The Scenic Route: Taking the Pressure off of Decision-Making

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Sturbridge, Massachusetts

I always like to tell people that a road trip with me isn’t complete until I’ve taken a wrong road or missed a turn or screwed up something. I’ve been driving around up here in New England every time I have time because I love the scenery and I find driving so relaxing (sorry, environment.) Pretty much every time I miss a turn and end up lost. I always start out frustrated, seeing the ETA on my GPS change, but I could never stay mad for long because I would pass a group of wild turkeys crossing the road or see the sun setting over a pond nestled in a grove of pine trees. It made me realize that it was more of a scenic detour than making a mistake.

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Sturbridge, Massachusetts

It’s interesting how we are so prone to frame things as right or wrong, labeling events that didn’t go the way we hoped or turn out positively as mistakes or failures. Oftentimes those times can be pivotal moments of growth for us, which makes me question whether they really can be called mistakes since they ended up playing a crucial part in our development.

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The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

This past couple months, having another relationship I hoped would develop into something more not work out and simultaneously having the internship I took not live up to my expectations really brought this point home. A lot of times I felt like I had failed because I had yet again misjudged a person and built up my expectations prematurely. I consequently feel anxious when I make choices about my future and pessimistic about new opportunities for relationships that present themselves, doubting anyone could really be interested in me and wondering if I’m over-idealizing a person again and ignoring red flags like the last time.

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The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

As I find myself in another time of transition with a lot of decisions facing me, I feel overwhelmed by the pressure to make the “right” choices. But the thing is, sometimes you just have to make a choice, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong option; each avenue you could potentially take is just a different path. As cheesy as the metaphor sounds, it’s like hiking trails – sure you have to take into consideration how long one is or how steep, but for the most part each one is beautiful and relaxing, you just get a different view.

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The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

Considering grad schools and job options, I feel overwhelmed by the pressure I put on myself to find the “right fit.” Having had to transfer in undergrad, partly because the school I thought was a perfect fit ended up just not working for me, I feel especially anxious about my ability to choose a good program. But as I make pro and con lists for different options, I realize that there are, quite simply, pros and cons to anything. There is rarely ever a perfect fit. It all works out and adds to your story.

Even difficult things have beauty and worth threaded throughout. In my relationship that didn’t work out, I experienced a ton of emotional pain, but that precipitated me to re-enter counseling, which I have experienced tremendous comfort and personal growth through (including many of the ideas in this post!) And subsequently, when I did have another opportunity to start to develop a different relationship, it made me value that new opportunity even more.

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Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

The failed relationship also empowered me in a strange sense as I had to at one point realize the other person wasn’t invested in the relationship, decide I deserved better, and take action to withdraw from that person and make an effort not to let worrying about our relationship consume my thoughts. This was extremely hard to do, but I did it. I stopped communicating with him for probably six weeks to see if he would initiate conversation and ask after me. It never came, which hurt, but gave me perspective on what I need in a relationship and, most importantly, made me feel empowered about my decision to respect and stand up for myself.

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Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

As for my internship, as many tough days as I had, there is the satisfaction of knowing I pressed on through those tough days and I pushed myself yet again out of my comfort zone in the type of work I was doing. I learned completely new things and I did a lot of talking to people even though I find constant conversation exhausting. I persevered. And I got to experience a different place, visit lovely museums, enjoy driving through the curtain of New England foliage over the Massachusetts turnpike, and meet a few lovely people…one particularly lovely person in particular…There were so many things I felt frustrated about that I eventually realized had small blessings hidden in them.

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Naumkeag, the Berkshires, Massachusetts

I guess what I’m saying is, that if you’re like me and, because of things that have happened in your past, you question your judgment for the future to the extent that you can’t make decisions – it’s okay. Even situations that are difficult are redeemable. And for some of us more sensitive people, we just need an extra-long time to adjust, so something that seems awful may just need some patience and perseverance.

