Monday, January 31, 2011

Community Documentation from a Family Perspective - Part One

I have written extensively on this blog and in my book Cultural Heritage Collaborators about community documentation. Community Documentation (or a "Community Documentation Project") is the act of gathering records and artifacts that provide diverse information about a community in an attempt to provide a “complete” perspective of that community. My original book on the subject shows how people in localities, associations, and other so-called "communities" can work together to ensure that diverse records exist to describe a larger culture. I think that I tip-toe around the subject of how to ensure that adequate documentation exists to preserve one's particular place in history. I wish to explore that more fully now. Recently, I have been turning my attention to families as distinct and unique communities with  stories to share. I would like to impress the role that personal papers and family memorabilia have on larger views of history.

photo courtesy Albert Ryan Collection
Waltham Room, Waltham Public Library
Many cultural institutions build their collections on personal papers. Historical societies, academic libraries and other specialized institutions seek the papers of individuals for social history. The stories of individuals parallel a larger cultural context. Events and ideas that we now see as significant in our civilization's development can only be told through the papers of diverse members of society. The women's movement, civil rights, industrial revolution, technological revolution and other changes in how humans function can only be completely understood by studying the papers of the "common" man (or woman.) So it makes sense for archivists to strengthen their ties with families, teach families how to properly care for their personal papers, and encourage family members to see the importance of properly preserving their history.

Most people save sporadically and haphazardly. For example, they throw photographs in shoeboxes or leave them unlabeled in a jumble on their computers. They box some old school materials and save some kids' drawings. They save decades of receipts and financial records, afraid to throw anything away. Few recognize the correlation between their old letters on paper and the items that sit in their e-mail box. People lose control over the records they keep, leaving them disorganized and subject to degradation. They do not know what they should keep to pass on to family members, never-mind what may be important in a larger social context.      

Personal papers are key to building strong collections in institutions. If our goal is to reflect society in all its diversity as best we can, cultural heritage professionals must do a better job of reaching out to families and individuals. Call this work "community documentation." Call it "outreach." Use "crowdsourcing" or "participatory" models, but just do it. Everyday we lose valuable information that gets thrown away because people do not know what to do with it. We lose our common heritage and families lose their cultural inheritance as it rots forgotten in an attic or gets damaged in a basement flood. The key to overcoming this is to make the public a prime part of what you do and certainly target them directly in your collecting efforts. Make families aware of the value of their personal papers.

I will discuss some ways to do this in my next post by encouraging professionals to share their expertise and to show individuals that their personal history matters.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Some Winter Fun

I am deeply involved in editing 220 book pages today and feel like taking a break for some light hearted work. So... this blog post has a different, less professional, and less probing tone than usual, I think. It has been inspired by my most recent antique shop find, which is pictured to the left. I want to play up the sentimentality here to release myself from the thought of cold fingers typing away in my frigid office.

We were blessed with more snow in New England last night. (I say that in a snarky tone to get it out of my system before I move on to good-humor and sweetness.) I am not a winter person, but his charming little piece of ephemera makes it all seem less bleary. Though I do not usually like the word "charming" (because its use makes me think of those small fixer-upper houses that realtors like to describe as such hoping that you will overlook  flaws to see some kind of inner beauty), it does seem appropriate for this early twentieth century card. The sun is shining out my window this morning, which makes it easier to have spring on my mind. The flowers framing this scene and the warm, soft colors are practically making my bones ache for the garden!  I asked my youngster if she could imagine skating on those items they are affixing to their shoes and she responded negatively. I'm sure the dress-up costumes would be a hit. I'll have to remember to ask about that later. Those Victorians certainly could play up the sentiment. I wish life could always be happy little children in a garden...even in January.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: The Profile Image in Context

 While at the antique shop today, I found a few lovely profile images of women from the turn of the century. This is a pose that we rarely see in portraiture today and I began wondering about the history of it. I found Patricia Simon's fascinating web site with excerpts from her article "Women in Frames" that offers an interesting theory about the origin of women in this pose. Prior to the Renaissance, according to Simon, profile portraiture was reserved for men. Perhaps, I think because prior to this time, few women were considered to be important enough to have their visage preserved in high art (or any other art for that matter.) A few articles I've read have said that the profile grew out of classical imagery, as seen on Roman coins.  Men with prominent noses and strong jawlines, by the mid-15th century, were replaced by women in profile.

