Controlling Creativity: A Review of Free Culture

*Disclaimer: my experience reading this text was negatively impacted by piracy and my own ignorance. I prefer printed books over electronic ones: Highlighting and annotating text helps me to better understand it. Selecting the cheapest version of the book, I ordered my copy in August online. When the book arrived, I  did not take the time to inspect it; I just placed it on my bookshelf to read later in the semester.

When I began reading, I was struck by the pixelated cover art, the lack of page numbers (the page numbers noted here are from the online pdf version of the book), unnecessary forced line justification, and missing figures and diagrams. I wondered if I had purchased a galley copy, but I needed to read the book, so I barreled through despite my increasing levels of visual and intellectual frustration. Thanks to a classmate, I found out that I had purchased a pirated version of the book. The irony of reading a pirated version of a book discussing the ways culture for the many is actually controlled by the very few is not lost on me.

In digital history circles, it is common to discuss the relative ease with which nineteenth-century Americanists can access data; copyright does not restrict our work. Our colleagues who study twentieth-century topics however, often have limited access to data and media. In Free Culture: How Big Media Uses technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (2004), Lawrence Lessig (who is as interested in the nature of political corruption as in the restrictions placed on creativity) reminds us that this limitation is a direct result of the relationship between corporate media entities and the government, especially since 1974: “From the beginning, government and government agencies have been subject to capture. They are more likely captured when a powerful interest is threatened by either a legal or technical change. That powerful interest too often exerts its influence within the government to get the government to protect it” (p. 6).

Currently the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard, Lessig points out that the presence of the internet created an “important and unrecognized change” in the way culture is created (p. 7): by increasing the number of people who can “participate in the process of building and cultivating a culture that reaches far beyond local boundaries” (p. 9). However, what we consider as the evidence of culture is owned, not by the individual creators, but by corporate media entities. Culture is no longer free; rather, it is now beyond the reach of the masses, unless corporate media entities grant permission. We live in a “permission culture” (p. xiv). The foundations of this permission culture  are the overreach of copyright power, combined with the media entities’ use of legal maneuvers to thwart competition, whether that is suing individual citizens (college students, a grandfather, a child living in public housing) for copyright infringement via computer networks, suing venture capitalist that fund potential competitors, acquiring innovative music platforms (Vivendi Universal’s purchase of emusic.com and mp3.com), and pricing culture outside commonly accepted boundaries, even when it’s fair use (Fox charging $10,000 for an indirect shot of the Simpsons).

Beginning with the 1710 passage of the Statute of Anne, the first copyright law, Free Culture chronicles the creation, development, and expansion of copyright in American society (often referred to as “our tradition”) with numerous vignettes. It is not until the end of the book, however, that Lessig offers solutions to swing the cultural pendulum away from permission toward free. He advocates for the integrated use of Common Commons licenses: an “expression of the ideal that the person associated with the license believes in something different than the ‘All’ or ‘No’ extremes” (pp. 282-283), as well making online work more easily recognized as being protected. Another  suggestion involves keeping issues of creation and culture out of courtrooms: “The law should regulate in certain areas of culture–but it should regulate culture only where that regulation does good” (p. 305).

In the most general sense, it’s difficult to disagree with the argument of Free Culture , especially in this time and place where the digital is an integral part of our lives. We could argue that permission culture still exists to a certain extent, but we could also argue that a modified free culture has merged and bloomed via corporate platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine (RIP). People previously at the margins of popular American culture are using these platforms to push their way to the center. Many online communities govern themselves by way of a politics of citation, crediting hashtag originators and creators of viral videos, gifs, and memes. While Lessig has  now moved away from focusing on free culture, it might be interesting to examine this cultural shift.

