Forgotten Buildings, Forgotten People

I wrote a bit in a previous post about my brief spontaneous stop-off in Havre de Grace, Maryland while I was on a road trip up to my latest internship. I had always wanted to go to Havre de Grace because, well, what a kick-butt name for a town! It just makes you want to stop and see what’s there. Also, after interning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum one summer, I developed a special place in my heart for towns on the Bay and their unique culture.

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Havre de Grace turned out to be worth stopping at; sumptuous Victorian homes line the neighborhood streets. A mural celebrating the town’s maritime heritage coats the inside of a bridge underpass entering town (I’m a sucker for murals.) The main street borders the water and also features one big line of fun, eclectic, mostly nineteenth and early twentieth-century architecture, which I will drool over any day of the week.

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I parked my car and walked down a block and a half of the Main Street, snapping photos of interesting buildings, strolled down a pier to look at the water, and then headed back to my car. I’m normally a speedwalker, but when my camera is in tow, I take forever to make it a few yards. Plus it was hot and I wanted to get back on the road.

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As I was making my way back to my car, I made eye contact with an older African American gentleman seated outside a storefront on one of those cool walkers with the fold-down seats that I always wish I have when I’m on museum tours. The man had been there when I arrived, talking to a lady who had since left. He asked me how I was and, being the soul that I am, I felt I had to stop and talked with him a bit.

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He asked me if I was a photography student and I said no, that I just studied history and liked old buildings. So he asked me if I had taken a photo of the building next to him. No, I hadn’t, actually. I had taken one of the store with the turret at the end of the street, but the building he was indicating was simple, even shabby, and hadn’t caught my eye.

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The fancy building I did take a photo of.

He told me I should take a photo of it and explained that it was where he lived. He explained the floor plan to me and told me about how he liked living there and it was paid for for him. Then he talked about an event the town has from time to time where bands play live jazz music and shops set up tables to sell things in the streets. I’m not necessarily gifted at connecting with people, and I’m especially bad at initiating conversation, so I enjoy when someone crosses those walls we put up and talks to you even though they don’t know you. It’s humbling and it makes me feel more connected to the world.

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The bigger picture….I believe the building on the very right that’s cut off was the one the man lived in.

After I said my good-byes and got back in my car, I was struck by the realization that historic preservation isn’t just about the beautiful exteriors, it’s about the stories that have been lived out inside a place. We tend to gravitate to the beautiful, the magnificent, even the bizarre, but sometimes the humble, the plain, and even the ramshackle buildings are the ones whose walls hold the key to stories that need to live on. The building the man had pointed out to be has no doubt seen dozens, if not more, of lives lived out, probably more relatable to most people than the lavish lifestyles of the Vanderbilts & company of the world whose unobtainable mansions tend to be the ones we save. Those lives may not be famous, but they represent a snapshot of a subset of people.

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I remember once my public history professor, an avid building-lover and historic preservation advocate, told us about two buildings in downtown Baltimore that were in danger of being destroyed. One of them was a sparkling example of Art Deco architecture that my professor has been fighting to preserve as an incredible example of that era’s aesthetics. The other was a plain storefront that had been recycled many times and, if I recall correctly, was sitting vacant at the time, but that had been the site of one of the first civil rights-era sit-ins in Baltimore. It was a striking lesson in how maybe the “ugly” building was the one that should be saved even if the pretty one at first glance seemed like the one “worth saving.”

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I realized my own bias when it comes to telling visual stories through photography and through history. I like pretty things. I like interesting things. I like things that I can relate to and that fit with my preferred style and taste. But those aren’t always the things that need to be photographed or the stories that need to be uncovered and told. Sometimes we have to put our own biases aside and paint the whole picture. Sometimes we need to listen more than we talk. Sometimes we need to talk to the random person on the street about what they want to be preserved or what story they want to read in a museum.

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I’m sometimes struck after I spend lots of time with other museum professionals how insular we can accidentally become; we develop ideas of what we think the public ought to know and form opinions on what is worthy of being exhibited in a museum space. Some of us even scoff at things we think aren’t worthy of that space. Generally – and I am guilty of this too – as much as we at heart want to educate the public, we also develop a disdain for them as well and can come to view ourselves as the purveyors of taste and the experts struggling to get through to the unwashed masses.

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I don’t mean to be unkind as I know it’s easy to get burnt out in the museum field and many workers are doing the best they can to tell new stories and reach the public. And I speak as much to myself as to anyone else. But occasionally – not often enough, probably – I’m reminded that it’s the public we’re meant to serve and tell the story of, and sometimes even with, not dictate information to. If we get too lost in our own interests and tastes, we can sometimes lose sight of some of the stories of average people and average places that need to be given consideration as well.

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Blast from the Past (in Concord, Mass.!)

