Debating the Archives

I am fairly new to the world of archives. In terms of collections, I am much more familiar with the world of lending libraries, where books are organized according to Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal System, and where librarians can track circulation records to weed unused books. The internal geography of a library is constantly changing, as books get taken out and returned, as books are weeded and acquisitioned, and so on. Libraries fulfill many values, the primary of which is the needs of its patrons.

Before this class, I had never considered how archives might resemble or differ from this description of libraries. Archives and libraries, as houses for collections of mostly text-based documents, often get lumped into the same category. I imagine that many researchers make this mistake too: seeing archives as a library of primary documents. Debates about the purpose, organization, and formation of archives reveal this disagreement about archives.

In one camp is Sir Hilary Jenkinson (1882-1961), who saw archives as an exact preservation of an institution’s records. He saw archives as “impartial evidence” of an institution’s transactions and history, and thus that evidence should remain untouched. He does allow for an Administrator, usually the creator of the collection, to weed out unnecessary files, but restricts archivists from doing the same. Thus, the provenance and original order of the archives are maintained.

Reading about Jenkinson reminded me of a passage in Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives. While doing archival research in French police records, she encounters a file containing a number of seeds that fall out. Of course, these seeds have no informational value and do not help her research. However, those seeds remind her of the human origin of the police records: questions about who wrote them, what were they doing, what were their interests. A reminder of the real people behind the archives, which I imagine is an important byproduct of provenance.

However, this model becomes unsustainable as the amount of records increases, and the United States ran into this very problem around the 1930s-1940s. The National Archives was founded to curb this issue, and around the same time, Theodore Schellenberg (1903-1970) developed his own archival theory to challenge Jenkinson’s. While Jenkinson focused on the creator of records, Schellenberg includes the researcher. Considered to be the father of appraisal theory, Schellenberg describes a number of values to determine which records should be preserved. Thus, Schellenberg looks to the future of the archives, considering how the archives will be used by researchers and others to come.

As we move through a period of intense cultural and technological advances, libraries continue to debate their form and function, such as the place of computers and other community services in a library space. Archives, too, are going through their own conversations, such as how to deal with outdated technologies and accessibilities. Inevitably, these conversations will be fueled by the opinions and methodologies developed by archivists like Jenkinson and Schellenberg: what are archives for? Who are archives for? And how much of this should archivists themselves control?

 

Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” http://www.mybestdocs.com/cookt-pastprologue-ar43fnl.htm

Farge, Arlette. Allure of the Archives. Yale University Press, 2013.

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Introducing Lesley!

Yesterday started a new semester, and that means a new source of learning: Lesley! This isn’t a new professor or other mentor… Lesley is a boat!

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My “Material Culture” class standing around Lesley at the Independence Seaport Museum. I am on the far left. Photo by Craig Bruns. 

More specifically, Lesley is a sneak-box owned and soon to be deacquisitioned by the Independence Seaport Museum. Believed to be one-of-a-kind but too damaged to restore or preserve, we will be studying the boat and making digital replicas to preserve the boat longer than the physical object can last.

To start, we spent our first class studying Lesley in quiet contemplation and observation for an hour. I started by focusing on the whole of the ship, both in terms of its past function and its current dilapidated state. I tried to imagine it in the water (sitting low, probably) and guessing how many people could fit in its small cockpit (not more than 2-4 I think). The wood was damaged in various ways: some areas were splintered, some was rotten away, and other areas had stripped paint, scratches, and other surface deterioration. After hearing a little about how the boat became damaged, I noted that the right side was in slightly better condition than the left side, and that the benches in the cockpit were in better shape than the hull.

Next, I narrowed in on the specifics, especially regarding how the boat was constructed. A lot of these observations betrayed my lack of knowledge about boat-making, marine history, etc. Some elements I could identify, such as rope anchors, but there were plenty of metal loops, holes, and compartments that puzzled me. I was also quite surprised to find gas tanks tucked into the cockpit and puzzled over where some kind of engine might go.

