Asian(-American) @ Bryn Mawr

My project proposal follows the excellent work of the Black @ Bryn Mawr project. In the same way as it is vital to chronicle and celebrate the history and present black experience on campus, it is also vital to do the same for other minorities. My original proposal idea was for a Humans @ Bryn Mawr project, encompassing the various ethnic, racial, religious, gender, sexuality, and other lived experiences on campus. However, as both time and space are pressing, I have narrowed the focus of my proposal to the Asian(-American) experience, while allowing the Humans @ Bryn Mawr concept to live on in the section expressing the need for such a project.

I have selected the Asian(-American) population for this proposal because of the large minority of Asian(-American) students that make up the school’s demographic. The reasoning behind the parentheses in the descriptive term “Asian(-American)” is to also include the large number of Asian international students within the bounds of the proposed project. Both minority groups are prominent within the campus makeup, but their voices are not heard and their experiences are not celebrated within the campus’ historical discourse.

The project will take a number of cues from the Black @ Bryn Mawr project: I propose a similarly-styled walking tour with a virtual offering and a blog presence posting updates with both archival artifacts and modern-day experiences. Beyond that, I propose a moderated public forum connected to the virtual footprint of the project. Such a forum would offer community engagement and allow for greater intersectionality between campus groups. The moderation would provide the project coordinators to fact-check contributions, as well as responsibly (and, hopefully, transparently) handle internet “trolls” and other inflammatory content. Further, I propose that physical exhibits and presentations would be designed by the Asian(-American) @ Bryn Mawr project. Such exhibits and presentations would be part of Community Days, library/archive events (such as Friday Finds), and other campus events of note.

Like the Black @ Bryn Mawr project, much of the research would be within the campus archives in the form of personal effects (diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, etc), class yearbooks, college news articles, and administrative data (such as the Tidmarsh report on the history of race on campus from early in the semester’s readings.) Some external readings, such as Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai would also be of use in describing the historical Asian(-American) experience.

The 1890 photograph of Ume Tsuda, Bryn Mawr’s first Japanese student, studying in a classmate’s dorm room is representative of several facets of the Asian(-American) @ Bryn Mawr project. It is the type of archival material that would be present both on the blog and within exhibits, displays, or presentations. Further, it could also be a stop on the walking tour, describing student life and experiences.


Public History and Spam

This is an aside, but even so…

I stumbled onto the Comments tab. Pending comments… (1).  Approved comments… (60). Spam? (292). What? From our little BMC public history blog? Yep. And it’s pretty hilarious what is in there. (Horny Women was my favorite username from the Junk Bucket.)

But it got me thinking. How do virtual public history exhibits/projects manage spam? I’m assuming Prof. Mercado didn’t have to deny all 300 of those messages; there must be some form of spam filter. But if the project is more specifically public-oriented, how would one not censor the public while keeping spam at manageable levels?

Confronting Historical Silences

What most moved me about Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” exhibit was the way in which he confronted historical silences. Often, historians deal with lost, absent, and suppressed histories with a sense of defeatism: How can we reconstruct what isn’t there? How can we represent what we don’t know? Wilson confronted these silences and reframed their representation in a more positive light.

The opening display of Wilson’s exhibition was a “Truth” award, presented to an advertising company in the early 1900s, bracketed by six pedestals. To the right of the award, three pedestals held famous figures: Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson. To the left, three pedestals stood empty, each with placards for Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. This very obviously and dramatically confronts the silencing of African-American contributions in the historical record. (One does wonder, especially in light of Erika Doss’ book, Memorial Mania, Mason B. Williams’ article, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble, and the UNC Unsung Founders Memorial, how representative any of those busts would be. Further, one wonders if they would even be well-received. Even so, the display is striking and gets to the point.)

Following this demoralizing presentation of just how much is historically silenced, Wilson then uses the resources made available to him by the Maryland Historical Society’s archive and collection. He juxtaposed items he found there in order to tell a story: cigar shop representations of “Indians” stare at period photographs of Native Americans, highlighting the disparity between them. A white child’s elaborate dollhouse depicts scenes of slave rebellions. Slave manacles sit among a lavish silver service. Slave-crafted items, such as a basket and vase, are displayed alongside items crafted by freed slaves in an American colony in Africa. Even with what was lost and suppressed, Wilson shows that the story can be framed by what remains and teased out.

