Building Trust to Build History

My recent visit to the annual National Council on Public History conference was fruitful and though provoking.  My main takeaway is the importance of trust in historical work.  Trust is the foundation the whole historical enterprise is built on.

Asking a person for documents or objects to accession into institutional holdings is a serious request.  An old photo album or a collection of love letters, these are the physical archives of entire human lives.  When historians, archivists, or curators and contact local holders of valuable information, prior relationships must be considered.  Marginalized persons, ignored groups, people whose materials may have been rejected before will not be ready to discuss accession.  They do not need strangers coming to their home to, in their view, dispossess them of familial identity and history.

Many of our institutions are working hard to increase ownership and inclusiveness with their neighbors.  Still, these organizations exist in a reality created by their predecessors’ behavior.  Objects turned away from accession, lack of invitations from museum staff for participation, and disinterest in the perspectives of the minority were all sharp blows.  This is history in action, at the micro level.  Museums must develop long-term plans to begin to construct a foundation that welcomes the lost participants from years gone by.

One suggestion discussed at the conference is engaging in low pressure, relationship building meetings.  Walk the community, and introduce yourself to neighbors.  Bring by some fresh bread or cookies and have a friendly get-together.  In no way say “you are here to help.”  That person has managed a memory of their family without your assistance up until now, don’t insinuate they need assistance.  Just talk, look, and you may be surprised what resources you will find.  Even just knowing what materials are kept where can be a hug boon to local research.  They key it to be open-minded, patient, and diligent in communicating long-term.

This is going to be a long process.  Decades (and even centuries) of neglect must be repaired to bring discussions and communal work to the level it deserves in underserved communities.  By building trust, we can improve the history field, the museum education system, and our homes.


Nashville Bound!

Even in this connected age, face to face meetings are important to connect, share, and develop new ideas.  I have the pleasure to be attending the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville, TN starting tomorrow.  Making the time, and setting aside the money for these events is critical for two reasons:  exposure to new concepts, and exposure to new people.

It can be expensive, time-consuming, and honestly a bit frightening to journey to these events.  For a budget minded graduate student or new professional;  plane tickets, hotel reservations, conference fees and plentiful seminars can be overwhelming to set up.  Huge crows of peers can be difficult to navigate.  Here are a few tips to make the process less crushing:

1.  Apply for scholarships:  Most conferences have a program to help with costs for attending a conference, often covering conference fees and providing a grant to help with air and hotel.  Usually an essay and letters of recommendation are required.  Give it a shot!

2.  Plan Early:  Get the process started as soon as possible.  Apply for time off of work, make travel arrangements, and study what events you want to visit at the conference.  Take the pressure off the planning, and save money by grabbing plane seats, hotel rooms, and car rentals before the rush.  Having time to review the schedule of events also means you are less likely to miss out on an interesting presentation.

3.  Get the most of the experience:  Chances are, the trip is costing some decent cash to undertake.  Make the most of your dollars.  Look into mentor programs for first time attendees.  These programs partner new attendees with veteran attendees to give advice on making the most of conference resources.  The number of mentors is usually limited; check into this early.  Print some business cards inexpensively off of a website like  Having a quick way to provide contact information is professional, makes a good impression, and helps you get connected.  They can also be a cool expression of yourself!  Lastly, spend the extra money for worthwhile programs.  An excellent tour of a historic site in your field of interest, or a fancy meal that can lead to professional contacts are well spent dollars.

I’m sure I will have many more ideas after the conference, but I hope these help for now.  See you in Nashville!


When Old is New Again

Modern technology is wondrous.  I truly mean that in the greatest sense of the word.  We live in an age of miracles and power.  Airplanes connect continents, cell phones connect people anywhere, and computers streamline the flow of knowledge to the breadth of the world’s minds.  These technological marvels are life changing, yet, the old tools can carry a certain charm, and a certain spirit all their own.  We cannot discard them to the trash heap of time.  A pocket watch, a fountain pen, a record player; all have been surpassed, smoothed over, refined.  The tick on the watch, the gentle flow of the pen, the warble of the record, these experiences are worthwhile.  Old tools bring variety to life, a connection that enriches and sustains.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Pocket watches are such delightful machines.  Their clicks, ticks, smooth motion and constant companionship are calming in a sea of digital flashes and beeps.  My wife has given my three pocket watches over a our relationship.  I treasure each one.  The chain reminding me of their presence, the sound of one in a quiet room, the gentle dance of the gears visible in the transparent casing all create such a unique experience.  A cell phone clock may be more accurate, but I will always carry a pocket watch from my wife.  A companion, a talisman, a fine timepiece.

