One difficulty I’ve had this semester when considering what to write for this blog has been finding news stories about archives. While I knew I had other options and could have spoken more about in class readings, I liked the idea of responding to news stories a bit better. But consistently when I would try to search for such news much of the results of these searches would be populated with “from our archives” stories put out by newspapers, literary publications, and occasionally archives. In class we spoke more than once about archival interactions with the public, public perception of the archives themselves, and the sort of outreach and education that archivists do in general. For some of the newspapers I imagine a mix of nostalgia as well as a wish to feed the ever-growing hunger for endless content that rules our neverending newscycle is responsible for some of these posts. For literary publications these posts can act as a way of drawing attention or even riding the wave of public to a particular author or subject with a well timed post. For archives, the impulse to post mini virtual tours(a favorite of mine from the past year was a showcase from YIVO of some truly alarming wooden puppets on their instagram page) and interesting finds is out of a desire to increase engagement with the archive and bring in those who might not realize the diversity and breadth of what archives can hold. It’s something to think about how there is a seemingly unending demand for content present in our current society while at the same time there is an enormous backlog of untouched and unexamined materials in archives. There is a question of access and interest that does explain this, and this is not a critique of archives for not courting more engagement. It’s more something to consider for the future. Certain new media projects like podcasts could possibly drive more engagement with archives though there is the matter of how much labor that would require. Still, for certain universities this could be something to consider and collaborate on with students.
Racist remarks shared between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon while the latter was still president came to light earlier this year. This was not exactly surprising; Nixon’s bigotry and antisemitism had been previously exposed through similar tapes, though in this exchange the remarks were particularly shocking due to Reagan being the one instigating them and Nixon being encouraged by them. Tim Naftali who was the first director of the Nixon Presidential Library gave an illuminating interview to The New Yorker back in August that came to my attention recently and reminded me of similar issues with archives in presidential archives and the families of said presidents. In our course the issue was regarding letters that revealed years of infidelity while also giving some political insight. In regards to the Nixon tapes, they were part of a collection of tapes that span over 4000 hours. Naftali discusses how the Nixon estate initially sued the government that lead to some of the tapes being either redacted or turned over as private property, and that while the family established a private library they later gave up to the federal government. This happened around the time Naftali was director and so that was why these tapes took until fairly recently to come out. The protracted legal battles combined with sudden change of the estate deciding they didn’t want to maintain the archive themselves reflects a lot of the struggles with archiving and access as well as the interesting ways things work themselves out.
Here’s the link to the article: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-a-historian-uncovered-ronald-reagans-racist-remarks-to-richard-nixon
The article from Minju Bae regarding the struggle of unionization at The Tenement Museum reminded me of a sort of recurring joke I’ve heard over the years. It’s short and typically said in the context of a worker saying “Nah, my boss told me a union wouldn’t work here, and he usually Loves unions!” While museum has made efforts to diversify its narrative to more accurately reflect the realities of tenement life in the post war, due to the museum’s strong ties to Jewish History I did see some familiar names that came as a surprise. Labor practices in archival and public history work have been on my mind this semester; there seems to be no simple route in entering the field that translates to a Iiving wage and proper benefits, and expectations of work put in seem even more extreme when taking that into account. I’ve learned this both from learning about the inner workings of the Alley as well as from looking into some of the labor practices at one of my favorite historical institutions. Amy Tyson’s work The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines regarding the inner lives and toll taken on by public history workers/interpreters. Her analysis is primarily based in “Historic Fort Snelling” with additional archival work on top of interview work and personal experience. Due to my order of reading I took the book as somewhat a supplementary work to the article from Minju Bae and it compounded the potential difficulties I see in Public History as a profession. In the words of Billy Ray Cyrus, “Much to think about.”
