Going through my own family’s archives

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, so my partner and I drove to my aunt’s house for dinner. We arrived several hours early to venture into my aunt’s basement, to go through some of my mother’s Stuff. My  mother was an avid photographer, spending rolls and rolls on decades of vacations and other events. She was also loathe to get rid of anything potentially memorable. At a young age after my father’s death, the two of us moved in with my grandparents, and many boxes of keepsakes ended up in my aunt’s basement. Later, after her own death, my aunt took in the rest of the boxes. So now they wait there, until I live somewhere with enough space for me to take them off her hands… And in the meantime, about once a year, I’ll take a box or two and see what’s in there.

This venture was a lot of fun, with several relatives coming into the basement at various points to identify long-gone faces and laugh at outdated fashions. However, one particular moment made me realize the impact of original order on wholly understanding a collection.

One box, helpfully labeled “pictures in frames,” was stuffed with newspapers protecting the frames from each other. It was a hodge-podge of photos, ranging from my own baby pictures to my great-great-grandparents’. It was packed so haphazardly it was a struggle to get even halfway down into the box. And the newspaper was dated December 1996.

Seeing this newspaper immediately put the box into a larger context for me. My father passed in September 1996, and we moved in with my grandparents in February 1997. This box must have been packed in the interim, during what must have been a very emotionally wrought time for my family. It also most likely went immediately into storage at my aunt’s.

While this doesn’t give me any information I didn’t already have, original order in this case did help me to make connections between the individual box and the larger emotional context of its packing.

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A Case Study in Archival Advocacy

Recently at work, our cubicle placements were shuffled around, and I got moved across the aisle from a curatorial colleague. With this newly-close proximity, I’ve gotten a greater chance to learn about her role and the goings-on of the curatorial department — mostly through hearing about the public inquiries she’s had to answer!

Today, she spoke with a rabbi who was interested in donating documents to the museum. Apparently, a congregant had left boxes of their families records on the doorsteps of the rabbi’s synagogue, and the rabbi had no idea what to do with them. I imagine they were the congregant’s family records — photos, letters, maybe some old newspapers. At a loss, the rabbi attempted to give them to us.

Of course, my coworker explained that unfortunately we could not take the recordss, but she recommended several Jewish and genealogical archives closer to the rabbi who might be able to take the records instead of us.

This situation was a small reminder of the importance of advocacy — archivists shouldn’t just advocate for fundraising and other forms of support, but also advocate for proper archival procedures. Even letting the public know about the existence and scopes of various archives falls under the advocacy umbrella.

In this case, advocacy could have led the congregant to know in the first place to not leave records on the doorsteps of a building. This is a great way to introduce water damage, mold spores, bugs, or any other kind of damage that could speed up deterioration. Advocacy could have also let the congregant, and later the rabbi, know where the records could be donated, or give them the tools to look up what repositories would be the most appropriate to ask.

Of course, this kind of advocacy can be difficult to do. Some archives create posters to teach the public good archival practices. Others might leave literature in common places like community centers or libraries, or integrate advocacy into their outreach efforts. Otherwise, building networks of information, such as the rabbi calling my coworker, can act as advocacy in individual cases. But even with these examples, one must make sure that the public ends up in the same place as these posters, literature, outreach efforts, and networks of information — and then listen to them.

It’s like the old saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make the horse follow archival best practices in preserving its family records!

A Story of the Internet: Manners and the SAA’s Main Listserv

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), I follow their general listserv which comes as a daily digest email. Posters on this listserv are largely museum workers, with occasionally some consultants, students, volunteers, and non-professionals in attendance. The dozen-or-so posts each day can range in topic from asking about certain kinds of artifact casings to broader discussions about accessibility and interpretation. Rarely are conversations less than supportive, so I was surprised to read about the very different atmosphere of the general listserv for the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

Unlike AAM’s listserv, SAA’s is open to the general public, and due to the SAA’s small staff, no one moderates the listserv. This, along with the kinds of discourse typical to internet culture, have led to this listerv having a toxic environment, to the point where a significant portion of SAA subscribers avoid the general list.

