An Amazing Adventure in the Archives in Arkansas

by Samuel Malby

This year I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the graduate school, as well as funding from the department to go on a research trip to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first step of the process was of course planning ahead of time. I was looking for documents related to immigration policy over the course of the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), but also looking more specifically at primary sources that dealt with immigration detention.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

First, I used the online Finding Aids to look up what useful documents were available, and what boxes I wanted to look at while I was there. Second, and perhaps the most important step was to contact the archivists and inform them of my plans to visit the archives. They emailed me back with a ton of information, supplementary sources they recommended I look at, and informed me that they had digitized a few of the sources I had mentioned and that those were available online. Therefore, before arriving at the archives I had a list of everything I wanted to look at, and this made the entire process so much easier once I got there.

I flew into Little Rock on a Sunday and had four days in the archives (Monday to Thursday) before flying home on the Friday.

On the first day, I arrived at the archives as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I only had a few days and thousands of documents to get through, so I did not want to waste any time. I informed the security guards at the entrance that I was here for research and they let the archivists know that I was there. Then the archivists came to find me and took me through a long corridor and up some stairs into the archives themselves. There, as it was my first time, they explained the process, the rules, and the regulations. I received a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and a research card. Next, they took me into the research room and gave me my first cart with ten boxes (ten is the maximum they can give you at any time). On my list I had 34 boxes to get through in four days, but I had no idea how long it would take me. I therefore started off with the most important ones. It is important to prioritize especially if your time is limited. On the first morning, I only got through one box. I needed to speed things up. As I had so much to get through I was not really reading documents, I was mostly just taking photographs of all the useful documents I had before me. For the first few boxes that were related specifically to immigration detention, that meant taking pictures of everything. Some of the first ten boxes were filled exclusively with email exchanges between administration officials. While I am sure some of these contained interesting information, I decided it would be more beneficial to look through other material first and come back to these if I had time (Spoiler Alert: I did not).

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Between 12 and 1 the archives closed for lunch, so I went to find food. I had lunch at the 42, the restaurant situated in the Clinton museum, on one of the lower floors. As a true Englishman, I had fish’n’chips with a dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh fruits and a strawberry coulis for dessert. The dessert was hands down one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, it was fabulous!

After lunch I headed back up to the archives. I got through box two, and over the course of the day took 1521 pictures. By the end of the day I had a record of all the documents related to immigration detention in those two boxes.

On the second day, I went straight into the research room this time. I started to look at the email boxes, but there were just too many, and the process was too long. I skipped ahead to the final boxes on my first cart of ten boxes. They were mostly about former IRA members who were going to be deported. This was both remarkably interesting and quite unexpected. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out what happened to them and write something about that one day! Once I got through those, I was done with cart one. The next cart started off with one of the boxes I was most interested in. From what I could see online, it looked like it would be particularly useful for my research and contain lots of critical information. In the end, however, it was very disappointing. It of course contained some relevant stuff but mostly documents that I knew were available elsewhere. However, one of the other boxes I was not expecting to find much in turned out to be a gold mine! Jam-packed full of interesting documents, juicy sources, and controversial material, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping to find.

Back in the 42, I had lunch with one of the other researchers. He was a retired professor of History from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, looking for sources related to narcotics. Over lunch he told me about his interactions in his youth with drug dealers in Colombia and had many other interesting stories to tell. At the end of the day, I took advantage of the heat and the sunny weather to go sight-seeing and took a two-hour walk along the Arkansas River trail.

On day three I went through some more boxes. I found lots of documents on Operation Gatekeeper. It was sunny and warm, so I had lunch outside on the patio at 42 again. I resisted the temptation to get dessert but decided I was going to have one tomorrow to celebrate my last day here! In the afternoon I got a new cart with 10 new boxes. Most of those contained useful and relevant sources. In the evening, after the archives had closed, I headed to a coffee shop to start drafting my article and simply enjoyed being in a city for a change.

On day four, I woke up to thunderstorm and rain. This meant that getting a cab was harder than usual as there were fewer drivers about. My driver that morning was Darill who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a big soccer fan, so we talked about our favorite soccer clubs and players (and how bad Man United are, everyone knows that!). He also talked about how he was also a musician who played steel drums.

On my final day at the archives, I continued to work through sources. By this point, thanks to my earlier prioritization I was mostly looking at documents that were less related, so I spent a little more time deciding what to skip over, and what to focus on. My aim was to get through it all before I left. I made timely progress and had almost finished cart three out of four by lunch on Thursday. At the restaurant, I ate with the researcher Eduardo again. As it turned out, he was half-Colombian and half-Argentinian. We talked about soccer (the theme of the day), and national allegiances. He was an Argentina supporter, and we talked about soccer rivalries and European football. He also talked about his experience of the military Junta in Argentina in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a remarkably interesting guy!

After lunch I quickly moved onto cart four. There was some interesting material, but time was running out. I had to decide what to take photos of and what to not get bogged down in. I rapidly got though my final cart and finished my final box with about three minutes left on the clock!

In the evening, the weather was nice, so I went for a walk through the city and eventually stopped off in a bar that had hundreds of beers available. I sat down and drank a few of them and enjoyed my last evening in Arkansas. Life. Was. Good.

You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.

History from the Dark Room

microfilmimg.jpg

by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

The Mayflower Conundrum

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

by Marcel Haas

Judging by the onslaught of advertisement for genealogy kits, quick tests to find out one’s genetic heritage, there is a rapidly growing market for selling and buying knowledge of our heritage. Of course, many of us have grown up with stories of family history: Grandparents talking about the struggles of their lifetime, parents reminiscing about holidays when they were little, and even stories of our own – the first love, the last cigarette, and the latest conference trip to Europe. Beyond our immediate memory, however, few families (at least in Germany) record their history in writing. Maybe they keep letters and postcards, perhaps some aunt or uncle keeps a record of a near-mythical great-grandmother born in the mid-nineteenth century, but on average it would be hard to find anyone with complete knowledge of their ancestral history.

