Archivists need an elevator pitch. They need to use it widely and often, and they should encourage the people who work within them (for example: historians, teachers, genealogists, and journalists) to have one at the ready, too. Out of sight often means out of mind, and this undoubtedly extends to the visibility of archives and …
Because the calendar seems to have reset to 1899 (or a dystopian 2099?), last month the billionaire owner of a major online news syndicate shuttered the sites a week after newsroom workers formally declared their intention to unionize under the Writer’s Guild of America East. On November 2nd, Gothamist and DNAInfo CEO Joe Ricketts replaced the front pages of the websites, including Gothamist’s many local subsidiaries, with a letter explaining that he had decided to discontinue publication:
What happened next was akin to hysteria, as the worst nightmares of journalists and digital archivists appeared to have come true. Contributing writers use their published articles as a form of portfolio for acquiring new work. So when it was discovered that as of 5pm the site’s thousands of articles – amassed over over a decade – were no longer accessible, panic began to spread among journalists. The internet black hole appeared to have opened up and swallowed their livelihood, just like those skeptics among us had always warned it would.
I’m frequently shocked at how much of the world I’ve been missing out on when I occasionally stop to look up. Recently, walking through Center City on Walnut Street for the thousandth time, I happened to turn and catch a glimpse of a plaque on the site of the house of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, practically indistinguishable from the identically-colored plaster surrounding it. Reading the inscription (“He taught us the use of rest for the nervous. He created ‘Hugh Wynne.’ He pictured for us ‘The Red City’ in which he lived and laboured from 1829 until 1914.”), I felt myself getting angry, and then sad. Silas Weir Mitchell, of the fabled and ineffective “rest cure” for “hysterical” women – “a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet, and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise” – lived here. That S. Weir Mitchell, the one who so harmed Charlotte Perkins Gilman that she was inspired to write The Yellow Wallpaper, lived here. How ghastly.
Still agitated by the time I reached home, I undertook an angry Google search. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but what I found was a brilliant article entitled “Crying in the Library” on the blog of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In the piece, researcher Heather Christle describes her experience sorting through Mitchell’s correspondence and diaries in the archive, and how overcome with emotion she became as she read about his own bouts with grief following the death of loved ones. She began to cry (certainly not covered in the Archives Usage Policy) and retreated to collect herself following this empathetic outburst. (more…)
As part of an exercise in analyzing the physical surroundings of Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, and more specifically the Cruiser Olympia, our Studies in Material Culture class took an hour to walk around the area and observe its “mnemonic landscape.” In practice, this meant that we examined the types and locations of various memorials, monuments, and historical markers that contribute to the neighborhood’s “feel,” and the spatial experience that a tourist or visitor to the area encounters even before they arrive at the museum and board the historic warship. I previously wrote about the museum’s interpretation of the ship (“Olympia in Juxtaposition”), expressing the opinion that Olympia’s contrasts (old/new, officer/sailor, luxury/austerity) are what make it uniquely interesting. My recent excursion among the monuments has convinced me that the same is true of the memorial-but-not-memory-heavy areas of Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. Although the indicators of contrast are less visible to the naked eye – thanks to the efforts of “urban renewal” – they remain embedded in the landscape.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the origins of the “public museum”- a institution open to visitation by a general audience and sensitive to the societal needs of recreation, education, inspiration, and relevance. One of the largest categories of such museums, early on, was akin to a natural history museum: full of biological specimens, mineral samples, and other evidence of the marvels of the natural world. A major player within this particular subset of museums is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In fact, as of 2015, this institution was the third most-visited museum in the world.  It houses five million plant specimens in its Herbarium, and has recently launched a herculean project to digitize them all, along with their documentation, to be put online in a publicly-searchable database.
The result is a massive, mostly untapped dataset. Convinced that this collection could reveal big, important things when analyzed in the aggregate (as “big data”) the Smithsonian engaged data scientists to employ deep learning techniques on the digitized collection that would enable automation of sorting tasks. The published findings suggest that computers are well-equipped to handle these sorts of tedious time sucks- in this case, sorting specimens that contain mercury stains, and sorting two physically similar yet distinct plants- which have normally been performed by human beings.
They’re coming to get you, Barbra. This iconic line appears in the very first scene of George Romero’sNight of the Living Dead (1968), one of my very favorite horror films. It’s a terrific example of dramatic irony- Barbra is right to be frightened walking through a graveyard, but not for the reason for which her …
This view of the marshy shore of Port Penn, Delaware looks charmingly bucolic, and it lends itself to imagining the lives of the people who lived and worked in this area at the turn of the 20th century. But looks, in this instance, are terribly deceiving. The landscape and culture that supported the sturgeon fishing …
Reflect on history. Imagine the future. Change the present.
-Monument Lab tagline
It’s taken me about three weeks to gather my thoughts about the Monument Lab program that I attended at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, entitled “Monument Lab Live: Hidden Histories and Missing Monuments.” This was the first event I’d been able to make it out to, although I first heard about Monument Lab back in June, contributed to the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and shared my excitement with others via various social media platforms.
This past week I boarded Cruiser Olympia at the Independence Seaport Museum for what I think was the fourth time. I’ve found myself getting more familiar with the space as I experience it in different ways: viewing it first as Artship Olympia, showing it to friends visiting the area, mining it for background while writing an exhibit label for World War I Olympia, approaching it from the outside via rowboat, revisiting my favorite spots and, finally, venturing into the engine hatches and the claustrophobic guts of the machine. A lot of the charm comes from the ship’s persistent atmosphere of what I can only think to call “in-between.” As Curator of Historic Ships Kevin Smith noted as he guided our tour through the ship, Olympia’s 1892 construction date (and the curatorial decision to focus interpretation in on the years 1902-1911) means that it remains indefinitely straddling eras characterized by extreme instability.
The “in-between” is one of the things I love most about the Gilded Age (my area of specialization). Its defining characteristic is the push and pull of radically different methods of governance, foreign policy, social stratification, and implementation of rapid technological innovations. It’s impossible to categorize this era as either opulent or squalid. It wasn’t either socially progressive or fervently militaristic: It was both. I find that tension fascinating. Olympia’s embodiment of these contrasts is what makes it so exceptional.
Smith also mentioned that he sometimes has to address visitor misconceptions, including reiterating that the Olympia is obviously not the Titanic. It might seem like a stupid comparison. But I think that’s actually a pretty valuable insight on the part of visitors, specifically the type who have had limited exposure to vessels of any kind circa 1912. They’re signaling that they already have a certain amount of cultural understanding of the site: they probably understand, for instance, that there were obvious and stark divides along class and rank lines. They may also understand something of the geopolitical situation of the time period, including difficult topics like American discrimination, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. If the visitor is already primed in their knowledge of these broad issues, even just by having seen a ridiculously inaccurate mid-1990s blockbuster film, this saves everyone the work of having to explain these things before they can even board the ship. So my question is: How can Olympia best acknowledge the cultural familiarity that visitors already have, and use it to deepen their understanding of the ship from 1902-1911? (more…)