While I agree with the overall argument of Free Culture, there are some issues to raise with this text. First, one could question whether Lessig truly needed more than three hundred pages to make his argument–and then utilize only the last fifty to offer alternatives to our current “permission culture”. Second, I contend that his assumption that “nobility of any form…is alien to our tradition” seems to be overly idealistic; it’s a romanticized ideal of American society and the creation of American culture (p. 27). While American colonists may have rebelled against British rule, it was replaced with pervasive (and distinctly American) systems of class and privilege. It would be naïve to forget that there are marginalized communities in the United States whose culture have been taken wholesale by larger American society and commodified, without their input or assent. Where is the freedom in that? There are also turns of phrase that are out of place, and dare I suggest, irresponsible, such as “Nor is it a call to jihad against an industry” and “I don’t take anything from you when I copy the way you dress—though I might seem weird if I did it every day, and especially weird if you are a woman” (p. 27, 96). A reader might expect more precise and less inflammatory language–at least this one does.

Macroanalysis: Potential and A Pitfall

In 1995, Vassar professor Donald Foster used stylometrics to assert that the previously anonymous “A Funeral Elegy” was written by William Shakespeare.[1] In May 2002, an article by Gilles D. Monsarrat in The Review of English Studies refuted Foster’s claim, using close reading to conclude the poem’s author was another English dramatist—John Ford.[2] Upon reviewing Monsarrat’s article, Foster recanted his original claim in June 2002, noting “I know good evidence when I see it and I predict that Monsarrat will win the day.”[3] Matthew Jockers refers to this incident, this “kerfuffle,” as a public failure of computing in the humanities, yet it frames the argument he proceeds to make in his book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.[4]

In my roles as both student and teacher, I utilized close reading, the “…careful observation, the sustained, concentrated reading of text” to decipher meaning.[5] Jockers, an Associate Dean and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, attempts to introduce fellow literary historians to the possibilities of distant reading or macroanalysis, the process of understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing large amounts of data.[6] To be clear, Jockers does not ever advocate the primacy of one method over another; rather, he suggests a “blended approach,” in the hopes of helping literary historians broaden their understanding of the larger contexts in which individual works of literature exist with the production of new and different evidence.[7]

The rest of Macroanalysis is devoted to illustrating the ways in which this new and different evidence is produced, using a database of Irish American literature as his corpus. As a historian interested in digital methods (but lacking experience working with them), my reading focused more on tracking the strategies Jockers applied to his corpus than focusing on the results of the use of those strategies. In a straightforward manner, Jockers introduces readers to text analysis, topic modeling, measuring lexical richness, quantitative authorship attribution, linear regression analysis, and probabilistic latent sematic indexing. The names of these strategies sound daunting, and readers’ eyes may glaze over when they first come across them, but the manner in which they are employed are easily comprehended. Having studied statistics and used SYSTAT in the past, I was able to follow the sections on F-tests, p-scores, and correlation coefficients easily.[8]

If one comes to read Macroanalysis, I suspect they are already “members of the choir”, so to speak. For those interested in digital methods and the possibilities they may hold for their work, this text does a great job in explaining a range of digital methods available and the evidence each method can yield. As I read, I had several moments where I considered integrating these methods into my future historical research. That said, I am not necessarily convinced that the book succeeds in swaying skeptics within his discipline. Jockers is writing with an audience of fellow literary scholars in mind; he is careful to make no attempt to convince them to abandon close reading. Much of the evidence produced via the application of digital methods throughout the text does raise questions for future research and interpretative work. Yet, for all his straightforward explanation of the selection, use, and results of digital methods, Jockers never sets his colleagues on a course toward beginning to use these methods for themselves. What do next steps look like for a seasoned literary scholar who reads Macroanalysis and is interested in attempting text analysis? How do they create a corpus? What should they do if they are on a campus that lacks resources for humanities computing? These are questions that, if addressed, could go a long way in expanding the ranks of digital literary scholars.

[1] “A Scholar Recants on His ‘Shakespeare’ Discovery – The New York Times,” accessed October 13, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/20/arts/a-scholar-recants-on-his-shakespeare-discovery.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew L.Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 4.