In America, the situation looks slightly different, at least judging from several encounters and conversations I have had over the years across the United States. Here, many people will refer to a specific ancestor from a long-gone century that crossed the oceans to come to the young United States (or the British colonies). They can also add an exact description of their genetic ancestry. More than once, I saw faces light up with delight when I answered the question of my nationality with “German,” only eclipsed by the heartfelt joy in explaining to me that they, too, were “German.” In a few cases, people I talked to were even able to tell me about the very German ancestor who had come to the US. Now, I don’t want to sound dismissive. Of course, I understand the value of oral histories transmitted in families, and I can see in the history of a country like the United States, shaped so heavily by immigration, the reason for a hunger for genealogical knowledge. Nevertheless, I cannot but feel a slight discomfort when dealing with such ancestral stories.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened just last year, while I stood at the counter of a grocery store in Mount Pleasant. My accent had peaked the interest of the guy next to me in line, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was indeed German, like him, as he told me. In fact, he explained, his family had traced his direct ancestry to one of the people traveling on the Mayflower! Of course, I was a bit sceptical, considering that the Mayflower Puritans were mostly English. I did not want to be pedantic, so I let him tell me his story, paid, and left the store. Identity is a complicated and sensitive matter, and he was surely entitled to decide his own. However, the encounter remained with me, if only for the strange mix of self-declared German and Mayflower ancestry.

For one, if the ancestor he identifies most with was on the Mayflower, why did he immediately emphasize his being German with me? How did the English Mayflower ancestor and “Germanness” correlate (let alone the fact that in 1620, there was no Germany in sight)? And above all, and that is really the subject of this post, what were his other 65,535 ancestors doing in 1620?

What emerges, is a simple problem of mathematics. If one assumes a generation to be around 25 years, then someone born into my generation is 16 generations removed from someone old enough to have been on the Mayflower. In general, anyone alive today would be directly descendant from a total of 131,072 people alive since 1590. Since that does not count siblings, cousins, and their respective relations, the grand total of relatives each one of us must have over the course of only the last four hundred years should be roughly around 400,000. (I admit, this is only my lazy estimation.) Thus, only considering ancestors alive in 1620, besides his ancestor of Mayflower fame, our friend from earlier could be proud of 65,535 other people. Some of them lived probably all over Europe, in Sweden and Finland (many of whom came to Michigan in the 19th century), in France and Italy, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Asia, and Great Britain. (Again, this is based on my lazy generalization. If I would speculate based on historical movements this post would be a small book.) A good amount of his ancestors in 1620 were most likely living across North America. Arguably, the great majority of his ancestors must have been poor, some were rich, a few of some fame. Some might have died in debtors’ prisons in England, some of the plague, some of the ague in Michigan. Some might have been Moravians, some Jewish, maybe some were Muslims, and some believed in non-Abrahamic religions. Perhaps one of his ancestors really came with the Mayflower.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books. https://www.masthof.com/)

Looking at these numbers, one cannot but feel overwhelmed – and confused. After all, we cannot possibly all have 65,536 ancestors in 1620, as the total number of original ancestors would be larger than the number of people who ever lived on this planet. The consequence is simple: At some point in time, the chances are high that we are all related somehow. That one nameless ancestor from the Mayflower likely features in the family trees of millions of Americans alive today – people who would identify as Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American, and more. Ultimately, one ancestor in 1620 is nothing compared to the people we are today. While it is surely fascinating to know that someone of our blood line did great things, it is also important to remember that all of us come from a rather small number of Homo Sapiens about 350,000 years ago.

Disclaimer: As my worried fifth grade teacher can confirm, math is not my strong suit. I have assumed the average duration of 25 years for one generation. Others have used 30 years or 32 years. If I would change my earlier example according to these calculations, the number of direct ancestors in 1620 is quite a bit lower. However, since I haven’t counted the people related to my grocery store friend in 1620 (as in cousins, siblings of ancestors, and their offspring), I believe I have used fair numbers. If I did make a mistake, please let me know (or comment below).

 

Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!

Obama Center, African-American golf, and Chicago

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

By Dave Papendorf

Through the great work of CMU’s own Dr. Lane Demas a recent item of news has come to the forefront — and one of historical note concerning former president Barack Obama’s proposed Obama Presidential Center on the south side of Chicago. Refurbishing bits of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan, the project, headed by the Obama Foundation, plans to provide a “refurbished” public space that connects the park to the lakefront. The park will also include a museum tower that tells the history of the Obamas’ story in the United States and prominently features exhibits on the history of civil rights, African Americans, and Chicago generally. Complete with Obama’s presidential library, a conference center, and a large athletic center, this project will celebrate the Obama family and provide a new public space for south-side residents. The city of Chicago has been largely enthusiastic towards the project, giving the Obama Foundation a sweet deal on the property — a $10 (!), 99-year lease to rent and use the land. Despite a dendrological lawsuit and real estate critiques, the project continues forward.

