Living in History at Bryn Mawr

Under the Pembroke West Staircase: 2016 vs. the 1950s/60s

Under the Pem West Staircase: 2016 vs. the 1950s/60s. A receptionist once used the “bells desk” on the right to admit visitors to the dorm, or to inform students that a guest had arrived.

Before consulting Tripod in order to write my survey reflection, I hadn’t realized just how many places on campus have been completely changed or repurposed over the years. At some point in Bryn Mawr’s history, for example, the dining hall in Rockefeller became an architecture studio, and a soda machine now stands where a receptionist used to sit in Pembroke West (see above). We see and interact with these spaces every day as students, just as students before us had done for over a century. However, I at least was never fully aware of how the dorms functioned differently for past students, especially since traces of this history seem to have been removed as the spaces were updated.

My proposal had originally centered on the recreation of old dorm rooms using the furniture items stored in Special Collections, many of which resemble those seen in photos from the early 1900s. This could still be plausible on a smaller scale, but there are other historic spaces that cannot be easily reconstructed, such as the bells desk mentioned above. In these areas (as well as in the recreated rooms), photographs would be displayed in a sort of visual timeline, showing how the function of the space changed with the passing decades. Many photos on Tripod depict students and housekeepers living and working in the dorms, and would thus add a personal dimension to the history of each space. The dorm room exhibits would be set up during the school year on occupied halls, so that students in neighboring rooms could interact directly with the history of the building in which they were living. By situating displays and photographic timelines around campus, I would hope to make the history of these spaces more visible, fostering a connection between those who once lived in them and those who live in them today.

Historical Expectations vs. Reality

While Thigpen’s research into the life of Mary Walker is fascinating, it seems slightly odd that she was so surprised to discover Mary’s more “conventional” side. As a 21st century historian with access to Mary’s writings – which she read before examining her personal affects – Thigpen began her relationship with Mary with more information than Mary’s contemporaries would have had. A 19th century individual who was not already Mary’s “near and intimate friend” would never have seen the diaries in which she expressed her dissatisfaction with domestic tasks. Mary seems to have hardly wanted her deepest feelings to be made public, even requesting that one diary be burned rather than be read by a stranger. Instead, she would have made her first impression using the very things that Thigpen found surprising: her clothing, her ability to perform household activities, and so on. There was never a reason to assume that Mary did not sew or dress like other women of her status simply because she did not write as much in her journals. On the contrary, such things were so commonplace in the 19th century that Mary probably did not think they merited a detailed description. While a dress and a thimble do not seem to reflect Mary’s primary interests as much as her writings do, her contemporaries would have found these writings far more indicative of Mary’s “complexity” than the fact that she sewed and raised children. We in the 21st century are always looking for historical figures to stand outside the conventions of their time (hence the popularity of the “Edith-Anne” sampler), but to what extent are we framing history according to what we hope to find in it? Although it is important to consider Mary Walker as an individual rather than simply a product of her time, it would be equally unwise to let 21st century expectations separate her from her historical surroundings.

Documentaries, Tweets, and Watered-Down History

In her article for Slate on the issues surrounding Twitter’s “history pic” accounts, Rebecca Onion argues that their lack of provided context and narrow choice of subject matter reflect “a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.” While I am not on Twitter and had not heard of these particular accounts, I was immediately drawn to this quote, as it describes how I have often felt concerning recent historical documentaries.

I watch (or rather, used to watch) documentaries frequently, and have noticed over the past couple of years that much of their content seems to have been watered down. Very little detail is given on the history itself, with much of the air time spent repeating the same questions over and over (Why did these people build this? How on earth did they do it without modern technology?), rather than actually trying to answer these questions. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. One documentary I saw became noticeably less vague when it came time to discuss eunuchs and concubines. After sitting through an unpleasantly in-depth description of the castration process, I couldn’t help but feel like the program highlighted only what the public would find shocking, rather than present a well-rounded, informative survey of the subject at hand. Aside from where these topics were concerned, the actual facts contained in the hour-and-a-half-long program could be condensed into about 15 minutes. But as Onion points out, this lack of insightful content “seems designed to provoke a feeling of familiarity: an ‘I know what this is!’ rather than an ‘I wonder what this is about?’” Rather than teach viewers about how complex past societies could be, such documentaries seem to do the very opposite. By spending half of their time slot marveling at monuments instead of conveying real information about them, they enforce an already widespread stereotype – namely, that it is unusual and strange that “primitive” people of the past were able to build such monuments. Such shows may be entertaining, but when they are broadcast on channels that purport to take history seriously, they become an insult to viewers’ intelligence.