[5] Jockers, 6.

[6] Kathryn Schulz, “The Mechanic Muse – What Is Distant Reading?,” The New York Times, June 24, 2011, sec. Sunday Book Review, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/the-mechanic-muse-what-is-distant-reading.html.

[7] Jockers, 26, 48.

[8] Jockers, 96-97, 106-108.

Teaching the Baltimore Uprising: A Digital Proposal

Freddie Gray was arrested in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore on April 12, 2015 and placed in a police transport van. While in the custody of the Baltimore Police, Gray suffered a high-energy injury to his neck and spine and lost consciousness. Freddie Gray would die of his injuries on April 19, 2015. Protests began on April 18, and the Baltimore Uprising* would last for ten days. While the protests were precipitated by Freddie Gray’s arrest and death while in police custody, they were rooted in the Charm City’s well-known but often overlooked history of  housing segregation and its effects.

Students are coming into classrooms with bits and pieces of information–often disjointed–about contemporary events. Teachers sometimes struggle with addressing current events in real time; good lesson development, complete with research and planning, takes time. As a result, generations of students grow up with a lack of historic context for why things are the way they are. In “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide”, Jessica Elfenbein pointed out that in many Baltimore schools, “…nobody had ever bothered to teach them about the forces that explain so much about the city in which they and their neighbors still live…”[1]

There is a gap in the availability of teaching and learning resources related to contemporary events.  In examining digital projects focused on contemporary events (see Preserve the 2015 Baltimore Uprising and Documenting Ferguson) and crowd-sourced hashtag syllabi (see #charlestonsyllabus and #fergusonsyllabus), it is easy to notice  their inaccessibility to teachers and students for classroom use outside the academy. Many online archive projects can be time consuming and not as intuitive as other, more familiar online platforms. In particular, hashtag syllabi tend to exclude middle and high school history and social studies teachers; the broad reference to “educators” in these living documents tend to be confined to college instructors. However, knowledge and understanding of both contemporary events and their socio-historical foundations cannot and should not be confined to the walls of post-secondary institutions.

Teaching the Baltimore Uprising—an online Omeka exhibition—will help teachers and students better understand the Baltimore Uprising, while building students’ historical analysis skills. The exhibition will incorporate resources from Preserve the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, local and media outlets, and government documents. The resources can be used as stand-alone resources for skill-building lessons (i.e., primary source analysis), and will be part of the standards-aligned (C3 and CCSS) lesson plans that will be available on the site. While Teaching the Baltimore Uprising will be similar to other projects such as Celebrating Simms and Teaching at Laurel Grove in that it will provide access to both objects and lesson plans, it is different in its attempt to do so with a recent event that is still unfolding.

*The use of the term Uprising as opposed to unrest or riot is deliberate; Evan Serpick’s “Why We Should Call Recent Baltimore Events an ‘Uprising'” provides some useful context.

[1] Jessica Elfenbein, “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide,” The Public Historian, Vol 31, No. 4 (Fall 2009), 18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.4.13

 

The Shallows, The Information, and “We”

Published within a year of each other, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood read almost as a master class in the development of information technology, and its effects on how we interact with the world around us. Despite the smart, clear prose of both texts, both of which make the case that information (and the technologies we use to engage with it, in all its forms), have always been with us, I struggled throughout to see myself in the royal “we” presumed by the authors. [1]

I am, admittedly, not as young as I once was; I was especially drawn to the words in Chapter One of The Shallows: “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”[2] He was speaking my truth: over the last few months, I found myself using my electronic devices almost incessantly, whether to read or listen to books (via Aubible and Kindle), or discuss current events with friends and colleagues (via Facebook and Twitter). When I read online, my reading threshold felt as if it were shrinking. Needless to say, I really wanted to know what the Internet was doing to my brain.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media grounds The Shallows; it provides a framework for understanding the societal shifts precipitated by the introduction (and perhaps infiltration) of new media. Taking readers on an interdisciplinary journey from neuroscience to psychology, from mapping to the history of the book, from the history of technology and back again, Carr points out how what we feel, see, hear, move, think, or remember is always “subject to change.”[3] The plasticity of our brains is “extensive” and “perpetual.”[4] Since Carr doesn’t fully discuss the impact of internet use on the brain until later in the book, my brain took many twists and turns along the way.