One larger and more historical concern with the project, however, is closely related to Dr. Demas’ book, Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf. Jackson Park is the site of the Jackson Park Golf Course, an important historical site for African American golf in the city of Chicago. This course is the primary course of use of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club — established in 1937 and featured prominently in Dr. Demas’ book. Golfers and historians were initially concerned that the Obama Center might close the course in favor of improvements, but this concern seems to have been tempered for now. Currently, the Obama Foundation’s plan is to redevelop some of the property into a six-hole “short course”, and they have enlisted the help of Tiger Woods for design and input. Whether the course will still be accessible to South-Side residence is still debated, but the history of this course is indispensable in telling the history of African Americans in Chicago. Included below is a recent presentation at the CWGC’s clubhouse concerning Nettie George Speedy — the first female African American golfer in Chicago and a founding member of the CWGC. One of Speedy’s descendants offers insight into the history of the organization and its importance. Moreover, the archives preserved at the clubhouse of the CWGC have proven to be a historical resource for retelling this important story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCT3AgEo9Xs&feature=youtu.be

As previously mentioned, Dr. Demas’ book is award winning in many capacities. He was the 2017 USGA Herbert Warren Wind Award Winner as well as the recipient of the North American Sports Society for Sport History’s book award. Be sure to read more about the history of golf in Chicago in his monograph and keep an eye on the news concerning the course in Jackson Park.

Civil War and American Indian Research: Getting out of the “Archives”

By Dr. Michelle Cassidy, Central Michigan University

I’m trained as an archival historian. I depend on the scraps of information that I find in archives, libraries, and government offices, as well as recorded oral histories, to support my arguments related to the past. Yet, as I work on articles and a book proposal related to my dissertation research, it strikes me how many “ah ha” moments happened outside of the archives, either in conversations or while visiting the places that are central to my historical narrative. My current project focuses on Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters—an almost completely Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) Union company. I explore how service in the Civil War provided some Ojibwe and Odawa men with multiple strategies to acquire or sustain leadership positions, maintain autonomy, and remain in their homelands.  They claimed the rights and responsibilities of male citizenship – voting, owning land, and serving in the army – while also actively preserving their status as Indians. My work is in dialogue with both American Indian and Civil War historiographies. In both fields, it’s important to step out of “the archives,” talk to people, and, when possible, explore the places related to your research. Of course, all historians know that the archive is bigger than what you find inside institutional walls. 

Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

During the early stages of my research on Anishinaabe soldiers, I met with Company K historian Chris Czopek. In May 2010, he accompanied the Ogitchedaw Veterans and Warriors Society, as well as descendants of Company K, to Andersonville, Georgia to honor the seven Company K soldiers who died at the Confederate prison. Czopek has recorded many of the final resting places of Company K soldiers.[i]Listening to his advice, I went to cemeteries while conducting research, often taking wrong turns, ending up driving on one-lane paths, or unexpectedly and belatedly realizing graves were on private property (the results of settler colonialism). 

Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Seeing someone’s final resting place reveals much about their life, and, at times, the lives of their descendants. Visiting soldiers’ graves soon became part of my research routine. First, a moment of silence to acknowledge an individual’s life, then a look around with the eyes of a historian to observe the landscape, which includes hints of what nineteenth-century visitors might have seen from the same spot: the gentle hills of the Leelanau Peninsula; the view of Omena Bay from the site of Private Thomas Miller’s grave; and glimpses of the same bay from another hillside where a gray-spotted white marker reads: “Aaron Sargonquatto: Co. K 1 Mich. Sharp Shooters: Known as Aaron Pequongay, 1837-1916.” In the Omena cemetery, where Sargonquatto was buried, there are many other familiar names—descendants of Company K men—with several gravestones indicating twentieth-century military service. Anishinaabe cemeteries in Michigan attest to American Indians’ high rate of military service. 

The graves of three Company K soldiers are located in Arlington National Cemetery. Private David George (enlisted at Isabella, May 18, 1863) shares his final resting place in the Lower Cemetery, section twenty-seven with the earliest interments near Robert E. Lee’s occupied plantation. George died May 12, 1864 and may have been buried before the land officially became Arlington National Cemetery on June 15. James Park, a former slave of General Lee who remained at Lee’s plantation, dug many of the early graves and may have dug this Anishinaabe man’s grave. Former slaves and African American troops occupy much of section twenty-seven, but, unlike George, they were segregated from the other burials. George was buried next to white soldiers, as were Sergeant Peter Burns and Private Oliver Aptargeshick. In contrast, African American troops and free black civilians were not, at least in section twenty-seven; a reminder that while the “Indian Company” was frequently racialized and viewed as something unique, it was not placed in the same category as “Colored Regiments.”[ii]

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with another Company K researcher, and we visited the Riverside Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant. I learned how to make a tobacco offering during our visit to the gravesite of Thomas Wabano (Waubauno)—an Ojibwe soldier who enlisted in Isabella on May 18, 1863 with around 19 other Ojibwe men. Wabano’s Company Muster Role notes: “Went home on sick furlough and died at Isabella, Mich., Jany 7th, 1864.” His grave is located behind the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) memorial. The Mt. Pleasant G.A.R. Post was organized in 1884 and named the Wa-bu-no Post. Researchers interested in Company K note that this is the only G.A.R. post, to their knowledge, that is named after an indigenous individual. Visiting Wabano’s grave was a reminder of a research avenue I haven’t yet pursued. Why was this post named after this particular Anishinaabe soldier? 

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Stepping out of the archives has been important to my research process, especially given there are many silences in the traditional archives related to race, class, and gender. The information learned visiting final resting places or traversing the modern contours of a historical landscape doesn’t always make it into your central argument. Yet, these visits often illuminate connections between the past and present—a task that seems critical when writing history related to both the American Civil War and indigenous peoples. 

[i]Chris Czopek, Who was Who in Company K(Lansing: Chris Czopek, 2010).

[ii]Robert M. Poole, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (New York: Walker & Company, 2009), 58-61. Arlington National Cemetery, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Map/ANCExplorer.aspx, accessed May 9, 2014. Burns and Aptargeshick are both buried in Section 13. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Company K soldiers’ graves in Arlington; instead, this information is from a virtual visit via Arlington’s website. 

Podcasting Local Community Memories: Merits and Limits

By Sean Jacobson

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Hello there! I’m privileged to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection. My name is Sean Jacobson, and I am a second-year PhD student in the Public History and American History joint program at Loyola University Chicago (the home of Sister Jean’s Ramblers for those who followed any March Madness last season). 