Further, the final display of Benjamin Banneker’s astounding astronomical journal, crafted by an African-American born free, shows that, while he may have been lost in the larger scheme of history (as depicted by the empty pedestal), his legacy lives on buried in the archives, waiting to be found. Through these exhibits, both juxtaposed and explicit, Wilson shows that even the lost, absent, and suppressed stories can be given a voice once again. They just need to be found or properly framed. No, the whole story, a representation in its entirety, will not be found. That is the case with all histories. Those that have been silenced, however, are more subject to that loss than most.

Mindful use of Technology regarding Public History

This week’s readings got me thinking about the ways in which technology is mindfully, or unmindfully, used in the pursuit of public history. Unmindful use can span from limiting a project’s accessibility to truncating an artifact’s meaning, even not vetting the authenticity of the material. Though technology use can allow public history projects to be accessed by a much wider audience, it must be used judiciously and mindfully, in order to preserve the integrity of the discipline.

Sharon Leon, writing for the National Council on Public History, explained a common issue plaguing digital public history projects: Even though they promise to reach out to a larger audience and pool of contributors, the digital medium can reproduce the same class and culture barriers to accessibility. Access to the internet and technological devices is a constant pressure for any digital project of this sort. In the same way that physical exhibits can, intentionally or not, bar access to certain populations, digital projects also restrict those without access to technology. While public history projects cannot be expected to provide technological access to all interested parties, the creation, maintenance, and mission of the project needs to reflect this issue. What such projects can mindfully design are various accessibility features, such as for those with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. Such features are widely available and, as Leon argues, are integral to mindfully  crafting a digital public history project.

Other accessibility tweaks are more minor in nature: Rebecca Onion, writing for Slate, celebrated her cataloging of Slate’s historical blog posts in a timeline fashion. This allowed for users to more easily and intuitively navigate the various artifacts. This is a seemingly minor addition to reorganize the content, but it allows for a significantly more accessible project. Users can now browse a specific time period, compare changes over time, and myriad other uses.

Mindfulness in public history projects stretches beyond design, however. Another article by Rebecca Onion argues against the flippant use of historical artifacts by Twitter “historical images” accounts. Such accounts rarely provide any context for the images that are used, let alone links to further investigation. Worse yet, some images are not even authentic, but are photoshopped or misidentified. Any group or individual who pursues such a project (and those Twitter accounts fall firmly within the Public History sphere, even if not coordinated by academics) need to be mindful of the authenticity of their posts. Further, context should be available. While not all who frequent the project will be looking for deeper engagement with the subject matter, the knowledge that the topic is, in fact, deeper than just the picture is important. History is not just names, dates, pictures, or artifacts. It is all of the context surrounding those things. History is not just the who and when, it is the why and how. Not being mindful of this element of history undermines the integrity of the field and presents a poor, neglectful, and inaccurate image to the public at large.

Student Exhibits vs. Staff/Admin Exhibits

The Bryn Mawr Now article, ‘CATALOGING FEVER’ STRIKES STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS, got me thinking about the important differences between student exhibits and admin exhibits. Expanding that thought into the larger Public History world, it could be seen as a difference between participant-created exhibits and those crafted by outside forces (ex. government, those representing though not part of a given group, etc.)

While both student and admin exhibits have a good deal in common, there are important differences between the two. Student exhibits or projects inherently express the needs, desires, and character of the student community. They are driven by something of a grass-roots movement, pushing for a goal, uncovering an important historical point, or, as in the case of the article, allowing information to be integrated into archives for the benefit of all students. Conversely, admin exhibits are a reflection of either what that particular department or individual needs at a given time (much like the student, but at a distance from the lived experience of the institution) or what that department/individual believes would be beneficial to or representative of the student body. The ownership of the exhibit or project has real implications on what is being presented or achieved and how that gets done. In the example of cataloging books from the BCC library and the Rainbow Alliance/Women’s Center collections, it is very likely that the project would not have even been proposed, had students not designated it as valuable or necessary. In the view of admins, staff, and faculty (with the possible exception of activist library staff or faculty in relevant departments), the books existed and were in an acceptable place. Accessing them through the library catalog is a nearly exclusively student concern.