As someone who has lived a life of “Analogue Youth” and now “Digital Adulthood”, it’s easy to see the evidence of many of Carr’s ideas in online spaces today.[5] When he writes of how “a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it,” I think of Twitter’s “call-out culture,” and “doing it for the ‘gram.”[6] When he notes that reading might becoming “something of a team sport,” I think about sites like Medium, where one can read a piece, and see the most popular highlighted section of the article almost immediately.[7] In his retelling of popular reception to Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA program and “how quickly and how deeply people became emotionally involved with the computer,” I think about how many of us take stock in the results of online quizzes such as “What Coffee Shop Are You?” (I’m Tim Horton’s, apparently. Who knew?)[8] When he writes that “the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation,” I think of those horrible memes on Facebook that redefine friendship, posted by users as an attempt to excuse their lack of actual contact.[9]

Carr makes mention of the pronoun we throughout the text:

“It’s how we use it, we tell ourselves.”[10]

We become, neurologically, what we think.”[11]

“It just means we have different brains.”[12]

Who is we? How does one gain membership into we? Carr uses Socrates’s suspicion of the written word, his fear that “a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better” to frame his suspicion of the technology of the internet .[13] I would posit that the internet has in fact, expanded the criteria of who gets to participate in public conversations. Carr complains that “Our indulgence in the pleasure of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.”[14] I would respond with  the question, “by whose standard?” While Gleick doesn’t make claims as to the existence of this we in the exact same way Carr does, I had a similar reaction to his statement regarding language: “Everyone’s language is different. We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.”[15]

Who is we?

 

[1] James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 12.

[2] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 5.

[3] Carr, 26.

[4] Carr, 31.

[5] Carr, 11.

[6] Carr, 3.

[7] Carr, 106.

[8] Carr, 204-205.

[9] Carr, 211.

[10] Carr, 3. Italics mine.

[11] Carr, 33. Italics mine.

[12] Carr, 148. Italics mine.

[13] Carr, 55.

[14] Carr, 108.

[15] Gleick, 419.

Sample Timeline Using Timeline JS

So. This is my first timeline using Timeline JS. I am most drawn to this tool because I am currently using timelines as a framework for notetaking in my history classes. I also think timelines have a bad reputation; I’d like to think that create a more visual experience might make timelines cool again. In general, it is not a difficult tool to utilize, but as with all tools, it must be wielded effectively for it to be useful.


Lessons learned/Notes for next time

-this timeline should be as visual as possible: NO links to articles!

  • the first slide with the video from the MNHS is the most captivating (to me, at least)
  • the second slide with a link to an article was not useful at all
  • the third slide works, but a map of the Nez Perce trail might have been better?

-even if the tool seems “easy”, the more prepared I can be in advance, the better

  • plan everything out first!
  • what should be on the timeline?
  • why?
  • which format is best for each event on the timeline?

Why “Teaching the Baltimore Uprising”?

Driving down Tower Avenue on my way to school every day, I wondered why there were Jewish cemeteries on my street. Some of the largest churches in the neighborhood appeared to be different in their design from my family’s church; as I grew up, I learned that these Romanesque Revival buildings had been synagogues only a few decades before. I was in complete shock when one of my high school classmates told me that her parents—who were easily twenty years older than mine—grew up only minutes away from my childhood home. When I got home that day, I asked my grandmother about it all. That’s when she told me that she and my grandfather bought the house from a woman who was the last Jewish woman on the street in the 1960s. As an undergraduate, I learned that the population of Hartford’s North End changed as the result of three factors: increased African American migration, increased West Indian immigration, and increased Jewish movement to Hartford’s suburbs as restrictive housing covenants were disappearing. Having lived in a place where I was acutely aware of the shifts in people, communities, and spaces, working to understand the socio-historical underpinnings of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising felt familiar to me. Understanding the Uprising as it unfolded, however, was not.