My varied research interests include 20th century American history, history of American evangelicalism, public memory, genocide studies, and global humanitarianism. I’ve enjoyed being part of a program that allows me to integrate public history endeavors alongside more conventional (for lack of a better word) academic study of the past. Even in my limited time at Loyola thus far, I’ve been able to work on a wide range of projects from traditional seminar papers to NEH grant writing to historical walking tour proposals and, most recently, podcasts.

The subject of what constitutes “public history” is a discussion in itself, but for my limited purpose in this post, I concern myself with one particular question: How much power and voice can or should historians share with their research subjects and stakeholders?

I tried to explore this through a recent podcast project while in a course on material culture. As someone interested in the intersections of faith, trauma, and memory, I decided to make a podcast about genocide memorials in the Chicago area. Since Chicago is, unsurprisingly, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, I had a plethora of communities available to reach out to.

While I had some academic background with media (I earned a BA in History and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University), I had never yet attempted to make a podcast. Thus, I had multiple motives with this project. For one, I wanted to get an experience actually making a podcast (forewarning: it’s hard work!). Related to that, I wanted to see what value there might be in conducting community-based research with this methodology. Additionally, the experience forced me to get out of my comfort zone and make cross-cultural networks with different communities (these often started with cold phone calls). Who knows – these connections might serve as building blocks down the road for future research and service work.

I won’t spend time talking about the specifics of my podcast (called Testimony), but I’m attaching an iTunes link here for anyone who is interested in learning about it. Instead, I want to briefly highlight a couple takeaways on the merits and limits of podcasts as a tool for taking your history research into the “public history” realm.

Merits

The most positive outcome is the connections made with living communities. For example, it’s one thing to read about a subject like the Cambodian Genocide; it’s another to actually be immersed a local diaspora community that’s actively trying to make sense of a traumatic past and, as a mediator, give those people a platform to express themselves orally. This was both challenging and rewarding. It was challenging because I sometimes felt like an intrusive outsider trying to reach these communities. It was rewarding, though, because interacting with real people allowed me to see the significance of my research subject matter.

When someone does topical studies or comparative studies, the fostering of interaction between different parties has the potential to create greater solidarity and convey research to a wider audience. Many of the communities with which I interacted for the podcast struggle to find an audience beyond their own ethnic or religious enclave. As such, doing this kind of work may help share their story and needs with a more general public.

Limits

This gets me to limitations of podcasting as “public history.” If I’m trying to share communities’ memory with a wider audience, how much authority is actually shared with those constituents? To take again for example the Cambodian community in greater Chicago, I encountered some linguistic and cultural barriers when recording and editing an episode on their day of remembrance vigil service. Considering the aural nature of a podcast, how appropriate is it for me to interpret/speak for some Cambodian immigrants who might have trouble expressing themselves or their history in English? Does that undermine the purpose of a podcast as a place to give their voice a platform?

Additionally, how critical can/should I be when tackling such a sensitive topic like genocide? On the podcast, I ventured on the safe side of not expressing any overt opinion on these communities’ presentation of their own histories. Is this the right approach to take? I believe historians ought to be as objective as possible but also not hesitate to make moral judgement calls or identify problematic interpretations of history.

As you can see, I don’t have definite answers to my own questions. As frustrating as this can be, I know that I will gain more clarity with the more experience I create. I can certainly see myself continuing future podcasts on other topics related to my research fields. The nice thing about podcasts, compared to videos or online exhibits, is that they are so versatile. People can listen to podcasts with little restriction. It’s an easy, low-risk way for people to learn about new ideas while engaging in a fast-paced world. At the same time, podcasts saturate the market so much that they can be ephemeral. If not repeatedly posting new content and advertising aggressively on social media, podcast episodes can have a short lifespan if few people ever listen to them shortly after their release.

For any readers out there, have any of you tried making a history podcast? What was your experience like? Do you think they qualify as public history? Could making one possibly help you flesh out research ideas?  I’d love to hear any feedback! 

To Preserve and Protect: Fostering Public Awareness in Shared History

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 Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

By Marc Van Horn

At an early age, I experienced firsthand the dramatic emotional and intellectual effect historical sites can have on the public.  My interaction with places such as the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and the medieval town of L’Argentera, Spain, awakened a ceaseless passion.  My experiences as a child resulted in later academic endeavors in history and anthropology in adulthood.  As I pursued my bachelor’s degree in those fields, it became clear that historic places gain great meaning by benefiting the public, especially by sparking curiosity in tomorrow’s historians and anthropologists.  I also realized that my role should be to make history relevant and important to a wider audience, and that there is no better classroom in which to accomplish that than at a historical place.  However, this became clear to me only after working in historical interpretation.  As a graduate student in the Cultural Resource Management Master’s program at CMU, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of projects involving the public and historic sites.  To me this is the most direct and effective way to foster the respect and stewardship of history in modern society.

During the summers of 2016 and 2017, I served the public as an historical interpreter at Fort Mackinac, a site managed by Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) on Mackinac Island, MI.  This work led directly to my completion of an internship in public history under the guidance of Katie Mallory, Curator of Education at MSHP, and Dr. Brittany Fremion, my advisor in the Department of History here at CMU.  Specifically, I conducted primary source research into the environment, sanitary conditions, and medical practices present at Fort Mackinac in the 1870s through the 1890s.  My conclusion was that Fort Mackinac was an unusually healthy and desirable posting during those decades, which aligned with the research of others I had also examined.  Before this undertaking, I had developed a rudimentary version of a short, guided walking tour of the fort focused on issues of health and sanitation.  After my own research into various post surgeons’ correspondence with the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army located in New York, and research into the art of historical interpretation itself, I was able to greatly expand and improve my walking tour.  As a result, I received generally positive feedback on my tours, certainly better than I had before.  This experience taught me that the public can greatly benefit by the hard work of historians to bring the rich heritage of historical sites to life in an accessible and digestible way.  Thusly, we can more directly and efficiently benefit humanity through our beloved discipline.