Today I took a road trip up to Concord, Massachusetts for the day. It felt like a pilgrimage of sorts…Concord has a special place in my heart because a decade ago, I went there with my family after falling in love with the works of Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. 

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Visiting LMA’s home, Orchard House, was one of the things that got me really excited about history. I ended up writing a monologue for National History Day as LMA, discussing the abolition movement in Massachusetts. I ended up going all the way to the National level of the competition (I probably peaked then. It’s been all downhill since.) As a depressed loner nerd in eighth grade, it was empowering to find I could speak in public, research, and succeed and get noticed for something. I think that project probably figured into my eventually deciding to study history in undergrad.

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Orchard House, Concord, Mass. (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Orchard House was magical to me when I first visited. I loved how it felt so personal and vibrant with family history. It remains one of my favorite historic houses. The walls and mantel pieces are drawn and painted on by the Alcott’s youngest daughter, May, who went on to exhibit at the Paris salon in the late 1800s. The Alcotts believed it was important for each daughter to explore her talents and to develop a career for herself, so they allowed May to basically draw on the walls. I noticed this visit that the furniture and decor is very vernacular and, ahem, well-loved, but that to me gives the house a lived-in feel and communicates their thriftiness and struggles with poverty prior to the success of Little Women. Anyways, the point is that this house helped further convince me of the beauty of historic house museums in a new way. (I just wish they would have let me take photos, but I know that would endanger the antiques.)

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Interior of the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. (photo by Rebecca Gale)

And Walden Pond…visiting there as a young idealistic 8th grader who loved the idea of living out in the wild and communing with nature for two years was equally thrilling. Today I love communing with nature in small doses but I love being able to cook dinner in the microwave more. But remembering my excitable younger self was encouraging to my current pessimistic, semi-jaded self. In particular, Walden always makes me recall how it was dream at one point in high school to get married standing in the water of Walden Pond. I could laugh until I cried thinking about that. I have now shared that with the Internet, so I have little else to hide.

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To complete my public humiliation….Cheesin’ shamelessly with my bae, Henry David ❤

I went to Concord hoping to have an epiphany of some sort – to have my future become clear as I reconnected with significant places in my past. The reality was I still faced the same issues I always have; I wanted to talk to the staff at Orchard House about museum work and their collections, but I was too shy. Throughout the day, I constantly battled my anxiety as I made choices on my own. I am as hopelessly single as I was in eighth grade, and probably almost as lonely. But I did haul my ass out there on my own to do all those things. And I had a few small realizations along the trip, some sacred, some less so:

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Sunset begins over Walden Pond (photo by Rebecca Gale)

  • If you can’t figure out how to “live in the moment,” that’s okay. People are constantly telling me to live in the present moment, and I am trying to draw the line of obsessing over the future or the past more, but I find myself beating myself up for not enjoying my life more. It makes me wonder if sometimes we can’t appreciate something until it’s over. Maybe anticipating the future and reminiscing about the past are just as valid as taking hold of the present moment. Maybe all three can be used to enjoy life. Sometimes we appreciate things more when we are looking at them in the rearview mirror. Sometimes dreaming about the possibilities of the future are all that get us through the present.
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Downtown Concord…this one had my name written all over it and I can’t complain. (photo by Rebecca Gale)

  • YouTubers are essentially creating a cult of personality around themselves with loyal followers you will do anything to support them. My lack of success on YouTube can be traced to my inability to develop a cult of personality, and probably it’s a good thing that I can’t do that.
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Juicy architectural details in Downtown Concord (photo by Rebecca Gale)

  • Everyone is in a life cycle. I was one of a few people sitting by Walden Pond alone. A couple passed me by, laughing together as they swam through the rippling water. Other couples walked hand in hand on the other side of the shore. Another took a picture of their young daughter doing handstands on the sandy bank. At first I felt jealous and resentful, but then I realized they were just in a different place. Maybe one day I would be them. Who knows. But these years I have been a lone wolf and that has had its benefits. We want other people to be where we are or we want to be where other people are so we try and set people up or get set up, but everything has its time. Taking road trips alone…Right now, that’s just where I am.
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Concord cemetery. Graveyards used to creep me out, but I finally understand what my mom told me that you’re honoring people by giving them thought long after they’ve left this earth. 

  • I’m not cut out to be a 19th-century farm woman. I wonder if there were 19th-century farm women who felt they weren’t cut out to be 19th-century farm women.
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Wayside, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home next door to Orchard House, though apparently he disliked Amos Bronson Alcott and the other Transcendenalists. 