SAA’s director Nancy Beaumont stated that the listserv was unmoderated in order to promote a free-flow of information, as well as to encourage non-archivists to express an interest in the field. This lines up with two of the main values listed in SAA’s Core Values Statement — archivists should make information, particularly through the primary sources in their collections, as accessible and usable as possible, and also advocate for their own institutions and for their field.

However, this incident does not reflect two other areas of the Core Values Statement. In addition to accessibility, archivists must value accountability. In most cases, this tends to refer to institutional transparency, especially for private institutions who must answer to donors. In this case, however, participants’ actions are rendering the listserv’s main goals — the free-flow of information and discussion with all interested in archives — to become untenable. This also overlaps with another value underrepresented here, which is professionalism. Archivists, according to the SAA, must value professionalism. This means that archivists should be collaborative, cooperative, respectful, and always learning. These qualities cannot happen when discussion board participants are being mean and aggressive. Additionally, discouraging people from joining the listserv, and then eventually closing it, removes that opportunity for lifelong learning that I have enjoyed through AAM’s listserv.

All of this said, SAA’s more niche listservs will continue to function, and the organization plans to revisit the structure and moderation of the general listserv.

A Sneak Peak into the John J Wilcox Archives

Tonight, a classmate and I went to the opening reception for “Still Fighting for our Lives,” an exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of the AIDS Library. It was a great exhibition that spoke to the horrors of AIDS and the many ways people fought to share information about the virus. The exhibit also did an excellent job at showing how far-reaching the virus was, how many communities it affected.

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Another classmate, Grace Tang, helped to curate the exhibition, and in a moment of needing to escape the unexpected crowds, she took us up for a peak into the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives on the third floor of the William Way Center.

The archives was small, in a narrow room with shelves lining the walls, plus an island of shelves in the middle of the room. Most of the shelves held stacks of flat archival boxes, with various tchotchkes decorating shelves here and there. One shelf had a propped up photo of a bunch of older people in colorful costumes, while another shelf held a small model of Woody’s, a prominent local gay bar.

A long table that ran alongside the island held a mountain of buttons, some organized in little containers and others splayed across the table itself. In some cases, multiples of the same button design were grouped together in one container. I had to wonder — are these from separate collections that had the same button? Did they try to collect the same button multiple times? Why would a single archives want a dozen identical copies of a button? In other containers, buttons were grouped by theme, such as different designs advertising the same organization. Other buttons were spread out across the table, presumably in the middle of being processed or organized.

While I obviously didn’t have the opportunity to ask about the buttons, or anything else regarding the organization of the archives, it was fascinating to take a quick peak into what was going on there!

Carving a Path: Geographic Origins of the Crooked Knife

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Towards the beginning of the semester, thinking about the historical and geographical context of this mysterious knife, I imagined myself aboard the Gazela Primeiro. Before being decommissioned in 1972, this Portuguese tall ship spent around 70 years sailing each summer to Newfoundland. There, 50 dories’ worth of sailors would embark to fish for cod, which would then be preserved in salt and brought back to Portugal. I pondered how the knife would fit into this – Was the cod de-boned before being preserved? Was this knife cobbled together as a pet project? Did a sailor spend their free time in between shifts by carving decorations into the handle?

But of course, these questions and images turned out to be moot. The only connection that this knife has to the Gazela is its final owner’s grasp at connections, or some other reasoning for using the knife to cut the ribbon at the Gazela’s opening.

So where did this knife come from? Most likely, Maine.

The knife is known by many names, but the most promising is the mocotaugan, a Mi’kmaq term usually translated as crooked knife. The crooked knife is a type of drawknife, held palm-up and used to cut towards the body and with the blade at a distinct angle to the handle. Native Americans along the northeast coast of North America, most prominently the Penobscot Nation, created these knives and decorated their handles with carved drawings, dates, and initials. Several thousand years ago, these knives started as sharpened rocks. Eventually, rocks were attached to decorated handles and occasionally replaced by beaver teeth and other sharp materials. Once Native Americans and Europeans established contact around the 16th century, rocks and teeth were replaced by recycled steel from European weapons. This led to Europeans deliberately trading steel for Native Americans to make the crooked knives, and then Native Americans trading the crooked knives themselves.