Further, there are practical concerns that come into play here. Funding, time allocation, workers, space designated to such projects or exhibits, advertising/outreach (both for support and attendance, as needed), and myriad other necessities of getting the project off the ground, let alone completing the work. Admin-led projects have the benefit of funding, representation, access to the power structure (gaining clearance or support), and an inherent notoriety. However, like any bureaucracy, they are also shackled by their department, the opinions of their fellow admins, the questions of legitimacy, and the official image that any admin-led action presents. Student-led projects are much the opposite: While they don’t have the (relatively) easy access to funding or the higher-ups for clearance and representation, students have more room to pursue the project without being bound by expectations or official representations.

In the article, this situation of student-led projects is made apparent. The Chief Information Officer of Canaday (in 2004) stated that “before Information Services became involved, we wanted to make sure this would be the students’ project, rather than the library’s project.” Now, that could be to retain the students’ intent and hopes for the project itself, but the remainder of the quote clarifies her reasoning. “Once we got a commitment from the students, we provided a little seed money to kickstart the process. We funded a certain number of student-worker hours for each organization, with the understanding that they would find additional funding if the cataloging couldn’t be finished in one semester.” Translation: We’ll help you get it started, but this is on you to organize, maintain, and follow through to completion. It would have been a burden for the library staff to take on, both financially and as a time commitment. While it appears that a member of library staff trained students in the cataloging process, the burden of the work and project as a whole was entirely on the students. Both Turner and Hills, those students spearheading the cataloging projects, had to recruit other students, manage the project on a large and small scale, and pass the torch on to younger students who would continue to catalog existing and new donations. Despite that tremendous workload, a project vital to the students, and one that likely would not have existed without their intervention, was presented and (at the time of the article’s posting) well on its way to completion.

Exhibitions and the Importance of Artifacts

Laura Schiavo’s article, Object Lessons: Making Meaning from Things in History Museums, got me thinking about the different ways in which the public interacts with history and in which historians interact with the public. Schiavo describes that today’s museums have a tendency toward larger themes and abstract concepts; the artifacts are often drowned out by the concepts they are intended to represent. While Schiavo (and I, as well) respects and appreciates that these types of exhibitions have gone a long way in reframing historical narratives, exposing hidden stories, and giving voices to silenced populations/figures, she argues that “the dominance of themes and stories, rather than collections, can mean a more limited engagement with artifacts.” (48) This is important because of the way in which I feel that many Americans interact with history.

Popular history, that which is seen in the mainstream media, is centered largely around an obsession with objects and artifacts. As I write, a copy of “History of the World in 1000 Objects” sits on my coffee table. American Pickers, a History Channel TV show focusing on two men who hunt for Americana relics to resell (though, to them, the story behind such items is far more valuable), has garnered a tremendous audience and many similar shows have sprung up in what was revealed as fertile ground. I’ve seen every manner of media, books to podcasts to Facebook groups, focusing on “do you remember what this was?” or “this item hearkens back to a time when…” There is something fundamentally grounding about items and objects. It takes an abstract memory or history and concretizes it, making it real to the viewer. An ancient Egyptian really was buried in this sarcophagus. A medieval nobleman actually used this signet ring to seal his documents. The abstract is difficult to wrap one’s mind around and even more difficult to make meaning from. Objects and artifacts bring abstract concepts of acculturation, class struggles, industrialization, and conquest (among countless others) down to earth and into focus.

That is not to say that objects should be the focus of exhibits and that conceptual presentations aren’t relevant to the public. Schiavo explains that “an idea-driven exhibition does not necessarily mean one where objects cannot have a bolder role to play.” (49) It is important to retain the conceptual drive of exhibitions, in order to continue reframing historical narratives and presenting more complex ideas and viewpoints to the public at large. However, historians need to meet the public in the middle and recognize the power of objects and artifacts to bolster and concretize the story that is being told. In fact, those objects could be integral to the retelling of that very story: “[American Stories] is the first history exhibition I have seen in a long time where it is the objects that motivate the text, instead of the other way around.” (50) There is no hard and fast divide between a conceptual exhibition and an artifact-driven exhibition. Either one without the other can fundamentally cripple the story being displayed. Artifacts pique the viewer’s interest in the concepts being argued. Those concepts widen the viewer’s perspective (ideally) and allow them to think more deeply and critically about the historical event. The artifact, then, concretizes that abstract thought and gives the viewer a relic off of which to build their understanding of that event.

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.”