  • Sometimes you need to get away so you can find the strength to keep pressing on. Some days, you hurt so bad. The bad news keeps piling on. The reminders of what you lost, of how he doesn’t want you, of how you aren’t good enough for him, of how he wants her and her and her more than you and will actually put effort into continuing a relationship with them. Sometimes you have to force yourself to get out to distract yourself. Reminisce a little, but not too much. Let your mind be a little empty. Spend a little too much money. Who gives a shit. As long as you’re alive tomorrow. As long as you make it through this. As long as you know that you are a woman who is worth having and who is as strong as she is broken.
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Concord, Mass. (photo by Rebecca Gale)

  • As someone whose heart warms and sings the Hallelujah chorus as much as it does at the sight of chain clothing stores, it’s probably wrong that I have such a strong emotional attachment to the book Walden.
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Drool. Especially the turret. (photo by Rebecca Gale)

  • It’s good to get back in touch with your dreams and to recognize how far you’ve come. On my drive up to Concord, I passed near where my sister went to college. I immediately thought of the night I stayed in her dorm room before graduation. I was not far from starting undergrad myself, and I remember listening to the song “Independence” by The Band Perry and almost crying (typical) because I was so nervous about the thought of living on my own. Flash forward seven or eight years and here I am driving on my own on a spontaneous road trip, living ten hours from home. I often get on myself for not being a more adventurous person, but the reality is I’ve come a long way.

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“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.” – Louisa May Alcott

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Well, that just sounds dumb…

Hi. My name is Rebecca Gale and I like to study old scrapbooks.

I’m pretty embarrassed about that…I feel self-conscious every time I have to bring it up. But I can’t seem to let go of my desire to look at these musty collections of random crap that I once described as “compressed trash bins.” They’re so strange and personal and cryptic and beautiful. They tell stories of people who didn’t get to invent gunpowder or write a best-selling novel or marry someone famous.

I love untangling those stories from the web of junk pasted onto crumbling paper and literally letting them see the light of day again. I love the sense of fulfillment that comes from giving voice to someone who has been overlooked. I love the fun discoveries that come when you open an envelope and find a love affair or a half-eaten cookie, the layers and layers of meaning, the little mysteries that will never be solved.

Beyond that, I think a little part of me is afraid that I’ll never make it into the history textbooks either, so I like to think maybe one day someone will open up the acid free archival boxes containing my own carefully constructed creations and give them a second glance. I like the thought of giving forgotten people a second life, a chance for their stories and secrets to see the light of day. Because I, too, one day will probably just be a box collecting dust on the shelf of some historical society shelf (if I’m lucky enough to even end up there.)

I know my reasons for loving scrapbooks are legitimate. I firmly believe deep down that they are treasure troves of historical knowledge worthy of attention and study. But I’m still embarrassed to admit I like researching something as girly, messy, silly and sentimental as scrapbooks, something associated with $7.99/pack Martha Stewart stickers, middle-aged moms, and glitter. Even using the term “research” to refer to them seems like a stretch. When I try to describe why I think they’re important to other people, I just get bashful and tongue-tied.

I was talking recently with my professor about how easy it is to feel insecure as a student. This summer, I participated in a fellowship program, learning about material culture studies, something I’m passionate about, but quickly realized I knew much less about than I thought. I spent a lot of the summer grappling with self-doubt, feeling dumb because I gave a wrong answer in a seminar or frustrated because I didn’t speak up when I did know the answer. I felt inferior to my colleagues who had a much more extensive knowledge of decorative arts and art history. I even occasionally felt angry, perceiving that I was belittled or underappreciated. (As a side note, I also think my teeth got even more crooked this summer, and I’d like someone to please contact my middle school orthodontist and demand a complete refund at this point.)

As I shared all this with my professor, I tried to counter-balance some of my ranting with the lessons I had learned along the way, in spite of how frustrated I had sometimes been. Mostly I was thankful for the clarity that the program brought to some of my goals for future study and my career. But at one point I also mentioned to her that maybe it was good for me to realize that I need to start finding value of my own academic abilities and scholarly worth within myself, rather than relying on external affirmation or letting myself be swayed by situations not going as I hoped or people criticizing my efforts.

My professor responded to this by telling about how she herself up until recently had constantly questioned her ability as an academic, all through the process of getting her PhD and even afterwards as she worked on writing a book. Then suddenly she realized that if she was passionate about her topic, others would see its value too. It was amazing to me that someone so obviously intelligent and capable, working in a legitimate, established, respected field of research could feel so insecure. But the more I get to know people, the more I realize that something most humans have in common is insecurity.

I’ve come across a lot of cocky people, especially in academics, who are constantly trying to name drop or network or make clear that they know just what or who it is you’re talking about. As annoyed as I get with these people, on a certain level, I feel bad for them, because I think that they’re the most insecure of us all. I could be wrong, but I think the constant efforts to prove themselves to people, even when nobody has asked them to, stem from some some need deep down to impress, which in turn comes from a fear that they are not enough.