This week Carmen Maria Machado released an experimental memoir, In the Dream House, and last night through the Free Library she spoke about the memoir at a free event. I was lucky enough to go, and during this event she echoed what she had said about the book in the prologue and what reviewers had picked up on; this memoir as the first entry into an archive. Domestic violence and queer people have proven difficult to find in archives. Machado recounted at the event that she had reached out to one of the most notable historians of lesbians as to whether any historical sources covering domestic abuse between women existed and Faderman was unable to come up with much. Machado did continue on in her search and in one chapter, “Dream House as Ambiguity”, talks about some of the rare cases where women who loved(and abused) other women were visible. The women she mentions in this chapter killed their abusive female partners, and Machado addresses why they are the subject of this section, “The nature of archival silence is that certain people’s narratives and their nuances are swallowed by history; we only see what pokes through because it is sufficiently salacious for the majority to pay attention.” With this book Machado is both releasing a memoir and attempting to start an archive of sorts.(Though she has acknowledged some works by queer authors about domestic abuse). While these stories can be difficult to tell, it would be something to start looking into oral histories and other sources to try to build a collection around this subject.
In a recent interview with The Cut, writer Angie Cruz discussed her creation of an online digital archive in the form of an instagram account. This archive was created due to the absence of Dominican women in the CUNY archive. For the article to lead with the creation of the archive I would have liked to see the interviewer go deeper into Cruz’s archival methods. So far the acquisition has been based around individual Dominican women and families sending in photos of their relatives with names and dates attached. The way the photos have been sent in has been digital at least according to the instagram page, which has a directive to send via email or direct message. I admire the project though I do wonder about the backup or preservation involved. In the past Instagram has never been particularly reliable for maintaining photos; there’s no backup, definite security issues due to the nature of the platform, and the possibility of mass reporting means that these photos are somewhat precarious. There are also potential issues with accessibility and how searchable this archive is. This isn’t a show of doubt of Cruz’s methods necessarily, I write this blog more due to a disappointment in The Cut for leading with the archive and keeping their exploration of it and archives in general fairly shallow. I also was admittedly disappointed in he interview for discussing the CUNY archives relative lack of documentation of Dominican women’s lives without discussing the possibility of their existence in other archives, and the entire piece came off as somewhat simplistic.
The Atlantic this week published a profile of Eric Lidji, the archivist who has taken on archiving the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting. He is the archivist for the Ruah Jewish Archives but as the piece points out, has added the Pittsburgh Shooting to his workload. At the time I’m writing this we’re two days from the one year anniversary of the shooting that killed eleven Jewish people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I was surprised but heartened to find out about the active efforts made to preserve the materials following the immediate incident.
The article is something I would recommend that everyone check out; the attention to archival practices as well as the personal investment and labor put into creating archives is striking. It also provides a small primer on the formation of Jewish archives, specifically as a result of continuous communal trauma and persecution. I would like to push back on this a bit but do see validity in analyzing Jewish archives through this lens. Historical precarity makes the importance of being able to tell these stories clear. Still, the focus on the connections to the community that Eric Lidji has made, his methods in collection of materials, and his own documentation of his process may give the public a better understanding of the diversity of archival material as well as an understanding of their importance.
In Private History in Public : Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life by Tammy Gordon private and public cross reference with high and low sensibility as well as class differenceThe idea of the intimacies that public history displays was interesting to consider in relation to Elfreth’s Alley; with the class dynamics already in place within the community and it’s current historical model in place largely due to the economic backgrounds of the residents as well as its proximity to larger historical sites achieving the sort of intimacy on display in Gordon’s work is questionable. I did take some issue with Gordon’s initial portrayal of the Yooper museum; as someone from the region it comes off a bit condescending. While I do see the appreciation that Gordon displays and the statement that she “doesn’t look down her nose” at people the sort of ethnographic style was initially off putting. What could possibly help would be looking to Stanton’s work, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City. The book is concerned with the creation of public history in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts and the cultural critique and internal conflict that formed said public history. While the labor history is unique to Lowell, and while we can see in the epilogue that there was more going on and more concealed than Stanton had initially realized it still can serve as an inspiration for the level of progressive critique that it displays.
Andrew Hurley’s book Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, was somewhat different than what I had predicted it would be like from the title. It’s not that the book doesn’t live up to the title but rather that it bucks the previous use of the word “revitalization” in connection with “inner cities” with its premise regarding collaborative urban history as a tool for preservation and renewal in urban settings. Often times these words together are advocating for some sort of coded gentrification but Hurley’s work is in opposition to this and in fact advocates giving inner city residents a sense of personal investment in historical narratives. It is completely counter to past coded use of “revitalization.” The conflict faced in trying to do public history in a capitalist society is central to Hurley’s work. Hurley uses several chapters to draw on specific attempts at such revitalization, and where they failed and/or succeeded. There is a particular focus given to efforts in St. Louis, although Hurley does attempt a broader survey of public history projects across the nation. In the final chapter Hurley makes his advocacy all the more explicit by going into research methodology and laying out a guide for public historians.