And here is where it gets most interesting for me...Simon theorizes that this format enhanced the idea of women as objects of beauty. They were shown with accepted modesty, including eyes looking away from the viewer and sometimes downcast. Simon claims that this pose also allowed Renaissance women to show off their finery without abashment, showing them as fine representatives of high culture and role models for their sex. This style was used to the same effect in the Victorian era, but can you picture Isabella Stewart Gardner accepting that kind of treatment? Consider the way she stares at you in her well-known painted image by John Singer Sargent -- almost daring you to make a comment about her femininity that she so proudly displays with her plunging neckline and tight bodice. This dichotomy in imagery reveals the struggle for women to gain equal footing with men. This is  evidenced in their historical fight for suffrage and equal rights, which  rose to prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when my two antique shop portraits were taken.

By the time the camera came around, it seems that the profile was just one of the standard poses in a photographer's arsenal. In addition to the profile, I found a frontal view of the woman in lace. Yet the profile pose of the woman (and also of the girl below) are particularly striking. They appear almost porcelain-like. Their fine features are emphasized by this view from the side that also shows off the classic curls in their hair. They are virtuous female Victorians, perhaps stereotyped as such in these images.

I wonder why profiles are not popular today, but I have a theory. When someone happens to capture my image in profile, I tend to dislike it. I do not picture myself as my profile. I want to stare at the world head on. I want the viewer to recognize me and to see into my eyes. I want to appear strong and friendly. I do not want to be shrinking, lost or untouchable - like porcelain. Has modernity chased away a women's soft decorum and is this represented in our imagery? Profile images invite us to consider the context in which they were taken. Twenty first century images represent and document the modern woman and not the ideal woman of more than a century ago. Images such as these can give us remarkable insight into changes in our society and even a pose can tell us quite a bit.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Lost Stories - Guest Post by Linda Norris

When Melissa asked me to write a guest post about the Pickle Project,  I pondered what to write about—recipes?  Oral histories?  Working in another culture?  So many paths to consider.   But historic photographs always intrigue me and they were no exception in Ukraine.

A bit of background:  in 2009 and 2010 I spent four months each living and working in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching museum studies and collaborating on workshops around Ukraine, a country I knew little about before I decided to go.   The Pickle Project is a collaboration with another Fulbrighter, Sarah Crow,  to document Ukrainian foodways, with their emphasis on sustainability and seasonality and to share, through exhibits and our blog,  that knowledge with audiences here in North America.   We’d both long had an interest in foodways, and we each found so much intriguing about food in Ukraine—pickles, but also home-made vodka, pampushki (donuts) and of course, borscht.

So I began to look for historic photographs about food.   About once a month, while living in Kyiv,  I would get up early on a Saturday, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself and take the metro over to the Left Bank on the far side of the Dnieper River.  There, in a big convention hall, often housing other events at the same time (dog show, bridal show, garden show) was a weekly antiques and flea market—in many ways, much like any you might go to here.  There’s always something both compelling and depressing about flea markets for people who care about objects with their stories intact. There’s the feeling of a huge room of objects untethered from their owners.  The market always had all kinds of things:  beautiful Ukrainian textiles,  weapons,  Soviet realist paintings and murals stripped from public buildings,  and religious icons, along with small ceramic statues,  costume jewelry and the like.
But I began to seek out historic photographs of farming, eating, gardening and the like.  And I found some surprises—that seemed not so surprising once I thought a bit more about it.  I saw piles and piles of military photographs—not surprising when Ukraine has been fought over and over during the 20th century.   I found far fewer mid- and late- 20th century photographs than you would in the United States.   Not surprising when, under Soviet rule, so much was controlled and one goal was never to stand out.   And I found so many stiffly posed group photos:  again, not a surprise when Soviet life was entirely collective.   And sadly, I also found photographs with accession numbers that had clearly come out of museum collections.
But, I kept looking and found some wonderful images that conveyed both how much has changed in Ukraine (Kyiv is a modern city) and how much, in the villages, life continues at a pace of an earlier time (except of course, for the ubiquitous cell phones!)

The antique market always brought a sense of loss to me—but it was counterbalanced by one of my favorite museums in Kyiv—the Ivan Honchar Museum.   This museum aims  “to help revive national culture, promote ethnic consciousness, and preserve and develop the best traditions of Ukrainian folk art.” And according to the museum, “ In the 1960s his collection served as an alternative to the then official ideology and helped spark a renewed interest in national culture.”