I’ve been guilty of bragging and trying to prove myself too though most of the time my insecurity manifests itself as timidity or silent self-doubt. Either way it isn’t healthy. Insecurity in any form, about anything, eats away at us and distracts us from dedicating ourselves to whatever work or cause is our purpose in life. We drop classes, don’t turn in applications, put projects away in drawers, keep quiet instead of engaging in exploration of a topic, play it safe when we should take risks, don’t ask questions for fear of seeming ignorant, and don’t speak up for our cause or passion for fear of judgment, thus minimizing the impact we could have on the world.

Own your cause. Pursue your passion. Talk back to your doubt. Let go – bit by bit – of your insecurity. Move forward in spite of your anxiety. Speak out in spite of the fear of judgment. Continue to speak even when judgment – or perhaps worse, silence – comes. You were given certain interests and loves for a reason, so you could bring awareness to them. Unfortunately, not everyone will see the importance of your passion because not everyone is passionate about the same thing.

And sadly some people, because of their insecurity, feel the need to put down others’ passions in an attempt to validate their own. This is awful behavior, but also probably the sign that they are, deep down, a broken human being with their own self-doubt. But look for the people who are what Anne of Green Gables (another love of mine I’m always ashamed to admit) called “kindred spirits” – those who share your love. Or those who are allies, who can appreciate and support you and your love, even if it’s not theirs personally.

Cultivate relationships with those people. Take a risk and open up to them when you experience doubt about your work or even your value and ability as an academic. This is an act of strength that any good friend will respect you for and be happy to tell you not to be ridiculous, you are one of the smartest people they know, etc. And do the world a favor by being an ally, even to those who love something you just can’t get excited about, listening to their point of view, giving their work your time and attention, and letting them know that you respect their work and encouraging them to continue to pursue their passion.

Whoever you are, wherever you study, whatever you love, go for it. Do the best work that you can do. Practice articulating why what you love is worth studying. Write or speak about it for a non-academic audience to gain experience communicating your topic’s importance to the layman (no offense to non-academics – you are normal and wonderful.)

Love what you love and your passion will shine through as you speak and write about it. Others will be convinced and made to appreciate it too. Maybe not everyone, but some people. There is great power in doing work well and in doing what it is you were meant to do. Someone was meant to bring light to your topic, and that person may very well be you.

My name is Rebecca Gale, and I really love scrapbooks. (And, yes, I do make them too, okay.)

Final Farewells: Historic Deerfield Fellowship Pt. 5

It’s hard to believe, but on Monday I finished up my nine-week fellowship with Historic Deerfield, a museum in Massachusetts. The last weeks of the fellowship were particularly intense as the six of us fellows were completing our 25-page research papers. We did have some brief breaks from research with fun workshops learning how to dance in 18th century America, harvest flax, and polish pewter spoons, which we used to eat ice cream!

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Using metal files to smooth out the rough edges of recently-cast pewter spoons…Who said internships were all about making copies and getting coffee! (Photo by Penny Leveritt)

Researching my paper was both fulfilling and exasperating. The late nights made me wonder whether I had graduated, but ultimately I love having the chance to uncover the incredible story of a woman who has gone unrecognized for her prolific career in social work. It was inspiring to see how full of a life Elizabeth Greene, the subject of my paper, led, especially as I start off on my own career. She never stopped working, traveling, or getting involved in her community. And as a fun twist to my research, I found out that Greene was essentially a cat lady!

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The extremely powerful and poignant entrance to Mount Vernon’s exhibit on slavery. The doors list the names of some of the enslaved people owned by George Washington and Washington’s statue can be seen beyond them. (Photo by author)

Once we had finished our papers, we gave each gave a 10-minute presentation about our research findings to the museum staff. I remember sitting down from giving my presentation, breathing a sigh of relief, and suddenly realizing the enormity of what I had accomplished this summer! We heard an incredible talk from an alum of the program, Jessie MacLeod, who curated an exhibition dedicated to talking about the experience of enslaved people at Mount Vernon. She shared some words of wisdom about representing a wider constellation of people when we tell history.

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Celebrating finishing our fellowship and giving incredible presentations! (Photo from Historic Deerfield)

After our presentations, we got to head out on a 9-day trip touring historic sites in Connecticut, New York, Delaware, DC, and Virginia as a reward for finishing our papers and a continued learning experience about how different museums are run.

We started off in Connecticut with a tour of three historic houses in the small town of Weathersfield. This stop was especially memorable because the creative executive director of these houses, the Webb Dean Stevens Museum, likes to use real food coated in hairspray to liven up the houses. Next, we visited the Yale University Art Galleries in New Haven, CT, which have incredible pieces from all different times and continents.

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Getting a behind-the-scenes look at historic photographs in the conservation lab of the art museums at Colonial Williamsburg.

We trekked down to familiar territory for yours truly – Washington, DC – where we toured the Smithsonian Castle, the monuments, the National Museum of American History, and the White House. Even though I’ve lived in the DC area my entire life, I often forget about the museums and monuments right in our backyard. It was interesting to get a behind-the-scenes tour of some of these places and see how the Smithsonian is making an effort to incorporate the stories of more Americans into the museum. It was also extremely powerful to see the lunch counter from Greensboro, NC where student protesters staged sit-ins against segregation during the Civil Rights Movement.