On April 25, 2015, my oldest son and my father-in-law went to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play the Red Sox. I remember receiving an alert on my phone that the game was going to be called early due to protests, but that fans weren’t being allowed to leave the stadium immediately as a safety precaution. I soon received another revised alert that the game had in fact finished all nine innings, but fans were still being held inside. My husband and I found the alerts to be questionable, so we called my father-in-law to find out what was going on. They were in fact, leaving the stadium, and were on their way home. I continued to follow the story of yet another extrajudicial death of an African American man, but it the story felt far away—thirty-one miles and a world away. Until April 29. When my Introduction to Public History class met.

For a talkative and opinionated group, our class was quiet. The air was heavy, filled with our emotions, questions, and critiques. Slowly, we began to think out loud: We’re public historians. What is our responsibility in this moment? Most of us were following various Facebook and Twitter feeds to get the latest information on protests, news conferences, and the everyday moments of joy that still occurred, no matter what mainstream media reports displayed on repeat. That night in class, the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project was born. We all agreed there needed to be a place for Baltimoreans to share their experiences in whatever format felt right to them. We believed this space needed to exist so that a more complete, nuanced, plural narrative of the Uprising could be told. We knew and openly acknowledged from the beginning that this would be an imperfect public history undertaking, precisely because it occurring in real time. For the rest of the week, I felt like I needed to be doing something, anything, but I was unsure as to what that would look, feel, or sound like. And then my daughter texted me—UMBC’s American Studies department was planning a teach-in on Baltimore, and she was going. It was settled in that moment: I would teach the Uprising to my middle school students. And I did.

This short chronicle of events, thoughts, and actions, both over time and during the Baltimore Uprising grounds my work for this semester. In examining projects focused on contemporary events, such as archive websites (including Preserve the 2015 Baltimore Uprising) and crowdsourced hashtag syllabi, I noted their inaccessibility to teachers and students. Users of online archive projects will find them time consuming and not as intuitive as other, familiar online platforms. Hashtag syllabi (such as the #fergusonsyllabus) tend to exclude K-12 history and social studies teachers; the broad reference to “educators” in these living documents tend to be confined to professors. However, knowledge and understanding of both contemporary events and their socio-historical foundations cannot and should not be confined to the walls of post-secondary institutions. While public historians tend to be wary of social studies classrooms and teachers, I firmly believe that a case can be made for the classroom as being an interpretative space. In “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide”, Jessica Elfenbein pointed out that in many Baltimore schools, “…nobody had ever bothered to teach them about the forces that explain so much about the city in which they and their neighbors still live…”[1] Viewing classrooms as interpretative spaces can both add a new dimension to public history projects, and fill in gaps in school curricula. My project—an online Omeka exhibit composed of three collections—will help teachers and students better understand the Baltimore Uprising, while building students’ historical analysis skills.

The first collection will consist of photographs of children during the Uprising; these photographs can be used in a mini-lesson or warm-up activity in which students practice reading photographs. Since most primary source analysis activities and lessons focus on written documents, teaching students to read photographs will broaden their skill base. The second collection, a digital story, will focus on what it was like to be a child in Baltimore. So much of American History is told from the perspective of adults; this digital story has the potential to create a deeper sense of connection and understanding for students. The third collection will be a mini-unit plan on suburbanization in the Baltimore area. The mini-unit will be aligned to National History Standards, and complete with student-facing materials and other resources. It is in this collection I plan on utilizing Timeline JS and Story Map JS, so that students can see the both the sequence of events, as well as the physical space in which history is occurring.

