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.

Institutional Support and Resistance

While browsing the website of the History Truck, I was interested in the contradiction between the truck’s ideology and funding sources, a problem certainly not unique to it that plagues all non-profits. Currently in Philadelphia there is a huge campaign against Temple University’s new stadium which will further gentrify North Philadelphia. Community members and students are coming together to protest this, and I noticed that the truck held an event discussing the issue.

This is interesting because I wonder what the margins of acceptable opinion are for getting funding from Temple, and how the truck interacts with activist campaigns. Does it try to be non-partisan? This is kind of what the title and description suggests, but the free breakfast program folks are Black power activists and are included in this panel. I am curious as to what extent the non profit industrial complex impacts the truck and its actual ability to fulfill the mission of “Connecting neighbors who would have never built a relationship otherwise” and “Empower communities to work together to address issues within neighborhoods.” The truck seems like an inherently activist project according to its mission statement, but how that works in practice is always fraught. Can they directly support and tell the stories of anti-gentrification activists? How has gentrification affected the people who run the truck? A lot of times folks involved in historic preservation are also gentrifiers, as one can see in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary’s preservation. I am also interested in how the fire exhibit deals with the legacy of the MOVE bombing, and why they pick certain neighborhoods and subjects to visit and document.

The most interesting element of the truck for me is that it is a truck. Displaying history in motion is a really fascinating idea, because history moves and changes. In a museum environment it seems sterile and static. I also think the truck shows a real concern for the community, because by necessity it involves outreach and community relationships. It reminds me of library on wheels project, sort of. We talked a lot about the space of the archive, and how it changes the experience, but this is an even more dramatic space than Bob’s archive or the one I worked in. How do you tell stories in such a small space? How many people even fit into the truck? I can’t imagine too many, which makes it personal and intimate. Overall, the project seems really visionary and changes the experience of visiting a museum completely through both space and content, but I am skeptical of most non profits in practice and the truck is no exception.

Understanding Campus History: A Final Project Provocation

With Erin Bernard, March 2016.Monica's notes, 29 March.Mapping Chinatown North, 29 March.FullSizeRender











“I cannot assume that I have solved any problems by asking questions and listening…but I can say I am attempting to shift the type of resources that future historians have to understand this moment in time in Philadelphia.”

— Erin Bernard, “Of angels, doves, and oral history: Ethics and trucking in Philadelphia,” Art & the Public Sphere 4.1-2 (2015): 109.

What would it mean to replace “Philadelphia” in this sentence with “Bryn Mawr College,” and how might your projects reflect that?

Objects and Oral Histories

In “Object Lessons: Making Meaning from Things in History Museums”, Laura Burd Schiavo discusses the power of using objects to help people connect with history and experience wonder and discovery on their own terms, as opposed to having a meaning and narrative-driven text-based historical experience that “feels like work”.  In contrast, from what I could discern about Erin Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck from the website and articles, the truck’s exhibits are driven primarily by oral histories–text and narrative–as opposed to objects, and yet the truck has a similar objective of helping people connect with history.  While of course I don’t think that objects and oral histories are mutually exclusive ways of facilitating a connection with history, and I think the best exhibits would ideally combine both, the different focuses of Schiavo and Bernard leave me wondering about the potentials and limitations of objects and oral histories for public history projects.  Schiavo talks about how objects can prompt a viewer to reflect on their own past history with that object and therefore facilitate connection, but oral histories are a way of prompting viewers who hear those histories to reflect on others’ pasts, which I think is at least an equally worthwhile goal–history should be about learning about others’ communities as well as our own.  How can objects be combined with text or narrative or oral history to facilitate both an individual and interpersonal connection with history?  Additionally, if an exhibit relies primarily on objects, is it leaving some people’s stories out, people who don’t access to creating or owning certain objects, or people whose objects aren’t preserved over time?  But if an exhibit relies primarily on oral histories, is it only showcasing the experiences of people who have access/ feel comfortable talking to the oral historian/ feel like their experiences are worthy of being recorded?  I’m looking forward to visiting Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck on Tuesday and hearing more about her process–I think it’s a wonderful project and I’m curious to hear if and how she incorporates objects, and how she tries to reach as wide a swath of a community as possible when conducting oral histories.

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.

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.

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.

Bryn Mawr not only is racist; it is ingrown!

The two part blog post (Unwavering Dissent) was probably the least surprising thing I read on the blog, at least regarding the slowness at which Bryn Mawr’s administration moves when dealing with things that it would rather just go away. The line “the administration’s noncommittal response” almost made me laugh because it was so sad, because it is so true even today.

The parallels between the administrations slow response to dealing with the admission of black student to Bryn Mawr, with giving them their own cultural space on campus, with treatment of black staff, and today’s racial issues (specifically the confederate flag incident among others) just demonstrates how this is not a new issue at Bryn Mawr. Racism is not the limitation of what is ingrown in Bryn Mawr’s administration; it is everything that goes along with it the administration’s noncommittal stance towards social progression. It is also still the current process that if Bryn Mawr students (especially any students of color) who want to change anything at Bryn Mawr “they would have to fight for, loudly.”

The monument and the passerby

When reading the articles for this week, I immediately thought of an article I read for another class, Patricidal Memory and the Passerby. The article is long and has a very complex argument I won’t try to reiterate here, but one aspect of it is that we ought to focus on is that we should look at the monumental, in this case the memories of great dead men and legacies of slavery and patriarchy, as it works through and around the movement of the small details that make up daily life. By refocusing our energy on the banal details of life we understand better how systems like white supremacy and patriarchy function. This could be easily applied to monuments like the slave table, which dehumanizes enslaved peoples by making them into symbols. A better monument might be enslaved families, or enslaved people performing daily tasks they would have at the college, except without the opportunity to literally use them as a table. As Mason B. Williams says in “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble”, “Discussing individuals and (where warranted) removing names is good—but it is just a start. The crucial next step is to rethink and reinvent the ways the nation commemorates.” I think this new commemoration must also deal with the problem of the monument itself, and how it is inherently a structure meant to deal with “great men” and “great events” instead of the equally important events which take place in our daily lives. Maybe Bryn Mawr could use a statue of servants in the dorms, with notes from the archives about their lives.