Organizing an Object Lesson

The counterargument presented by Schiavo at the beginning of Object Lessons, in which she cites those who have questioned the necessity of objects in history museums, left me feeling a bit confused. Perhaps I have just not visited enough theory-based exhibits to understand the concept. If not objects, then what? What are our conclusions about historical “themes and ideas” to be based on if not objects and writings from the past? If museum curators aim solely to impart “messages and morals” through wall texts and displays, what is to stop them from making wide, unfounded generalizations about history? Without objects to illustrate the curators’ points, the public would not be able to determine for themselves whether a certain conclusion is true or not.

I was far more familiar with the idea of an “object lesson,” as we had spent a lot of time discussing this in my Exhibition Seminar last year. We had examined a series of photographs known as “Portrait Types,” which featured many people who had been part of ethnic displays at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. There was definitely an idea or goal behind our exhibition, namely, to try and recover the individuality of those who were reduced to racial types in the photographs. However, we were acutely aware that some exhibitions “feel like work” due to an overuse of explanatory wall texts, and we wanted to determine whether our objects could speak for themselves. We intended to produce a similar arrangement to that of the American Stories exhibit described by Schiavo, in which short but meaningful texts serve to support the objects rather than overshadow them. At the same time, we wanted to avoid seeming like the absolute authorities on the subject, and so tried to encourage spectators to engage with the objects and question them themselves. It was often difficult to translate these goals into the exhibition layout itself, and in doing so we could not be sure that the public would react to the objects in the way we had hoped. However, in the end, I think that an object-centered exhibit is the most effective in imparting information to the public in a way that is enjoyable enough for them to seek it out.

Someone Please Help Me Tease Out This Thought??

In Dolores Hayden’s The Power Of Place, Hayden talked a lot about allowing people to claim a space as their own in terms of memory and public history. By allowing oneself autonomy of a space, people are granted agency of a history. Agency is vital to the understanding of the history of a place, especially if that history is shared within a community. Hayden specifically talks about Women and People of Color in these instances, and allowing members of these groups to find a place for them in the larger societal narrative. The role of the community for remembrance is key for the successful continuation of a narrative. However, this places a lot of pressure on the people directly involved to ‘tell the tale.’


Hayden writes, “While interdisciplinary, community-based projects are not always easy to accomplish, they are not necessarily enormously expensive. They require a labor of love from everyone involved, transcending old roles and expectations, but these are not-million dollar projects.” That’s super great, and inclusive, but is it really? Sure, from a pure economic stand point, certain types of collections are relatively inexpensive. But what about for people who can’t afford the time to collect materials, create a collection, pay/give time to continue the collection, etc.?

I guess what I’m really thinking about is Detroit.

My family comes from Detroit, and arguably, it’s one of my favorite cites.


Unfortunately, when the auto-company took a hit, so did the economy of the city.

The Music Hall

Obviously, all of Detroit does not look like this. The city has campaigns to boost tourism to the city, as well as to Michigan in general.

But what I am saying is that certain sectors of the city are no longer serviced by the police or firefighters, and do not receive electricity or power. That’s a pretty big deal, seeing as people still live in those sectors.

The thing is, Detroit has a super amazing history. Besides the car industry, it’s common knowledge for people from the area to know about pewabic pottery, the alcohol smuggling during prohibition, and The Cadieux Cafe.

The only place in North America where you can Feather Bowl. Also, has really good food. Would recommend the clams.

I don’t think that it’s up to the people to continue the history, because so many other things are pressing down on them. But I do think that it’s important for them to have a voice in the way that their history is remembered. I’m trying to grapple with this idea- I want history to be remembered through the voices of those living in it, but I don’t want the pressure to be on the people to recount the events, especially when so many other things are going on.


I guess what I’m saying, really, is: I don’t know what to think- I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, and they both are very, very privileged spaces to be in. 

