Proposal for Interpretive Labelling for Every Object in Canaday

As Monica mentioned in class, my project has had a slightly different trajectory than most. I came into this class in January with an idea of what I wanted to propose, something that was born from my senior thesis and the protests at various universities (including our own) that occurred this past November.

The specific impetus of my idea was the removal of the bust of Woodrow Wilson that previously sat (stood? was stationed?) on the first floor of Canaday Library. It had disappeared with no explanation sometime in late November or early December, and while I could only assume its removal had something to do with the protests regarding Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, it took me until mid-January to get an explanation of the specific situation that led to its removal.

I was frustrated by the bust’s removal because I felt, particularly in opposition with the laudatory sign about Wilson that stands behind Denbigh, that this bust would have offered us a chance to challenge Wilson’s legacy, rather than avoiding or denying it, by labelling the bust with details about Wilson’s life and the problematic agenda he advanced. As the petition to rename Thomas Hall began to circulate, I started to wonder whether a plaque of some sort could also be attached to M. Carey Thomas’s bust on the third floor of Canaday to a similar purpose of problematizing her legacy. Wandering around Canaday also made me realize that any number of the items on display– busts, artwork, you name it– is unlabelled, leaving students with no understanding of who these people or what these artifacts are, and why they matter to the College.

So, in a paragraph, the proposal I submitted to Canaday was: “This proposal recommends that the Bryn Mawr College Library & Information Technology Services provides interpretive labelling for all artifacts currently or recently on display in Canaday Library. It provides a survey of what Canaday’s current layout is and contrasts it with the labelling system used in Carpenter Library. Furthermore, it offers two examples with suggested label texts: one bust currently on display and one that was recently removed, with research done on the people they depict and the history of the artifacts. The proposal argues that such an undertaking would offer members of the Bryn Mawr community—staff, students, and faculty alike—a chance to more fully engage with the history of the College.”

For my sample labels, I drafted descriptions that could go next to the M. Carey Thomas bust and where the Woodrow Wilson bust once was. I submitted the proposal two weeks ago, and have a plan to meet with the library about it at the end of the month. Also included in the proposal were photographs of various unlabelled artifacts around Canaday, including one of the shelf on the Canaday A floor that used to host President Wilson. There are still scratch marks on that bookshelf, because the bust is quite heavy and there was some trouble moving it. This is the image I chose to represent my project, because it speaks to the absence of historical explanation, and to the fact that while we may not want to acknowledge it, traces of history remain all over campus.

WW Remnants

History, Art History, Documents, Artifacts, Etc.

I admit I was a little disturbed this week by Jennifer Thigpen’s article this week, mostly because of what it implied about history as a discipline: that in order to get a full picture of history, we need artifacts alongside documents– that somehow, documents aren’t enough.

Rationally, of course, I know this to be true, and I knew that before I read Thigpen’s article. I’m working on a 15th century book in Special Collections for another class right now, and less than half of my work has been on what the documents actually say– much more of my time has been devoted to how they organized their excerpts, whose hand wrote which items, what condition the book is in, etc. The picture I’ve been able to draw from it (sorry, I just finished writing my first draft of that paper, and am accordingly a little preoccupied at the moment) has been extensively piecemeal, but it would have been much more so had I only focused on what the documents in the book said, since most of them were copied over from somewhere else in the first place.

Still, I wrote my thesis without ever seeing an actual document that belonged to Woodrow Wilson. I visited his house, sure, and saw a few things that had belonged to him, but nothing that shaped or altered my research in any way. Nor did any of the people who wrote my secondary sources work with artifacts. Were we all wrong, then? Are there things that we all missed because we read Wilson’s writings but didn’t examine his 100+ walking sticks? How far can the discipline of history go while staying with documents, and where exactly is the line between history and art history, anyway? Is there one? Should there be?

As more of a document person than a visual one, I have to believe in the value of documents even without artifacts, and I have to hope that a picture of a person can be created and understood without the artifacts to match. Thigpen is right, of course. Having those artifacts certainly helped. Maybe they would have helped me, too. But I appreciate there being distinctions between the disciplines, however arbitrary they may be–particularly if it’s possible for a balance to be struck somewhere in between history and art history when necessary.