Ivan Honchar went from village to village, collecting materials including photographs and carefully placing them in albums, along with his watercolor sketches of material culture.  Those albums, which the museum is in the process of reproducing, represent a traditional culture that, despite the best efforts of the Soviets, refused to die.   Ivan Honchar choose not to represent an official state culture, but rather the culture of villages and the museum that bears his name continues to develop lively programs on folk culture (become a fan of the Ivan Honchar on Facebook and check out their great photos!)

Across Ukraine’s diverse landscape, wars have been fought, genocide has been committed, and untold many stories have been lost.  When I pick up a photograph at the flea market, I hold just one of those forgotten stories in my hand and wonder.

And in the Pickle Project, we hope to capture those individual stories, photographs, and of course recipes.   To learn more about the Pickle Project, please check out our blog and become a backer on Kickstarter by February 1!


Hi everyone. This is Melissa here. I started following Linda on Twitter, learned about her fascinating Pickle Project and made a pledge to help her capture the vital Ukraine stories she describes above. Linda's project with Sarah Crow is a fabulous example of how people can help save culture. Linda's work gathering photographs, stories, and foodways is capturing unique traditions and heritage that can be shared around the world, blending the preservation of tangible and intangible heritage. Every day, we lose artifacts and knowledge that are among the best human beings have to offer. Our stories, recipes, languages, songs and dances can only be remembered when people make an effort to pass them on. Please join me in making a pledge to help the Pickle Project reach its goal so they may document and share the rich traditions and foods of the Ukraine. Every little bit counts.

Read Linda Norris' blog The Uncataloged Museum

For more on "Intangible Heritage" see and 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Participatory Community Documentation

The archives community documentation model described in Cultural Heritage Collaborators is quite naturally a participatory one. Diverse members of communities work together to ensure that there is sufficient documentation to describe all aspects of their society for future generations. This type of collection development work involves archivists, museologists, librarians, the professional community members with whom they interact from day-to-day, and their patrons. However, the community documentation work I described in my book is from an archivist's perspective, relying most basically on our standard methods of collection development that include listing what information we seek and who might potentially have knowledge of it. My museum colleague, Nina K. Simon, helped add a new dimension to my thinking when I saw her new video"Visitors as Participants" yesterday. (Though I've read her book The Participatory Museum, there was something about her presentation that helped ignite a spark in my brain and I highly recommend that you watch it too.)

Though archivists create marvelous exhibits and have opportunities to create interactive and educational programming for an audience, this is not at the heart of what we do. I think it is fair to describe us as gatekeepers of information -- gathering, holding, and providing access to recorded forms of human knowledge for those who wish to delve into it. The resources we hold have the potential to educate, challenge, and open communication about human activities as much as a museum artifact. If archivists recognize this potential, we can find new and perhaps better ways of accomplishing tasks we've performed in the past.

Archives collection development relies on the attention of our communities. We need to explain to the average person why their personal papers may be of interest to us. Over and over again we hear stories about valuable manuscripts are found in someone's attic. Or, we hear about newly found documents that shed light on a particular issue, changing our thinking about history. Creating an understanding that the old papers may have value is not an easy task. The participatory museum model offers us a valuable method for public outreach and attention.

I am reiterating the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to work together. Here is an opportunity for archivists to collaborate neatly with their museum counterparts who are generally more expert at this type of work than we are. Through the creation of activities that invite audience participation, Nina describes institutions gathering new documentation that offers diverse perspectives on culture. The Minnesota 150  project conducted by the Minnesota History Center is one model Nina offers us. The Center sought nominations for "the people, places and things that shape our state," then created an exhibit and book based on their work. Information such as that gathered here could be a boon to archivists seeking to document humanity.

With this in mind, I will leave you with these two questions:
1. Have you explored what aspects of your community need documentation? How can you invite outsiders, who may have more knowledge about certain community activities than you, to give you their ideas about what should be documented?
2. Presuming you have a strong mission and collection development policy, and know what needs more thorough documentation in your community, how can you invite community members to give you information? How can using the museum world's participatory model help you reach out more effectively to a potential audience? Are there museum people in your community who can help you do this? How would both groups benefit?

If you are not already doing so, invite the cultural heritage professionals in your community to sit down together for discussion regularly. Explore ways you can help each other reach out to new audiences. Take advantage of your diverse expertise to make your work better and to make your community a better, more self-aware, and more culturally enriched place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Celebrating Our One Year Blogversary

Thank you to all of my ArchivesInfo blog readers for a great first year! 
I'm looking forward to exploring more of our cultural heritage with you!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Open House at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - A Family Visit

I spent yesterday on a family trip to the MFA's special Martin Luther King Day open house. It was my first time visiting the Museum since the opening of the new American wing. I interned in the archives at the museum for two years in the early 1990s as a graduate student and made many trips here as an undergrad art history student in New England, so I hold a special affinity for the place. I do not make it down as often as I would like to now and it always feels like a coming home of sorts when I enter the building.

