Reflect on history. Imagine the future. Change the present.
-Monument Lab
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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.

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Seaport label
My saber label in the WWI Olympia exhibit

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.

Drawing_of_the_Grand_Staircase_onboard_the_RMS_Titanic_from_the_1912_promotional_booklet
Drawing of the Grand Staircase of the RMS Titanic, 1911 (Public domain)

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…)

The first time I remember seeing the ocean, I was ten years old. My family was in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the launch of the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission. The launch was delayed several times due to poor weather conditions, but not until after we’d arrived to watch it, and we spent a lot of time staring up at the night sky that trip. My encounter with the ocean, sandwiched somewhere in between these unsuccessful launch attempts, stunned me. I remember being awed at the smell and feel of it and the way it seemed to stretch out eternally. I remember being frightened of it the same way that I was when thinking about the vast emptiness of outer space. For me, the two will always be linked.

Bob Beck and Carl Morris circa 1954_20080305-001
Bob Beck and Carl Morris sturgeon fishing, circa 1954. From the Port Penn Area Historical Society.

When I read John Stilgoe’s “Alongshore,” and when I settle in and think about the life cycle of my net and floats and the intimate maritime connection of the historic sturgeon fishermen of Port Penn, Delaware (which is a sentence that feels absurd to type), I get caught up on their devotional attachment to something that I personally find slightly sinister. It’s weird to think that our encounters with the same body of water could be so completely diametrical.
Upon reading Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia,” I think I know why: We navigate different, if parallel, landscapes.
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In 1980, a group of Chicano artists dubbed the “East Los Streetscapers” were awarded a commission from Shell Oil to paint a mural alongside a gas station in a neighborhood of Los Angeles. What they produced was a provocative take on consumerism, community cultural heritage, and exploitation of the natural environment titled “Filling Up On Ancient Energies.”

fillinguponancientenergies
A small portion of the 200-foot-long narrative mural “Filling Up on Ancient Energies,” courtesy of UC Santa Barbara Special Collections

The mural juxtaposed images of dinosaurs and ancient Mayans next to gas-guzzling cars driven by modern-day Chicanos, pointing out to gas station patrons the implications of their consumptive act. But beyond that, Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher argue in Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals, the murals of East Los Streetscapers were produced in a formative period of Chicano identity and ideology (chicanismo). They are worth more than the sum of their parts because they resonate with a community actively navigating issues of cultural identity, assimilation, and both political and social activism against oppression.

When it was destroyed without warning in 1988, the artists sued. They argued that it ought to have been relocated, preserved via paint transfer, or at least documented and archived. Archives of these types of artworks do exist. But the issues of preserving these public works of art is thornier and more complex, to my mind, than appears at first blush.

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archives month
It’s Archives Month! Time to get maudlin.

As I become more familiar with the archival community in Philadelphia, the more at-home I feel. When I first came to the city, I was astonished to learn about PACSCL, a remarkable consortium of area repositories committed to collaborative work and consideration. PACSCL demonstrates that Philadelphia’s archives “scene” is greater than the sum of its parts, and it serves to fulfill the ideal, expressed in our textbook Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, that it is in the interest of everyone for archives and special collections to share resources and work together. I haven’t encountered anywhere near this level of cooperation among institutions in any other place where I’ve lived, researched, or worked.

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This week, our Archives and Manuscripts class was afforded the rare opportunity for a peek inside Paley Library’s treasure vaults: the archives, rare books stacks, and working spaces of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University. Some of the highlights of the tour included a cuneiform tablet, a lovely illuminated book of hours, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings “morgue file”, and the collection of protest materials from January’s Pittsburgh Women’s March.

Even after years working with rare books and archives, passing through these quiet spaces retains a forbidden, hallowed feel for me. I once worked with an archivist who jokingly described herself as one of the “top men” mentioned at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, referring to this scene:

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I made the acquaintance of my gill net and floats one week ago, and it is time to begin situating how I will apply some of the theory readings in its interpretation and analysis.

I found this week’s reading of Martin Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America” particularly compelling in relation to my objects. I’ve read this article before, but in the context of Progressive Era housing reform debates. To approach it with tangible (not to mention portable) objects in mind is equally fascinating, but in a different way. Ames argues that artifacts used together form “artifact constellations,” which in turn can reveal values and patterns of behavior inherent in microscopic moments. The encounters a Victorian might have in an entry hallway- hanging a hat, leaving a calling card, standing awkwardly waiting to be permitted (or not) into the private areas of the house- might have taken mere seconds, but the setup of the hall furniture illuminates the layers of meaning inscribed into this brief cultural action.

My net and gill floats are parts of a whole; they were used together, probably stored together, and certainly compose an artifact constellation. Without one piece of the collection, the others would be useless or at the very least would not communicate the same meaning. The accession record also specifies a hook that came with the other stuff- this, too, would be a part of the artifact constellation- but it wasn’t set up there in the archives.

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