One thing that fascinated me in particular was the different woods that were used. Thin strips of wood along the top of the hull and wider strips along the bottom, and one much wider, flat strip down the middle of each. There were curved vertical planks of wood reinforcing the inside like ribs, and the cockpit was lined with two very long planks of wood bent into two U shapes. Some areas, like blocks reinforcing the cockpit lining, had wooden pegs, while most of the rest of the boat used metal nails and screws. Along the bottom of the hull, little clumps of deteriorated fabric hung down from the wood, which I learned from Nathaniel H. Bishop’s Four Months in a Sneak-Box was probably a cotton filling used to line cracks between planks in the wood.

Accordingly, most of the questions I came up with concerned the function and mechanics of the boat. How many people does it sit, what kinds of races did it partake in, how popular was the sneak-box as a racing vessel, why was it retired, what is the significance of the colors and other insignia on the hull, etc.

This was a great activity because, needing to fill up the entire hour, I was forced to rexamine things I had already seen, think of new angles and areas of focus to use, and to question beyond what I’m seeing. In a way, it also lends itself to encouraging “See / Think / Wonder,” the main model of object inquiry we use at NMAJH. Jumping straight to conclusions about how Lesley was used, as adults are usually wont to do, would lead to a very quick and unfulfilling exercise. So in order to fill up the entire hour, we were naturally inclined to pause, mark our observations before moving onto conclusions, and come up with questions afterwards.

We also spent some time drawing. We were instructed to sketch a detail on Lesley that caught our eye, and I was drawn to an area of damage in the floor of the cockpit.

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My sketch of the bottom of the cockpit. There’s a reason I didn’t go to art school!

We were told that the boat was stored outside, but it rolled off of its stand and rested on its side for several years. So I was curious about how that plank on the bottom became cracked, if that’s where it was originally held up, or if it bounced when it fell, or some other accident. There also seemed to be a plank missing entirely from the bottom of the cockpit. Additionally, I was curious if that’s what the bottom of the cockpit actually looked like, or if there was some sort of flooring that was missing. I imagine it would have been frustrating to have to step in between those boards running across, and it would have made sense for them to be positioned like that to hold up a floor to actually step on.

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This shows what the bottom of the boat actually looks like, albeit from a slightly different angle. 

While I have never been particularly interested in maritime history, studying material culture is central to engaging and enriching museum education. So I am excited to learn more about the theory and debates regarding object inquiry, while learning more about Lesley and sneak-boxes in the process!

I have a thesis topic!!!

This post is a week or two overdue, but it’s finally happened…. I have a thesis topic!

I’ve been really interested in the role that religious history has played in Philadelphia (and in Pennsylvania as a whole). This is a state that was founded as a haven from religious persecution, and it has been fascinating to learn about the legacy of this founding, at least from the Jewish perspective at NMAJH. But so many religious groups have interacted — sometimes embracing, sometimes struggling — with religious liberty in Philadelphia, and it would be great to celebrate this in schools.

Especially with the amount of religious diversity within Philadelphia public schools, studying the history of religious liberty can help students to learn about each other, in addition to learning about the past. This is a benefit that Linda K. Wertheimer explores in her book, Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, which includes interviews with students about how they’ve benefited from learning about religions other than their own.

Thus, for my thesis, I’m going to be creating a set of lesson plans for teachers, with each lesson focusing on a different instance of religious liberty fought for and achieved. These lessons would also center around resources from local museums and other historic sites, using artifacts and documents and also helping teachers to connect directly with these institutions. Unsure about grade level and class target yet; I’ll determine that information once I dig a little more into the PSD curriculum, to see what connections I can make.

Here are some potential topics of things I’m thinking of, with the disclaimer that I’ve done no research at all yet about other potential examples, what lessons already exist, what objects and other resources are available, etc:

  • Kosher table at the parade celebrating the ratification of the Constitution
  • Founding of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
  • Something with religious newspapers like The Christian Monitor and The Jewish Exponent
  • The split-off of the Free Quaker Meeting House from the Arch Street Meeting House
  • The history of the building for Masjidullah, which has also been a synagogue and church in addition to a mosque

I have been tasked with developing 3-5 full lesson plans, and proposing about 5 additional ones. Probably in the proposed lesson plans, I absolutely intend to explore the histories of non-Abrahamic faiths in Philadelphia.