This is still the old museum I know, but it has been pushed to exude the world class status that it should be afforded because of its remarkable collections. Right from the start, the re-opened grand entrance gives one a sense of entering a remarkable institution. The addition of the building has retained the feeling of the original building, but with spaces molded specifically to frame the collections for which Boston is best known. Sargent, Copley and Cole are among the American "masters" that are now afforded more room and are properly highlighted as gems among New England's heritage. My favorite works of art, for the most part, did not disappoint me.

This trip with my family invited me to see art through my child's eyes and I therefore did not get to do all the things I probably would have done on my own. I did not get to visit the library and archives to see if there were any changes, to examine label text as closely as I normally would, or to wander in a completely serendipitous way to gain a good sense of exhibit flow. We had specific things we wanted to see before anyone tired and we stopped to see things for which I normally wouldn't stop. There was plenty to keep my seven-year-old engaged. I found that this may be the perfect age to start seriously sharing art museums with a child. We last visited here a couple of years ago and the experience seemed more like dragging her around while trying to anticipate what might engage her. This time she was able to tell us what interested her. However, perhaps if we didn't experience our last trip here (and trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Peabody Essex and a few others in between) she still would not be in a state of mind to start appreciating art on this level, learning and taking a deep interest in the exhibits.

A free open house is not an ideal day to examine my favorite paintings. There was much jostling to see more familiar works. In fact, there were few quiet places in the museum at all. The American wing was the most popular spot, but there were people everywhere. I found some respite in the rooms of Asian artifacts, but if I were attending for any kind of meditative experience there, I wasn't going to find it. As a cultural heritage professional (you can take the girl away from the job for a day of rest, but the mind-frame always stays) it was interesting to see how the public interacted with exhibits. I assume that many people who attended were not regular museum goers, but were encouraged to come here because entrance was without charge. Many people walked around with cameras to engage in a personal way with what they saw. Most seemed to know to turn off the flash. In other cases, I saw people touching statues as in the case of one man who leaned his head on a bust to have his photo taken with it and a three year-old petting the stone toes of an Egyptian saying "foot. foot" while his parents looked the other way. I also saw people lying on the floor and walking around without shoes. All of this is to be expected to at least some extent in such a large gathering and I was happy to see people beyond what we have come to know as the average museum attendee here, but I think the museum needed to be more attentive to the crowds.

Here are a few impressions and highlights:
- I was very impressed with room recreations of beautiful old New England houses. My family and I enjoyed imagining ourselves living in those spaces and admired the true to era wallpapers and decorative sensibilities. The many period rooms added a new dimension to the experience offered by the MFA, allowing us to be enveloped in a specific time as we would in a specialized house museum.
- I was also impressed with new colors in old exhibit spaces. I found the yellow in the Roman section especially dramatic, with a clean / shiny / new feeling that I felt highlighted the objects especially well. Every space throughout the museum was welcoming and collection exhibit spaces as a whole felt more modern and cared for. Even the gray exhibit halls of decorative arts that used to lead me to the archives were gone.
- I was impressed and excited by the number of works that the MFA can now exhibit and that they have taken out of storage. Our prime regional museum should be able to display and show off its best work. It can now do so. The MFA is not only a world class institution, it is also home to New England's most talented artists who should be on stage accordingly here. We have Monets to appreciate, but I'm glad that our American artists now have the prominent wing that they deserve. 
- I was impressed with a combination of media education tools and "on spot" real-person guides. Videos immediately attracted my daughter and taught her all about furniture making. She now wants to give it a try.
- I was not impressed with parking. Parking has always been a problem here and it seems as if issues have not been resolved.  The lot was jammed by late morning - literally. People were stuck at the top of the garage with no spaces and no room to turn around. Cars should have been cut off from this area before this kind of chaos occurred.
- I was also not impressed with the cafeteria. The service was slow and there were no places to sit where we ate in the basement. We should have been informed of the eating space across the museum that we had forgotten about or directed to seating upstairs outside the gift shop. Even though parking and eating are secondary to viewing exhibits, they are both part of the day's experience. The museum seemed ill-prepared to handle this sort of crowd and there was much obvious frustration.
- I was also concerned about the lack of museum guards as we watched visitors' bad behavior. Though I do not like when guards are looming over me, seemingly waiting for me to make a wrong move, yesterday I had the opposite experience. I saw few guards and much behavior that could seriously damage collections. More attention to visitors and even some gentle museum etiquette training was necessary. 
- Finally, some of the lighting was problematic. For example, there seemed to be a glare on Paul Revere wherever I stood.

