Public History Internship: Valley Forge National Historical Park (Part 1)

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Cleaning at Varnum’s Quarters

You never know what you’ll find when you begin a curatorial/museum services internship at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Whether it’s experiencing material culture by handling and identifying eighteenth-century objects like carved powder horns and breathtaking officer’s swords in the valuable George C. Neumann collection, or participating in a massive archaeological cataloging project by storing, labeling, and identifying hundreds of horse bones and teacup shards from the encampment, this internship offers fascinating insight into curatorial practices. This semester, I have enjoyed being mentored by Mrs. Dona McDermott, the park’s archivist. Mrs. McDermott graduated from the esteemed Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and brings years of experience in both curatorial techniques and interpretation to her position. She assists interns by offering valuable career advice in addition to supervising their work.

After receiving an introductory orientation to the internship, I immediately began my initiation into preservation practices by watching a 10-part video series on cleaning and preserving artifacts, which offered advice about dealing with metal erosion and rust, moving large objects, storing artifacts of different materials separately, preventing pests, and preserving the integrity of textiles. I was enlisted to help the archival staff clean objects at Washington’s Headquarters and Varnum’s Quarters, which offer unique preservation challenges as spaces through which massive groups of tourists travel on a daily basis and buildings that are often open to the elements. Having only previously served on the interpretive side of museum work, it was humbling to learn the thorough and gentle techniques by which museums clean and house their artifacts.

Shard from a Stoneware Mug

Shard from a Stoneware Mug

My most memorable experience to date involved sifting through hundreds of archaeological objects which varied from nearly intact cups and pottery to charred wood from fire pits, so that the archivists could move the collection to better and more organized storage lockers. The most gory aspect of that experience involved handling hundreds of horse bones excavated from the encampment. Even with a historian’s training, it is possible to ignore the stark realities of life in the Valley Forge encampment until you are brought face to face with these remnants of life and death that occurred there. It was another humbling experience which transcended purely scholarly knowledge of material culture.

In the coming weeks, with Mrs. McDermott and Dr. Catherine Kerrison’s consultation, I will be completing a final proposal for an exhibit panel about the lives of women camp followers and families at Valley Forge. My goal with with this project is to reveal some of the sacrifices ordinary people made during army life and work at the encampment site. Volumes have been written about Von Steuben and Washington, mythic harsh winters and heroic feats, but my goal as a public historian is to help visitors connect and empathize with the hundreds of people like them who cooked over the fires and drank from those vessels as they endured tasks like nursing the wounded and doing laundry for troops. I will provide updates on this valuable internship as the semester comes to a close.

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The Whitney Plantation Museum: Remembering the Enslaved

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The Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana has recently appeared in the news, after a 16 year restoration effort by its founder, attorney John Cummings. The museum, a 262-year-old former plantation has been renovated to accommodate artists’ sculptures and memorials to enslaved Africans. Particularly poignant is the Plantation’s large sculpture display at the Antioch Baptist Church on the property, dedicated to children who died in slavery. According to the Reuters article by Jonathan Kaminsky, Cummings also foresees opening “an on-site institute to further the study of slavery,” and in will in the future “restore a cluster of guest houses for visiting scholars.” The Museum certainly occupies a much-needed space for reflection and dedication to the lives and struggles of enslaved people. However, the site is also creating controversy. Several Louisiana scholars and curators of other African-American history museums are concerned that the Whitney Museum is meant to be “provocative” and “sensational” rather than factual and educational.

The Whitney Museum is opening during a significant period of discourse in the Public History field. Scholars and museum professionals are anticipating and dialoging about new trends in Public History that address “difficult” (or controversial) topics in history such as slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, GLBT history, and the Holocaust. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has recently addressed “difficult knowledge” with a blog series, pamphlet, and an interpretive manual dedicated to education about slavery at Public History sites.

Considering that I am studying both Public History with Dr. Martinko and American Historiography with Dr. Giesberg this semester, and the topic of slavery’s portrayal at historic sites is greatly relevant to my work. As scholars, we address historiographical questions, many of which are sensitive, painful, and highly controversial on a weekly basis. But how do we interpret these questions for large audiences?

Historically Speaking blog readers, what do you think? How should Cummings address slavery at the Whitney Museum? Does the Museum achieve its goals of educating the public and facilitating dialogue about slavery, or is it sensational and unethical?

Paranormal Tourism: A Legitimate Venue for Public History?