“WWII Rages On”

The idea that World War II is one of the most “popular” events in history does not come as a surprise to me. Even in the history senior thesis seminar this past year, I think at least three people (maybe four?) wrote their theses on something that had to do with Nazi Germany, and if it’s that prevalent within the discipline, well…

I think one of the reasons for the popularity of this event in American pop culture is that it’s often viewed as a black-and-white moral event: Nazis = bad, Americans = good. Rebecca Onion comments on this in her article on popular, “historical” Twitter accounts: “Tweets of a liberated concentration-camp survivor holding a German at gunpoint are easily shareable: Everyone knows what side to be on.” It’s an event that Americans often see themselves as having reckoned with– we conquered evil by any means necessary, and here we’re unquestionably the good guys (a stance more difficult to take with World War I, the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the Spanish American War, the Gulf War, the Korean War… pretty much any other war, really, except maybe the Revolutionary War). This vision often collapses under too much scrutiny (amazing, isn’t it, that the Americans played dirty too?) and is a source of discomfort for many Americans, “victims” (Jewish Americans, e.g.) and “enemies” (Japanese Americans, e.g.) alike. Our current master narrative of WWII, perhaps even more so than other wars, does not allow for nuances.

How exactly does this relate back to archives and the issue of history in the digital age? To begin with, it got me thinking about a number of the claims in Rosenzweig’s article, particularly his comment about how digital history is forcing historians to reconsider “who our audiences really are” (739). In this case, it appears that we have a large audience readily available and at least nominally interested in history, but would they still be interested in history once it was complicated and shifted from the “big” events? I think they would be, but the question remains of how to transfer their attention. Recent efforts have often been disappointing (see, for example, National Geographic’s new History Magazine, which sensationalizes major events in history and focuses exclusively on the stories people already know in the hopes of drawing in a readership or…something), because there’s a pressure to make sure people are paying attention (that you’re making money, basically) and it’s easier to fall back on the stories people know and love. And people (Americans) love World War II.

But I think maybe the advantage of a digital project is the potential to draw a reader down a rabbit hole. While in a print magazine there’s only so much you can gather before you run out of reading material, online one thing can link to another and offer a tremendous amount of information at the drop of a hat. (Digital preservation of such links is of course an ongoing problem, but I think here there are more advantages than disadvantages overall). Maybe the trick is to use the popular events to drag people in and then lead them to the more nuanced narratives (so what NatGeo is doing, except with more… substance. I have a lot of feelings about that magazine, and most of them are not very good. But perhaps if they migrated to a digital platform they’d meet with more success).

So: people like World War II. And there are definitely ways to move beyond it–but maybe it’s not a bad idea to use those events as a hook in theory, so long as there’s a line and sinker to follow.

Everybody Wants to Build….

I had the fortune of hearing Nia Turner speak during my first year here, when she and Evie Rich were brought to campus to talk about their experiences as students of color on Bryn Mawr’s campus. The two knew each other from an oral history project Turner had undertaken during her time here, and much of the time was spent recollecting that relationship and speaking about Rich’s experiences at Turner’s prompting. While Turner did not mention her work with the Perry House Library, it came as no surprise when her name cropped up in this record.

Thinking about all that, though, made me consider how Turner is maintaining her ties with the Bryn Mawr community, and the implications that could have for her Perry House library. I was wandering around Canaday a few days ago (long story) and saw that the Rainbow Alliance had bookshelves filled with their books, something I hadn’t realized was present before (and is maybe connected to the LGBT project? I’m not one hundred percent sure how the privacy rules would have changed for that to happen…), but to my knowledge the ECC doesn’t hold open library hours (correct me if I’m wrong). Turner’s project, it seems, was successful… but only to a point.

So how long does student activism last? Some projects can be carried out within the span of our three or four or five years here, but a lot require maintenance– just look at Black at Bryn Mawr. How do you build projects that will outlive you when you have so little time on campus? It’s good to leave some work for the next generation, but it’s hard to know how much. And of course archives have a role to play in this, to document how far one person or another came, but documenting your activity may require the ability to realize that the next group may want something different from what you do, or that circumstances change (Perry House was still around when Turner was here, for an obvious example).  This will always be the case with movements for change, but I do think it’s particularly pronounced on campuses, because here the institutional memory of students is so short.