For Christmas this year, I rolled the dice on a fountain pen as a gift for my best friend, he is happy with it.  Why did I get it?  The more I read on it, the more my imagination was captured.  The light touch required for writing, the finesse, and the style of the implement all merged to make writing seem a bit more fun compared to using your average ballpoint.  I ordered a cheap one for myself for a trial, I have a good feeling it will add a bit of flair to my everyday scribbles.

The old tools available today might require more care, time, or money.  There might not be as many features, or might be fragile.  Yet, their unique purpose and spirit provide worth beyond their physical characteristics.  I love museums, I love working with old things.  Taking new versions of some of those objects into my everyday life helps give them a new life in my eyes, and makes everyday tasks just a little more interesting.  Give it try, you may find a old (new) tool to enrich your life!


Useful Historical Websites I’ve Stumbled Upon

We are in such a wonderful time for only history resources.  I remember when poorly formatted websites and questionable sources were the norm.  Now most major universities, museums, and professional organizations have online portals filled to the brim with historical treasures.  Here is a quick list of a few I’ve stumbled upon.


The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest:

What a great resource to begin a research project.  The online portal contains lists filled with links for digital collections, history organizations, museums, state/provincial histories, and special topics of interest.  Many hours can be spent wandering down the rabbit hole, linking from page to page.  A personal favorite of mine is the Asahel Curtis Photo Company Collection.  It contains over 1700 photographs of daily life, industry, and scenic views around the Pacific Northwest.


Civil War Pathways:

A product of producing an exhibit at the Washington State Historical Society Museum, the Civil War Pathways website creates new thoughts and possibilities.  The project (and exhibit) focus on information regarding the land and people in what is now Washington State relating to the American Civil War.  Lorraine McConaghy and a team of volunteers across Washington State combed through archives, libraries, and museums to create a scanned, searchable database of their findings.  I find the best way to work through the database is using the search box, entering appropriate topics and titles.  Entries include scanned images of documents, descriptions, bibliographic information and more.  Their work saves a lot of time and energy, and will be most useful to those looking at this underserved topic.


Public History Commons:

This project by the National Council on Public History is filled with reference information, blog posts, conversations and professional development leads.  The NCPH created the website in 2012 as a place for scholars and others with an interest in the interpretation and showing of history to the public to gather and share ideas.  It is regularly updated with professional development links, interesting articles, and a additions to their growing reference library.  It is a great place to find out about new projects, ideas, and connections.



A development of the American Antiquarian Society, this website provides free scholarly articles on a variety of subjects on American history before 1900.  The goal of the site is provide a less formal location for discussing a very wide portfolio of topics, from literature to politics to architecture to economics.  It seeks also to be more formal than a popular magazine.  Overall, it is an excellent website, filled with interesting articles that are not riddled with the usual history jargon that can put off the casual reader (or exhaust the more serious one).  It has the worthy goal of providing an online presence for a text focus time period that is getting left behind as more websites become multimedia focused.  Common-Place is updated October, January, April, and July.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read on early American life.


I hope my readers enjoy these few websites I have found over the last few months.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.  My aspiration is that these sources of knowledge help to inspire engaging, interesting, and just cool historical work.






Civic Forums and Pulling Back the Curtain

Museums hold a place of trust and respect in communities.  The behavior of these communities confirms this trust.  Visitors give up family heirlooms willingly, with the expectation that those objects, and by extension, their own history, will be presented clearly and accurately.  Parents take their children to visit local museums and history sites, encouraging them to read up on what the institution is saying about their community.  School groups are taken to these institutions, out of town visitors brought over to see them, and engaged locals wander through from time to time to see what’s new.  Communities trust museums with their history, a trust that can foster new connections, discussions, and learning.

