century. Most of the time for me, finding a personal place in early Philadelphia history is unusual, especially within landmarks. Yet because of the house museum’s open approach to presenting their history, I was pleasantly surprised and connected to the house and early Philadelphia from a perspective that was personal and revealed an immigrant population that is often not heard about in these contexts. I’m sure there are many more stories that are even more hidden, or not the usual narrative used while telling Philadelphia’s early history, which places like the Powel House could reveal to update and attract more visitors.

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Wagner Museum

The Wagner Museum at first glance is similar to all the other natural history museums you may have been dragged to as a kid. The taxidermied animals, the fossils, rocks, bones, all safely behind glass, organized by type. But as one walks through the Wagner key differences are noticed. There are no cheesy interactive lessons, paths created for you by the museum with wall labels or drawings of the animals in their habitat, not even guards or guides to answer all your questions about this species’ eating habits or mating ritual. The objects speak for themselves, and it is the viewer who has control within the larger taxonomy.

The function is not to imagine what these animals are like alive, but to recognize them as dead, and to know where they fall in the system of living things. The audience themselves play a role, for as we look at the overwhelming amount of specimens locked behind glass, existing side by side with organisms they might have never encountered naturally in life, it reminds us that we’re on top. We are the top in this order of things from the moment we come through the door, which is situated at the highest level of the taxonomic tree. This aspect is subtle, potentially unnoticed by 19th century visitors to whom this style of taxidermy display maybe have been commonplace and were not concerned with its impact on the environment. But the visitors are given complete control over the museum from where they choose to walk and even to how they interpret the specimens enforcing this idea that “man” has conquered nature. The only labels are to name each specimen, some of which are only in Latin, and today much of it is faded or overly stylized and unreadable with out some study.

This style of image based learning instead of text seems almost unthinkable for me today, because of how I am used to taking in information. To simply examine until I’ve remembered attributes or properties with no other information about the lifestyle or habitat of the animal I am looking at seems like it reduced the effectiveness of the museum. This is an effective way of learning though, especially when a museum is meant to engage and cause visitors to wonder, and continue wondering so they pursue more education about a particular area. In today’s museums most people get bogged down by text and don’t read it anyway, so to put all the emphasis on the objects it almost allows patron’s of the museum to appreciate the collection more. The museum today, and in the 19th century had supplementary classes, which aided in its effectiveness.

The unique way this museum is structured is refreshing when thinking about modern natural history museums. It also represents an aspect of the North Philly neighborhood that surrounds it that most people would not expect. Temple students tend to be narrow minded about the area they attend school in, ignoring the history and culture that it has had in the past and still contains. Being so close to a university, a place where people are devoted to learning, you’d think this would be a great addition to campus that people take advantage of, yet it still goes virtually unnoticed. Working with the university in some way, even if that means just taking advantage of how easily things are advertised on a school campus, would help with its mission providing free science education to students that wish to learn about the sciences whether they have no room in their class schedule, or can’t afford extra semesters, or just are passing the message along.

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Independence Mall

Walking around the Independence Mall, a place that is usually avoided by most habitants of Philadelphia, has shed a new light on to the post-war constructed space that before now I thought was just a horrible mistake of the times. Independence Hall is actually framed by the large green space that spans four blocks. It links the historic structure visually to the National Constitution Center, which resides opposite at the other end of the Mall. Other museums line the mall like the Liberty Bell Pavilion, the National Museum of American Jewish History, as well as large office buildings, and a block over is the Second Bank of the United States, and the American Philosophical Society. The space itself becomes a museum, glorifying the colonial history of America, as well as the new booming industry the city has to offer.

 

As discussed, this area can be considered the visual continuation of Charles Wilson Peale’s museum taxonomy, the museum that formally sat on the second floor of Independence Hall. The Mall shows the highest level, even above individual men, in the Great Chain of Being: the national government and private company. Another similarity between Peale’s museum and the Mall is their proximity to the financial backers of their respective institutions. As we read, Peale appealed to the men of the national government and the Philosophical society, only to sit right in their laps with his museum. Many of the men from the businesses that surround the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Pavilion, and Independence Hall sit on their boards, therefore having a say in funding and exhibits. This shows a continuity in who has controlled museums in Philadelphia, and reveals a possible bias in the institutions most American’s trust with informing them about history.

 

The most striking aspect of the Mall is the space’s mix of old an new, each not quite blending with each other, but existing side by side. When walking around Independence Hall, the Second Bank, and the American Philosophical Society, it is like a respite from the rest of the city. It feels like you have stepped back through time, everything preserved, even the small cobbled streets. Then as one moves through the rest of the Mall the modern buildings reveal themselves, yet are kept at bay, only further emphasizing the stark difference between the founding icons and the newer structures. The way the buildings are untouched, a pause in time continues the theme of the entire space: framing and glorifying the colonial founding of our country. This type of “founding fetish” is what Jill Lepore describes as historical fundamentalism, conflating the past and the present, and putting complete trust into institutions that exhibit the beginnings. I found this fetishization even more peculiar when we were informed that the National Park Service that oversees the landmarks has strict instructions on what say when showing people around. Peale’s museum in fact is most often unmentioned in tours, and is only paid homage to in a sidewalk engraving across Chestnut Street. This also provides evidence on the imperfect nature of museum space, questioning their place as the most trusted advisors.

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