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The Berkshires, Massachusetts

You don’t have to make the right choice, you just have to do the best you can to consider your options and choose what seems like a good fit. Maybe it’s the fastest route to your destination, maybe it’s the scenic route. Either way has satisfactions and frustrations.

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Explore New England (Well, Mainly Massachusetts)

For the past couple months, I’ve had the opportunity to relocate temporarily from my home state of Maryland to the lovely state of Massachusetts while completing an internship at Old Sturbridge Village. As a museum lover, I was determined from Day One to spend as much time off as I could visiting the area’s wealth of fascinating museums. While there are still several left on my list that I didn’t make it to, I’ve enjoyed going to quite a number of them.

Slater’s Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, Rhode Island

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This small museum is located just outside of Providence, RI and just over the Massachusetts border. It’s a three-building site that gives an overview of the evolution of industry, particularly textile processing, in early America.

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18th century home – A spinning wheel used for flax (linen) is in the background on the right, and a weasel, used to wind skeins of string, is the windmill-looking machine on the table. The song “Pop Goes the Weasel” was inspired by this!

Our guided tour started in a 1700s-era house, showing how textiles were originally produced in cottage industry-type setting within a home, usually for the family, though sometimes a person might hire other people and produce larger amounts of cloth to sell. This work was done using human power and simple machines like spinning wheels.

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The two other buildings were water-powered mills, where huge wheels pushed by the energy of flowing water turned machinery and belts used to spin thread onto spools, do woodworking, clean cotton, etc.

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These held large bobbins of thread that were mechanically wound. Young girls had the job of sticking their hands into the machine to remove filled bobbins. Our guide turned on the machine and demonstrated for about 30 seconds…her had stung and was visibly red. It’s hard to imagine doing that all day as an elementary school-age child.

It’s both amazing to think about innovation over the years and how drastically life and work has changed over the past two centuries because of these inventions, and humbling to consider how hard it must have been to work in such loud, impersonal, fast-paced, dangerous conditions. (It’s also a bit humbling to realize that our country benefitted so much from plans for a machine that were literally stolen from England.)

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Bobbins in boats on top of a loom. Some looms were so large, there were ships on wheels that were water-powered to go through the warp threads.

There was also a collection of later machinery, displaying the further development of technology for creating cloth.

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Later machines, probably for making knit fabrics.

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Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT

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The Mark Twain House is a must-see if you’re ever passing through Connecticut. Just outside of downtown Hartford, this sumptuous Victorian that Twain built for his family not only has delicious interior design, but also a fascinating story of an eccentric writer and his family and household staff.

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I love writers’ homes because they have such interesting tours that focus more on the family and their life. Twain and one of his daughters appear to have had trouble concentrating, probably suffering from what we would diagnose today as ADHD. He had to change where he would spend time writing at least twice because he couldn’t be in a place with too many distractions. His daughter, educated at home by Twain’s wife, who had attended college, went to a formal academy in high school but was kicked out for behavior issues, probably because she was distractable too and unused to regimented schooling.

The carriage house

The house also has an accompanying museum with two fantastic, very readable exhibits as well as a cafe. The neighborhood nearby is also worth exploring if you love Victorian architecture!

Concord, Massachusetts

Concord holds a special place in my heart because it was the home of two authors I dearly love, whose homes I visited in eighth grade and fell in love with this charming town. It really is what I imagine real-life Stars Hollow being like.

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Downtown Concord, Mass.

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Downtown Concord

The downtown is very sweet and historic and also have a cemetery for those who are interested in historic gravestones. It just oozes New England charm. There is a National Park dedicated to the Revolutionary War battlefield, which I still have not made my way too, and a town museum as well as a few house museums, namely belonging to local authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and – dearest to my heart – Louisa May & Amos Bronson Alcott.

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Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she wrote her most famous book, Little Women.

I visited Orchard House twice in middle school, inspiring me to do a research project on her family’s connection to the Massachusetts abolition movement for National History Day. I wrote a bit more about my visit in another post, but this remains one of my favorite museums to this day, though I’m sure it’s shabby to many museum snobs. I love the personality of the family that comes through even in the furnishings, which have a very lived-in appearance.