I feel this trust should be used to create discussion forums by utilizing the unique environment, information, and respect built up in museums.  History institutions already educate; by using their facilities to foster civic discussion, we can hopefully provide a calm space filled with information to provide for all sides of the story.  Starting with an education on historical research and curatorial tasks can help invigorate this unique communicative atmosphere.  By demonstrating to the interested public (amateur historians, local educators, general visitors, and anyone interested who has a desire to contribute or learn) the fluidity of history, I hope that museums can help prepare their extended local communities for meaningful civic discussion on contentious issues.

Obviously, there are problems right away with using museums as open forums.  No one wants to see museums ripped apart by partisan politics.  Special emphasis would have to be placed on presenting the museum as a meeting ground for talks, not as an endorsement machine.   Museums command a place of trust, balanced on the idea of objectivity.  An issue when discussing controversial topics is that objectivity comes into question.  Opening up the curatorial/historical process and teaching about its mechanisms would present the influences of staff, objects, research, and surviving materials on exhibits.  Showing that objectivity is never perfect would open up public history more to the public eye, demonstrate that museums have to work with interpreting sometimes conflicting topics, and serve as an example of how to be open for discussion. This work can help prepare the local community for seeing other sides of issues that had not been considered before.

Reinforcing open minded discussion can be done through curatorial education, since visitors may be asked to have preconceived notions challenged, or see local stories rewritten based on new evidence.  Many visitors may have an historical education the ended in high school, which focused on straight facts with little interpretation.  Many may have been taught with information that has since been revised with new research.  The reinterpretation of that originally taught information can help open doors to new thoughts of current events.  The flowing nature of history, subject to change based on new work, conclusions, and evidence is not well communicated to the public.  Educating visitors on this nature can help prepare them for discussions on current issues.


A second post in the near future will examine some current exhibits and thoughts on pulling back the curtain of curating, and any impact they may have on future civic talks in museums.


Exhibit Review: E. Martin Wunsch and the Decorative Arts at the New York State Museum, Albany, NY

On a recent vacation to my old home of Upstate New York, I was delighted to stumble upon a small exhibit that felt so relevant to the work of museums.  “Building a Collection: E. Martin Wunsch and His Passion for Collecting New York State Decorative Arts” is an exhibit briefly covering the work of one man, while reviewing the importance of the decorative arts, and the techniques used to study them.  The combination of collections history, decorative arts display, and research techniques creates an exhibit that has a greater impact that its size suggests.

I’ve been to the New York State Museum many, many times.  I know the exhibits well enough to catch the new display when it appears.  The exhibit  is nestled along the west corridor of the Museum, hugging the wall with white platforms and multi-colored signs.  It appears to be about 50 feet from start to finish in length.  Furniture rests on the platforms, paintings hang on the wall, and silver resides in plexiglass cases.  My first thought was my mind catching something new to see in a very familiar space.  My next was delight, for I’ve had an interest in the decorative arts for several years now.  My next thought was on the connection between honoring a benefactor, and educating the public on the worth of decorative arts (plus the benefactor’s work) and the knowledge that streams from it.

E. Martin Wunsch was an avid collector of the decorative arts, especially New York related pieces.  He originally collected art for his family business, as part of a corporate collection.  He went on to found the Wunsch Americana Foundation, and started a productive relationship with the NYS Museum in 1969.  The exhibit is made up of the most recent donations from his collection.  Mr. Wunsch passed away in March 2013, his son Peter donated the last pieces from his father’s collection (which were on long-term loan) to the Museum.

The exhibit features two panels explaining Mr. Wunsch’s work and impact.  The panels then shift to the meaning, and importance of that work.  A panel entitled “Representative” illustrates how the collection covers both formal and country styles, and presents unique New York art features.  Individual labels built into the overall panel explain specific details for the objects on display.  Another panel labeled “Provenance” explains the value of knowing where an object came from, who owned it, and how it was passed down.  Through clear, readable text, the core concepts of tracing family history through property wills and tracing the spread of art styles can be extrapolated.  The exhibit seeks to honor Wunsch’s memory by articulating why the public should find worth with what is on display.  Hopefully it will lay the groundwork for future interest and thought.

