Summer Multitasking

Since mid-May I have been multitasking, balancing an internship, a readings class (to start prepping for my comprehensive exams in December), and thesis research and planning. (Plus, I’ve been trying to enjoy the city of Wilmington and its cultural offerings, i.e. museums, concerts, and the beach. 🙂 )

One fact which makes this balancing much easier is that my internship and my thesis are heavily linked. I am a collections intern at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science where I have been working on research for a possible new exhibit on women. I began with a broad approach of reading about southern women’s history across time and perusing the collection to see what kinds of objects pertaining to women’s history I could find. I have also begun getting into primary sources at the New Hanover County Library North Carolina Room. The research is becoming more focused on women’s economic lives, especially in the 20th century.

My thesis, which I am still working on more clearly delineating, will examine how the museum has presented women’s and gender history in the past and how it might improve that interpretation in the future, specifically via the way it collects and presents objects. My research on women in Wilmington for the future exhibit has helped to give me a necessary background in the women’s history that falls within the museum’s interpretive mission. It has also given me a better understanding of changing conceptions of gender over time, important context for presenting gender and women’s history. Stay tuned for more as my questions and research become more focused.

The internship also began with a small project related to the museum’s social media initiatives. Each day the museum shares photos of items in the collection. For an initiative called Shoesday (Tuesday) I rounded up shoes and items related to shoes in the collection that I found interesting, aiming to provide a variety that showcases the diversity of the collection. Through doing so I learned how to use Rediscovery, a collections software much like PastPerfect with which I was already familiar. Rediscovery is my gateway to the collections for work on my thesis as well, allowing me to search and sort in order to find objects related to women and gender. It is always good to learn new practical skills and technology for the museum setting.

I also had the privilege of volunteering at one of the museum’s science-oriented events called StormFest. The event educates families about weather and emergency preparedness in the region. I worked with another intern at the Shaving Cream Rain station which demonstrated the way accumulated humidity and water particles in a cloud will eventually lead to rain. The activity was a big hit with kids and a great experience for me to interact with visitors.

One final update is a piece of very exciting news. A poster submitted by the two co-curators and I about our work on the Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region exhibit has been accepted for the NCPH sponsored poster session at the AASLH Annual Meeting in St. Paul in September. We will be going to present our poster, do some networking, and attend some very interesting sessions. It will be my first national conference and a great experience to share our work with others in the field. I’m looking forward to it!

Classes start back in just over a month–until then I will continue working on my thesis, reading for comps, and interning at the Cape Fear Museum. 🙂

Adventures in Exhibition

My final update about my experiences in my second semester of grad school is about the exhibit produced through my course on Museum Exhibition. The exhibit was easily the most challenging and work-intensive project this semester, but it was also the most rewarding. I learned so much about exhibit planning, designing, fabrication, and installation and I am proud of the final product my team and I produced.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the exhibit is a continuation of the Volga to Cape Fear Project, which we began working on last semester in the course on Historical Collections. This semester we took stock of the objects we had collected, the oral histories interviews we conducted, and we did new research in order to decide on our interpretive themes. We realized there were 3 major time periods to discuss, the early 1900s, the Cold War era, and the Post-Soviet period. We also conducted visitor surveys with patrons of UNCW’s Randall Library which houses the Public History Graduate Student Gallery. We were hoping to glean information on what college students, our primary audience because of the location of the exhibit, already knew about Russia and Eastern European Immigration, what they might want to know, and what kind of associations they had with those places. We discovered that most college students knew little about that region of the world, had mostly stereotypical associations with it, but were asking many of the same questions as us about life in Russia and Eastern Europe, reasons for migration, and adaptation to the United States. The visitor responses influenced many of our interpretive decisions. For instance, we decided that the exhibit should feature well-labeled maps to provide geographic context, and that a timeline with dates more familiar to Americans would help place our topic in temporal context.