Despite a few concerns, my family had a wonderful time at the MFA. Snow is falling again in New Hampshire this morning, but I will carry the good warm feelings that the museum left with me yesterday through my day  today. I am anxious to return to Boston to see more -- but perhaps on a quieter day.

See more on the MFA expansion and remodelling

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Public library users around the world should take note of what is happening in Britain this morning. As the British Council proposes massive library closures, supporters of libraries are fighting with social media and threatened legal action. One especially clever promotion that aimed to raise awareness about the issue and to show public support for libraries got my attention this week in this article: Library clears its shelves in protest at closure threat

Though the threatened closures in Britain are startling, they are not unique to that country. Last October, Zombies marched across the Brooklyn Bridge Bridge to protest cuts to library budgets in New York City. Articles about the funding troubles of cultural heritage institutions are plentiful, even stretching beyond libraries to museums and archives. An article appearing just yesterday is the latest evidence of this trend:. NJ Historical society sells artifacts to survive 

As a close follower of cultural heritage news around the world, one thing hit me this morning as I watched #savelibraries trend on Twitter. As Great Britain and the United States are fighting to keep libraries open and the news about this is plentiful, I recalled seeing media publicity about eastern nations proudly thrusting resources toward building libraries and cultural heritage centers:

Iran: Specialized National Library Research Center to open in 2011 

China - New library for life-long learning 

And though I understand that the media in all countries may be biased, with Western nations focused on the bad instead of celebrating successes (for there are successes) and Eastern media perhaps focused on nationalism and their country's achievement, it's an important tone to note. Developing nations recognize the value of information and are trying to use it to educate citizens to move their economies forward. Are Western nations taking their knowledge and the education of their citizenry for granted? What implications does this have for our future?

So Americans should take an interest in what is happening in Britain today. Their troubles are not unique and this path they are taking is a dangerous one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gravestones - Losing Historical Artifacts and Objects of Remembrance

Copp's Burial Ground in
Boston's North End
Last week, I visited Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston. Copp's Hill is the second oldest graveyard in the City. It is also the burial place of Cotton and Increase Mather who were major figures in our colonial history. Prince Hall, the "father" of black freemasonry is buried here with a stone erected in his honor. Copp's Hill is home to the marker commemorating Robert Gould Shaw of "Glory" fame.  He was formally buried at sea, but is remembered here by his townsmen. Robert Newman, the patriot who hung lamps in the North Church window as a signal to Paul Revere, is also here... So, as graveyards go, this is no slouch... Its condition implies otherwise.

Making my way to the historic spot last week, I marched uphill in my boots and a long overcoat. Watching my breath in the cold, I felt an air of anticipation at the thought of revisiting this site that I last saw in my college years. To set up the scene and my emotionalism for what I found, I should give a little of my own background. I have been a cemetery enthusiast since my father took me through Trinity Church burial ground in New York as a youngster. He made it a stopping point on daddy-daughter work days and pointed out the headstones of Robert Fulton and Alexander Hamilton. This was among my first memories of falling in love with history, imagining people who came before me and feeling an appreciation for how society became what it is today. In college, I had strong memories of these jaunts with my father when an art history instructor included slides of old burial stones in her lecture. She discussed how this was among the earliest colonial art. Enthralled with the idea of tying my interest in art to a more general interest in material culture and civilization, gravestone iconography became a large focus of my undergraduate academic work. I received a stipend through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and spent over a year traveling through New England cemeteries to study changes in gravestone imagery. My final paper was accepted by the Undergraduate Research conference committee for presentation at Cal Tech (All the way across the country! I had never been so far from home!) Over the past twenty years, I have maintained my interest, stopping when I see little burial site on the side of the road and speaking passionately about the joys of viewing gravestones whenever someone will listen and allow me to try to override the sense of morbidity that many others feel about this topic.