The Black Campus Movement and Memory

In reading about the Black campus movement, I was immediately struck by how it is absent from our public memory, even in activist spaces. We remember Kent state but not the incredible violence Black students faced, the 13 people who were literally murdered. Colleges don’t want to acknowledge this violent history, which illustrates how as Spade said colleges are political spaces, invested in white supremacy.  I thought about how these schools were similar to and different from Bryn Mawr. It seems like schools with larger Black populations demanded larger programs, while at schools like Bryn Mawr students wanted cultural centers. This makes sense because they kind of needed a bubble within a bubble. I also think schools like Bryn Mawr might have been less violent because of the facade of liberalism, which tries to be more subtle in its exploitation.

I was especially struck by student and staff collaboration, and how little success this had compared to other demands. Universities first care about their own financial interests, and their students as clients. In that way, it is especially important that students were willing to give up their own class status to side with exploited workers of their race. It is only when there is real solidarity between communities that revolution happens. You can also see this in things like the 3rd world student alliances, which allowed for much of the strength of the movement. I wonder how we can create those alliances in the present, when I see a lot of groups at schools like Bryn Mawr working separately. How do we connect Black struggles to BDS for example?

Images of Activism and the Reality

Reading the “Minutes of the Black Studies Curriculum Committee 05/08/1969” made me reflect on concepts of 1960s and 1970s college student activism that I held. I think for many students in college now, this period of time seemed like the golden age or the beginning of student activism. The way that we look to these activists of the past is evident in the references that we make in planning our campus activism and also in the way that we dress and conduct ourselves. I think in many ways, student activists today try to emulate the activists of this period. I think this idolization comes from the books and films we see of this period. The first sentence of Ibram H. Rogers The Black Campus Movement begins:  “Fists balled and raised, black berets, head wraps, swaying Afros, sunglasses, black leather jackets, army fatigue coats, dashikis, African garb, with Curtis Mayfield singing “We’re a Winner” in the background, shouting from fuming lips and posters in the foreground…” (Rogers 1) This is an example of the portrait of student activism created that adds to the mythology and the reverence that we give to student activists from the 60s and 70s. When current students look to these historical examples broadly and try to emulate them, they can feel that they are falling short of what their examples did and their commitment.

When current students looking to make changes on campus look solely to the results of students organizing, for example around the concern for a Black Studies concentration and minor, it is easy to assume that this work all happened with grand heroism. The students made demands and eventually with lots of work those demands were met. Reading the minutes gives a fuller and much more relatable view of student activism than what is normally portrayed. The minutes could have come from a meeting that happened last week. The same struggles of trying to have a conversation with those holding different personal interests in that conversation existed. Creating a plan for action seemed as difficult in this conversation as it was in a planning meeting I was a part of yesterday (about a different concern). This reading helped to break down the illusion of perfect grace in historical student activism. Making these documents available on the Internet is helpful for student activists today looking to historical examples. It is helpful to understand that many of the struggles are the same. Additionally, the format of the timeline helps to highlight how long these movements take and the not always so heroic and graceful looking means by which change happens.

Access Denied

Reading Swarthmore’s “Black Liberation 1969 Archive” as well as Princeton’s ASAP initiative reminded me of a session that I attended during the Community Day of Learning about archiving activism and the parameters as well as boundaries around archiving that type of history.

Bryn Mawr as a college did not officially commission its own archival collection until 1980. This means that students and other members of the College were relied upon to keep track of the documentation of their own histories before then (and this continues in part today), with only scattered record keeping at the College to assist them. This has lead to archives, like Bryn Mawr’s, where the majority of it is filled with materials from wealthy, White alumnae who have historically constituted a part of the College identity but aren’t the complete and total narrative of the community.

Activist materials aren’t featured more prominently in archives for various reasons related to the aforementioned explanation. In the case of Bryn Mawr and many other current archival spaces, the apparatus for preservation wasn’t in place before a certain date. Going off of that, most archival spaces have not been created with activism in mind and have therefore not reached out to activists or other purveyors of activist culture. For Bryn Mawr, activism wasn’t considered central to the identity of the College at the time it began seriously collecting materials by those who were organizing that collection.

