Another semester is coming to an end. It has been a very busy one with taking my last 2 courses, studying for comprehensive exams, researching for my thesis, and working in the University Archives. Thus, it has been months since my last update. There are several projects and events to share:
AASLH in St. Paul
In September I traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota where my co-curators and I presented about the Push and Pull exhibit from last academic year at the American Association of State and Local History Annual Meeting. We created and shared a poster during the poster session, explaining the importance of the concept of shared authority in the project and describing how members of our community advisory board were instrumental in the process and final product of the project. We were able to speak with public historians from all across the country about the project and received a great deal of positive feedback. In addition to presenting our poster we were also able to attend many interesting sessions and volunteer our time doing session evaluation. There were several sessions, such as those on interpreting slavery and expanding museum accessibility, that provided interesting perspectives for the Still Standing project as well as other topics and readings from the Museum Education course this semester. Our trip also included visiting the Minnesota History Center, a very engaging museum offering lots of opportunities for hands-on participation in the exhibits. The entire experience in St. Paul was both very beneficial and enjoyable.
Still Standing Visitor Evaluation
The Still Standing Project produced a visitor evaluation report as part of the Museum Education course. By conducting focus groups and visitor surveys we produced a large volume of data that we then analyzed and researched in context of the history of slavery, slave dwellings, and the field of preservation. In my report I focused on several trends I noticed in the visitor data from the surveys and focus groups and formed recommendations for the exhibit team that will produce an exhibit on the history and preservation of slave dwellings. From my research and analysis I found that it will be important for the exhibit team to make clear differences in slavery by locality (urban vs. rural), as well as over time. Also, emphasis must be placed on the agency of enslaved people. Slave dwellings especially offer the opportunity to discuss the lives of enslaved people in terms of their daily activities, private family life, beliefs, struggles, and accomplishments. In the survey data it seemed that visitors focused only on the aspects of slavery imposed on enslaved people by their masters. While this aspect of slavery is important to represent, it is also important to demonstrate how enslaved people lived in spite of those restrictions and how they responded to them as active participants in history. Another important topic to consider is that of authenticity in preservation. Participants in focus groups spoke at length at the need for exhibits and tours to present an authentic history without whitewashing it. This concern is rooted in years of repressed and marginalized representations of the history of slavery. Overall, the need to present the history of slave dwellings and their preservation in light of the complex, varied history of slavery became clear. Visitors clearly expressed interest in slave dwellings and the lives of those who lived in them. The exhibit team will have to make sure to keep visitors’ expectations and assumptions in mind during the design process.
The Museum Administration course also took a small part in the Still Standing Project. The class researched 3 different historic sites’ institutional histories in relationship to slave dwellings. One group researched Somerset Place and its reconstructed slave quarters while another team researched the Aiken-Rhett House and its preserved urban slave quarters in Charleston. Finally, the team of which I was part researched the Latimer House’s slave quarters which have been rehabilitated as a townhouse apartment. Through each of these, the different reasons and motivations for the preservation and interpretation of slave quarters can be seen as well as practical considerations some institutions consider when deciding whether or not to preserve extant slave quarters. These reports will be useful to the exhibit team in serving as case studies of how slave dwellings have been preserved in various places and at various times. These examples also provide 3 very distinct outcomes.
In my graduate assistantship in the UNCW University Archives, I continued to assist the archivist with fulfilling research requests while also starting a new, long-term project. I began a preservation priority database in order to take stock of the conditions of many of the older collections as well as to consider the value of certain inherited collections that may not fit the archives’ collection policy. I assessed three entire collections, making notes of poor storage or other preservation concerns while also recording the kinds of materials and topics covered. The next steps are to correct the preservation issues and to reorganize collections remaining after deaccessioning some materials. I will be continuing my role as graduate assistant in the archives next semester and continue to work on this project.
Comps, Thesis, and What’s Next
This semester I also studied for and finally took my comprehensive exams and I am very happy and relieved to report that I passed! I also worked on researching my thesis and am currently in the process of completing a visitor survey of visitors’ interests and assumptions in regards to women’s history at the Cape Fear Museum as part of that research. Next semester I will continue to work in University Archives while I write my thesis– I look forward to sharing interesting thesis research and my progress over the course of the semester.