The creation of a gravestone is for the living, but it is also for the deceased. Few items that man creates are consciously given this kind of status. It serves as an object of remembrance, hopefully portraying the departed as that person would have wished to be acknowledged. The gravestone becomes an historical object, that stands as testimony of an individual's life and accomplishments while also acknowledging a living bond that remains with the society that remembers. A gravestone's words and imagery tell us what was important to an individual and the person's loved ones. In the case of old grounds, the stones connect our modern society with a past that we treasure, reminding us how we got here, noting our appreciation to those who came before us, and I believe also upholding a responsibility that we have to those who are gone.

The marker of Robert Gould
Shaw is illegible

Copp's Hill is a mess. I cannot be blunter about that. One cannot even make out the words on the Shaw marker that our ancestors placed to honor this unique man. Gravestones are broken, their pieces are nowhere in sight. I can only hope that someone has them stored somewhere until they can be repaired and that they are not just gone for good. Stones are leaning into each other, many covered in lichen and with vines. There is no sense of honoring here, except for the Markers of the Mathers that some descendant likely conserved and this too troubles me. It would be unacceptable to me to watch the grounds around my loved ones rot away, imparting a feeling of some kind of cemetery ghetto. It is forgotten by those who think they have better things to do and better places to spend their money.
Broken, dislodged, and otherwise endangered stones dot the cemetery at Copp's Hill
To be fair, this is not a unique situation. In 1990, I wrote in my gravestone iconography study, "While doing my research it was quite disheartening to find some of New England's historical graveyards in horrendous condition. Broken and weathered images leave many stones as unrecognizable traces of ancestry and American history...It is my hope that through further gravestone studies, people will become more aware of the importance of these markers to those who made them and the importance they still carry for us to remember our ancestors..."

Perhaps gravestones are plentiful and common. Perhaps that is why we let this happen. Maybe we just can't bring ourselves to spend money on these old things in hard economic times. Perhaps it is an unwillingness to see beyond the gruesome and to really see these markers as historical objects... Whatever our reasons , I hope that I can help people realize that few resources give us such a direct tie to history. Those "left behind" make an effort to make a marker to remember. While personal papers can be easily discarded, a gravestone is made to survive -- perhaps for hundreds and hundreds of years if we take care to preserve them. Beyond the memories of individual people, gravestones hold information that help us better understand society's growth. Over time, the way we think about a person's accomplishments, our own role in society, and the idea of life and death itself changes. Gravestones reflect these changes in society just as much as any artifact in a museum or archive. It is a greater challenge to maintain the upkeep of on object that is not submitted to climate control and is instead pounded by all the natural and man-made forces we can subject it to, but that does not mean we should ignore that object.

The City of Boston has a responsibility to its history to do a better job  maintaining Copp's Hill. And we, as citizens of this country, need to do a better job as well. If we do not show that we appreciate this heritage and note objections to its current care, it will disappear. How can we show that we value this history? Can we collaborate to encourage and perhaps help its upkeep? What has been done in the past to secure these stones and has something recently changed that we can positively impact?  In the past month, we have heard much about the loss of historic sites in Italy in articles such as "While Pompeii Crumbles." The neglect of history should not, at the very least, occur because of apathy. We need to take note of what is happening to history and take a stand to make sure it doesn't happen here, before it's too late.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Walking Tour of Boston's North End

This past Friday, I braved the New England cold for a three hour walking tour of the North End of Boston and found that the quiet winter streets were ideal for wandering through the City. Context Boston offered me the tour to get my take on their recently launched historical seminars.

My e-mail contact described Context Boston as "a network of over 200 scholars and experts who create and lead walking seminars in cultural capitals in Europe and, now, the United States as an alternative to mass tours. Context connects intellectually curious travelers (and locals) with Ph.D. level experts for in-depth learning experiences..."

Perhaps I should not admit this, but I am not a tour guide kind of cultural heritage participant. I prefer experiencing a site on my own, doing my research ahead of time, carrying my guide book or brochure, and wandering through an institution or new city. I like going in blind, being led by serendipity and not another person with preconceived notions about what I should find interesting or a docent who tells me what parts of a history are the important parts. In other words, I am quite often the person in the back of the tour group who is reading my guide book while the group leader is speaking. (That's the part that I shouldn't admit, I think.) I thought that Context Boston might have their hands full with me, but I went in with an open-mind, choosing the walking tour of the North End over three others offered because of the area's immigrant history. As a former archivist of the immigrant City of Waltham, Massachusetts, I thought I'd be able to make some good connections in my knowledge of the subject. I had been to the North End many times as a former resident of Boston and a frequent visitor, but I was not well-versed in this particular area's community history.