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Learning about Southern furniture, a previously overlooked area of decorative arts, in Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Art Museum.

Our next stops were Alexandria, VA and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We toured the powerful exhibit on slavery at Mount Vernon, which I highly recommend visiting before it goes off exhibit later this year. We also toured Colonial Williamsburg, learning about how they are changing their historic spaces to be more interactive and engaging, and Winterthur Museum in Delaware, learning about their graduate program in American material culture studies. Our last stop was at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York to learn about early Dutch American culture, agricultural practices, and slavery.

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Panoramic of Mount Vernon (photo by author)

Overall, this summer has been full of learning opportunities and an enormous chance for personal growth for me. Stressful situations are difficult but also can change you as you overcome obstacles. I’m indebted to everyone who allowed me to have this opportunity, in particular Historic Deerfield and my professors at the Universities at Shady Grove‘s history program with UMBC. This is also sadly my last post here on Around the Grove, so I want to thank everyone who allowed me the chance to be a student blogger because I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Best of luck to everyone as you start a new school year!

Trekking Along: Summer Fellowship Pt. 4

This was originally written for the Universities at Shady Grove’s student blog “Around the Grove on July 25, 2017 as an installment of a three-part series about my participation in Historic Deerfield’s Summer Fellowship Program in material culture studies.

If there’s one thing I’ve accomplished this summer during my fellowship at Historic Deerfield, it’s a lot of walking! Between trekking up and down the mile-long Main Street of town and going on trips to local museums and historic sites, I’ve really broken in every pair of shoes I own and toned my calves. But I’ve also been learning a lot about both myself and New England history.

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Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA is a fun, interactive historic site recreating where the first Pilgrims who immigrated to the U.S. lived. You can sit on chairs and talk to real-life “Pilgrims.” (Photo by author)

Some of the highlights of the past three weeks since my last post have been visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Plimoth Plantation (a recreation of the village where the pilgrims settled), and the island of Newport, Rhode Island. These trips have allowed us fellows to see different ways of running a museum and designing exhibits, and have given us the chance to interact with staff members and learn about their jobs.

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The interior of Marble House, one of the mansions owned by the Vanderbilt family in Newport. It was jaw-dropping to see the wealth of families who summered on the island. (Photo by author)

I’ve also given tours of two historic houses owned by Historic Deerfield, which was quite a challenge! We only had three days of shadowing current tour guides and then had to give tours to the public. This was a great lesson in the idea that “you know more than you think.” I was not very confident about my ability to give a tour so soon, but I was surprised by how well things went. Even when you’re not confident in your abilities, it’s always worth giving something a try.

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Looking at an eighteenth-century silk gown with one of the museum’s curators during a seminar on historic clothing.

Currently, our last major project of the summer before we go on our week-and-a-half long road trip is finishing writing our research papers. Each of us have chosen a topic related to New England history and are using the museum’s library and archives to do research. I have been looking at a scrapbook created by a woman from Greenfield, Massachusetts, in which she documents her life story as an older woman. I was very excited to find a topic that had a Maryland connection; the woman, Elizabeth Greene, got a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins in 1917 and lived and worked in the Baltimore area for parts of her life. She had a pretty incredible two-decade career in social work, amazing for a woman living in the early 1900s!

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One of the pages of the scrapbook I’m basing my paper off of. Greene, who created the scrapbook, is the woman sitting one seat from the left in the large photograph, and she is surrounded by people connected with Johns Hopkins. Sadly, she was a supporter of the eugenics movement, and the paper above the photo describes a class she took in the subject. The other photos on the right page document a vacation she took. My favorite is the one at the bottom of someone trying to stand on their head on the beach! (Photo by author, scrapbook is property of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association)

Next week we will turn in and present on our papers for the museum staff, so the pressure is on to write! Of course, I’m also starting on the job hunt, so there is a lot to do right now, but I’ve also learned so much…the summer has flown by.

Read my previous posts about my fellowship here and here.

Around Town: Summer Fellowship, Pt. 3

This was originally written for the Universities at Shady Grove’s student blog “Around the Grove on July 3, 2017 as an installment of a three-part series about my participation in Historic Deerfield’s Summer Fellowship Program in material culture studies.

The past three weeks here in Historic Deerfield‘s summer fellowship program have been unbelievably busy, but full of incredible learning opportunities. Every day has been packed full of tours of historic buildings, seminars with museum curators, and talks on the town’s history. We’ve studied ceramics, silver, textiles, architecture, and more. I’ve also had fun taking in the sights periodically as we’ve gone on mini road trips, a trip to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and some of my fellow fellows and I even went swimming in the local creek!