I am currently serving as graduate assistant in museum education at Central Michigan University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History under the direction of Caity Sweet-Burnell, the Museum Educator.  The core of my responsibilities includes editing and reorganizing a series of museum programs titled “Michigan Through the Ages.”  I began by fact-checking and sourcing the information found within the programs.  I then reorganized the program outlines, focusing on clarity, design efficiency, and brevity.  Since we have come to understand that learning takes many forms and occurs in different ways, I sought to include as many hands-on and interactive activities as possible in the programs.  Also in my duties as a graduate assistant, I have often been tasked with designing and implementing new programs for after-school groups.  Once again, my approach required flexibility, coordination, and adaptability in order to present appropriate programs in effective ways.  Every situation brings unique challenges, waiting to be overcome through perseverance, patience, and innovation.  In many ways, barriers to interpretive and educational programs can be seen as metaphors for the obstacles against fostering historical understanding in society. 

From my experiences I learned that the roles of a historian are to unearth forgotten truths, revisit and revamp the pursuit of learning, and foster dialogue and collective understanding.  It is not enough to remain in our ivory tower, content to advance our own isolated goals and largely evade those of the public in perpetuity.  My work in public history has allowed me to refine my belief that the gap between academia and society in recognizing and respecting our heritage is most effectively bridged through historical interpretation at our most important sites.  Our ivory tower must become a forum built on common cultural ground, a place open to all and constructive for all.


Marc Van Horn is currently a student in the Cultural Resource Management Master's program at CMU, and he is working as a graduate assistant at CMU's Museum of Cultural and Natural History. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and anthropology form CMU in 2009.

I was once an intern

Natalie Pantelis (left pictures), Brittany Fremion (center of the picture), and Taylor Ensley (right pictures) during their internships.

Natalie Pantelis (left pictures), Brittany Fremion (center of the picture), and Taylor Ensley (right pictures) during their internships.

By Brittany Fremion

I was once an intern.

In my junior year of college, to my mother’s dismay, I signed a major in History. I can hear her to this day: “What will you do with a degree in History?” I, myself, wasn’t initially sure. My advisor encouraged me to do an internship to find the answer. She assured me there were many paths I could take: education, graduate school, or I could pursue a career in public history—work at a museum, for a government agency, or at a national park. Those last few peaked my interest. So in 2003 I began an internship at The Lincoln Museum* in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On my first day, I got a tour of the museum’s special collections. I saw a copy of the 13th Amendment signed by the former president, family photographs, and the former first lady, Mary Todd’s, shift (or underwear). I took a docent class and learned about the first family, as well as Lincoln’s political career, the Civil War, and his assassination. In addition to this, I attended guest lectures by Lincoln scholars. But I spent the bulk of the semester creating an education program for local K-5 schools. By the end of the semester, I had my answer. I would be a museum educator. 

The following semester, I completed a second internship at The History Center, located in Fort Wayne’s historic courthouse. My supervisor wore several hats: he was the museum educator; worked with collections and displays; responded to research requests; and was responsible for helping to direct programs and events, as well as maintain and restore the Chief Richardville Home, a historic Native American treaty house. I learned much from this experience. I helped with school groups—often dressed in early nineteenth century attire—by presenting on women’s fashion and work. I assisted with research. And I helped at the Chief Richardville Home. In addition to this, my supervisor introduced me to oral history and we toured notable local historic homes and sites. Lastly, I sat in on meetings with partner non-profit organizations, during which I learned the challenges of obtaining and raising funds, and of organizational and local politics. I finished the internship wanting to know and wanting to do more to make local and regional history matter. I had an earnest desire to preserve the past and make it available and exciting to a broad public audience.

After talking to my advisor and supervisor, I realized that a graduate degree was my next step. Graduate school, as an option, was a truly exciting possibility. Fortunately, Bowling Green State University accepted me into its master’s program in policy history. My curiosity about the past, especially how the human relationship to the environment has evolved, grew. As did my love for preservation, research, and instruction. Rather than traveling down the road of museum education and historic preservation, I veered toward a doctorate and life in academia. But that is not to say that I haven’t remained interested or active in the world that first drew me to the discipline. In fact, I have worked on several oral history projects, consulted on exhibits, and this past semester, contributed to the development of the exhibition, “(dis)ABLED BEUATY: the evolution of beauty, disability, and ability,” which will open in the Clarke Historical Library at CMU on February 8, 2018.

I also serve as the internship coordinator for the Department of History at CMU, which has its own Internship Program. History and Public History majors who have completed the bulk of their core curriculum can use three to six credit hours for an internship. In the past, students have combined opportunities to study abroad with internships, like Ashley Blackburn, who interned at the museum for the University of Groningen in the Netherlands last summer. Or students may stay in Michigan and work at one of the state’s many remarkable institutions, like Natalie Pantelis, who worked in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, or Taylor Ensley, who worked as an interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

If you find yourself having a mid-degree crisis or you simply want help finding an answer to the question, “What will you do with a degree in History?”, come see me. I’ll tell you about opportunities to get valuable hands on experience, build a professional network, and discover how the craft of history extends beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

For an appointment, email fremi1b[at]cmich.edu
Office hours spring 2018: Fridays 11:00 to 2:00 and by appointment
Office location: Powers 238

*Not to be confused with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is located in Springfield, Illinois. The Lincoln Museum where I worked as an intern, closed in 2008. The Lincoln Financial Corporation, which owned and operated the institution, maintains one of the largest collections of Lincoln artifacts in the world to this day. The materials are currently preserved at the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne) and Indiana State Museum (Indianapolis). For more information, see the Lincoln Financial Foundation’s Lincoln Collection or “The Lincoln Collection at the Allen County Public Library”.