I also intend on being clear about audience, stance, and purpose with this digital public history project. I do not believe ambiguity should drive this work. In comparing past attempts to chronicle Baltimore’s heritage of race and racism, I was struck by the difference between The Baltimore Book and Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth. Whereas The Baltimore Book sought to deromanticize the city’s singular narrative, centered on Fort McHenry or Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore ’68 made the choice to remain neutral in its commemoration of the 1968 riots, even while claiming inclusivity.[2] I am clear that the work designed this semester will exist to both explain the historic context for the Baltimore Uprising and to illustrate that communities can live and create spaces in which they can thrive, even in the face of systemic injustice.[3]

 

[1] Jessica Elfenbein, “Bringing to Life Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—A How-to Guide,” The Public Historian, Vol 31, No. 4 (Fall 2009), 18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.4.13

[2] Elfenbein, 21. Also see Thomas Hollowak, “Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth—The Building of a Digital Collection,” The Public Historian, Vol 31, No. 4 (Fall 2009), 39,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.4.37

[3] Karen Olson, “Old West Baltimore: Segregation, African-American Culture, and the Struggle for Equality,” in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History, Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman, ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 63, 74.

 

The Bridgwater Collection & the Responsibility to Construct a Plural American Story

Samuel Bridgwater was born in Smith County, Tennessee in 1861 to enslaved parents. By 1880, he was a Buffalo Soldier, having enlisted in the 24th Infantry Regiment. He was stationed at various forts in the west for the better part of a decade, and married Mamie Anderson in 1892 at Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona Territory. Private Bridgwater also fought in the Spanish-American War; he was injured on San Juan Hill, and suffered from yellow fever in the Philippines.

After the war, Samuel and Mamie settled in Helena, Montana—where they raised their family of seven and became involved in the small but active local African American community. Their family home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Octavia, one of Samuel and Mamie’s daughters, followed in her father’s footsteps and served in an all-Black unit of the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. She returned to Helena after the war, and worked as a community nurse midwife.

In the last few weeks of my internship at NMAH, I was tasked with beginning the accessioning and cataloging work of a portion of the Bridgwater Collection. The papers of the collection remained in the purview of the Archives Center; in the Division of Home and Community Life (HCL), I had the task of researching and cataloging personal effects and home furnishings. I happily spent hours in the division’s secured storage areas with the Bridgwater family Bible, Octavia’s purses, multiple sets of family china, tablecloths, napkins, silverware. One of the objects I was most interested in was Octavia’s nurse’s cap. I saw it in the Objects Processing Facility, and assisted with transporting it to collections storage. However, I did not get to catalog it, as it was moved from HCL to the Division of Medicine and Science.

To be clear, collections work is time intensive and is for the detail-oriented. As I mentioned in my first blog post, I was (and am) interested in both collections (the physical objects) and the work of collections management, so I appreciated this opportunity. The storage areas are large and they were quiet (except for the music from my various Pandora stations). Outfitted with archival pens, tags, gloves, and a digital camera, I truly enjoyed interacting with the objects, looking at the various patterns on the tablecloths and napkins, and researching specific china patterns to ensure correct classification in the collections management database.

In addition to being a beneficial learning experience, working with the Bridgwater Collection helped me to begin answering a question that had been lingering in the back of my mind throughout my internship. Walking through the Object Project exhibit, there is a window through which I could see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) taking shape as its grand opening approached. I wondered how NMAAHC’s opening would impact (if at all) NMAH’s collecting and its collections. I was concerned that NMAH would defer to NMAAHC in collecting African American objects and stories, which would negatively impact NMAH’s ability to tell a plural narrative. Working with this newly acquired collection, and learning of other possible future acquisitions gave me some reassurance that there are curators who are committed to telling an inclusive American story. I hope this commitment continues.