Adding more substance to history-based forms of entertainment, whether these be documentaries or tweets, would far from “take the fun out” of them. On the contrary, it would help viewers to discover how fun it can be to learn about real history.

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.

The Responsibilities of a Public Historian

Often when one speaks of original research, whether it be thesis-based or otherwise, there is emphasis placed on finding gaps in the historiography of a particular topic. A thesis candidate is supposed to work off of primary sources in order to draw his or her own unique conclusions; in a sense, he or she must write about something on which nothing has been written before. There is a certain amount of excitement that goes along with this, a feeling of “trailblazing” and becoming an expert in a specific area of history. However, as I browsed through the different entries to the Black at Bryn Mawr blog, I noticed how open its creators have been about the difficulties of this kind of “trailblazing” work. For example, in her reflection on the naming of the Enid Cook Center (, Grace Pusey expresses her concern that “the story [she] told about Enid Cook could very well become *the* story of Enid Cook.”

Writing a research paper is stressful by nature, and there must be a considerable amount of additional stress involved in turning that research into a public project. When it is difficult to decipher the meaning of a source, or when a body of evidence contradicts the thesis statement, it is tempting to skip over the problem and go on as if it does not exist. However, if there is a chance that the final project will be the first someone has heard of a given topic, the consequences of such oversights can be especially great. A successful public history project, it would then seem, is able to negotiate the careful balance between doing its subject justice and revealing what about it remains unknown. In order for the project to be taken seriously, a public historian must be an authority on his or her subject without pretending to be the authority.

Painting a False Picture of the Past

In reading “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble,” I was struck by this quote in particular: “Yet if Woodrow Wilson College simply becomes Bloomberg College, Princeton will have lost an opportunity to talk about what kind of college it wishes to be.” This sentiment seems further reflected in an article I found linked in one of the comments on the site, which I think adds an interesting perspective to the debate (

When colleges rechristen buildings named for those who held racist beliefs, they are in a sense sugar-coating the past. How would new names be chosen for these buildings? A college may be able to identify a figure innocuous enough so as not to offend anyone; however, this would be projecting a false version of history. It would, albeit unintentionally, be denying the fact that some of the most influential figures in the development of the college believed people of different races were not entitled to the same treatment as those of their own. Consciously or unconsciously, this worldview undoubtedly affected how figures such as Woodrow Wilson shaped and influenced the schools in which they were invested. We have discussed the tendency of some historical exhibits to avoid the controversial aspects of their subject matter, and it is worth acknowledging that this avoidance is not always performed by those who stand to benefit from believing the injustices never happened. Eradicating the evidence of unpleasant histories because they make us feel hurt and outraged is just as much an act of avoidance as pretending they do not exist.

Of course we should not ignore that certain prominent figures were racist, precisely because they were so prominent and their influence was and is felt so strongly. At the same time, human beings are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil; one has to acknowledge that the same individuals who nursed such prejudices also made important and notable contributions to their schools. Rechristening buildings with the names of those who are less controversial and/or were not as instrumental in the development of a college denies enormous parts of that college’s history. It dismisses significant steps made in the development of the school, while simultaneously pretending that this development was not tainted by the racist ideas of the time. College buildings are not named indiscriminately. The names of specific people were selected for specific purposes, and these selections and the reasons behind them shed light on the climate in which they were chosen. The controversies surrounding these names should be revealed and will rightfully cause outrage; at the same time, letting this outrage lead to the destruction of evidence will only cause more facets of history to be swept under the rug.

Irrational Hope vs. Practical Change

In “Hope and the Historian,” Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a striking point of advice for the historian dealing with difficult histories: “If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence that verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there.” This paints a depressing but often accurate picture of history as “the story of things just not working out.” Thinking back to my early history education in light of this quote, I can see how complex issues were often given a more “hopeful” cast. Textbooks recounting the history of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage Movements did not always spend time discussing the problems that remained in society afterwards. While it is important to celebrate the successes of the past, it is equally crucial to acknowledge what has yet to be accomplished.