Regarding Quita Woodward

A memorial gift was offered that was of special significance. Quita Woodward, of the class of 1932, was a student beloved by all, gay, friendly, intrepid in the face of advancing ill health, bound to graduate at Bryn Mawr, bound also to let nothing darken her happiness there. Her death, in the year after her graduation, inexorable as merciless ill-ness had made it, was a desperate blow to all of the many who had known her and been so deeply attached to her. As Bryn Mawr lives, so her memory is to live, in the wing and the reading room which carry her name. It is, somehow, a memory that has preserved the impression of the beauty and happiness of her short life, not the unreconciled sorrow that goes with untimely death. Her father and mother subscribed to the new Library wing, particularly for the housing of the departments of Art and Archaeology, and for the specially designated reading room for the students to be called the Quita Woodward Room.

— From What Makes a College: A History of Bryn Mawr (p. 165-66)

Historical Commemoration and the Present

“Its [the Age of Marble’s focus on statues of prominent politicians] key concerns lay elsewhere: in asserting shared values at a moment when the United States was torn by the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction” — Mason B. Williams, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble for The Atlantic.

This particular line got me thinking about the place that such monuments hold in society: Are they physical structures meant to commemorate past achievements, honor historical moments, as one would think? Or do they hold a far more present purpose?

Here, Williams argues that the purpose of statues, plaques, and structures named in honor of historical actors (almost exclusively old white politicians) were not entirely, if at all, meant to earmark the past. Public history has a reason for being that is intrinsically rooted in the present. Such structures can be used to remind warring groups of a shared goal, to honor values that are lacking in the present, to draw communities together, or to champion a moral, ethical, social, or other such cause. The naming of the Enid Cook dorm building can be seen in this same light: The Bryn Mawr community was (and still is) reeling from various attacks on the campus’ black community. Most disturbingly, at least to me, were the administrative movements to close down, change, and redesignate spaces reserved for the use of, and cherished by, the PoC community at Bryn Mawr. While many other measures were taken to rectify this issue and resolve the matter, the naming of the Enid Cook Center can be seen as a part of this resolution. It honors the black history at Bryn Mawr in a very public and very traditional way. It serves the purposes of preserving and honoring history, often seen as the reason for such monuments and dedications, while also serving the public (read: campus) need for resolution, rectification, and remembrance.

Similarly, the destruction of such monuments and the rededication of buildings to remove the reference to a now-unacceptable practice or worldview serves much the same purpose: championing the causes and healing the wounds of the present. Wiping Wilson’s name from Princeton’s systems and buildings would not change the historical record. It would not make his stance, so widely accepted in his time and so vilified in the present, any different. It does, however, make a statement about what is acceptable today, in modern society. Public history is not, at heart, a historical venue; it is a modern venue that deals with modern issues by referencing, resurrecting, and dismantling the past as necessary.

Hope and Fear in History

“‘Hope’ struck me an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hope and the Historian, for The Atlantic.

I wholeheartedly agree with Coates on this topic. Many of the historical works that I have read focus around some manner of hopeful conclusion. Even the book on the slave rebellion, which I mentioned in my last post, resolved the ramifications of the conflict in a positive way, despite the rebellion being put down quickly, violently, and with little semblance of justice. It ended on a “sure, everyone died, but things in Parliament got better eventually!” note.

On the other hand, it is rare to see a historical investigation into a topic where things don’t “get better” and the matter is not resolved. One wonders what happens to all of those topics, the ones in which the heroes lose, in which no hope is found. I feel that it is just as important, if not moreso, to search out those histories. Yes, it is important — nay, vital — to the overall historical narrative to resurrect those stories to which history has turned a blind eye. I would argue that it is just as vital to learn from them. What went wrong? Why did this situation go so badly, when others were successful? What does it tell us about the world then, as well as the world now?

Everyone wants a hero. Everyone roots for the underdog to win. Having your protagonist (for retelling history has much in common with literature) lose a hopeless fight is not marketable and, often, one then wonders what impact the losers could have had. Why read about people who failed to make their desired impact? Because their story is part of history, just the same as everyone else. A vital part. A piece of the puzzle. They acted, and were acted upon, within the historical frame. Neglecting them leaves a hole in the image, a silhouette of void that cannot be understood or explained, a forgotten variable in the equation that changes the answer unpredictably. Without understanding this story of hopelessness, one which is arguably far more prevalent than that of hope and successful heroes, one cannot understand the historical narrative or how it led to our current situations. How can one understand, as far as one could, the fear underlying and driving a successful slave rebellion if one does not know the stories of the failed rebellions preceding it?