Collections Reflections

My first semester of graduate school is complete! It was a challenging yet rewarding experience and I’m enjoying a few weeks of break before diving back in. This semester included the first phase of the Volga to Cape Fear community project by focusing on the parts of the project related to collections. Since my last post I finished the loan recommendation, conducted the final oral history interview, and finished transcribing oral histories and processing both the interviews and the objects.

In my loan recommendation I argued that the three objects loaned to me by community members, a handmade rug, a child’s suit, and a collection of books, should be taken on loan because these objects represent important values of many Russians who immigrated in the 1990s such as family, education, and cultural heritage. By researching the objects themselves as well as Soviet and post-Soviet material culture and Russian and immigration history more generally, I synthesized secondary sources with the primary source, the transcribed interview with the family that provided the objects. I genuinely enjoyed the research and love writing about how objects might be used to represent larger trends and themes in an exhibit.

After the loan recommendation, I completed the artifact processing. This step is important for keeping the objects and all of the information about them organized and easily accessible. The loan recommendation, photos of objects, and loan forms were all put in accession folders for each object. I also sewed on textile labels to the rug and each piece of the suit, while the books were marked with a pencil. The objects were marked with a loan number which correlates both to the physical accession file and the PastPerfect electronic record. There were some challenges to marking the objects. As I have stated in a previous post, sewing was not a strong suit of mine. However, with practice, some help from classmates and Dr. Gordon, and a lot of patience and pricked fingers, I was able to successfully attach tyvek tags to the textiles. In the case of the suit jacket and vest the usual location for the tag, the inside seam, became a challenge as the lining was just too fragile. Therefore, I had to find a stronger place to sew the tag on which was along a stronger section of the inside of the jacket and inside the edge of one of the pockets of the vest.

In addition to marking the loaned objects, I had to provide proper storage. This was most relevant for the suit, for which I made a padded hanger. Because it is a child’s suit, I needed to make sure that the wooden hanger was not too wide so that it would not put undue stress on the arms of the suit jacket. I sawed the hanger down to a more appropriate size and then wrapped it in cotton batting and covered it in muslin.

Making a padded hanger: Sawing a wooden hanger to make it fit a child's suit.
Making a padded hanger: Sawing a wooden hanger to make it fit a child’s suit. Photo by Jayd Buteaux.

After the artifact processing was completed, I had just one oral history interview to complete. Unfortunately, the original participant was no longer able to find time in her schedule. I then had to start over in the process of finding someone who was willing to talk about their experience. This process took awhile, however, working with the advisory board helped me to find someone else. This interview proved difficult in another way as well–in the first attempt the external microphone battery failed, thus producing a video without any sound. The participant was gracious enough to return for a second interview which went very well. Working with the public and with community members in oral history projects has its challenges, such as scheduling conflicts and technology failures; however, it also has such great rewards. I was able to hear 3 interesting stories and learn about life in Russia as well as life in the United States at various times of immigration. Engaging with the public and hearing individual perspectives on history provides life and diversity to the study of the past. My last interview is representative of what I gained from all of the interviews. At the end of the interview, the participant gave me a small traditional Russian doll, a token of appreciation in allowing her to share her story, a piece of her culture for me to keep.

Russian doll given to me by oral history participant.
Russian doll given to me by oral history participant.

Besides transcribing the last interview, the only remaining step was to present my research on the objects to an audience consisting of members of the history department as well as the community advisory board.  I am nervous when presenting to an audience; however, the presentations went well and it was very rewarding to share my work with those interested. It was also great to see the community members take such an interest in our work and to engage with all of us students.

Presenting at Collecting Heritage Conference. My presentation title: "Russian Cultural Values in Migration: Artifacts as Witness to Family, Education, and Heritage in Transition." Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Presenting at Collecting Heritage Conference. My presentation title: “Russian Cultural Values in Migration: Artifacts as Witness to Family, Education, and Heritage in Transition.” Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

Overall, the work on the Volga to Cape Fear Project has exposed me to so many facets of public history, especially in the areas of collections and community engagement and given me wonderful opportunities to practice and apply knowledge and theories to a real project. All of the research from this semester is the groundwork for next semester’s work on the exhibit. I look forward to learning more about exhibit planning, design, and construction.

Published by Beth Bullock Nevarez

I am a historical consultant, offering research, collections care, and outreach services to museums, businesses, and other organizations. I graduated with a Master's Degree in public history from UNC Wilmington in 2015. I am also an alumna of UNC-Chapel Hill, where I majored in History with a concentration in American History and minored in Archaeology and Spanish. I write about all things history including my work in the field and all things relating to presenting the past to a public audience. I also love coffee, baking, books, sitcoms, and 90's rom-coms. I live in my native eastern North Carolina with my husband and our dog Dia.

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