Or maybe we just need to find ways to ensure that someone wants to do maintenance.

Recent History and Ancient History

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

I was incredibly taken with the art done by Edgar Heap of Birds, mentioned in Hayden’s reading. The idea behind his work is to force the viewer to focus on the sign by grabbing their attention with backwards letters, and then to remind them that the land we all stand on is not ours but belonged to a native tribe. He’s done work all over the place– my quick search turned up examples done in Oregon, California, and my home state, Illinois.

We’ve seen other ways that you can bring Native Americans into conversation in everyday discussions: namely, Dean Spade’s insistence on first recounting the history of the land he’s speaking on, regardless of whether or not others would deem it “relevant” to his talks. But how would this look when we apply it to a project like Erin Bernard’s?

The premise behind the Philadelphia History Truck (which, I should say, I think is an absolutely brilliant project) is that the stories within current communities of Philadelphia matter. But on some level, that limits us to the span of human memory. How do projects like this take into account the history from an era before any living person can remember?

Sometimes the landscape itself will help solve this problem. My grandfather, for example, grew up in Germantown and can remember the buildings that had bullet holes left over from the Revolutionary War dotting the landscape that he played in as a child. In moments like that, oral history can lead to an investigation of an earlier period. It is easy to say that a community member remembers physical evidence and use that as a jumping point to get to the archives and to layer multiple stories on top of each other. But what do you do in the case of Native Americans, where the evidence of the people who lived here before us has been almost completely wiped off the map? How do you tell that story? Should you tell that story, or is the History Truck not the place? Is it too much of a burden to place upon the shoulders of an already beleaguered community? And who gets to decide?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions (though I welcome yours!). But I do think we have a moral obligation to consider the problems they pose, particularly in the case of Native Americans, and I wonder how projects like Erin Bernard’s can be grafted to show multiple layers of history at once.

Documenting the Senses

Looking through Swarthmore’s Black Liberation Archive, I was particularly struck by their page dedicated to the soundtrack of the liberation. On the one hand, music seems like a very obvious aspect of a political movement (witness the recent Stephen Colbert skit on good Simon & Garfunkel songs to match our current presidential candidates), and on the other, it opened a lot of questions for me: documenting written sources and physical artifacts is all very well and good, but how does one go about recording the other ways we perceive events in our everyday lives– the sounds, the smells, the tastes?

Already Swarthmore’s page is having problems: of the twenty-five songs they have posted, two (“Pata Pata,” Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain) have been removed due YouTube copyright violations in the time since this site first went live. Furthermore, a digital exhibit automatically robs the observer of their ability to touch documents and to conduct physical examinations of an archive’s contents (of course the physical documents are still present somewhere, but then you run into the question of access again).

I think a case can be made for the power of music in demonstrations, but we should also be asking the question of whether it matters that documentation of smell and taste (and perhaps a lesser extent touch and sound) is often lost in the archiving process. We learned from Trouillot that all archives carry with them inherent silences– it’s part of the process. How would you go about preserving smell and taste, anyway? Most likely someone would have to write down how it felt, and that changes the nature of the source, and then…

The short version of all this, really, is that I think the archival process is extremely long and complicated, and I’m really impressed with how Swarthmore handled it. They were right to recognize the importance of music in the student movements, and to make that available to researchers– frankly, I think it was a brilliant idea. The question of maintenance remains, but they do list on the site an option to contact them in the event that you have questions or have found an error, and I’m not sure there’s a better option than that right now.

Holding Past Generations Accountable

While I felt at times that Wilder’s topic was simply too big to do his work justice, I did appreciate his massive scope, because it helped demonstrate that it was not just one university or a few outliers on the sidelines that helped perpetuate American slavery, but rather the entire American education system. In light of this, I began to think about the protests we saw particularly last November against buildings named for extremely racist or otherwise problematic figures (the two major examples being the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the John C. Calhoun College at Yale, but more recently the call to rename TGH on our own campus).

