Museum Matters: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Museum Matters: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

On Friday, March 3rd, I was lucky enough to get a same-day online ticket for the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (MHAAC) in Washington, DC. Established by an Act of Congress in 2003, the museum opened its doors in 2016, and has been drawing large crowds who are eager to tour the museum. Currently, the museum is “sold out” for individuals- advanced timed tickets are free, but necessary to enter the building- through June, so if one wants to visit, they must either come with a large group of 10 +, obtain one of the limited number of online same day passes that go on “sale” at 6:30am (!) or wait in line for the limited number of individual tickets handed out on site at 1pm on weekdays. So, while it is not impossible to visit the museum, it requires advanced planning.

NMAAHC is located on the north side of National Mall, towards the Washington Monument. On a smaller plot of land then other museums on the mall, NMAAHC is more vertically orientated. The museum exterior features lattice ironwork and is influenced by classical, Yoruba, and African American design. (See image below) The museum’s ground/street level floor serves as a welcome center, featuring an information desk, the gift shop and lockers for oversize bags. Upon walking in I noticed, that while the crowd was a slight majority African-American, there was still plenty of other groups represented. This floor also serves as a division between the museum’s aboveground and belowground galleries.

The museum’s history galleries are underground and to reach them you first to descend to the first concourse level, which features the Sweet Home Café and Contemplative Court which I will discuss later in the entry. (Interestingly, the history galleries are named for D.C. philanthropist David Rubenstein, who was a major donor, but is Caucasian. Other galleries bear the name of corporate donors, as do many galleries in museums, but I suppose there just seems something off to me, about having galleries dedicated to the struggles of African-Americans named for a white billionaire, no matter how upstanding he is.) You stand in a hallway lined with pictures of moment from African American history, before entering a large elevator that takes you down to the bottom of the museum where the actual exhibits start. As the elevator descends, the dates move backward from Present to 1400s, informing the audience that they are figuratively going back in time.

The first gallery is “Slavery and Freedom: 1400-1877.” The exhibits begin with a discussion African and European around 1400s before transitioning into the start of the slave trade and its relationship to the colonial experience. The full geographic extent of slavery is highlight as the gallery highlights the experiences of the enslaved in both north and south. Additionally, there is a wall that details the lengths of time that various participated in the slave trade. The focus shifts from the colonial to national experience in the section entitles “The Paradox of Liberty,” which charts the contrast between republican ideas and the practice of slavery. One of the most interesting sections of this exhibit is a display box labeled “Generations of Enslavement,” which features shackles hanging over a cradle. A simple, but profound arrangement. The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated to the Civil War and emancipation which help to transition to the next gallery. Before leaving this level, visitors can sit in a reflection room and record their thoughts on the exhibit. This feature is also included on the other two floors.

Climbing up the ramp to level C2, visitors encounter a video giving an overview of Reconstruction, which serves as a segway to the next floors topic, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968.” This gallery features many larger objects, including a plane flown by one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated train car, and a guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. However, smaller objects do leave and impact as well. In a small room, off the side of the main gallery, Emmitt Till’s original casket stands as a reminder of how even the young were not safe from the violence of racism. One of the main gallery’s most interesting features, is an interactive lunch counter that poses questions to visitors concerning the experiences of civil rights activists, and asks how they would react in those situations. The galleries show the degradation and violence that were rampant for African Americans, but also their strength in combating these offenses. This sets the stage for the mainly post-Civil Rights Era galleries.

The final history gallery, on level C3, is “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” This gallery connects the waning years of the Civil Rights Era, with the movements and events that came after. While this gallery does highlight many gains of the communities, it also addresses ongoing problems such as in the “City and Suburbs” room, which notes how many African-Americans still live in urban areas, much of which are economically struggling. A small room and one of the last two video screens are dedicated to the election and presidency of Barack Obama, initially giving a sense of a triumphant ending. However, the last video screen includes images from Ferguson and Baltimore, showing that while there has been significant progress, the African American community still faces struggles because of slavery and segregation.

Returning to the main concourse, the visitor is centrally located for that level’s other main attractions. There is the Oprah Winfrey Theater, named for another major donor. There’s also the Contemplative Court, a room where visitors can sit on stone benches surrounding a central pool of water supplied by a “ceiling fountain.” The walls also each feature quotes. The main space on this floor, however, is the Sweet Home Café, which serves as the cafeteria, but also highlights the importance of African American through both its menu and wall art.