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Handling a drawer from a dining room sideboard once owned by President James Monroe. (#SixDegreesofJamesMonroe, anyone??)

One of the coolest parts of being here has been having the chance to handle historic objects and think about how they would have been used, what they can tell us about the people who owned them, and how they were made. My knowledge of antiques and decorative arts isn’t too extensive, so it’s been tough to put myself out there and guess about what things are, etc. (and be wrong sometimes), but it’s a good lesson in taking chances and being humble about learning.

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Examining a ceramic pitcher from the 1700s with an incredible drawing printed on the sides. It’s amazing to handle objects and think of all the history they’ve seen and the people whose lives they’ve been a part of.

We’ve also each chosen an object from the museum collections to research and write a paper about. Each object is a recent acquisition that has very little information about it. I chose an album of photographs taken by a woman visiting Deerfield in the 1920s. It’s interesting to think about how now, almost a hundred years later, we do the exact same thing: take photos of new places we visit and put them into albums to share with friends, though today they might be digital albums on social media.

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A scene from one of our seminars about clothing with one of the museum curators. I’m getting pumped about examining a pair of women’s stays (basically the predecessor to the corset) from the 1700s! On the table are also a pair of women’s shoes and a stays for children.

In addition, we fellows have also chosen our research paper topics. This was a tough task for me; since sixty years worth of fellows have already written papers, I found a lot of topics I was interested in had already been written on. Also, it turns out that people had sucky handwriting even in the 18th and 19th century, which makes some sources, like diaries and letters, hard to read and write about in a limited time frame.

After exploring a lot of options, I ended up deciding to look at a young woman’s scrapbook, made while she was attending high school nearby in the early 1900s. Since I examined scrapbooks made by young women in the same time period for my senior thesis, I think it will be interesting to continue my research, especially since scrapbooks are a fun source of self-expression that often get overlooked by historians.

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We had an awesome workshop where we did open hearth cooking like in the 18th century. Here I am hard at work shoveling hot coals onto a pot to create an oven to cook an apple pie I made…The fire was pretty stifling, I can’t imagine cooking over it every day (#respect to colonial housewives.)

Today was also my first day giving tours in one of the historic houses here, which is designed to have each room look like a different historic era. I had only gotten to shadow other tour guides for three days, so I was pretty nervous about giving my own, but pleasantly surprised at how well my tours went (though doing four in a row was pretty exhausting.)

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Learning about stoneware pottery from a woman who makes and studies ceramics. We each got to try throwing pottery…another humbling but fascinating experience. (It was also my birthday!)

Overall, this experience has been a great lesson in how much we’re all capable of doing when we put our mind to it! If you’re feeling overwhelmed by whatever you’re up to this summer, have faith in your abilities, but also remember to take breaks, be open with your struggles with friends and family, and to go easy on yourself – we all make mistakes and get overwhelmed, but we’re also capable of much more than we think.

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The apple pie I decorated and baked, a true work of art.

And, of course, now I can say I’ve baked an apple pie in a ginormous fire, which is a great skill for my resume!

 

 

Humble pie

Working and studying in the field of history, I’ve slowly realized how important it is to approach the process of creating history with a healthy dose of humility. I guess that’s true of any area of study, actually, but I’ll stick with history for now. It’s a field where it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of trying to impress people with your knowledge, put forward a confident face, and emphasize what you do know, glossing over what you don’t. People may think this will get them a job – and maybe it will – but ultimately the ability to be a historian comes in the moments where you know that you don’t know…instead you have to find out.

Beyond that, you need to have a gratefulness for the people around you who make it possible for you to do your work – the business people in your museum, the custodians, the people whose history you capitalize on. You have to be willing to sometimes say, “I don’t know…Can you tell me more?” As I’ve been working on this fellowship, it’s been tough to step outside of my comfort bubble and share half-formed thoughts or guess at the use of bits of ceramics sitting on a table in front of me. I’ve felt stupid. Then I’ve realized that this is not about knowing everything, it’s about being willing to learn. And to learn, you have to take risks and sometimes end up humbled.

You have to listen as much as you talk. You have to be willing to sit and listen to long stories and source the public for their knowledge, because ultimately you’re telling this story for them and from their past. You can’t have the attitude that you’re above people because at the end of the day you depend on them. Historians only exist because there are people to write history about, and we need to have a sense of gratefulness to and appreciation for those people who we use to create our academic and professional careers. Writing my senior thesis was humbling in that I realized that the paper was not about me impressing my peers or a grad school program – it was about bringing to light and giving a voice to people who previously didn’t have one, letting them be as much a part of the historical narrative as the famous people who have dominated it for so long.

