Last semester, you may remember that I worked on an object label for a saber in an upcoming exhibition at The Independence Seaport Museum. Although I missed the opening reception while in Chicago, I was excited to finally visit “World War I: USS Olympia” over the July 4th weekend to see the finished project. I’m pleased with the result, and I don’t have much more to say about the exhibit label process per se- although if you’re interested in that sort of thing, see my classmate Ted Maust’s reflection on his own label. What I want to talk about is self-promotion: one of my least favorite things!

Having this label in a real, live exhibit was a big deal to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity and gratified to see the result. But I really struggled with where, how, why, and whether I could talk about this personal triumph without sounding vain or (even more horrifyingly) boring. I waffled. And then I put it out there.

Seaport label
The label in question, along with bedraggled author.

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This is the second of two blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.

“With Chicago, to know is to act.” -Charles B. Ball, chief inspector of the Chicago health department, on the Municipal Museum’s ambitious aspirations

I’ve spent some more time thinking about my trip to Chicago, and really considering how an organized tour of a city so packed-to-the-gills with Gilded Age splendor could reasonably and sensitively contextualize that gorgeous opulence alongside the sort of quotidian social history that I loudly advocated for in Pt. 1 of this series. I do think it’s possible, and here’s why:

Rookery Building
Steel skeleton detail in the light court of Burnham & Root’s Rookery Building. Photo my own.

In telling Chicago’s history, between all the beautiful buildings and industrial horror stories, I think it’s easy to forget that the city was once a place for radical experimentation. The first things in this vein that come to my mind are the settlement house “mecca” that is Hull House, and the “Chicago idea” of anarcho-syndicalism endorsed by the Haymarket demonstrators of 1886. But even the villains of the age, manufacturing giants like Philip Armour (meatpacking) and George Pullman (railroad cars), were undoubtedly innovators of their time, no matter how greedy and unprincipled. So were the architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, who pioneered the use of steel frames in buildings. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.)

My point is only that there’s more overlap than expected between these divergent personalities and value systems in their capacities to experiment with some then-radical ideas. One of these experiments, that I happened upon while doing thesis-related research, was the short-lived Municipal Museum of Chicago. (more…)

This is the first of two blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.

All I Really Want to Know

Witness above my state of mind halfway into the VSA Chicago Summer School. You know– just typical, casual vacation thoughts.

I set out for this highly-anticipated educational adventure on June 14th. A hellacious, weather-delayed 23 hour journey to Chicago allowed me, at the very least, to finally read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. In my sleepy delirium I may have taken too much from it, but I think it provided a nice amount of beautifully-written backstory for me to feel vaguely acquainted with a city that I’d never visited before. In it, Cronon argues that the intertwined nature of “city” and “country” are well-illustrated within Chicagoland history. One could not exist without the other, and it is therefore misleading to think of them as disparate entities.

Particularly resonant was the book’s structure recalling childhood journeys into the city; I can relate to that, and it got me thinking. Like Cronon, as a child, I had very distinct ideas about what defined a city: Fire-belching smokestacks, panhandlers, police sirens, unfamiliar smells, and huge buildings. Whenever I entered this space, seemingly so different from my suburban stomping-grounds, I found it sensorily overpowering and existentially confusing.

The very same things that I found overwhelming as a child now fascinate me. As I’ve mentioned before, I love cities. It doesn’t bother me that they’re fast-paced and smelly and loud: to me, they feel alive. Cities are made of thousands of moving parts, most important of which are the people.
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Last week, our Facebook overlords kindly reminded me that it had been one year since I accepted Temple University’s offer of admission. The journey began long before that point, of course, with applications, the GRE, campus visits, etc., etc. But for all intents and purposes, it has been a year since took the plunge and committed myself to the #gradschoollife at Temple.

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I’m sure the purpose of this feature is to spark nostalgia and reflection, and naturally to fuel ad revenue. I’m sure Facebook will be happy to know that they have succeeded in the above, as I’ve been reflecting upon the past year and how stark of a difference it has made in my life.