The remaining galleries are aboveground. I began from the top (4th) floor on my visit so the floors will be discussed in top down order. The top floor contains the culture galleries, which explore the manifold contributions of African-Americans to American Pop Culture. A particular focus is the African-American musical experience. On the third floor are the community galleries, which are like the history galleries, but I supposed different enough that they are in a separate space. Topics covered included the African American experience in various American cities and neighborhoods, activist efforts, participation in professional sports, and the military experience of African Americans. The second floor is the “Explore More!” floor, which includes a family history research center, and more interactive experiences for children and adults.

NMAAHC is a vertical expansive, and at times, emotionally/mentally heavy. Nonetheless, it is very engaging and informative museum. While I do believe that the museum will have the highest emotional resonance with African-Americans, all Americans can learn from the museum. I highly recommend it as must-see and must-learn about on anyone’s next visit to DC.

“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”: A Look at the History of Women’s Ice Hockey in the United States

2017 is proving to be a busy year right out of the gate for a number of reasons, good and bad – however it is also the year that marks the one hundredth anniversary of the National Hockey League (NHL). Prior to the NHL, there was the National Hockey Association (NHA) also known as the National Hockey Association of Canada Limited, which was founded in 1909, by Ambrose O’Brien in Montreal, Canada. The NHA had teams in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, but when conflict between team owners arose, the NHA was suspended, and the NHL was created to allow hockey to continue while legal suits and resolutions were discussed. However, the conflict was never resolved, despite a number of years having been given to the process. As a result, the National Hockey League absorbed and adopted what had been the NHA and moved forward to create professional men’s hockey as we know it today.

And, while celebrating the one hundred year anniversary of what is arguably the best game on earth, is always worthwhile, and today is also international women’s day, which is a perfect reason to discuss the history of women’s ice hockey. And, although women’s hockey was played quite early on in the sports’ history, in both the United States and Canada, this article will focus on play in the United States.

Interestingly enough, Ivy League schools would be among the first to create programs for female ice hockey players, some dates of importance are below:

1964: Nancy Schieffelin attends a practice for the Brown Bears men’s hockey team with the permission of the head coach. Schieffelin was disguised as a man during the practice in order to show the team that women could play as well as men.

1965-66: Brown created a women’s team, the Pembroke Pandas. The women spent the year fundraising and borrowing equipment. They play their first game in 1966, against the Walpole Brooms.

1971: Cornell starts a women’s team.

1975: Yale’s women’s hockey team is founded.

1978: Dartmouth and Harvard found teams.

Outside of Ivy League schools, it was not until 1994 that girl’s hockey would gain more ground. In 1994 the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) sent out five hundred letters to member schools, wanting to know if there was any interest in making girls hockey into a league recognized sport. Out of those five hundred letters, twenty four schools responded. So, on March 21st, 1994, the MSHSL officially sanctioned girl’s hockey as a varsity high school sport, making Minnesota the first state to do so. Following the sanctioning of women’s hockey as a varsity sport in Minnesota, the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance (AWCHA) was founded in 1997-8, promoting the sport at all NCAA levels.

Both the inclusion of women’s hockey at the high school and collegiate level were and are incredible milestones, however, women’s hockey was not done yet. In 1998, women’s ice hockey was included in the winter Olympics for the first time. The XVIII Olympic Games took place in Japan, and the teams included were: Canada, China, Finland, Sweden, the United States, and Japan. The US women’s team took gold in their first showing, while Canada and Finland took the silver and bronze. Since 1998, the US women’s team has yet to win another Olympic gold medal, taking three silvers and one bronze.

The first attempt at a professional women’s hockey league would come in 1999, and run until 2007. There were seventeen teams spread out over three divisions, at the height of the league. Eventually due to funding and resource issues it disbanded. Most recently in 2015, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) was founded – although is distinctly separate from and unrelated to the old NWHL mentioned above. Instead of seventeen teams, the new NWHL has four teams: the Buffalo Beauts, Boston Pride, New York Riveters, and the Connecticut Whale. What sets apart the new NWHL from the old is that the new NWHL is the first professional/top level women’s league to pay its players, making it the first professional women’s hockey league to run nearly parallel to the NHL. However, work is still yet to be done, as professional female ice hockey players do not make the same amount as their NHL counterparts, nor do they receive the same television exposure.