I guess I wish we approached history the way I wish we approached parties: instead of showing off and getting wrapped up in peacocking and telling our own stories, we would better serve the world by seeking out those not included in the conversation and asking them to share their own experiences. We should realize it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do what we do – there are so many factors that have enabled us to be doing whatever we are doing. Not everyone gets the chance to pursue their passion as a career. Lots of amateur historians and history lovers who by some turn of fate or another didn’t get to pursue a career in history would love to be where we are, delving into archives and seeing behind the scenes.

I was humbled the other day to see a comment from a community member on a photo of my fellowship class asking whether the program accepts people 55 and older. It made me realize that while I’ve been whining about my schedule, other people would be more than happy to take my place. Since then, it’s reminded me to be grateful for the chance to be here. When working in and studying history are exasperating, I wish we would remember how privileged we are. And I wish we would remember how many people have stories we still need to tell.

Day One: Historic Deerfield Fellowship, Pt. 2

This was originally posted on Around the Grove, the blog of the Universities at Shady Grove.

Today, I started my fellowship at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts at full speed with a series of tours and talks orientating myself and the five other undergraduate fellows to the museum. I’ve never been to Historic Deerfield before or even this part of Massachusetts, but it’s a huge change of pace from the D.C. suburbs. Things are very quiet and scenic, and we fellows are living in historic houses on the main street that comprises the museum. It’s lined with houses from the 1700s and 1800s and surrounded by small towns and green landscapes.

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For lunch today, we climbed to the top of a local mountain (ironically named Sugarloaf, just like one of our mountains in Maryland) to look out on the landscape below, the Connecticut River Valley. We learned that in Native American folklore, the mountain was made by a beaver deity whose head was decapitated and fell in the middle of a lake. Apparently, from above, the mountain looks like a beaver’s head and body, bordered by the Connecticut River!

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We also had a tour of the museum’s exhibition center and a look behind the scenes at the collection, where we will be doing the bulk of our work during the fellowship, learning how to handle historic objects and learn about the past from them. Then we ended the day with a tour of a tavern from the 1700s, learning about how taverns were one of the important centers of town life and socialization in colonial America.

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We also went on a brief walking tour of the town. As you can imagine, it was pretty hot out, but we learned about the history of the raid of Deerfield in 1704, where French and Native Americans invaded the town and killed and captured people as part of an ongoing war between the French and English settlers and various Native American tribes. This raid is one of the town’s claims to fame, but has been told in a very skewed manner over the years, so we discussed the importance of examining how history is told and representing a variety of points of view.

DSC01111.JPGThe start of a new job in a new place, with new people is admittedly very overwhelming, especially with such a packed schedule, but my motto has become “one hour at a time.” Just take things as they come, don’t look too far ahead and stress too much about the future, because you never know what is coming up ahead, and you’ll get too overwhelmed.

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A few more things I’ve been learning in these overwhelming beginning days: Trust your skills and capabilities. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something, and approach your work and learning humbly. Don’t stress about trying to impress people or be the one who knows everything. And push yourself out of your comfort zone, but also have compassion on yourself; you’re only human and we each have our own things that are tougher to do.

DSC01104.JPGPat yourself on the back for the things you accomplish, big and little, and don’t get hung up over little mistakes, mix-ups and places where you don’t seem as accomplished as others. Be patient with yourself; learning and developing professional skills is a process!

Summer Kick-Off

This was originally posted on the Universities at Shady Grove’s student blog Around the Grove on May 22, 2017. You can read my other posts here. You can also browse my Public History and Museum internships blog for design, marketing, education, library science, archival, curatorial internship and fellowship opportunities at historic sites and museums. 

It’s a bit weird to write this post because my summer hasn’t officially started yet (us UMBC retrievers are still working away at finals!) But I am very excited to kick off our Around the Grove summer posts by giving you a brief introduction to the fellowship program I’m going to be participating in this June, July, and August!

Starting in mid-June, I will be one of a group of six undergraduate students working in Historic Deerfield’s 61st Summer Fellowship Program in early American material culture studies. During my time as a history major at Shady Grove, I was introduced to the concept of material culture studies, which is basically the process of looking at historic objects to learn about the past that documents might not tell us.

Historic Deerfield is a small town in Massachusetts filled with houses built in the 1700s and 1800s. Some of the houses are now privately owned homes while others are historic house museums open to the public to visit…basically it’s a history nerd’s paradise! I’ve never been to Historic Deerfield, so I’m excited to experience living in a different place for nine weeks. Thankfully, the fellowship program provides me with housing. In fact, I’ll get to live in one of the historic houses with the other fellows, right in the historic district! (Don’t worry – there are bathrooms and A/C units…)

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Dwight House in Historic Deerfield, framed by New England’s famous fall foliage! Courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism Flickr 

Taking summer internships and fellowships away from home can be an awesome way to explore a different region to see if it would be a good fit for you to live there after graduating. It’s also nice to just get a change of scenery for a while (especially for those of us commuters living at home…#realtalk.) An awesome thing about museum internships is that they sometimes offer housing for interns because they own multiple properties, which can be a big help for us poor college students who can’t afford to relocate.