In each of these cases, the person identified as a problem comes from either the late antebellum period or the postwar period, not the era Wilder was examining. On the one hand, this sort of makes sense: to quote Latin American historian Steve J. Stern, “Denunciations of individuals for failing to rise above their times is an exercise that misses the point; it simply condemns choice targets for lacking the trans-historical vision that escapes most of us.” In other words, to call for renaming every building associated with a slaveholder may seem altogether too much, because slaveholding was a fact of the eighteenth century for most, while condemning Wilson or Calhoun or Thomas is made easier because they were particularly racist even for their own times.

While I have mixed feelings about the politics of renaming of buildings and colleges that I won’t get into here, there is a larger problem at hand here that I see (and that Stern goes on to address, too, although he speaks specifically about the historical era he is studying): why are we focusing on the later generations and not more on those that Wilder is looking at? Dismissing the revolutionary and colonials eras with the comment that everyone was a slaveholder back in the 1700s prevents us from identifying the extreme problems– in this case, the heads of universities– just as saying that everyone in Thomas’s era was racist by our standards allowed her particularly vehement and base racism to pass relatively unnoticed for so long.

We can’t condemn individuals for lacking trans-historical vision. But we can condemn them for lacking humanity, particularly when they failed to live up to the standards of their own era. Why, then, are we remaining silent on the myriad of other problematic names and figures in and around our universities?

Stern’s quote is taken from the introduction to the second edition of his book Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) xliv. This section of his intro is available on Google Books, if anyone is curious: Stern — Peru’s Indian Peoples.

Bryn Mawr’s Branding Problem

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Bryn Mawr presents itself lately, as I’ve watched and participated in the conversations going on surrounding departmental funding, Welcome-the-First-Years Week, and the future of Bryn Mawr. Back home, where almost no one in my community has heard of Bryn Mawr (one person once asked me if that meant I attended school at this train station:, I used to often summarize the College by billing it as a pioneering women’s institution that offered women opportunities at a time when few other places would. This is the standard narrative the College gives out (well, one of them) and it conveniently ignores the fact that the women Bryn Mawr was created to serve were white, cis, able, wealthy, and generally privileged in every way except their gender. I led with it for two reasons: one, because no matter what my personal feelings are about this school, leading with a list of Bryn Mawr’s problems felt like the wrong way to introduce the College; two, because I am in most ways the sort of woman Bryn Mawr would have serviced in 1885, I have the privilege of attending an institution that was (mostly) made for people like me, and that gave me the option not to mention the issues Bryn Mawr struggles with and to avoid any social awkwardness that might follow.

I have stopped leading with this, however, in the last year. What first made me reconsider it was actually when I heard it used as a reason that Bryn Mawr should admit trans women: that because we had been founded to help a marginalized group, we should carry on that practice. While I am 100% behind the admittance of trans women to this campus– and trans men as well, despite the College’s decision not to at this time–I found that particular argument troubling, because I didn’t feel it was really true. Can we really say that the women who first graduated from this college were marginalized? Certainly they were at a disadvantage when compared to their male peers, but they were elite and privileged in every other way. To say that the College was in fact founded to aid a “marginalized” group and has carried on in that tradition is to ignore the fact that for decades Bryn Mawr actively avoided admitting African American women, Jews, and more recently trans women. Those are not the actions of a pioneering institution.

All campuses are political. Academia is inherently political. We cannot say that we have stood apart from the greater movements of history, and I do not think condemning this institution for lacking the trans-historical vision of hindsight is constructive. But to say we have always been on the right side of history, always ahead of the curve, because we have serviced one– and only one– disadvantaged group is, in my opinion, a lie. Better to acknowledge that we started with good intentions for some, and we intend to– that we willbecome a pioneering institution, one that leads the fight for change and promotes not only gender equality, but racial, religious, and many other kinds of equality besides. Not only is that a more honest portrayal of our history and our vision for the future, but I think in the end it’s a more honorable approach all around.

So, these days, when someone asks me about my school, I try to do what I’ve always intended to do: tell the truth. It’s a work in progress, to be sure, but at least it’s a start.