Links of potential interest:

Ivy League Women 


1998 Winter Olympics





Comprehensive Examination Information Session

On Wednesday, February 8, the Graduate Student Forum held an information session for the benefit of our students taking their comprehensive exams in March. While this is definitely a stressful process, Dr. Giesberg and former graduate student Helen Gassmann (MA, 2016) agreed to help make this process as smooth as possible. Here are some of their tips for preparing for comps!

Helen’s Tips

  • Talk to board members, don’t stress out until you talk to them
  • Create flash cards for readings, both in your concentration and in the general, overarching works
    • Include author, title, year, thesis
  • Concentration
    • Questions are derived from main themes
    • These questions are created just for you, so they deal with things that you have studied and are passionate about
  • Study with others!
  • For each question, use 3-4 works as evidence
    • Don’t just name drop
    • Make sure to know key themes and thesis of work
  • Day of:
    • Time is essential, make sure to use it effectively!
    • Bring a snack to eat, campus eateries may not be open

Dr. Giesberg’s Tips

  • Four hour written exam
    • Two hours in the morning on your concentration
    • Two hours in the morning on general questions
      • Information from theory and methods will be quite helpful
    • Two hour break in between morning and afternoon sessions
  • Concentration Exam
    • As soon as your examiners are assigned to you, go talk to them!
    • Develop a defined concentration with your examiner(s)
    • Look at your transcript
      • Which courses are in your concentration?
    • Look at previously given comprehensive exams
      • This will give you an idea of what types of questions you can expect
    • Practice these questions
      • Time yourself to help work on time management
    • Work on bibliography
      • Give to all 3 examiners
      • Bibliography needs only to cover up through Fall 2016
      • Separate works by course
      • Include primary and secondary sources
      • A format guide can be found in the back of the Graduate Student Handbook
      • When you turn in your bibliography to examiners, include your portfolio reflection
    • Afternoon Exam
      • Important to use actual evidence from books to back up theory
      • Use book concentration coursework and theoretical course work
      • Try not to repeat books across questions and across sessions
    • Once bibliography gets narrowed down, make note cards
    • Exam is 100% computer based, but scrap paper is provided
      • Exam word processor does NOT have spellcheck
        • Ability to go back and edit, as well as copy and paste, are available
      • There is no “magic number” of sources used
        • Do not laundry list
        • Make sure response is meaningful, rather than just name-dropping
        • Know authors
          • Look acknowledgements and information about authors’ backgrounds
        • Exam is taking place in Mendel Hall on March 18th
        • Concentration knowledge
          • You should have a “textbook knowledge” of your concentration
          • An actual textbook may be helpful for your studying process
            • Exam will be more thematically focused
              • Exam does not test specific events, but if you reference specific events, you should not get them wrong



Previewing the Museum of the American Revolution

On a misty winter night, scores of people traveled through fog to the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Individuals of all ages braved the slick roads to listen to a lecture delivered by R. Scott Stephenson, the Vice-President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming for the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). Armed with images of artifacts and renderings of new exhibitions, Stephenson’s talk previewed what visitors will find in the museum when it opens in a few months. He addressed the history of the collections, the institution’s past and establishment, and the significance of the museum for twenty-first century Americans. Since the War for Independence ended in 1783, all sorts of people have debated its meaning and legacy. However, the MoAR seems to be entering into this conversation at a precarious moment of heightened political divisions and fear of future uncertainties. Furthermore, over the next nine years, amid this political climate, the country will be preparing to honor its 2026 Sestercentennial. The MoAR will certainly be a part of that conversation.


A rendering of the Museum of the American Revolution, which opens on April 19 on the corner of the 3rd and Chestnut Streets. Image from

In his presentation, Stephenson praised the museum’s humble originator, an Episcopalian minister named Herbert Burk. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reverend Burk founded the Washington Memorial Chapel and began preserving objects from the Revolutionary era, including Native American artifacts, the Marquis de Lafayette’s check for his military service, and other period documents. His crown jewel was George Washington’s marquee, the original canvas tent that served as the general’s headquarters throughout much of the war. Many of Burk’s objects, including the marquee, remain in the collections of the MoAR. Herbert Burk’s efforts attracted the attention of a likeminded supporter of historic preservation, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, the president and his wife traveled to Valley Forge so that he may deliver a speech on behalf of Burk’s project.[1]


Dr. R. Scott Stephenson previews the MoAR to a full Washington Memorial Chapel January 3rd, 2016.