While the crooked knife has a long and rich history on its own, from the evolution of its construction to its many uses to its variances of decoration. However, for my purposes, these moments of contact illuminate the life of this particular object. Not only do these points of contact explain how the knife traveled from Maine to Philadelphia, but it also tracks how spheres of meaning and value changed for the knife over time.

At the very least, this knife had three owners. There are two names carved on the handle: “L. W. Bishop” and “G. A. Paul.” Knife creators and owners would often carve their initials or names onto the handle of the knife, and I would guess that L. W. Bishop is the original knife owner, given the placement of his name carving and the fact that it seems to fit in more with the style of other carvings on the knife. This could have then been traded to someone named G. A. Paul, who then added their own name to the knife.

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A closeup of the handle of the crooked knife; notice the difference between “G. A. Paul” and the vine pattern.

It is possible that this G. A. Paul is the prominent Penobscot chief named Gabe Paul, but it is also possible that this was another Penobscot person, someone from a different tribe, or someone from the Gazela. Cultural items such as crooked knives were frequently traded between tribes, which is one way that the knife could have traveled north, to a tribe living in present day Newfoundland, such as the L’Nuk Nation. From there, it could have been traded to a sailor on the Gazela.

Closer to the 19th century, after contact between Native Americans and Europeans became more established, Native cultural items such as crooked knives were created for the purpose of trading with Europeans. For Native Americans, this relationship provided access to new materials and technologies; in return, Europeans and especially sailors might receive help navigating the marine landscape, in addition to bringing home a cultural souvenir.

It is possible that this knife, whether at its origin or later on, was meant to be traded with Europeans, as one of the decorations on its handle is a heart with an arrow through it. Not only does this borrow from European imagery, but it also could be meant to resemble a common motif for tattooes, which a large part of sailor culture. This could make the knife more appealing, and thus more easy to trade, to Europeans.

And then from there? To Philadelphia, into the hands of J. Welles Henderson, notable collector of marine artifacts and the founding president of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, now the Independence Seaport Museum. No records of him purchasing the knife exist, or at least they are not accessible at this time. Perhaps it was left upon the Gazela and found when it was decommissioned, or perhaps Henderson acquired it directly from the previous owner. Or perhaps the knife made its way to Henderson a different way, without involving the Gazela at all. This part of the knife’s journey may have to remain shrouded in mystery for now.

What started off as a mysterious knife has turned into a journey. This object demonstrates not only how value and meaning can change for an object depending on its location, but it also reveals an entire network of relationships – between Native American tribes, between Native Americans and Europeans and even between humans and their objects. Any way you slice it: there is plenty to learn from this knife.

Obama Presidential _____

I recently read in the Chicago Sun Times about recent developments to the Obama Presidential Center: specifically, that it will not have an on-site archives, and instead possibly have a branch of the Chicago Public Library attached to the museum. Instead, Obama’s records have been fully digitized and will be kept at an alternate location.

This change in tradition brings up an interesting question about access and audience: who is the intended audience and how is it affected by the Center having a public library versus a private archives.

The Obama Foundation, which will own the Presidential Center instead of NARA, describes it as “an engaging place for families to enjoy themselves, be inspired, and learn tools to make a positive change in their communities.” Opting to support the Chicago Public Library, rather than NARA-controlled archives, allows the Obama Foundation to better fulfill its mission.

Additionally, presidential libraries are often a way for former presidents to control their legacies. For example, Lyndon B. Johnson’s library is housed in a looming eight-story brutalist building which includes a replica Oval Office, while John F. Kennedy’s library also doubles as a memorial for his assassination. This grandeur must have some effect on researchers visiting the archives; indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to display gifts he received as president, for researchers to gawk at. By separating the Obama Presidential Center from his archives, the Obama Foundation avoids influencing researchers and won’t risk devoting resources to maintaining these superfluities at the detriment to maintaining the archives themselves.

This all works because it’s not like Obama’s records won’t be kept anywhere; the Barrack Obama Presidential Library will still exist, and currently is kept in a suburb of Chicago. The main difference is that the archives will stay under NARA’s purview, while the Obama Museum and related programming will be privately owned by the Obama Foundation. Additionally, all of Obama’s records have been digitized, meaning they can be accessed from any computer — even one located in the library of the Obama Presidential Center.