One of my biggest challenges, I think, will be how to talk about religious history with students who may be unfamiliar with the religion itself. What will these events mean to students who know nothing about Judaism or Quakerism? (Especially having gone through that — I confess it took me the longest time to realize the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, which made most of European history really confusing….)

Wertheimer spends most of the book, which focuses on controversies in classes on religion from around the country, exploring this problem. How have teachers tried to educate their students on unfamiliar religions? Are guest speakers acceptable? Visits to houses of worship? How young is too young? And how much input should parents have?

Another issue specific to my thesis is, how much time should I be spending on basic religious education? What does it say if I assume that students will need to learn about Judaism but not Christianity? What else am I assuming about PSD students?

In the end, my project will have several goals:

  • To see how effective William Penn’s vision of religious liberty was (and perhaps see how that changed or was enhanced by the Constitution…?), while celebrating Philadelphia’s religious diversity
  • To connect classrooms with museums and other historic sites
  • To use and promote object-based inquiry in the classroom

Obviously I have a lot left to figure out and research — this post is really my initial jumbled thoughts. But I’m excited for what’s ahead! Get ready to hear all about all of this for the next several months (and, friends working at religious historic sites, get ready for me to reach out to you…. 😉)

Teaching soft skills — and emotional honesty

My internship has been pretty monotonous lately. You get into a groove when you develop programs and materials for a new exhibit. It’s almost like a conveyor belt: you research using new resources — you fit the new information into the themes and learning objectives identified for the exhibit — you figure out how best to disseminate that information in engaging and relevant ways. Great in terms of learning new things, but not so much for writing fun blog posts.

So instead, I’ll write about something that’s been on my mind lately: soft skills. I’m talking about everything that’s not explicitly taught in school — what “business casual” means, how to make a phone call, how to write professional emails, how to work with people from different departments… All skills that, most often, students and young professionals are expected to learn on the job and pick up from other people.

I’ve been thinking about this because, at NMAJH, we’ve taken on two teen interns from the Cultural Alliance’s Bloomberg Arts Summer Internship program. In this program, interns spend three full days at a cultural institution, and two days learning professional skills and preparing to apply to college. While they’re working on projects that involve multiple departments, they have been reporting directly to me, and the nature of the program encourages me to be a mentor figure to them.

This puts me into a bit of a peculiar position — not only am I an intern myself at another institution, but I am very new to this career, and this is my first managerial position. Also, the transition from part-time/temporary/intern to full-time staff has been a difficult one for me, as I deal with mental health issues, impostor syndrome, increased responsibilities, and other adjustments.

So I feel like I’ve been more in tune with identifying these soft skills — what do I wish I knew when I entered the working world, what are these teens’ needs, and how can I make this truly a learning experience for them?

So far, this has included things like explaining why I’m making various decisions, describing behavior for sitting in on potentially-boring meetings, explaining aspects of our office culture in relation to broader trends, and trying to be as honest as possible as often as possible.

That honesty about how I’m feeling — in general but also about certain tasks like public speaking — I’ve found has become more and more important as I navigate the professional world while dealing with mental health issues. The “fake it ’til you make it” facade of responsibility and functionality is so pervasive in the working world. Of course, that’s important for productivity, but can create a burdensome environment for those struggling with mental health issues, who are led to believe that they are suffering alone and thus are failing at their job.

This issue has been in the news lately, with one woman sharing an email exchange with her boss about needing a mental health day. Part of this story’s popularity is the sheer surprise that the CEO of a company would acknowledge the existence of mental health needs, let alone supporting a day off to do self-care. In fact, I had a conversation with a different (college) intern about this issue — she was so scared to confess a mental health need to her boss that she cried while doing so. We had a great conversation about the importance of communication, about validating our respective mental health needs, about how yes mentally ill people exist in the workforce.

Not only does being open and honest about mental health in the worksplace encourage taking care of oneself, but it also acknowledges the fact that most soft skills take time to learn, and that many seemingly-professional adults struggle with phone calls, public speaking, and other skills. Additionally, thinking of these issues and having these conversations have encouraged me to be more honest with myself as well, acknowledging the resources I have, identifying comfort levels, making choices that lead to higher quality and productivity of work.