 

History, Collections, and Objects

For a long time, I have been interested in the interplay between objects and the multiple meanings assigned to them, whether by individual collectors, museums, and the public. In the introduction to Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan Pearce reminds us of our general understanding that museums exist to hold objects from the past, that they have a specific role to play in helping “us”—the visitor, the society at large—understand our past.[1] For the typical visitor to a museum, this working understanding of museums tends to assume that the collection of objects simply happens, yet there is indeed a method to the madness, as it were: “Notions of what creates value are very complex and so are the related processes of social change and the relationship of the material world to these movements.”[2]

Gaynor Kavanagh asserts in History Curatorship that the history museum’s aim is “to encapsulate the physical and oral evidence of being and behaving”.[3] As such, those working in these spaces must also be mindful of the social language communicated to visitors—that the objects placed on display provide visitors with cultural frameworks which articulate the norms and values of a group, culture, or nation.[4] As the National Museum of American History (NMAH) opened its doors in 1964, I became intrigued by the idea that the museum’s history might have impacted its methods of collecting, and in turn, the objects placed on display. This wondering led me to conduct some brief research to uncover a fuller story of the museum’s past.

What we now know as NMAH was originally the Museum of History and Technology (MHT). It was the brainchild of Frank Taylor, who began his work at the Smithsonian in 1922.[5] Originally conceived as a museum of engineering and industry, a history department was added to gain the support of political history curators.[6] The idea gained new life in the years following WWII; Leonard Carmichael, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, remarked that it was “incredible that United States, which has given such substantial aid to cultural activities in other countries, does not have equally great national museums.”[7]

In January 1954, Representative George Dondero of Michigan introduced a bill to prepare plans for a new museum as “…part of President Eisenhower’s plan for a stand-by program of public works to bolster the nation’s economy”.[8] Taylor, who would become the museum’s first director, promoted it as a “permanent exposition that commemorates our heritage of freedom and highlights the basic elements of our way of life.”[9] Such patriotic rhetoric was common in Cold War America. By mid-1955, Congress threw its support behind the museum, asserting a “need to protect our irreplaceable national treasures,” even going so far as to grant Eisenhower’s supplemental appropriations request.[10]

In what ways might have MHT’s Cold War foundations impacted its collections? From what I can tell, there might not have been any impact in the beginning. While the acquisition of the No. 1401 locomotive that pulled FDR’s funeral car from Warm Springs to DC was important, having a new museum would ease the Smithsonian’s space issues, allowing for the display of up to 800,000 objects in the institution’s collection.[11] When the museum opened, the objects on display—from the Star Spangled Banner and Jefferson’s desk, to lemon squeezers, locks, and dolls—were described as the nation’s “strange assortment of items in its attic storerooms over the passing generations”[12] In terms of social language, the objects seemed to communicate “our national character–or love of gadgetry, our skill at applied science, and our quest to make life both interesting and less arduous through invention.”[13] But is that the same as communicating America’s history? By 1980, the answer to that question was no.

It was in 1980 that Roger Kennedy, the museum’s sixth director, was faced with declining visitor numbers, no doubt due to the opening of the new National Museum of Air and Space and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. As a result, he led a review of the museum’s “exhibition policy, its underlying philosophy, and methods of implementation” focused on “new clarity of purpose, greater unity and interrelation between the many isolated displays and collections.”[14] This search for new clarity led to changing the name of MHT to the National Museum of American History, placing technology in the service of history, not the other way around.[15]

 

Fast forward thirty-five years, and it would seem that this is still the case. I was not able to ascertain exactly if the process of collection has changed over time; as I write this reflection, it is clear that I should have attempted to obtain and review historical curators’ reports. However, what is clear is that NMAH continues to use its objects to place American technological innovation into historical context. For example, the Object Project exhibition “examines how the interplay of people, innovative things, and social change have shaped life as we know it.”[16]One day on a walkthrough of the exhibition, I participated in a demonstration of the evolution of ice and cold drinks. I was able to explore a variety of ice cube trays and discuss with fellow interns how the cold drinks we now enjoy (and given the extreme heat this past summer, also required) did not always exist. Our lives, made less arduous by invention.