Historical Archaeology Informs History: The Brig James McBride

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

Illustration of a brig from a federal government publication.

By Jay C. Martin

Historical archaeology and the material culture remnants of the past often inform historical inquiry.  One need only to think of how the excavations at Pompeii have enriched our knowledge of the past to understand the importance of archaeology as a tool for historians, particularly in fields of study where historical documentation is rare.

The potential for historical archaeology in the maritime realm is vast.  In Michigan the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes and their tributaries preserve cultural material.  The best examples of this are the wrecks of the Hamilton and the Scourge, War of 1812 vessels lost in a sudden squall on Lake Ontario.  When located in 1975 they were in near pristine condition, intact with guns and deck equipment still at the ready.

A less dramatic, but equally important story is that of the Great Lakes brig James McBride.  Built in 1848, it was reputedly the first American-flag merchant ship to initiate direct trade between U.S. Great Lakes ports and the Atlantic World via the St. Lawrence River.  “Direct trade” in this context can be defined as a commercial vessel carrying its cargo direct from the port of loading to the port of discharge without having to use the time consuming and expensive “forwarding” process wherein cargo was unloaded and transferred around one or more topographic obstacles.  Such cargo was most often transferred to an ocean-going vessel during the final leg of the journey.

Although the merchant vessels of British Canada were first to initiate direct trade by running the St. Lawrence River rapids and using the pre-Seaway locks, McBride’s trip to saltwater illustrated the intent of Chicago commercial interests to become leaders in global, not just the regional, shipping industry.  This intent was signaled in 1847 when the young city—incorporated in 1833--hosted the first national rivers and harbors convention.  The convention focused on internal improvements and drew 2,500 participants from nineteen of the twenty-nine states. 

The pre-St. Lawrence Seaway adventure of the McBride in 1848 was an important stride toward making the Great Lakes a more influential and competitive part of world maritime commerce.  This innovative venture was typical of the can-do spirit that characterized contemporary lakefarers.  The success of the venture encouraged others to do what had only previously been considered theoretically possible.  An example occurred the following year when the Eureka sailed from Cleveland direct with “49ers” headed for the California Gold Rush, taking Great Lakes trade direct to the Pacific.  Direct trade expanded rapidly after reciprocity agreements allowed American vessels to pass through the St. Lawrence River without special diplomatic permission or crippling duties.  The trade flourished until Confederate commerce raiders and the resulting rise in insurance rates made it prohibitive for shipowners to trade outside the Great Lakes.  During this period the entry of vessels flying European flags dramatically increased.

Direct trade by American-flag vessels recovered after the war.  Existing locks and dams were expanded in incremental stages until the mammoth St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s finally made it easy for large modern ships to transit between the Great Lakes and saltwater.  Despite its importance to the development of the United States and Canada, little has been done to interpret the pre-Seaway traffic and the shift from forwarded cargo to direct trade via the St. Lawrence River. 

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

Staff, students, and volunteers working on the McBride this summer. Photo credit: Jay Martin. Used with permission.

In August 2017 I led a small group of CMU students, faculty, staff, and volunteers to survey the remains of the brig James McBride at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the location of its grounding and loss in 1857.  The intent was to determine the relative archaeological integrity of the wreck and its potential for full archaeological survey and excavation.

The team found that relatively little of the lower hull remains submerged off shore.  A thirty-eight foot section was swept ashore a few years ago by ice, but has substantially degraded over time.  Still the wreck has potential to add to the collective knowledge of Great Lakes to saltwater direct trade by a comparison with the remains of contemporary vessels to determine what modifications were made to Great Lakes vessels to prepare them to navigate saltwater. 

Analysis of the results of the 2017 field season is ongoing, but it is clear that the remains of the McBride and other Great Lakes vessels have much to contribute to our collective knowledge of world history.  They also help us reinterpret that history, shifting from the prevailing saltwater-centric view that what happened on the world’s oceans determined what happened on inland waters.  The author’s scholarship has demonstrated instead that Great Lakes innovations in technology, business management, and maritime labor had lasting and transformative impacts on maritime commerce worldwide. 

Creating Her Own Path

Ashley Blackburn processing skulls at University of Groningen. Photo credit: CMU News

Ashley Blackburn processing skulls at University of Groningen. Photo credit: CMU News

Ashley Blackburn, a Central Michigan University senior majoring in public history with minors in anthropology and museum studies, not only studied abroad this summer, but also created the internship program path she took.

Central Michigan's public history and museum studies programs equip students with the skills they need for success and Ashley is a prime example of collaboration between advisors and students to enrich the experience. 

CMU News featured Ashley's internship:

'The skulls. They speak to me.'

Student creates internship and processes artifacts in The Netherlands

August 7, 2017

Ashley Blackburn spent the summer working with hominin skulls and early human tools.

It's exactly what the Central Michigan University senior wanted from the international internship that she created.

"The skulls. They speak to me," Blackburn told her internship supervisor when he asked her to choose between organizing the museum's medical collection or skull collection.

The internship was at the museum for the University of Groningen — Rijksuniversiteit Groningen — in The Netherlands. Her internship ended in late July after her spring semester of classes in history and anthropology.

The internship work was in line with Blackburn's interests. ...

Continue reading at CMU News.

Podcasts: Listen, Create, Engage

By Jennifer Vannette

Podcasts are getting quite a bit of attention lately, but they really aren't new. In 2008, the American Historical Association (AHA)'s blog featured podcasts as an alternative teaching method. The article suggested that podcasts provided a great way to listen to lectures outside of a classroom setting. This is indeed one type of history podcast.