Boston's North End is now known as a neighborhood composed mainly of people of Italian descent. Its contemporary standing in my mind focused on its restaurants, ethnic shops, and culinary festivals. Its history was remarkable to me for Copp's Hill Burial Ground, which is one of the oldest graveyards in the city and of particular interest to me because of my research in this area as a student, and of course for Paul Revere and his ride. The North End has a small, old-fashioned community feeling in a large city. I had invited a colleague to take the tour with me and she said that the area made her think of Brooklyn, New York. I think that is an apt comparison.  Despite this cozy sense on old narrow streets where neighbors can probably still yell across to each other from apartment to apartment (much like the stereotypical Prince spaghetti commercial from the 1970s), I always feel like an outsider when I venture through this area. I am not privy to the true character and inner happenings of the community as a wanderer on its streets, but our tour guide had the insider's view as a resident of the area, president of the recently established North End Historical Society, and writer of a book about the area's history.

The value of the Context Boston tour to me was this insider's view and the easy knowledge our resident expert had. He could not be stumped by any question (and I did try to stump him.) The very little he did not know, he would admit to and give us some other related tidbit that tied perfectly in to my questions. The guide could change directions on the fly. He tailored his tour to our interests, at first giving us some basic information and then ratcheting up the depth of his colorful descriptions when he realized that we had some historical knowledge of the area. The information he provided us ran the gamut from the 1600s to the present day and included multiple ethnic groups, who I pictured arriving on these shores pushed by the waves of the Atlantic. We talked about architecture, religion, city planning, business, and every other topic that relates to the development of a community. There was no script for our guide. He asked what we wanted to view (everything) and what we wanted to know (everything). He led the way, making sure to get in the necessary history to give us a good framework for understanding the subject, but also going off on the tangents we wanted. He was never rushed, but yet managed to finish the tour in the three hour time frame.

The story of the North End of Boston could be the story of any immigrant area in the United States, but the uniqueness of this particular community was made clear. Its early colonial history remains highly visible in the presence of Paul Revere's home and the Old North Church. It's African American roots are less visible up at the Copp's Hill burial ground. The legacy of its former Irish inhabitants are there in its street signs, old churches, and buildings once frequented by Kennedys. Our tour guide recalled the memories of the area's Jewish residents on streets where synagogues once stood. He even pointed out the last Jewish business owners in town to us. All the immigrant histories overlapped and all were neatly woven back and forth along the threads of time. The information we were given raced back and forth along the community's chronology as we rounded neighborhood corners and examined the architecture, objects, man-made and natural topography of the North End.

Though not one to take any old tour, I will again take one with Context. I have invited my husband to join me to discover the Brahmins of Boston in the spring and will seek out their tours in other cities that I visit. Their program was more of a college course by foot than the typical historical tour I've experienced in the past. I wandered the streets of Boston with an art history professor in my younger days, when everything was exciting to me and the teacher made every building come to life. Context Boston is on par with that experience of my youth. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in gaining a full understanding of a community and its history.
For more information about my tour and for more images of Boston's North End see ArchivesInfo on Facebook

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Olde Time Vacation Photos

A fun subject for taking a breather from my business planning today...

I always wanted to go to one of those shops, often found on the boardwalk, where one can dress in old clothes and have one's sepia-toned photo taken.  Maybe that's something to strive for in 2011? That should be an easily attained New Year's resolution...not an appropriate goal for my business plan, but you can see that my head is still swimming in the planning clouds...

Stamped "H. Rothman, Surf Ave & Balmers Walk, Coney Island" this image caught my eye in a lovely little online Etsy shop. Here is the kind of picture perfect memory I want to obtain in a cliche setup  - a corny, touristy image of Americana.

A quick Internet search shows that prop car images on the boardwalk were plentiful. I found images of Coney Island prop cars as far back as 1912 and as late as the 1950s. (Again, if you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I always dip my toe into research and know that I can and perhaps one day will take my inquisitiveness a bit farther. Perhaps these cars are still around today or have been brought back as Coney Island is trying to rejuvenate its boardwalk? Does anyone know anything moreabout these props?) Imagine how many thousands of people posed this way in this one car and perhaps posed in multiple Coney Island studios with similar cars. One picture I discovered of note included a group of boys from the 50s, trying to look "cool," pretending to drink alcohol (or maybe they were really drinking) in the car.