 

 

 

[1] Susan M. Pearce, “Introduction.” In Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pearce (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.

[2] Pearce, 4.

[3] Gaynor Kavanagh, “”Objects as Evidence.” In History Curatorship. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 109.

[4] Kavanagh, 107-108.

[5] Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, National Museum of American History, “Making a Modern Museum,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery/exhibitions/50th/7.html; Michael Kernan, “Light in the Attic: Remaking the Museum of American History,” The Washington Post, July 20 1982.

[6] “Making a Modern Museum”.

[7] “Smithsonian Bids For New Museum,” The New York Times, January 20, 1954.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Making a Modern Museum”.

[10] “Smithsonian Gets Praise—And Money,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, June 9, 1955; Paul Sampson, “President Asks $2,288,000 More for New Museum,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, June 30, 1955

[11] “$36 Million Museum Voted By Committee,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, May 21, 1955

[12] “Museum Is Shrine to Rise of U.S. as Nation,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 23, 2964.

[13] “Temple of Technology,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 24, 1964

[14] Michael Kernan, “Light in the Attic: Remaking the Museum of American History,” The Washington Post, July 20 1982.

[15] Ibid.

[16] National Museum of American History, “Introduction: Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/object-project.

 

Interning at the National Museum of American History

This summer, I completed my internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in the Division of Home and Community Life (HCL). HCL is the largest division in the museum, responsible for the care, research, and development of collections that illustrate the daily lives of Americans since the country’s founding.[1] As such, curators in the division research a variety of topics, such as home furnishings, domestic production, patterns of migration and immigration, and the development of leisure time.[2]

As a curatorial intern at NMAH, my experience involved several components. I worked on two projects this summer; the first involved conducting archival research for an exhibit my supervisor is guest curating at a smaller history museum. This research was done as part of collaborative team—I worked with a fellow public history graduate student from California, and an American Studies graduate student from New York. The three of us approached our work in different ways, yet we worked extremely well together. The second project (which I worked on independently) involved the accessioning and cataloging of a new collection which documented the life of an African American family that moved to the Montana Territory after Emancipation. As someone who has been interested in collections and collections management, this was an invaluable experience, which I will explore in more detail in future posts.

The second component of my internship involved learning about the both the museum and the Smithsonian as institutional entities, as well as their commitment to research. I attended a variety of meetings: meetings of the HCL curators, collections meetings concerning “born digital” collections, planning meetings for upcoming public events, and a teach-in centered on making the Smithsonian more accessible to visitors with a variety of physical and emotional needs. I also attended the museum’s monthly staff meeting, in which curators from NMAH, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) discussed the ways in which language can be used to communicate powerful and complicated ideas in a more purposeful and inclusive manner. On Tuesday afternoons, I attended the weekly Colloquium, in which Smithsonian fellows shared their research in process, covering a wide array of topics, from art history, to latent narratives in collections, to the history of human modeling for computer graphics.

My supervisor introduced a third component to my internship—visiting other museums to examine and analyze museum practice in other settings. We visited NMAI, the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It was an interesting experience to visit these other museums while simultaneously wearing the hats of “everyday visitor” and “graduate student figuring out how these sites function”. On these excursions, we were able to take mini deep-dives into the different exhibits, learning the politics behind how an object gets included (or excluded), and just discussing if and how curation for a history museum is similar and different from curation for an art museum.

Currently, the cultural and civic relevance of museums is rightly under critical scrutiny. Knowing and understanding this heightened my awareness not just of the spaces I inhabited throughout my internship, but also of the objects being collected (or not). In my future posts, I am interested in exploring the history of NMAH and how it is related to the nature of its collections.

 

[1] Office of Fellowships and Internships, Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study, 2016. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. 37. http://www.smithsonianofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SORS-2016.pdf

[2] Ibid.