The exhibit is noteworthy to me as it simultaneously presents the art, discusses its collector, then attempts to give meaning to the work done as the objects were collected and interpreted.  A concern of mine has been public perception of decorative arts collections.  Outside those with a direct interest in the subject (art historians, curators, conservators, researchers, hobbyists), most folks never seem to linger long on furniture/silver/ceramics displays.  Famous paintings, or at least ones easy on the eye, seem to do much better, but can still languish as visitors stroll past rows of portraits.

This is in no way a scientific study, simply a gut feeling from wandering around many a museum.  Large cases filled with silver cream pitchers and plates catch the eye.  Displays of folk stoneware can draw in those interested with the many designs painted on the containers.  Various furniture styles being compared can draw in the style focused crowd.  I can’t help but wonder, though, if most visitors are overwhelmed by the displays, or underwhelmed by the lack of connection to broader topics.  Simple, straightforward exhibits like this one honoring E. Martin Wunsch have the potential to pull back the curtain on historic objects collection, giving purpose and meaning to collecting the art that helps define our world.



My takeaway from this exhibit is the importance and worth of explaining to the public what the objects mean to us, rather than just what they are.





Smithsonian Digital Transcription: Crowdsourcing while Relaxing

The Internet can be a wonderful place.  Knowledge, thoughts, and concepts are traded daily over the breadth of the world at speeds unheard of even 30 years ago.  The free exchange of information is one of the greatest gifts of the modern age.  Being free of the slow work of the scribe, or the drying ink of a printing press to convey data opens up projects, avenues, and goals.  Crowdsourcing is one such avenue.  Crowdsourcing, at its core, is obtaining services, ideas, and products by dispersing work amongst a large group of people.  One project using this openness and connectivity digitally is the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer Transcription Center.

Work during spare time interests me greatly.  Today, the time commitments of professional work, life, and errands seem to shred the possibility of research and historical work to atoms.  My job is not related to the history field, so any chance I get to help make history available to the public is a gift.  I stumbled upon the Smithsonian Digital Transcription project ( on twitter one day, and was immediately taken in by the ease of use.  The website invites volunteers to either help transcribe or review already transcribed documents.  Each document has been digitally scanned onto the site, and features image zoom tools, tips for transcribing/reviewing, a space for notes to other users, and even social media links.  I especially like the built in social media sharing features.  The project is definitely working to encourage volunteers to feel more like peers.  There is an emphasis on the public user’s work having a purpose.  Users are encouraged to think creatively, writing or reviewing in whatever manner they feel helps, as independant contributors, not typing robots.

First time users are directed to a helpful tutorial.  It explains in simple terms the goal of the project (research, searchability, engagement with primary sources).  It gives instruction on proper formatting for transcription, and how to review and make corrections.  Generally, any number of users may transcribe a project.  When one feels it is complete, they may mark it for review.  If the reviewer is satisfied, they may mark it complete, and send it for review by the Smithsonian.  Otherwise, any corrections made will reopen the project for editing, or if completed again, submit if for review by another volunteer.  The training provided is simple and to the point.  No difficulty should be feared diving in.

The projects pull topics from all over the world, from a naturalist’s personal correspondence to botanist notes from 1909 to vocabulary guides of enslaved African-Brazilans from the late 1830s.  I found the variety of topics prevents mental fatigue.  If I hit a road block with one project, I can skip over to another and start anew.

The work itself is quick and easy to come back to.  If I have to step away for a few hours, I can easily go right back to work, or find a new page that needs my attention.  Transcribing or reviewing can be done is as little a few minutes, whenever there is free time.  The flexibility of the project is liberating.  A volunteer does not have to stress out that they do not have an hour to devote to work right at the moment, they can work while they can.

Crowdsourcing projects like Smithsonian Digital Transcription allow the public to partake in historic research while watching Jeopardy.  People who might never have the time to venture to a library or archive are now able to travel to far off lands and make old thoughts through their work.  While the task can be a bit tricky (some projects require a careful eye for cursive), it is deeply rewarding.  Being able to contribute to public history, digital history, and document preservation is an excellent way to wind down a day.