And, how has this translated to managing the Bloomberg interns? It’s mostly been through casual validation of their fears and concerns. The projects I’m giving them involve a lot of research, socializing with strangers, writing, and other intimidating tasks. One of my main focuses has been to let them know that it’s okay to be worried or scared about doing these things, while gently encouraging them to push through and try new things.

Not only does this lead them to learning and developing new skills, but hopefully will help with confidence and comfort in general. And, ideally, it will do the same for me too.

Back at AAMP!

I took a two-week hiatus from my internship at AAMP, due to some reasons that I’m not going to specify, but it’s not difficult to figure out what’s going on. I needed some time to put in extra hours at NMAJH, rest, wrestle with my feelings, and maybe try to actually do some laundry. (Which I did! Finally!)

But I returned yesterday, not having missed too much, ready to dig into AAMP’s special exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We’ve mainly been working on developing workshops – activities with students relating to the exhibition that can happen outside of, or following, a tour. The other interns came up with really great ideas, such as diving into specific art methods or looking at paintings through unexpected lens.

My workshop is an effort to explore the multi-genre nature of the Black Arts Movement. At the time, curators and critics restricted Black artists from their museums and galleries, often claiming that white artists were simply more talented. In order to increase access and reach their audiences, many artists within the Black Arts Movement would spread across different genres, including poetry and music. Art became performative, with some artists even bringing their work to the street corner in their neighborhood for everyone to experience.

At the same time, artists associated with the Black Arts Movement did not necessarily move in the same direction; it was a conversation or even a debate, with artists having wildly different opinions to a number of questions. What does a Black aesthetic look like? Do Black artists even need to exhibit a Black aesthetic? What role does Pan-Africanism play? Violence against white supremacy?

My workshop then would explore both themes of multi-genre art and the non-conformity of opinion within the Black Arts Movement. It would start with a discussion of these two topics, and then introduce a prominent non-visual artists of the Black Arts Movement, such as poet Nikki Giovanni. The workshop facilitator would then read aloud one of her poems (maybe “Always There Are the Children,” “Knoxville, Tennessee,” “Nikki-Rosa,” or “Revolutionary Dreams”…). Once, for students to listen and maybe ask about any new words, and then again, for the main activity: while the poem is being read, students can draw their interpretation of the poem. What they imagine, what they feel, something representational, something abstract, whatever calls to them. Students could then share what they drew and why.

(Well, it’s a work in progress…)

I have really been enjoying finding new ways to engage with a topic while on a tour. Museum education trends in general have been moving towards interactive, engaging, non-lectures, which is fantastic, but there are times when we need to move beyond talking in general. Personal, relevant, enriching discussions is so great at times, but too often I’ll have students on a tour that refuse to talk, no matter what I do. (Which I understand, since I was 100% that student in school!) Finding these alternate activities – touching a replica, creating a tableau vivant, drawing a picture, these are all ways to get even those quiet students to participate. It’s all about changing up learning strategies, to give students something unique, meaningful, and fun!

And, since I’ve been forgetting…..

Hours this week: 15
Hours so far: 37.5

Worksheets: the bane of my existence

It’s hard to not make assumptions about students. About how they’ll behave, what they’ll understand, what their interests are… When creating lesson plans and other educational programs, I do my best to imagine how a hypothetical student would react to a particular question or story, but it’s hard to do that tucked away in an office and sitting behind a computer.

At AAMP last and this week, I got to put myself squarely into the minds of a student seeing an exhibition for the first time. Now, I’ve been to AAMP before, but I confess that I’ve always skipped right past half of their core exhibit, Audacious Freedom, also known as “the timeline room.” The gallery, dominated by a mural of important figures and other images relating to the Black community in early Philadelphia, has always been darkened by other visitors in the middle of watching a narrated timeline projected onto the walls.

So, worksheets in hand, we were tasked with scouring the timeline to answer questions that students presumably would on tour.