Over a hundred years later, Burk’s instinct to preserve became Scott Stephenson’s calling. Stephenson, who received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia, has become a familiar face on network news programs over the past few years, speaking with reporters about the new museum’s collections and their significance. In his presentation at Valley Forge, Stephenson highlighted some of institution’s advanced and modern features: a digitally recreated statue of King George III that Patriots and their slaves destroyed at the New York City Bowling Green in July 1776, a life-size reproduction of the Boston Liberty tree, a replica of an eighteenth-century privateer ship constructed with the help of the Independence Seaport Museum, and a theater that recreates the British charge up Osborne’s Hill at the battle of Brandywine. Stephenson explained that the MoAR hopes not to heap facts upon visitors, but rather to provoke them with contemporary media and interesting questions.[2]


A rendering of the Boston Liberty Tree exhibit. Image from

But beneath these bells and whistles is a larger narrative about what the American Revolution means to the country in 2017. In his recent book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, historian Robert Parkinson claimed “What would become known as the American Revolution was a massive argument over the meaning of those words, whom they applied to, and who were the most legitimate, responsible guardians of those ideals.” The museum is a discussion about those very ambiguities. What type of nation did the revolutionaries create, and for whom did they create it? The War for Independence was more than a military slugfest; it was “a contest of injuries and of interpretation,” interpretations that continue to carry plenty of political weight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle often try to claim the mandate of the revolutionaries to support their political agendas. Bancroft Prize winning historian Jill Lepore believes that the fascination with connecting the ideas of the revolutionaries to contemporary issues is often problematic.

“What would the founders do?” is, from the point of view of historical  analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it.

Many people with vastly different interpretations of the American Revolution will deem the MoAR as a bastion of historical “truth”. Museums are more than storehouses for old materials, they are spaces where individuals form and reform their understanding of citizenship, nationalism, and identity.[3]

The years between President Johnson’s Bicentennial Commission proposal in 1966 and the national celebration a decade later were years of intense divisions. As the commissioners planned how to best to honor the country’s birthday, they lived through the Vietnam War, political assassinations, Woodstock, Kent State, and Watergate. Similarly, the Museum of the American Revolution will open its doors at a time of hyper-partisanship with a major national anniversary looming. As the nation plans to celebrate its Sestercentennial, the MoAR will have to grapple with it all. The Museum of the American Revolution will open to the public this April 19, two hundred and forty two years after minutemen at the Lexington green and the Concord Bridge fired upon British regulars.

     [1] Lorett Treese, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking of a National Symbol (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1995), 88-89, 91-93.

     [2] CBS News, “First American Revolution museum set to open,” filmed [2012], YouTube video, 02:35, posted [July 2012],; Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), 161.

     [3] Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 4, 8; Jill LePore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), x; Taylor, 372-73; Jill Lepore, The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 124-25.

City Gardens: Trenton’s Musical History


1701 Calhoun St. Trenton, NJ-Formerly City Gardens Music Venue

The building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, New Jersey may not look like much. Currently, it’s a pink, cinder block building that is boarded up, fenced off, and surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds. To the average person walking by, it is no different than any of the other buildings that have slipped into disrepair in some of the city’s poorer, more run-down sections.

However, this building is one of the main subjects of a new historical archive opening in the Trenton Free Public Library this month dedicated to the deep, rich history of New Jersey’s capital city. When most people discuss Trenton’s history, the topic of conversation quickly turns to the American Revolution, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the ensuing battle against the British. The Battle of Trenton and its lasting effects on the young republic are just a chapter in Trenton’s history however. Throughout the 20th century, vibrant musical communities flourished in Trenton, ranging from jazz and blues music to alternative and punk rock by the 1980s and 1990s.

When one first looks at the building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, NJ, he or she would not likely suspect that just 20 years ago, it was known as City Gardens and served as one of the most important venues in punk and alternative rock music in the nation. Hosting bands like Nirvana, the Ramones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers that would go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, City Gardens holds an interesting place in Trenton’s history. In fact, aside from the fence that currently surrounds the parking lot and slight roof damage, the building looks almost the same as it did when it served as a venue. Due to its location about a mile and a half in from the Delaware River on the border with neighboring Ewing Township, and roughly forty miles from Philadelphia and sixty-five miles from New York City, the club served as a stopping point for traveling bands in an era of near endless touring for up and coming musicians.


City Gardens was open as a music venue from 1979-1994

There is very little information available concerning the early days of the club as a punk venue, but by late 1980, local DJ Randy Ellis, better known in the local music scene by his nickname Randy Now, began promoting shows in the venue. Randy Now had been an active DJ in the surrounding suburbs, but found it difficult to find places accepting of less mainstream music. Bands like the Ramones, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Kennedys were rejected in favor of more popular music in a number of clubs.