And here’s a pro-tip: Museum internships aren’t just for history majors! Museums need graphic design, marketing, business, administration, visitor services, management, retail, writing, social media, gardening, and education interns…and sometimes more! They welcome people with different skill sets from the traditional history major, so if history or art interest you, consider that as another potential area to look for internships (or even careers) in.

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Wells-Thorn House at Historic Deerfield…Aren’t you excited?! No? Okay, maybe it’s just me… Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – Penny Leveritt for Historic Deerfield

Anyways, I’m psyched for the chance to push myself in terms of building skills and growing as a person, but also to meet new people, explore a new place, and continue to pursue my passion of studying unique historic topics using unorthodox source material. My main tasks this summer will be writing a 25-page paper (ahhh!) about items in the museum’s archives as well as giving tours to visitors. I’ll also get the chance to participate in seminars, workshops, and field trips (whoo-hoo!) with my fellow fellows as we learn more about museum work and material culture.

Ultimately, I’m so grateful that my time at the Universities at Shady Grove allowed me to learn about new developments in my field of study and connect with my passion – material culture. Since then, school has been so much more interesting and I’ve taken ownership of my education.

Stay tuned throughout this summer to hear every Monday from myself and two of our other incredible Around the Grove bloggers – Joel and Christine – as we keep you updated on our summer adventures…Good luck and safe travels on all of your own endeavors!

Making History: UMBC @ USG’s Public History Minor

This was originally posted on the Universities at Shady Grove’s student blog Around the Grove on April 28, 2017. You can read my other posts here. You can also browse my Public History and Museum internships blog for design, marketing, education, library science, archival, curatorial internships and more at historic sites and museums. 

The highlight of my time attending the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s undergraduate program at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) has been completing a minor in Public History. Many people have never heard of public history before, but it essentially means any work people or organizations do to make historical information more available to ordinary people instead of just academic historians. This could be anything from designing a museum exhibit to creating interactive websites about history to leading history-themed summer camps for kids.

The neat thing about public history is that it allows you to combine other interests or skill sets you might have – theater, writing, designing, programming, working with kids, music, cooking, etc. – with history. There are so many creative avenues to use to study and share history with other people. Public history is also great in that it aims to bring more diversity and depth to the study of history, and a big focus of our program is trying to represent more people in the history we tell.

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Students investigating a house dating back to 1797 on a field trip in Baltimore. (Photo: Rebecca Gale)

The public history minor is open to anyone who is enrolled in UMBC’s program at USG. It’s only 18 credits, so it’s really easy to complete in addition to your major. The professor in charge of the public history minor, Dr. Melissa Blair, is not only a great teacher who is extremely knowledgeable, but also so helpful and approachable when it comes to getting advice about your future career. The classes I’ve taken for public history have been my favorite – really interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful in planning what I want to do after I leave Shady Grove.

Something I often hear when I tell people I’m a history major is, “You’re going to have a hard time getting a job with that!” The Public History minor allows you to explore the different career options available to people who are interested in doing work related to history. A major element of the Introduction to Public History course is learning about the huge variety of careers related to history, which can intersect with other areas of interest too. I like to think of public history as a chance to get your hands dirty and think about how you would use the things you read in your textbooks in other classes in the real world. If you’re a person like me who likes to get out and do projects, not just study things, this is a great program.

One really exciting opportunity the public history minor provides in this regard is the Service Learning in Public History course, which is offered every spring to people who have taken Intro to Public History. Each year, the class works with a local African American historic site, Pleasant View, about ten minutes from campus, which has a church, school, and cemetery that was crucial to the African American community in the Gaithersburg area after the Civil War and into the Civil Rights era. Each class has a central project they work on to help preserve the site and educate the public about its history.

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Pleasant View Methodist Church, part of the historic site public history students help work to preserve. One exciting part of public history is taking field trips, and we visit this fascinating site many times! (Photo: Rebecca Gale)

This semester, we have been working on researching more about Pleasant View’s history and nominating it to be on the National Register of historic places. We also created designs for signs telling about the site that will hopefully be put up in the future to raise awareness about the site. With schoolwork, we don’t often get to make an impact on the community around us, so it’s been exciting to do work that is so meaningful.

One last major element of the public history minor is doing an internshipI completed mine last summer and fall and learned so much from it. It also gave me inspiration for my senior thesis paper topic, a requirement for all of us history majors. You can read about the internships UMBC public history students have done on our blog Retrieving the Past.

IMG_20160731_003311The historic Japanese pagoda at National Park Seminary historic district, where I completed my internship. (Photo: Rebecca Gale)

If you’re interested in the public history minor, consider signing up for Intro to Public History (History 300) this fall and seeing what this is all about! It’s a fun class (and includes field trips!) and is open to any major.