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Gettysburg National Homestead for Soldiers’ Orphans

It’s Halloween week, which means that it is the height of paranormal tourism season in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thousands of people are unknowingly participating in spectacles of ritual, folklore, and yes- public history. This August, with some trepidation, Dr. Judith Giesberg and I took advantage of a ghost tour of “Gettysburg’s haunted National Homestead for Soldiers’ Orphans” during the semester break. Dr. Giesberg is currently researching Civil War orphanages and I am studying the gender scandal central to orphan abuse cases at the Gettysburg Homestead. During Gettysburg’s sesquicentennial anniversary summer in 2013 I served as an interpretive intern with the National Park Service. I admit that I spent that entire action-packed season smugly priding myself that I could provide a factual alternative to ghost tours.

However, I have a solid background in public history, and I feel that it’s vital to reach broad audiences in unconventional ways. Also, I was one of those kids who really geeked out over ghost stories at (yes, Civil War-themed), Girl Scout camp. I was looking forward to hearing a good tale and open to great interpretation if the tour guide was willing to provide it. Dr. Giesberg attended a 2013 panel on ghost tourism at the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute conference and became intrigued by the topic. With these purely scholarly motives in mind, we embarked on our “spooky” evening.

The setting for the tour couldn’t have been more perfect. The summer night air crackled with lightning and we huddled inside the museum gift shop waiting for the tour to begin. Other soaking wet tourists, mostly teenagers and their parents, gathered around us. I noticed that there were some really creepy (and extremely tacky, in context) souvenir shackles for sale, reminiscent of the punishment one orphan received when the child was allegedly shackled to a cellar wall. There was already a historical discrepancy upon entering the building. The tour guides claimed that the building where the tour took place was the “actual” Homestead. In reality, a plaque marks the spot, several houses down, where the 1866 Homestead stands. I have not researched the history of the building we toured but I can confirm that it was not the Homestead.

After some delays and chatting with the tour guide, we were ushered into a large room to begin the tour. Our guide began her central interpretive technique of telling us stories about visitors’ supposed paranormal experiences on the tours. She mentioned that we could experience chills, aroma sensations, strange orbs, blurs in photographs, etc. She laid the groundwork for the orphanage story by telling us some stories which were factually true: before the orphanage became a site of abuse, the children went on a sleigh ride and enjoyed visits from people in the town. After the matron, Rosa Carmichael took over, things became unpleasant for the orphans. The guide told us about Carmichael’s “evil” nature. I believe she described her as a “psychopath”. While I winced at the exaggeration, so far, I was pleased with how the guide was handling most of the history and folklore. She was clearly using some historical sources and only stretching the truth for drama’s sake. Unfortunately, her next story lost me. The guide said that a really spooky cat haunted the basement. I’ll spare the details for the sake of professionalism, but a litter box was mentioned.

Next, we were led past real photos of the 1866 orphanage and into the basement. The basement was genuinely creepy. The guide pointed out the supposed remnants of shackles on the basement wall. She said that once, a visitor spotted an apparition of a child sitting next to her on one of the benches. The person sitting on that bench predictably gave the guide a sideways glance and moved to the other side of the room. The tour guide turned the lights out and told us a story about the basement confinement of a little girl who was also forced to wear pants as a punishment. My gender history sensibilities were delighted by her inclusion of that story and the teens in the group were shrieking at the horror elements. We were invited to crawl into a hole in the back of the cellar and see if we could take photos of any spooky sightings. For claustrophobic people, this was another seriously creepy moment on the tour. I was slightly disappointed that after this, I still hadn’t seen anything frightening.

Later, we were taken upstairs again and led outside into the courtyard. There, the guide told us some additional folklore about the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves, and about an orphan who was supposedly killed and buried in the backyard. Regardless of the fact that Carmichael was brought up on assault charges by a living witness, not murder, the element I was struck by was the fact that orphans would not be haunting the building. Historians have an advantage. We know that these kids may have suffered psychological scars, but they all grew up, moved elsewhere, and led normal lives.

During my public history training, I’ve been taught to study methods of interpretation. Clearly, the way this guide reached her audience was to attempt to identify with them emotionally and psychologically. “You are a child locked in this basement. You’re alone and afraid,” she said very effectively at one point. At other times, she stated that visitors had experienced creepy things in the past. We, of course, weren’t guaranteed to see the orbs or hear children’s voices (because that’s part of the economic aspect of ghost tours!) but she could try to convince people to believe. Ultimately, neither Dr. Giesberg nor I were thoroughly impressed with the caliber of this particular guide’s storytelling, interpretation, or historical accuracy, but we both felt it was important to experience a ghost tour for the sake of better understanding our audience and subject matter.

Finally, my questions for the blog readers: can ghost tours be taken seriously? How can scholars evaluate mass-marketed public history like paranormal tourism?

And, look out for a graduate course about ghost tourism…haunting a VU classroom near you in 2015!

