Research Update

There’s a lot on my plate right now – Unknown Soldier backstory, Spanish flu research, assigned readings and responses, not to mention my job! So I’m going to check in and see where I am with all of this:


I started using the app zendone over the summer, an online to-do list that utilizes the Get Things Done method, and it’s been so helpful for organizing tasks and making sure nothing falls through the cracks, and using it for grad school has been a lifesaver. Consoling myself with the fact that I won’t be able to read everything as closely as I’d like, I’m managing to get everything done, on time! And I’m amazed at how frequently my readings  become applicable to work, especially (surprisingly) for my Historical Methods class. On a tour last week that centers around the Seixas-Washington correspondence, I was talking with some Hebrew school students about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and one student mentioned that secondary sources have bias and primary sources don’t. I responded about how that’s not necessarily true, and even referred back to the 1789 Richmond Prayer we had just read, which was quite biased in favor of Washington. Merci, Arlette Farge ! Finding ways to use readings at NMAJH has definitely encouraged me to keep up with them, instead of letting stress and other mental health conditions make me too lethargic to do work (which was one of the main reasons why undergrad took me 7 years to finish!)

Spanish flu research

I went through quite a bit of Jewish Exponent archives, and some Philadelphia Inquirer archives as well, where I became interested in two main topics: “on the ground” humanitarian efforts such as nurses and the Jewish Welfare Board, and mentions of the epidemic in the decade following it. I’m not sure what direction our programming will take — I certainly want to include public health and the importance of vaccines — but I’d love to honor these humanitarian efforts in some way. As for the after-the-fact mentions, it was so interesting to see the epidemic evoked more as an obstacle to overcome, such as the president of Gratz College praising the graduating class for withstanding the tragedy of the epidemic, or organizations boasting its membership levels didn’t drop after 1918. Tragedies are used as emotional shorthand all the time today, especially regarding 9/11, so it was interesting to see how this is not a new phenomenon at all.

I spoke with Claire Pingel, the Chief Registrar at NMAJH, who mentioned a few letters she thought were connected to the Spanish flu, although she’s not sure. She did recommend contacting the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, which will have the archived documents of organizations such as the Jewish Welfare Board, but I have not yet gotten a chance to investigate their online collections descriptions or contact them directly. I hope to do that sometime this week! I also asked Claire if there are any plans to mention the flu epidemic in our upcoming exhibit about the US entering WWI, but she didn’t answer; I would guess the answer is no anyway.

I worry about not doing as much research as some of my classmates, especially since the topic is still so large/broad at this point, but I think once we start narrowing down our direction and Big Idea, it will be easier for me to know what kind of research to do.


I admit that this project fell a little off of the radar until recently. Most of my efforts have gone more towards determining what story I want to tell, as opposed to gathering research. (I realize that we’re not supposed to do too much research, but I really should have more perspectives than just the “official” ones!) There are two main narratives I’m deciding between:

  1. The significance and development of the Unknown Soldier concept – how can you honor every single person that has died during a war without overloading a person with thousands of names, or allowing a person to find names meaningful to them and ignore the rest?
  2. Tying the Unknown Soldier into the object, which is similarly identity-less. Using the parallels between the two to understand the deeper meaning of the Unknown Soldier.

I imagine that the first narrative is more pertinent to the backstory itself, though I may come up with an object label draft with the second narrative if I have the time. Later this week, I plan to sit down with my materials, do some stream-of-consciousness writing, and come up with a backstory draft from there.


Image via Society of the Honor Guard. This is more Chelsea’s domain than mine, but I’m so fascinated by the Tomb Guards, their level of dedication and precision that have led to the Tomb being guarded for every minute since 1937. 


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