The ability to craft narrative within an archival space is important but what do you do when that space was not created with you or your interests in mind and is run by someone who continues to perpetuate that way of thinking? That is the question that activist culture has to deal with.

Reflection on Campus Survey

Throughout the process of the campus survey, one of the things that really struck me was the different presentations of history within various campus spaces. Bryn Mawr’s history was characterized in radically different lights, depending on the coded “use” of the space.

History in the admissions building, obviously used almost exclusively by the public and prospective students/families, consisted of a big display for Hepburn, a bunch of stock photos of campus architecture, and a plaque dedicated to a chairman. Books written by faculty and alumni were available, but not displayed as prominently and they did not appear to be as handled as the battered Hepburn books.

Other areas are similarly formal. The main floor of Canaday and its nameless photos of benefactors. The cloister and the indescipherable plaques and the enigmatic broken coffin. Thomas Great Hall and the presidential portraits. However, some of these spaces contrast strikingly with themselves. Other floors of Canaday, especially those populated by student carrels, display posters, murals, and other works more representative of how the students view Bryn Mawr and its history. The cloister hosts events, specifically Lantern Night, that is tied in deeply with BMC history. Next to Thomas’ presidents stands Athena and her offerings, a living part of BMC history and tradition.

For me, the coded use of space has intense ramifications on what type of history can be displayed and in what manner. Public-usage spaces are required (by whom? Admins? To me, required by assumption and expectation as much as by administration) to present a specific perspective on Bryn Mawr history for marketing purposes, as well as general acceptance in the community at large. Student-usage spaces, however, can be far more open and present a radically different portrayal of BMC history, one that is more amenable to the current student-held values and aspirations.

Even so, I dare to venture that both present a polarized view of BMC’s history. While there is no “true” history to ever be found in any case, regardless of what one is studying, a more accurate historical representation may be found somewhere between both poles. Regardless, I wonder if that search for accuracy would even prove useful in a public history setting. The end result may only serve to alienate both groups, representing neither fully enough to be embraced on either side. Such representations are professions of identity, as much as they are displays of history. Both sides are saying, differently, “This is who we are, based on who we were.”

Interfacing Between the Micro and the Macro

I was surprised when I read that the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS) chose to end their sit-in at Swarthmore College in 1969 before the administration had met their demands, mainly related to increasing black enrollment, because the President of Swarthmore, Courtney Smith, died of a sudden heart attack.  Reading this astonished me because the death of a college’s president, in the middle of protests over demands he was refusing to meet, seemed so unlikely, both in its timing and its unforeseen impact on SASS’ sit-in, that I had a hard time believing it happened.

But while this individual turn of history is surprising and tragic and important, what it got me thinking about more is the various levels on which history can play out.  In the case of BCM, there’s individual campus movements–as documented, for example, on Black at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore’s Black Liberation 1969 archive–and then there’s looking at the overall trends of BCM movements on the national level, which Ibram H. Rogers does effectively in The Black Campus Movement.  Obviously the individual and national, micro and macro, levels of history are not at all separate, but I do wonder about the complexities of having conversations about individual change on individual campuses when those campuses exist in a national context, and having conversations about movements on a national level when individual cases can be so idiosyncratic.

The course of Swarthmore’s black campus movement was altered by the surprising death of its president; understanding how President Smith’s death affected SASS’s activism is key to understanding Swarthmore’s history, but probably wouldn’t make it into any book on the scale of Rogers’.  When compiling resources for projects like Black at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore’s Black Liberation 1969 archive, how can one balance the need for national context with the attention to individual turning points?  How can campus activists advocate for change on their campuses that is rooted both in their individual campus’ history and a national or international context?  If one is looking to archive student activism at a specific college or university, like Jarrett Drake is at Princeton, what role can archives play in mediating between the micro and the macro of history?  Should college archives just document materials relating to their college, or should they attempt to archive materials that help illuminate a broader context?

Some of these questions feel like they should have simple answers, but the more I think about the readings for this week, the complicated interconnectedness of the national BLM movement and specific cases at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr with their specific contexts and turning points, I’m not so sure where the line can be drawn between one college’s history and the history of a national college movement.