There is something about taking part in an activity that so many other people do. When you go on vacation, you want to get your picture taken in front of Niagara Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Eiffel Tower. You want to prove that you were there, but you also want to share the experience. Posing in a prop car links you to a fellowship of humans looking for relaxation and fun. You are part of a community when you take in the touristy attractions as millions have done before you. Perhaps, like the teenagers from Coney Island in the 50s, you want to put your own stamp on the scene. Through staged photos you can express who you are and define your niche in the world, while still telling the viewer that you too experienced this unique sense of place.

And perhaps my desire to dress myself up in old-fashioned garb is my own wish to tie myself to the memories of time and to connect my present to an idealized view of the past... or maybe I just want to be a little corny.

In my research, I came across this web site that makes use of modern technology to collaboratively preserve a community's memories in a fabulous way. I hope that you enjoy "My Coney Island Memories" as much as I did. Be sure to check out the visitor's comments page link at the bottom to get the full sense of the success of this project.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Stuff of Myths and Legends

What kind of object can stand as a symbol of a group's identity? How do these items become imbued with meaning? What purpose does revering an object hold for a society?

I highly recommend Gary B. Nash's "The Liberty Bell," which does a fine job of describing the history of an object from its creation through its epic rise to become one of the best-loved symbols in the United States. The tale of the "Liberty Bell" grew to mythic proportions when individuals chose it as symbol of freedom to be used for their political causes. Created as a state house bell for the colony of Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s, the bell we now know as "The Liberty Bell" was offered varying degrees of attention in its early life. Often shoved in a corner and at least once almost trashed, the Liberty Bell was just another object of times past until the late 1830s when abolitionists began to use it as an emblem against slavery. They cited its inscription "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land" to try to make citizens see a dichotomy in their actions and words. Abolitionists brought the bell new attention and new purpose.

The parts of the Liberty Bell story that rank among the most interesting to an archivist are tales that arose about the bell's place in history that can not be backed by primary sources, but appear suddenly in secondary accounts:

  • One legend says that the old bell cracked when it was rung in 1835 at the funeral procession of chief justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. By 1875, according to Nash, this story appeared in an official guidebook to Philadelphia. There are no newspaper accounts from the time of Marshall's death that corroborate this. By the twentieth century, newspapers related this account of the cracking of the bell and schoolchildren were told the story of the "heartbroken" bell. Many conflicting stories about the cracking have appeared over time, encouraging Americans to choose the story that most appeals to their heartstrings.
  • Creative journalist George Lippard weaved a story about "The Fourth of July, 1776" that romanticized the role of the Bell. It proclaimed that the bell waited for the signal to be rung after all the signers of the Declaration of Independence put their names upon the document. 
  • In 1885, the bell traveled to the Cotton exposition in New Orleans where fair organizers hoped it would help heal the Civil War's emotional wounds. They planted a story to heighten the romance of the item and proclaimed to local newspapers that a masked gang had kidnapped the bell and threw it into the Mississippi River. 
Once one group recognized the Bell as a possible icon for their cause, proclaimed the value of the item, and successfully spun a tale about its history, other groups followed suit. The bell has been used to promote such causes as women's rights, freedom for working children, and Americanization of Asian immigrants. It has become part of a "civic religion" that promotes certain accepted national mores most closely associated with freedom and national pride.

In reality, it is nothing but a rough and cracked old bell, nothing like as large or handsome as hundreds of others throughout the country. Yet to every intelligent and patriotic American it is worth infinitely more than all the rest. They would fight for it. If necessary they would go to war to protect it or to rescue it from an invader...Why? Because it represents a sentiment and an idea that Americans would die for. The American imagination has invested it with a dignity that makes it sacred and with something like a personality that endears it to every man, woman, and child who knows history. [quoted by Nash from Mires who quoted it from a late 19th century newspaper]

While some items stand as symbols from the moment of their creation and were often created with this iconical purpose in mind (ex. The Declaration of Independence,) other items are imbued with a meaning that was just not there from the beginning. The Bell had a practical function and was laid aside once it served its purpose. Individuals tend to romanticize the past and can look back into their history to seek new symbols from old artifacts to represent ideology they hold dear. We can easily imbue items with meaning that is not there. There is good and bad to this. Revering an object can draw people together. When we can agree on common values, our objects can proclaim the beliefs of our communities for us and bind us closer as a society. However, individuals must be able to distinguish myths from reality. We must be capable of using our original sources to identify the facts, allowing the legends to work only as fairy tales that can help us make a point without tying us to untruths.