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Amos Bronson Alcott’s (Louisa’s father) Concord School of Philosophy. Alcott was a man of ideas and conviction, but unfortunately not usually successful in making them last in application. His ideas on educating children have more recently become popularly accepted, but got him into trouble in his own lifetime.

The family let their artistic younger daughter, May, draw and paint on the walls and the house is furnished to reflect the Alcotts in their better middle class status after Little Women had started selling, but it still has the well-loved furniture and cramped quarters you might find in your own home, which I find endearingly relatable compared to the hoards of mansions that tend to get preserved. The Alcotts are also fascinating people, eccentric and lovably human, both outcasts of their own time and representatives of some of the growing movements in mid-19th-century New England: abolition, Transcendentalism, women’s rights, philosophical discussion and lecture circuits, etc.

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A re-creation of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin he built for his experiment living alone in nature for a time, as recorded in his book Walden.

I also couldn’t pass up a re-visit to Walden Pond, now a state park. I went hoping for some kind of epiphany about what to do with my life but left wishing I had brought my bathing suit to enjoy the clear water. I guess life works itself out as you go along more than it hands out sudden clarity about where to go next. Sometimes you have to embrace the uncertainty. All the same, Walden is a beautiful place with such a peaceful atmosphere. I highly recommend a visit.

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Sunset over Walden Pond.

 Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts 

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This place confirmed my assertion that there really is a museum for everything. When I saw the brochure for the Museum of Russian Icons, I was intrigued. I knew relatively little about the Russian Orthodox Church or about the art of icons, so it was interesting to learn about an art form that is an intersection of visual expression and religious devotion.

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Clinton, Massachusetts

The icons – pictures of saints and Biblical figures – are painted in particular steps, each of which have symbolic religious significance. As the icons are painted, the artist is supposed to pray and meditate during the process. I found the concept quite powerful…I think the artistic process is great for taking time to consider life and examine one’s inner self. I probably sat for an hour watching a video of an adorable elderly Russian man demonstrating how icons are created. I’m not much good at visual art myself, but it’s fascinating to watch people who are practice their craft. The neighborhood around the museum also had some gorgeous Victorian houses, which always gets me jazzed.

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Clinton, Massachusetts

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Clinton, Massachusetts

Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts

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I believe I can touch the sky…Fruitlands Museum, Harvard Mass.

Fruitlands definitely wins the prize for best location out of all the places I visited. The museum is spread out among several buildings in a campus layout, but it’s all nestled on a hill that looks out on some gorgeous hills, filled with foliage. I didn’t get a picture that did justice to the view.

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The museum is mainly dedicated to the Utopian experiment that Louisa May Alcott’s father, writer and educator Amos Bronson Alcott, started with fellow Transcendentalist Charles Lane. Louisa May Alcott later wrote a short story about the disastrous experience. Her father and Lane were trying to live out Transcendentalist ideals, living off the land and farming without using animal labor, which, as you might imagine, is quite difficult to do. Add to that that Lane believed that ideally people should be single and celibate when Alcott had his wife and daughters living on the farm…Dramaaaaa.

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Fruitlands Farmhouse, built 1843

In addition to the original farmhouse where the Alcotts and Lane lived, the museum campus has an art gallery featuring folk portraits and Hudson River School paintings, a Native American museum, and a building from a nearby Shaker community.

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Shaker Museum, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Mass.

I spent the most time at the Shaker Museum, which was a small office building that had been part of the Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts, not far from the Fruitlands utopian experiment (in fact, Charles Lane went and tried to live with the Shakers for a short time after Fruitlands dissolved.)

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Shaker Museum

It was interesting to learn about how Shakerism offered a safe haven for women who had been widowed to have a place to live and be provided for. It’s humbling to think about how women in past centuries would have been in a pretty difficult situation if their husband or other family members they were dependent on passed away. It’s also interesting to learn about how entrepreneuring the Shakers were, crafting furniture and creating the concept of packaged seeds.