Archival Work is So Emotional?

Honestly, this week’s readings overwhelmed me. I think I was over-identifying with Jarrett Drake and also the archival efforts that Lae’l Hughes-Watkins write about because of my role as an editor of the college news. When Drake wrote, “You matter. Your experience matters. Your activism matters,” I had this weird moment where I realized that I wrote almost identical words, or expressed an extremely similar sentiment, in a couple of the letters from the editors last semester. It’s hard work to convince people that archives matter, it’s so emotional. It really is a lot of convincing people that they have important things to say and are valuable…which is really intense emotional labor.

It’s bizarre how much care-taking is involved with archiving, which Hughes-Watkins refers to when they talk about the challenges of the oral history project being gaining the interviewees’ trust. At the same time, it makes a lot of sense because you’re working with people’s stories, which in the end is all we have. It reminds me of this anthology of Latina narratives called Telling to Live–here’s the summary of the novel from the Amazon page (hehe):

Telling to Live embodies the vision that compelled Latina feminists to engage their differences and find common ground. Its contributors reflect varied class, religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, sexual, and national backgrounds. Yet in one way or another they are all professional producers of testimonios—or life stories—whether as poets, oral historians, literary scholars, ethnographers, or psychologists. Through coalitional politics, these women have forged feminist political stances about generating knowledge through experience. Reclaiming testimonio as a tool for understanding the complexities of Latina identity, they compare how each made the journey to become credentialed creative thinkers and writers. Telling to Live unleashes the clarifying power of sharing these stories.
The complex and rich tapestry of narratives that comprises this book introduces us to an intergenerational group of Latina women who negotiate their place in U.S. society at the cusp of the twenty-first century. These are the stories of women who struggled to reach the echelons of higher education, often against great odds, and constructed relationships of sustenance and creativity along the way. The stories, poetry, memoirs, and reflections of this diverse group of Puerto Rican, Chicana, Native American, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Sephardic, mixed-heritage, and Central American women provide new perspectives on feminist theorizing, perspectives located in the borderlands of Latino cultures.
This often heart wrenching, sometimes playful, yet always insightful collection will interest those who wish to understand the challenges U.S. society poses for women of complex cultural heritages who strive to carve out their own spaces in the ivory tower.

I included this because I think this book says something about trust, ownership, and storytelling. This book is complicated because I wonder if the Latina’s who offer their stories would feel comfortable participating in an oral history project, for example. It seems to me that they chose to create an anthology because they needed a separate space–which makes sense to me. It’s frustrating because as a Latina I completely understand not trusting institutions (archives or even a newspaper like the college news) with the stories of marginalized groups. I guess I’m just so overwhelmed because if I want to be someone who works in academia and academic institutions, it hurts me to know that I can’t be my community’s safe space. No matter what I do, it feels like the harmful history of the spaces I choose to be in will alienate me from the communities that I say I’m working to heal.

Investing in the Archives

The “Announcing ASAP” post from Princeton brings to mind many things we’ve talked about over the course of the semester, both in relation to archives and alternative histories but also just about mass involvement in the creation of history.

I was particularly surprised by how much Jarrett Drake’s announcement reminded me of Filene’s piece on “outsider history-makers” from the second week of class. Like Filene, Drake is arguing for more passionate connections between the public and more traditional methods of history-making. His way of speaking about the project seemed to ask for a similar kind of investment on the part of people outside of traditional history creation and/or curation fields. This also relates to our own discussions of the Bryn Mawr archives, and the way that alums often don’t see value in their own collections. Drake’s way of speaking about student lives and campus activism really brought out how necessary it is for people to care about the creation of history, and the impact that it can have when we can collect stories from diverse places.

Drake specifically asks students to invest in the archives, which I think is a fascinating way of thinking about this entire process. As is clear from Roger’s book, having archival records of activism is absolutely necessary in order to be able to talk about movements that questioned the system and traditional narratives. It is an investment to put time and energy into documenting the present, and we can absolutely see the way that that investment can pay off in the long (and even the short) run.