Nevertheless, a devoted network of fans developed and began frequenting the shows staged by Randy Now and up-and-coming bands of the day. This network of fans was an interesting one. The punk scene, with some exceptions, was predominantly white. For the most part, the people coming to shows were white kids, most of whom were coming from neighboring suburbs like Ewing, Lawrence, and Hamilton. After a few decades of white families moving out of the city into those surrounding suburbs, the City of Trenton itself became less and less diverse, leaving behind largely minority neighborhoods that were mostly working class or poor. Many of the kids that would come to shows did so against their parents’ wishes or without their parents knowing.

The shows themselves were quite popular to these crowds of suburban kids traveling into the city, and in retrospect, the artists performing proved to be quite important with respect to musical influence. However, the importance of City Gardens as a venue stems from what it says about Trenton’s social and cultural history. Issues of race came to the forefront as predominantly white crowds at punk shows came into contact with, and often clashed with, the predominantly African-American populations of the neighborhood that surrounded City Gardens. The new archives in Trenton hold transcripts of interviews with musicians and fans who speak to the racial dynamics of the punk community in the Trenton area and the disconnect between Trenton’s population and those who came in from the surrounding suburbs for concerts.

Furthermore, learning and telling the story of the history of music in Trenton also helps the historian understand the current state of society and culture in Trenton. Unbeknownst to many, a vibrant music community continues to exist, boasting musicians from a wide array of genres and events that continue to attract people from many towns of the surrounding areas. In opening a new archive and giving access to new primary sources, the Trenton Free Public Library is allowing for Trenton’s past to be re-imagined in new ways and for the story of the state’s capital city to be added to.


Trenton Free Public Library

Wulfing, Amy Yates and Steven DiLodovico. No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. Trenton, NJ: DiWulf Publishing, 2014.

Mike Fischer, Second Year Graduate Student, US History Concentration

#AASLHMMA2016 “The Spirit of Rebirth”

Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to attend my first conference at the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) joint annual meeting with the Michigan Museums Association (MMA).  Before my trip and during I learned a few tips that I found helpful to anyone attending a conference.

  1. Look for Scholarships

I was able to attend  the annual meeting due to a scholarship for full-time students.  It is a little known scholarship and not many students take advantage of it.  As a full-time student, in exchange for volunteering eight hours, you are able to attend the rest of the conference for free, leaving only lodging, transportation, food and any extras to pay for. There were also other scholarships available to others through both the AASLH and the MMA


  1. Have Business Cards

A big part of the AASLH annual meeting is making connections, and the best way to make and keep those connections is through business cards.  Some find it a personal goal to collect more than last year.  If you don’t have a business card from a job, you can easily make one (Vistaprint has them really cheap).

  1. Bring a Notebook

At AASLH there were three sets of sessions Thursday and Friday and two sets on Saturday. I was able to attend many of these sessions, all of which had their own style ranging from presentations to roundtable sessions. No matter what type of session I attended I was glad to have a notebook.  Many of the sessions are led by professionals in the field, and what they have to say are things you might want to remember later.

  1. Do the Extras (if possible)

I understand that sometimes money and time are a problem. But if the conference you are attending as some extra activities I would highly encourage you to attend.  The AASLH holds their annual meeting in a different town each year.  Many of the extra activities are a way to explore the host city and their history.  It is also a really great way to make connections.  I think I made most of my connections at the night events. Plus, I got to see some really cool museums in Detroit


  1. Dress to Impress

First impressions count and as a graduate student, you may be looking for a job from the people you are meeting, or may work under them in the future.  You want to make a good impression; this does not mean you have to be dressed up in formal attire.  I would say business casual; boys’ full suits are not necessary (ties are a plus).  You also don’t need to be dressed up the whole time, there may be times throughout the conference that being casually dress is more suited.


Riley Hubbard, public history concentration,

2016 Ph.D. Scare-A-Thon


Are you thinking about applying to a Ph.D. program? Do you have questions about the application process? Would you like to know more about furthering your historical education? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should join us on Wednesday, October 19 at 4:30 p.m. in Rofinot’s Lounge for our annual Ph.D. Scare-A-Thon!

Dr. Martinko will join us in a discussion about the Ph.D. application process. We will talk about choosing a program, the writing sample, the personal statement, and a number of other things that will help in your Ph.D. process.

We will also have snacks and opportunities to win prizes! We hope to see you there!