That being said, “acknowledgement” can only go so far; at some point, one has to stop talking and start taking steps toward change. This does not necessarily have to be the product of naïve hope. Certainly it is disheartening to observe the persistence of racism regardless of what social advancements are made. However, if we as a country acknowledge such unpleasant truths instead of glossing over them, we can perhaps develop a more practical means of helping those in need wherever possible. The problems of poverty and racism run deep, and it would indeed be naïve to think they can be easily and completely eradicated. On the other hand, to conclude that nothing can be done would be just as detrimental.

Bryn Mawr and Oral History

In light of this week’s tradition, I found myself considering the differences between written and oral histories. Without making judgements either way on the name change, I must admit that I have never heard the name “Welcome the First Years Week/WTF Week” pronounced aloud. Whenever, in my experience, students have spoken of this week’s tradition, they have continued to call it “Hell Week” and use any and all associated terms. This has included many first-years themselves, whom I have witnessed asking upperclassmen to “hell” them in a way hardly different from students in past years.

It is interesting to observe the strength of Bryn Mawr’s collective memory regarding its traditions, as this terminology has been disseminated among first-year students who have no personal memory of it. This also made me wonder how researchers of Bryn Mawr’s history and traditions might view this period years from now. If one were only to examine the official writings of the college, one might conclude that the entire student body adopted the same changes in speech without question. Unless evidence to the contrary had somehow been archived, there would be no record of the terminology much of the student body was employing on a daily basis. This seems to speak to the broader problems of preserving oral histories, which, although just as valid as written histories, can be so easily lost or corrupted. Without oral histories, only select points of view may survive for future historians to study, creating an incomplete picture of what actually occurred in the past.

False Links and Historical Oversights

In browsing the Wikipedia entries for Bryn Mawr College and Hilda Worthington Smith (as well as for M. Carey Thomas), I noticed that the Summer School for Women Workers is linked in red on the latter two pages. I have often seen these false links on Wikipedia, but I have never before stopped to think about how and why they were created. Who decides what people/organizations/etc. should have their own page on Wikipedia? Furthermore, why would one acknowledge the need for a page, but not bother to create the page itself?

We have talked a lot in class about the selectivity of the historical record. In order to truly understand an event, we must examine it from as many points of view as we can; unfortunately, a large part of these seem to be lost or forgotten in the telling of history. The red links on Wikipedia emphasize such exclusions. Rather than lead to carefully cited encyclopedia entries, they testify to a regrettable oversight and absence of information. It is beyond frustrating to click on a link hoping to learn more, only to be met with a dead end! Ideally, the frustration caused by these false links would inspire further research, perhaps even the creation of the missing page itself. In this sense, the very absence of information can be just as much of a “starting point” as a completed entry. However, the surest way to make a historical topic accessible is to give it its own page—and judging by the number of red links on Wikipedia, there is still much work to be done.

It is also worthy to note that Bryn Mawr College’s own page, which is probably visited more often than the other two mentioned, displays no link of any sort to the Summer School. Unfortunately, this lack of emphasis makes the school more likely to be overlooked by a casual browser of the page. A false link here would certainly be more effective than no link at all.

Preserving Historical Records

In “Radical Archives,” Springer expresses concern that future researchers will be unable to access records of today’s activist groups, as many of these are stored exclusively online and often on third-party sites such as Facebook. In response to this dilemma, Springer proposes that archives be backed up “on three different hard drives,” which would then “be tested every year” and “transferred to a new set of hard drives every five years” (Springer 4). While this would seem to be a sound way to ensure the preservation of research materials, I could not help but view it with some skepticism. Such an involved process seems impractical when viewed alongside the article on Smith College by Nanci Young, who writes: “Our challenge is to continue to add digitized material to this site on a regular basis, which frankly, has not happened” (Young 62). If archivists cannot upload their records a single time, one wonders if they would come to upload those same records three times and then test and re-upload them at regular intervals, even if (as in Springer’s case) these records are online to begin with. The problem then appears to be with the practices of archivists, rather than with the complexity of Springer’s plan. Why have more historical records not been digitally archived or backed up? The reason might often be insufficient funding; Young mentions the importance of the Andrew Mellon Foundation grant in allowing the college to digitize a good portion of its records (62). Most of the small historical sites I have visited are run by non-profit organizations and are largely staffed by volunteers. These sites depend on donors for support; however, if the public is not made aware of the importance of historic preservation, projects such as the digitizing of archives may be brought to a standstill. The problem is multi-faceted, but if it goes unsolved, many print records of past history and online records of history-in-the-making might be made inaccessible to future researchers.