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This worksheet involved finding specific people, after which students can choose two more to learn about. I always enjoy educational activities that include drawing!

Admittedly, many of the worksheets were difficult! Occasionally, information was difficult to find or contradictory, such as a worksheet asking about the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” while the label read “Gradual Emancipation Act.” Or, directions were unclear, such as a worksheet asking to compare two figures, and literal-minded me tried and failed to compare their disparate opinions and life accomplishments, instead of the worksheet’s goal of imagining and comparing their general life circumstances.

To be fair, we were completing the worksheets to work towards revising them, in addition to getting to know this gallery. But how many worksheets have I created at NMAJH, anticipating how students would use them without testing them myself?

There’s not too much longer until PhilAesthetic opens, and I can’t wait to jump into the galleries to talk about the Black Arts Movement. But in the meantime, I’m reminded what it’s like to explore a new museum for the very first time, hunting down facts and images that may seem obvious to seasoned staff, but not to me.

Some thoughts while I prepare to both be and have an intern…

I’ve just finished my second week, and first full day, of my internship at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia, and I haven’t really done anything blog-worthy yet. And I’m perfectly okay with this! Instead of jumping into my eventual projects, I’ve had a useful and meditative introduction to what will be my second home over the summer, as well as a chance to compare it to what I remember of being an intern at NMAJH…

Internships at NMAJH, at least in my department, can be pretty precarious. Behind the scenes, we have plenty of interesting, meaty projects people can work on. (That’s how I became involved in Becoming American!) But it’s a very fast-paced department, with multiple large projects happening at once that often overwhelm. We often rely on “learning by doing,” digesting new information through the process of preparing new curricula and docent guides, or through attending the trainings and lectures we arrange for docents.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, at my first full day of my AAMP internship, we all sat down for about 3 hours to discuss a number of scholarly articles relating to their upcoming exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We had been given the articles as homework — overviews of the Black Arts Movement as well as features on specific artists like Richard Mayhew. This was an incredible help for me: I’m relatively new to both African-American history and art history, so the readings made it easy for me to feel out of my depths. Taking the time to discuss the information helped me to gain ease in discussing these issues, an ease which will become important for leading tours where, as a white person, I’ll be expected to talk about the Black Arts Movement and how artists worked through issues related to oppression, resistance, and identity.

This has gotten me thinking about how non-Jewish interns at NMAJH, particularly those in education who will give a tour at some point, have acclimated to our subject matter. To be fair, it’s not a direct comparison; the exhibition’s narrative focuses on Jews as an ethnic group, more than a religion or culture. For example, knowing about kashrut (dietary restrictions) is only important for interpreting the story of the Trefa Banquet. Issues of Jewish identity, fears of intermarriage, disagreements between denominations, and other trickier topics. Meanwhile, if I give a tour of PhilAesthetic, I may have to discuss Amiri Baraka’s controversial views on what it means to be “Black enough,” using violence to end racism, and sexism…

(A side note disclaimer that, of course, NMAJH has non-Jewish staff and docents. But they all pretty much started years before me, so by the time I started, they had all gotten used to the “office culture”…)

Perhaps I’m just getting too hung up on these issues of identity and speaking about groups you are or aren’t a part of. I’ve long been fascinated by ideas of “belonging” and “exclusion,” and so it’s been so interesting to see how those ideas function in ethnographic museums. Until now, I’ve been focused on observing visitors in this situation, but how does it affect staff as well? A non-Jewish friend commented to me the other day that she’s always thought that she wasn’t allowed to go to Jewish museums, but I’ve even had other friends ask if they have to be Jewish to respond to job ads. (No, of course not, that’s illegal!) What level of knowledge does a non-Jewish or non-Black person need to give tours at NMAJH or AAMP, and how much ownership of that knowledge can/should they take?

These are humongous questions that I’ve been interested in exploring (although I’ve been struggling to fit them into the mold of a thesis project). But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I can do for our interns, especially our non-Jewish ones, to help them be comfortable with our environment and content. I’ve always been a huge proponent of checking in, encouraging questions, defining Hebrew terms, etc, but is that enough? Or am I just making too big a deal out of what’s actually a non-issue?