Over the last decade, many more podcasters have offered a whole host of new material. Some are still based on presenting a stand alone lecture while others deeply explore long arcs of historical events, such as The Fall of Rome. Still others explore the quirky side of history by highlighting stories you may not have heard in history classes such as the dark history of Hollywood on You Must Remember This or the travails of the high seas on The History of Pirates. There are so many interesting facets of history that podcasters tackle to the delight of public audiences. Seriously, just google history podcasts and you be offered many different lists of the "best."

Then there are also podcasts that appeal to those of us in the profession. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has its own podcast to compliment their journal. Each month last year Ed Linenthal, the executive editor of the Journal of American History interviewed a guest about the article he or she had recently contributed to the journal. Another approach by some of our own grad students at CMU (two current and one alum) discusses all the things we talk about with other grad students -- navigating school, teaching, professional networking, and more. I Was Told There'd Be Food is a great introduction to grad school life or a place to go for ideas and commiseration.

History departments are also finding ways to involve faculty and students in creating podcasts. A highly regarded offering that has been active for awhile, 15 Minute History, comes from the University of Texas at Austin faculty and grad students. It is what it sounds like -- brief episodes that cover a wide range of history. The faculty of University of Oxford also have a similar podcasts, and they have some general history and a few more specific podcasts such as Stories, Spaces, and Societies -- Globalising and Localising the Great War. These can be an excellent method of public engagement for faculty and grad students alike. The very specific topics are a great place to engage with the research of your specialization.

There is also the possibility of incorporating podcasts in the classroom. Not only can students gain deeper understanding of material if we assign specific podcast episodes in addition to (or instead of) a reading assignment but we can also consider having students produce a podcast episode as an alternative to a paper or other project. Free recording software is available to download from the internet and then all it takes is a pair of earbuds with built in microphone (standard with most phones now) and our students have what they need.

Podcasts can be listened to while driving, while exercising, or doing chores. When you search for podcasts, you will find wide enough variety to suit all tastes. While we listen, we can brainstorm methods for incorporating as an alternative teaching method. So, go explore the wide world of history podcasts.

In Real Time: Twitter as Public History

By Jennifer Vannette

In the summer of 1967, violence and chaos consumed Detroit. Fifty years after the summer rebellion (race riot?) engulfed the city and captured the nation's attention, there are several resources available for us to revisit or learn for the first time about the event. One of the most intriguing resources that blends public history, social media, and primary sources comes from the @StatesideRadio Today in 1967 Twitter account. 

Today in 1967 recounted the Detroit rebellion in real time by tweeting information and primary sources at the time they occurred. For example:

The tweets begin fifty years to the minute when the police officer entered the blind pig and continue through the fires, looting, snipers, political decisions, and arrests. Tweets layer the police accounts with people's memories. Several tweets note the reactions and lack of concern over smoke rising just past left field by those at the Detroit Tigers baseball game. One tweet provides a link to a Detroit Free Press article attempting to explain why the rioting spread so quickly across the city. Other tweets note where Gov. George Romney was and what he was doing at different points during the crisis. One embeds his radio address. The organized collection of primary sources is outstanding. Not only is it a great method of presenting public history -- partly because you feel just how long the event took -- but it will also make a great teaching resource since it is automatically archived. You find the whole series of tweets either on Today in 1967's profile of with the #rebellion67.

This may become something of a trend. Representative John Lewis also used this format earlier this year to detail his experience at Selma. His series is tagged with #Selma52. Twitter is offering historians a new world of engagement.

Expanding into Public Scholarship

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

By Jordan X. Evans

How can we as scholars, educators, and historians engage with students and the public in the age of “alternative facts” and constant funding cuts? This is of utmost importance to us at CMU because in April the University decided to cut nearly ten percent of the financial operating budget for the College of Humanities, Social & Behavioral Sciences. A recent article in The Chronicle by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” attempts to answer some of those questions. One of their suggestions was to become public historians: pull ourselves out of the archives, conferences, libraries, labs, and the historical jargon. Our history department has already started to engage in this through activities like Reacting to the Past. where students gain an appreciation for how complicated history is by placing themselves within a historical moment. Through the use of RTTP students also learn to critically think about historical events in a fun way. Teaching critical thinking skills in a game brings value to the students and our own classrooms.

However, this is one step; what are some other methods and activities we can do to reengage and fight against the world of alternative facts? Instead of engaging in a highly specialized field that is nearly inaccessible for the public, we as historians must become the defenders of truth, critical thinking, and history. If we take seriously Blain and Kendi's call to become public scholars, what might that look like?. Public scholars engage with people in unique ways, for example; giving public lectures, editing and creating blogs, and inventing interesting and different ways to publish scholarship. The focus is on accessibility, not demonstrating your impressive vocabulary. Can we as historians capitalize on alternative methods to combat alternative facts inside of and outside of the hallowed walls of our university?

On April 21, CMU hosted Dr. Ari Kelman as a speaker for our Blackburn Lecture series. During his time on campus he spoke about his new project with co-author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm the creation of a graphic novel called Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. The book tells the real history of the American Civil War in a graphic novel-style format – , full of pictures and simple language, it would be highly accessible to the public. Kelman’s project is following in the footsteps of the award winning graphic book series March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell,  which traces the history of John Lewis during his struggle in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. March exemplifies a singular narrative that traces one story, captured in a fun, easy, and insightful way. Following Kelman’s visit, the use of graphic novel style to bridge the academic and public worlds lingered on my mind. If we could incorporate them then how do we start creating work like that in our own classrooms?