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I also enjoyed the gorgeous hiking paths through the fall foliage. There were great interpretive signs about the historical and natural landscape. It’s interesting to think about the remains of homes, daily lives, and natural phenomena that we walk on top of every day without thinking. One picture in the slideshow above is of a part of the trail that overlapped with a former wagon road. The signage pointed out that the ruts are still visible. I wonder how many lives in transition traveled that same path.

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The Mount, Lenox, MA 

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The Stables, The Mount, Lenox, MA

When the stables of an estate are larger than your family’s house, you know you’ve happened upon a Gilded Age mansion. Edith Wharton was a prolific novelist who critiqued the constrained, exclusive society of the extremely wealthy Americans in early nineteenth century New York City. Many of these wealthy people built houses in the Berkshires, the part of the Appalachians in western Massachusetts and Wharton followed suit. She actually had a large part in designing the Mount because of her strong opinions in home design. In fact, her first published book was an advice book on interior design.

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Wharton’s life is fascinating; she divorced her husband at a time when it was still socially unacceptable, so she left the Mount and moved to Paris after being shunned from society. But she wrote a novel a year for forty years and won a Pulitzer Prize. She had other love affairs, though none of them worked out particularly well (I feel you, girl), but she did write some steamy poetry about them.

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The scullery where maids would have washed dishes. Sucky job but nice view.

The house museum is particularly interesting in that it has tried to experiment with new ways to use the space of a historic home. For example, rooms are, for the most part, not roped off and, in addition to getting a guided tour, you can walk through the house at your own pace. Some rooms are restored to their original appearance or something similar (designers were invited to decorate some of the rooms at their own expense to reduce the cost of restoring the home) while others are small gallery spaces. I loved the little reading nook they had too. Some effort is also made to interpret the spaces the servants used.

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Wharton’s work and receiving room, which has been restored to its original appearance. (she wrote her novels in bed next door every morning so she wouldn’t have to wear her corset…Same.)

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Well, I have a million more pictures, and a few other smaller places I visited, but this is already a monster of a post. But I’ll leave with some parting musings….

I feel bad sometimes that I haven’t done much international travel, but then I think about how many amazing places there are in my own country, or even my own country, that I’ve never been to, and I realize that maybe there’s something to be said for traveling locally.

I think it’s important to be connected to the places around you and to appreciate the stories they have to offer of the people who have called that location home in years past. Local history can so often go overlooked or even be looked down on by academics, but I think it gives us a sense of identity and groundedness in the landscape we inhabit, allowing us to appreciate and thus care for, preserve, and conserve both the built and the natural environment.

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The Berkshires

On a more personal note, I have to say that while I sometimes felt a little pathetic trudging up to the ticket offices to ask for admission for one adult (“No, an adult, not a student”) while several couples celebrating anniversaries or honeymoons or girl friends spending a day out gossiping while cursorily looking at art perused the gift shop around me. Let’s just say that while I fully intended to visit as many museums as possible while I was up here, I didn’t expect to be doing it alone. But I am continually reminded that life has a stubborn way of making sure that things do not go the way you expect.

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Naumkeag Mansion, the Berkshires, Massachusetts

In spite of the occasional awkwardness and self-consciousness (and occasional anxiety) of traveling alone, I am a firm believer that it’s important to take time to get back in touch with your own thoughts and feelings, and I sometimes wonder if many museums can properly be absorbed and appreciated if you’re with other people. While parts of the past couple months of my life have had some moments of pain and frustration over the loneliness I felt and the disappointment – sometimes even anger – I was experiencing surrounding some of my relationships, I also found some extremely beautiful moments being alone in nature or alone looking at a building where an author who made a large impact on my life lived.

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I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years frustrated with how people have treated me or relationships have panned out, but I think those hurts are a good reminder that it’s important to spend time with yourself, staying in touch with your own desires, dreams, and emotions. It’s good to dignify yourself by giving yourself the opportunity to experience things you want to, regardless of whether or not other people accompany you. It’s important to have friends and connections, but it’s also good to know yourself and not lose your individuality trying to be what you think other people want, which I felt like I was starting to do when I began this journey a couple months ago.