This tension created by capitalism is present from the first page of the preface In Hurley’s book and is something to consider in our own work with Elfreth’s Alley. We face a somewhat different situation due to the socio-economic differences between Elfreth’s Alley and the inner city as described in Hurley’s work, but capitalism is still a concern. Creating an exhibit or other such historical work for Elfreth’s Alley has to be done so in the context of doing “good” historical work but we also at all times must be conscious of how this will engage the public and those who reside in the alley. It’s not an impossible proposition to revitalize Elfreth’s Alley in such a way but the spectre of capitalism does hang over our work whether or not we’re conscious of it at all times. Hurley’s work while not entirely mirroring our situation does provide a guide that may prove helpful in the coming weeks.
Ari Aster’s film Midsommar was released to an abundance of praise for its bold take on folk horror. What was left out of this discussion was how Midsommar exposed the true horror of ethical misconduct among academics. Within the film five graduate students(four in anthropology, one in psychology) travel to one of the group’s hometown in Sweden to witness and participate in a Midsommar festival. Besides the native graduate student, only one of the graduate students, Josh, do any actual research before their trip. This ends up being partly responsible for three of these graduate students’s deaths, though only one is killed in retribution for an inability to respect archival materials. Josh arguably shows the most understanding of the culture of the Harga, but when he asks to take photos of a holy book of the town and is rebuked he sneaks out that night into the building where the books are produced and stored. Upon beginning to take photos he is promptly hit upon the head and killed. While this could come across as just a violation of the town’s rules, in the context of the film Josh is pursuing writing a thesis about this and other Midsommar celebrations with a particular focus on the Harga. Midsommar has since become notorious for its portrayal of a terribly unpleasant romantic relationship but the secondary conflicts in the movie are based entirely around academic conflicts; Josh also has an issue with a character, Christian, who attempts to steal his work and there is pointed dialogue regarding academic collaboration and access to source material. While in our last class when discussing ethical issues in the archives Midsommar came to mind for these specific conflicts. While folk horror and romantic turmoil stand out, it is the only film in recent memory that mentions jstor and tackles these issues.
Yellis’s work “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” both informs about Fred Wilson’s innovative work with museums and places this work in the larger context of “history wars.” This leads to a larger discussion and reflection on what makes Fred Wilson’s work seem so vital compared to traditional exhibitions; and furthermore how our connections to the past should be handled as well as why exhibitions should even be put on.
What I found particularly striking were Yellis’s three responses to the assumption made by other museum workers that people in the past are like the people of today. Yellis states that the first reason is that it can’t be true as we don’t do the same things as the people of the past, the second and most convincing is that assuming it is lazy and where there are affinities it should be something discovered, not taken for granted. The third is essentially that it is “boring” and makes for an uninteresting narrative. Yellis concludes this final point by asking “Don’t we go to museums for that kind of transformational experience?” I do genuinely take issue with this section as it simply seems to broad and that I do believe there is value in seeing the similarities between historical actors and modern day people. These observations come off as self-evident on Yellis’s part. There is no doubt experience behind these assertions but they questionable nonetheless.
I originally took issue with this due to my own historical work; while the surrounding circumstances may be difficult for certain political histories in this country the idea that people were vastly different in the past makes this work feel less important and disconnected. When taking this further to our collective work in the class around Elfreth’s Alley it is interesting to consider whether the alley would be better served by historical framing that emphasizes affinity to the past or difference. There’s been a mix of both it seems; the colonial kitsch puts up a superficial barrier between the alley’s past and it’s current visitors but the increased interest in the women of Elfreth’s Alley and their surprising independence certainly reflect a modern sensibility. When proposing what should be done with the alley I’ll certainly be keeping Yellis’s work in mind even if I take issue with parts of it.