Dr. Christopher Jones, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, answered that question by sharing a series of photographs on Twitter documenting his students unessays. An unessay is meant “to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity” (emphasis added). One picture is a collection of four paintings that depict “the near-erasure of all but white men from American history + efforts to correct that record”. A Landscape Management major “drew up ‘landscape blueprints’ to depict clash of cultures b[y] Powhatans and English in 17c Virginia”. Scholars should keep in mind that students working on their undergraduate degrees come to learn carrying their own unique talents and interests. Using unessays could be one way to keep them engaged in a class they may otherwise lose interest in. In addition, assigning work like this can challenge us as historians beyond the classroom to be more creative and make work like graphic histories.

As the country becomes ever more entrenched in a battle of facts and alternative facts it falls on us to remember our duty to engage and teach in ways that the public and undergraduates will value, understand, and share. Are we doing that effectively? If we cannot easily say yes, then what more can we do before this ten percent funding cut becomes twenty percent next year? Scholars must defend truth, critical thinking, and history, not just in our academic sphere but with the public as well, by using methods previously scoffed at before historians become a matter of history ourselves.

For Public Consumption: Food History and Youtube

By Simon Walker

               University of Strathclyde

When I started my post-graduate training, I envisaged a world of books, half-moon glasses and dusty archives.  I looked forward to writing a book that no one, except my suffering students, would read and delivering lectures to a room of people more interested in their catnaps, computers and coffees.   Then I discovered, the scourge of 21st century academia: Public Engagement! 

 Strange thing is, I love public engagement.  I blog, I tweet, I teach in local schools and occasionally guest lecture at public events.  It’s great fun and its very different to dealing with other academics who half the time are waiting nervously (or sometimes impatiently) for their turn to speak.  At a PhD level your peers tend to be kind, your betters benevolent and your academic audience, polite.  With the public you get quirks, questions and often genuine interest. 

One of the best public talks I ever gave was to an audience of only six people as part of the Glasgow Southside Fringe festival. Serves me right for presenting in the basement of a grand mansion whilst the sun streamed down on music and comedy acts elsewhere!  To be fair, I wouldn’t have to come to see me either.  But the talk was great, because as I explained about trench food and hard tack (the impossible to eat biscuit / bread that was the British soldiers last resort on the front line), the audience engaged, leaned forward and conversed. 

But all of these things have been done and done again.  Even my teaching in schools, which is great fun, is not exactly unique.  So, in the best tradition of finding any distraction from not writing my thesis, I searched for something ‘a wee bit different.’  In the middle of the Great British Bake Off,* I had a very daft idea.  When I’m insolently not writing my thesis, I have a tendency to bake.  I bake cakes for friend’s birthdays, cookies for my younglings, and doughnuts because it’s Friday. So, I decided to blend together: my love of cooking, my passion for the First World War, and let’s be honest, my dashingly handsome and charismatic self.  I decided to make a YouTube cookery show which I called Feeding Under Fire

The format was simple: get camera, use camera, cook!  Having never presented on camera before, I was ridiculously naïve.  The research bit was the easy part.  I pulled a recipe from an Army Service Cook Book from 1914 for Hard Tack and then trawled through my personal archives for my unwritten thesis for accounts of trying to eat it.  I storyboarded the scene, wrote my script and it was time for Lights, Camera, Action!  This is where it fell apart. 

So, I enlisted a YouTube expert to help me film.  Together we managed to make an 11-minute film, which took six hours to make and then ten hours for me to edit.  I couldn’t look at the camera, I couldn’t remember my lines, I hated the way I looked, my voice, my kitchen.  To get me to lighten up, my director placed a funny sign behind the camera to help my slightly manic smile have some enthusiasm to it.   Finally, I managed to upload it to YouTubeThis was it, I would be, well not famous, but you know, popular at least, I’m sure!   Over the next four days, there was around 15 views, and those were from a smattering of friends, and mostly me, from different devices.  As it stands there are over 200 views on the first episode 5 up thumbs and 1 down thumb (I don’t know who that was but I’m going to force feed you hardtack raw, my friend).  That was the hardest part.  Knowing I had put so much effort into it and no one cared.  

Then a schoolteacher friend messaged me to say she had enjoyed the video and that she had used it as part of a lesson plan.  She passed it on to another person who did the same and suddenly I felt better about the whole thing.  I learned from the mistakes in the first episode. The next one was better researched, I brought in a friend to ‘taste test’ on camera, I actually bought a decent video camera and microphone and I fixed much of the oddities of the first video.  Episode two currently has just over 100 views.  Episode three is now up and episode four is in post-production hell. It will be done. 

So, what is the point I hear you ask. Well done, mate, you made a Youtube video that got less views than a French speaking cat trying to get into a house!  Basically, who cares? Well the point is, whilst I am not a YouTube star (yet – I have hope), I love Feeding Under Fire. Public engagement is important for developing wider key skills that are useful both within and beyond academia. Also, having a more varied presentation platform means that you can reach a more diverse audience with your research.  Feeding Under Fire is on my academic CV, it helped me get a job at the Scottish Parliament, and I’m planning to apply for funding to push the series as an engagement project for six months whilst in the post-doc, pre-job wilderness.  Feeding Under Fire is daft, but it’s fun, it’s interesting and it dares to be a little different; also, my kids love it, so why not.  Try it yourself, you never know what might happen, but give me a thumb up when you do, eh?

* Aired on PBS as the Great British Baking Show.

 

Editor's Note: University of Strathclyde is one of our partner institutions. This fruitful exchange has sent many of our PhD students to Glasgow for a year of study, and Strathclyde has sent CMU many students. Simon Walker is a PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  He focuses on the physical transformation and control that British soldier’s bodies experienced during the First World War.     Email: Simon.h.walker@strath.ac.uk

But Do I Get to Wear a Hat?: A Day of Historical Interpretation

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

By Alexander Greff

     UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS

“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!

It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.

Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.

Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)

Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!