The Institute for Colored Youth Project: Discovering the Life and Career of James L. Smallwood

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This week, with the assistance of our advisor, Dr. Judith Giesberg, Michael Johnson, James Kopaczewski, and I have been finalizing research on brief biographies of Institute for Colored Youth students from the graduating classes of 1856-1864. Our goal is to create an educational website about ICY, accessible for students and the general public. The Institute for Colored Youth was a highly elite school for African American teenagers and young adults, drawing students from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. It provided students with advanced training in mathematics, classics, history, composition, and literature. While most of ICY’s graduates became teachers, many also held significant social and political roles in the African American community, advocating for causes such as voting suffrage and support of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. The most well-known ICY graduates included activists Octavius V. Catto and Jacob C. White, Jr.

The genealogical research to determine what the students did after graduation has been both highly satisfying and somewhat exasperating. Several of the students had very common surnames and appear to have vanished into time. As a historian, I feel an ethical responsibility to not allow the students with easily identifiable names or extraordinary accomplishments to overshadow the importance of classmates who became day laborers, merchants, and teachers in ordinary schools. It makes the search all the more rewarding when we can find information on these students.

Earlier this week, I was very fortunate to locate potentially significant details on one of the students with an elusive biography. During the summer semester, I worked in the VU History Department office and spent some time browsing Falvey Library’s copy of Ancestry.com to locate census records for ICY students. James L. Smallwood, ICY class of 1864, had a puzzling (potential) census record. The 1880 census for York, Pennsylvania (far west of Philadelphia) listed a “James L. Smallwood” born in 1845, as a “schoolteacher”. He lived with his mother, and his race was identified as Black. I was intrigued; most of ICY’s students became teachers and his birthdate matched with a likely age for an ICY student. I thought about the record and decided that due to the distant location, it would be difficult to infer that this was the same James L. Smallwood. I continued to research Smallwood throughout the summer without much luck.

I decided to attempt several general searches again. The Institute for Colored Youth’s 1871 Annual Report simply lists Smallwood as a “teacher in Pennsylvania,” without Philadelphia specificity. I found a James L. Smallwood mentioned in the African American Christian Recorder newspaper as a District Deputy Grandmaster Mason for York County, PA. This would indicate that the York Smallwood held a prominent position in his community. Finally, the most fascinating information appeared: James L. Smallwood’s 1885 grave in Lebanon Cemetery, York, and an incredible marker on South Pershing Avenue:

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“James Smallwood Schoolhouse. Built in 1892, this school was part of a movement to create schools for the education of black students by black teachers, and is representative of the national struggle for equal education, regardless of race. Named in memory of James Smallwood, elected teacher of the city’s first colored school in 1871.”

There is still no definitive evidence that this was ICY’s Smallwood. However, many ICY graduates opened pioneering schools like the one in York. Smallwood could have been sent to Philadelphia to be educated in the 1860s, returning to his mother’s home in York as a bachelor teacher. Following their graduation, ICY’s newly minted teachers traveled all over the East Coast. It remains highly possible that this was the same person.

As luck would have it, my family lives a half hour away from York, and I happened to be at home on Thursday of this week. Needless to say, I made an impromptu field trip to see the grave and marker.

Lebanon Cemetery is a visually striking place. It is an exclusively African American cemetery in the middle of the city, with graves dating from the early nineteenth century to the present. Part of the cemetery is built on a rolling hill. Thursday was September 11th, and I was moved by the vast rows of flag-dotted veterans’ graves. Smallwood’s grave was almost immediately recognizable. His tombstone was larger than most of the others (perhaps indicating prominent social status), and simply contained the information that he died in 1885 at age 45. I enjoyed seeing this site and thinking that I could have been standing by the resting place of someone I researched for such a long time.

Locating the historical marker was difficult, but it eventually appeared between S. Pershing Avenue and W. College Street in York. The schoolhouse no longer stands. It was replaced by another type of modern training facility.

Regardless of whether this James L. Smallwood can be conclusively linked to the Institute for Colored Youth, it was fascinating to see another important location on the map of nineteenth century African American urban schools and honor Smallwood’s memory. Locating the “lost” voices of everyday people is the 21st century historian’s greatest task, and many of Villanova’s students and faculty members are engaging in this pursuit. Dr. Judith Giesberg recently published Emilie Davis’s Civil War, a memoir of an everyday African American woman living in Philadelphia during the 1860s. Dr. Catherine Kerrison’s latest project, Jefferson’s Daughters, attempts to construct the identity of Harriet Hemings, the formerly enslaved daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings who disguised herself in white society and raised a family. Every James L. Smallwood, Emilie Davis, and Harriet Hemings we locate enables us to have a broader and more unique understanding of history. From the people we study, we realize the incredible elements that make up each “average” person’s life.