In some ways, the hardest and most intimidating part of the process was the decision to actually move to Philadelphia from Baltimore, a city that I love and that feels like my home, as anyone who knows me can attest (sorry not sorry, all). It was scary and stressful and exhausting and lonely and sometimes miserable. But I did it. And I think this first hurdle has made it so that any other challenge I’ve encountered along the way has seemed trifling in comparison, or at the very least surmountable.

Five years ago (heck, even three years ago upon my graduation from college!) I would never have dreamed that I would present on a conference panel, much less that I would plan, organize, and execute an entire conference. This summer I will work as a Fellow at the American Philosophical Society, attend the Victorian Society in America Chicago Summer School, travel to Savannah and Hartford for my job at the Decorative Arts Trust, and see an exhibition opening at the Independence Seaport Museum that features labels I wrote about World War I. Part of me is still shocked. This year has likely been the most productive of my entire life, and I literally had no idea I had it in me. Discomfort is the origin of growth? Maybe so.

Obviously I could not have done these things alone- another important lesson of the past year. For that, thanks are in order, specifically to Chelsea Reed and Rachel Craft, who I am lucky to call my friends, colleagues, and teammates in conference planning, budgeting, marketing, and orchestration; to Michelle Fitzgerald, Jacqueline Cast, Ted Maust, Gary Scales, and Holly Genovese, whose infectious enthusiasm, staunch encouragement, and brilliant ideas keep me striving for bigger and better academic things; to my supportive and inspiring adviser in the Temple History Department, the marvelous Dr. Hilary Iris Lowe; to my terrific and talented public history cohort; and last but never least, to my husband Peter, who gets it, and who embodies patience, kindness, and all of the other facets of love.

Thanks for getting maudlin with me. May your discomfort urge you on to growth!

P.S. Seriously: Baltimore.

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It all started when I caught wind of the #museolutions Twitter hashtag. I had to get in on it- this was a resolution I could actually keep! So I set a goal for myself in 2016: “More.”

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How did I do? In 2016, I visited 28 new museums, historic sites, and cultural centers.

What did I do differently? I decided to take a more mindful approach to visitation, keeping at the forefront of my thoughts that each space is constructed deliberately. In considering exhibits this way, I think I discovered much about what makes sites and exhibitions enjoyable, relatable, and educational (for myself, anyway). I also think this slowed-down approach helped me to just take in and enjoy my surroundings. I deeply appreciated every single institution that I went to this year, and I made it a point to share the love via social media and word of mouth.

What did I learn? I realized that while I do learn from these sites (and I value that greatly) I also get a good deal of satisfaction from experiencing the power of place. That sort of memory seems to be the kind that stays with me. I don’t remember the object labels at the Tate Britain but I remember standing dazzled in its long lovely galleries. I remember feeling so saddened that so many of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, established as a peaceful link between immigrant groups, seemed so neglected even in their centennial year.

What’s next for 2017? While I think my 2016 museolution of “more” was worthwhile, I realized that I don’t think I need a motivator to visit more museums! I love doing it anyway. So this year, I’m going to make my museolution “giving back” to the museums and cultural institutions that I love. I want to advocate for their funding, to become a member of the places closest to my heart, and to volunteer my time and energy.

If you’re interested, here’s a list of the 28 new places I enjoyed in 2016, arranged by state/country:

DC:

Delaware:

Maryland:

New York:

Ohio:

Pennsylvania:

The UK:

Canada:

Welcome! I’m Cynthia Heider, a public history graduate student at Temple University. I look forward to filling this blog with lots of musings, etc. but I’m afraid it’s rather empty at the moment.

Stay tuned for more (hopefully) interesting content, but for now enjoy this 1880 E. Sachse & Co. lithograph of Baltimore facing south from the Washington Monument.

The City of Baltimore, MD in 1880. View from Washington Monument Looking South.
1880 Lithograph by E. Sachse & Co. Digitized by the Library of Congress: https://lccn.loc.gov/96512994

I love this bird’s eye view because I can’t figure out how it was made in an era predating the airplane. It also provides a rare glimpse at a landscape that has changed so much in the intervening years. In fact, there is no longer any trace of many of the buildings in the background- they burned to the ground during the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.