Physical Manifestations of the Past

I stopped on my way back to campus this morning to take a picture of the sign documenting the Summer School for Women Workers by the Admissions Building, thinking that perhaps I would use that as the basis for my response paper. IMAG1133

Fortunately, before I did this, I decided to revisit the post I wrote around this time last year, when we touched on the Summer School in Monica’s History of Women’s Education course. As it happens, I had fixated on the sign last year, too (which is perhaps not surprising, given my interests, but somewhat amusing all the same). For anyone who is really bored, the full response is here — — but the gist of it is as follows:

  • We learn very selectively about Bryn Mawr’s history from physical landmarks, particularly when it comes to the signs put up by the PA Historical Commission
  • In the grand scheme of things, these signs aren’t really helping us learn a whole lot about Bryn Mawr as a school (the other sign is about Woodrow Wilson, but I will refrain from discussing my very strong opinion on that for the time being)
  • However, when it comes to the Summer School, the sign is doing an excellent job: it’s the only way most of us learn about this aspect of Bryn Mawr’s history

Revisiting this argument a year later, it seems that much has changed and yet nothing has. On the one hand, I know Monica taught about the Summer School during last year’s Community Day of Learning and will do so again this year, and I know she’s also taken opportunities to discuss it elsewhere, both on this campus and off. And yet– how many people on this campus actually know about the Summer School? Should we care if they don’t?

As a history major, my response (of course we should! Everyone should know about this!) is probably biased, and yet I hope that my reasoning is not inaccessible to a larger audience. Everyone on this campus cares about Bryn Mawr, and on some level or another, almost everyone has a stake in how stories about this campus are told. What better way to distinguish Bryn Mawr to a dubious relative than to say it was the first college to offer women doctoral degrees in the U.S. or to explain the opportunities that a genuinely revolutionary summer school gave to students who might not have had them otherwise? Conversely, what better way to expose Bryn Mawr’s hypocritical policies and push for change than to show the advancement the Summer School made with regards to race and class while the College itself lagged several decades behind?

If it is indeed important to learn about the Summer School, which I think it is for more reasons than listed here, how might we go about bringing it to the attention of larger audiences? Despite my general feelings on the signs at Bryn Mawr (again, see last year’s comments if you really want to get into it) I think the Summer School sign is a good start. So are initiatives like Monica’s that bring it to audiences who might not have encountered it further. But perhaps bringing the Summer School into greater prominence physically– e.g., having a sign (put up by the College, rather than the PA Historical Commission, which I think would say a lot about Bryn Mawr’s active investment in its own history) in a more prominent place on campus, or showcasing the words of the Summer School graduates in the Campus Center the way we do our regular alumnae– might also help. Suffice to say that I would really like to learn more about physical landmarks in general and how they impact the way we view history– and that I would very much like to consider the potential effect they might have on our campus.

Making Archives Accessible

As interesting as I found this week’s readings, the point that was really missing for me was one that I think public history continues to struggle with: how does one really make an archive “accessible”? It’s listed in Wilcox’s Collection Development Policy as part of the William Way LGBT Community Center’s goals: “to collect, describe, interpret, and provide access to publications…created by, dealing with, or of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals” (Wilcox 1, emphasis added). The Policy further mentions who uses the archives– the LGBT community, researchers, students, teachers, journalists, and more– but offers nothing in the way of numbers or explanation of how one might come across these archives in the first place.

Perhaps it seemed that this was beyond the scope of the pamphlet, but I don’t think it should be. If we take for granted (for the moment) the general message many of our readings in the last weeks have suggested to us– that history isn’t very “hip” or “cool” at the moment as an academic discipline, and that people like doing history best when it’s not actually called history— that implies that maybe archives are not at the top of people’s lists of places to visit (well, okay, except for maybe genealogists?). Part of the problem with our archives– with any archive, really– is that there’s so much stuff that you can’t really ever put it all on display at once, particularly when you’re dealing mostly with paper documents. On some level, then, you can’t make archives come to people–people have to come to them. Or do they?

Digitization, for example, is making it less and less necessary to visit physical archives. I personally would prefer to visit physical archives and work with the actual documents, though, and I think this is where the article about Smith comes in handy. Young’s analysis of Smith’s archives points out that people go to their archives (like they do ours) when they have class assignments (Young 63). That’s a start, at least– leading the horse to water, if you will– but I wonder how you might get past that and expose these pasts to an even larger audience. It seems that people would be interested in the contents of some of these archives– if only we had a way to bring them in and makes archives accessible enough that you might visit them without having an assignment in hand. I would have liked to see more suggestions about how that might be accomplished in these articles.