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Links:

Slater Mill 

Mark Twain House

Museum of Russian Icons

Fruitlands Museum

The Mount

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Enjoying New England in fall 🙂

Party Like It’s 1838: Old Sturbridge Village Internship (Pt. 1)

It’s been quite an interesting two months serving as an intern here at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. I’ve learned a lot as a historian and grown a lot as a human. A lot of people I’ve met have wondered what brought me up here from my home state of Maryland…It’s a valid question with a complicated answer.

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I guess it goes back to when I was in middle school and I first fell in love with museums, in particular with living history museums where people in costume pretend to inhabit historic buildings, usually set up in a town or village setting, recreating life in the past. Old Sturbridge Village was one museum I distinctly remember visiting, and while I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did Colonial Williamsburg, I remember respecting it a lot (and loving the sheep.)

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Fast forward several years to college…History majors from the first school I attended interned at OSV and I began to become interested myself in working in the museum field. I turned into some kind of internship maniac who would scour the Internet for museum internships to apply for. One that I found was OSV but it wasn’t until this past summer that I applied. I accepted at Historic Deerfield for the summer but asked if I could defer working here at OSV to the fall. The more jobs I didn’t hear back from, the better of an idea doing another internship sounded like.

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Old Sturbridge Village is comprised of over thirty historic buildings that have been moved to the site to create a hypothetical rural New England Village. It doesn’t recreate any specific town exactly; it’s more of a sampler of some of the trade shops and homes and public buildings you might have found in a small town in the early 1800s. The village is set in a pretty overlooked time period of American history: the 1830s. Some visitors to the museum think we are colonists, pilgrims, or pioneers, but colonists and pilgrims would have been historical figures by our time period and pioneers would be living in places West of Massachusetts, like Ohio.

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Probably the most notable thing about the 1830s is that the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam (no pun intended), though that can be harder for visitors to see in our quaint little village. Something I would say our village lacks, in my humble opinion, are buildings like textile mills that would have been becoming prominent in this time period as the industrial revolution came into play and was beginning to radically change American life. In fact, a young woman like me might have gone and worked in a mill to be able to earn her own money and be exposed to fashionable new ways of dressing, eating, and cooking. And after simulating what it might be like to work on a farm as a woman in the 1830s for 8.5 hours a day during this internship, I can start to understand the appeal of going and working in a mill.

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My primary place of work during this internship has been the Freeman Farmhouse. The Freemans were middle class farmers so their house was a decent size, though the original property was just the front part when they bought it. Pliny Freeman, a housewright in addition to being a farmer, purchased the house at half its market value to pay off some of his debt by selling his old farm, and added on the back single-story wing, which has the kitchen, dairy room, and woodshed. You can also see the root cellar, underneath the boards in the center of the photo, and on the other side of the home is a large garden that would have been used to grow a lot of the household food.

Here’s a few (unfortunately bad quality) snapshots of the interior of the farmhouse. Most of my time is spent in the room pictured at the bottom – the kitchen. Female interns have to work in a house while male staff typically work on the farm, in a trade shop, or operating our four small mills. A lot of the museum’s interpretation of homelife focuses on what historians call “foodways” aka how food is grown, harvested, prepared, served, and eaten. While women definitely spent a lot of time cooking, this wasn’t all they did, though we can certainly give people that impression.

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All the same, it was a lot of work and I respect the women who did it immensely. I find it tiresome and confusing, which makes me wonder if there what you would do in the 1830s if you hated cooking or were terrible at it. I guess we all have things today that we hate doing, but all the same, I’m more thankful than ever for pre-made food and happy to go home at night and pop a TV dinner in the microwave.

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View out the front door. The picket fence was a fashionable new addition to the house in the late 1830s. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of there being a practical use for it, which is always a good sign that something is being done as a status symbol.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on 1830s life to come!

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.