“Chicago,” The Obama Foundationhttps://www.obama.org/chicago/

Anthony Clark, “Presidential libraries are a scam. Could Obama change that?” Politico, May 7, 2017 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/07/presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109

Lynn Sweet, “Obama Presidential Center will have public, not presidential library,” Chicago Sun Times, Nov 1, 2017, https://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/sweet-obama-presidential-center-wont-house-presidential-library/

Courting Controversy in the Museum

Whenever I remember, I participate in weekly chats on twitter under the hashtag #museumedchat. It’s a time when people —  mostly museum educators — can discuss a number of salient topics. These topics usually involve museum education, such as storytelling and different age groups, but can also sometimes include larger themes like accessibility and diversity/inclusion.  Being primarily left-leaning, many participants also use these chats as ways to improve their activist efforts within a museum context, such as anti-racism.

However, it is a huge jump to discuss social justice in museums on twitter, to implementing ideas in the museum itself. One week, I simply asked: especially as junior staff, how can I actually implement ideas that may provoke doubt, controversy, or backlash? One of the most common responses I got was support from coworkers and upper management.

So it didn’t surprise me that Ken Yellis, in the reverse, describes the committee process and related internal politics as a significant reason for why provocative exhibits don’t happen more often. Yellis lists a number of reasons why museum staff is often ill-equipped to implement and deal with potentially controversial ideas:

1) Museum workers, especially at taxpayer-funded institutions, may worry about offending constituents, and thus losing their funding.

2) Museum workers might prepare for, or try to provoke, a different reaction than the one visitors end up having in a given exhibition.

3) Museum workers might simply shy away from implementing anything that would require defending or explaining, whether out of laziness or fear.

4) Museum workers may try to actually implement an unconventional idea, but this idea gets lost within a maze of committees (especially board committees) and eventually fizzles out.

These reasons, and others, result in museums failing to take their place within the national conversation most relevant to the museum’s mission. By not joining this conversation, museums risk allowing visitors to go on misunderstanding key parts of national history, which often ends up supporting forms of systemic oppression. Instead, by challenging visitors and pushing them into their comfort zone, museums can illuminate nuanced and complicated parts of the past, help develop visitors’ critical thinking skills and opinions, and challenge hegemonies within the museum’s space.

So then, how can museums — both individual staff members and whole institutions — take risks and embrace controversial topics? For one option, Yellis suggests that museums prepare themselves to defend their choices against confrontations from visitors. However, this would require knowing how visitors may react to a given exhibit, which can be difficult to predict. Thus, museums should not force visitors into a specific viewpoint; instead, let objects speak for themselves, as they will ultimately overpower any direction given in their labels. This might be helped along with focus groups and other outside perspectives, to act as example visitors.

Another option, which is simultaneously both more dangerous and more rewarding, is to simply take risks without much regard for their consequences. One particularly notable example for why this option works is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum. Obviously this wasn’t a spontaneous exhibit; plenty of planning and considerations went into it. But the immediate reaction was harsh, with many staff members resigning afterwards due to public backlash. Worried staff may have ended up not following through with the exhibition. And yet it still happened, and it remains one of the most influential and monumental exhibits ever.

So, what does this mean for me, and other social justice-minded Emerging Museum Professionals?

First, that the “us against the world” feeling is common — that activism and boundary-pushing seem difficult because they are.

But… that can’t be an excuse. Shying away from activism and controversy allows misunderstandings and generalizations to remain unchallenged, not to mention white supremacy and other hegemonies that have been upheld and maintained by museums in the past. Museum workers — regardless of rank — must take those risks to affect real change. This might be mitigated through strategies like anticipating visitor reactions, pro/cons lists, and similar analyses to prevent to coworkers and board members, as a way to circumnavigate the committee barriers that Yellis outlines.

At the end of his article, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation,” Robert Weyeneth wonders about the dangers of interpreting segregated spaces. How might these spaces be misconstrued? Would they support racist viewpoints? But then he described one woman’s experience at seeing separate entrances to a movie theater in North Carolina, at how the shock of seeing that space reminded her of humanity’s capacity of hatred. Moments like those should be our goal.


Robert Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44

Ken Yellis, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World,” Artes Magazine (November 13, 2011), http://www.artesmagazine.com/?p=7046