From all of the research, the objects loaned to us, the oral histories, and the surveys we created a mammoth of a document called our interpretive plan. With feedback from our advisory committee and our professor, Dr. Tammy Gordon, we edited the plan, striving to cut down words for objects labels (not my strong suit, but I think I got a little better!), and trying to include issues that were important to the community whose story was represented. With all of this we moved into creating elevations and designing our panels. I learned to use both Illustrator and Photoshop. New technology can sometimes be difficult to get used to, especially when running these programs on a Mac when I am used to using a PC; however, after I got comfortable with the programs I found I enjoyed designing and editing my panels. The elevation I did not enjoy as much as measurements and imagining space and depth do not come as easy to me; however, I successfully produced an elevation for my section of the exhibit.

The back of my head as I designed my object labels. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The back of my head as I designed my object labels. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

The final part of the exhibit process was fabrication and installation, which included making mounts for the artifacts going on display and designing and fabricating the interactive elements.  Mount-making was a new experience for me as well. I have worked with objects before in several different settings and have created storage before, but creating mounts was a bit tougher. Storage does not have to disappear from view; it just needs to keep the object safe. Mounts have to do both. Most of the mounts I created were simple book mounts; however, I had a few objects that required something more complicated. One such object was a child’s 3 piece suit and shirt. Dr. Gordon helped me to create a body-shaped mount that could accommodate all pieces of the suit.

Sewing the body-shape to the padded hanger to create a mount for Anton's suit. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Sewing the body-shape to the padded hanger to create a mount for Anton’s suit. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

We fabricated all aspects of our exhibit, including the travel panels and interactive elements. My section of the exhibit included two hands-on components. The first was a magnetic 2D suitcase that resembled the suitcase on display on loan from the Starodubtsev family. The interactive element allows visitors to select magnets with the kinds of objects migrants might bring with them. They are then asked to think about which kinds of things they would have chosen to bring along and what kinds of space limitations there would have been. The other interactive element was a group of flip panels that described the various kinds of visas and how to obtain them. Hopefully these flip panels give insight into how complicated and expensive the process is.

After installing the shelf it needed a few paint touch-ups. This area was my interactive corner. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
After installing the shelf it needed a few paint touch-ups. This area was my interactive corner. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Suitcase Interactive Component. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Suitcase Interactive Component. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The interactive area and the case displaying the original suitcase. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
The interactive area and the case displaying the original suitcase. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Cleaning the cases after installation. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Cleaning the cases after installation. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

After installation came the most awaited event–opening. Members of the advisory committee, the St. Helena community, the UNCW History Department, as well as other visitors and guests attended the opening in the Student Gallery in Randall Library. Each of us student curators gave a short curator’s talk about how we made some of our curatorial decisions. My approach was to begin with the personal stories we had gathered through the artifacts and oral history interviews and connect them with larger issues I found in my research. The result, I hope, is an exhibit that both explains the big issues of immigration since 1991, but also tells a personalized history that causes empathy in the visitor. The opening was a very successful event with a large attendance, but more than that it provided a space to discuss issues of immigration. I witnessed recent immigrants comparing their experiences to the family stories told by descendants of the early 20th century immigrant community in St.Helena. I also heard conversations about the current situation in Ukraine and how it may impact travel back and forth to the area, a concern of more recent immigrants who still return home to visit family and friends. Overall, the exhibit is not the end of this project, but rather a new beginning that will hopefully spark dialogue, questions, and interest in the history of as well as the current state of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
For Love or Money: Post-Soviet Migration (My section) Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
For Love or Money: Post-Soviet Migration (My section) Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
One of my cases.  Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
One of my cases.
Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.
Dr. Gordon introducing us student curators. From left to right: Jayd Buteaux, Leslie Randle-Morton, Beth Bullock (me), and Dr. Gordon.
Dr. Gordon introducing us student curators. From left to right: Jayd Buteaux, Leslie Randle-Morton, Beth Bullock (me), and Dr. Gordon.

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Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday was the last official day of my spring internship at the Historic Wilmington Foundation. Even though I had worked at a preservation non-profit before, this experience allowed me to see how another, slightly larger organization operates.

HWF has a staff of 4, which includes a part-time accountant. However, they have a large membership base and an active board and membership. Thus, the foundation is able to carry out many events and programs. I was impressed with the number of educational initiatives the foundation has in addition to its preservation programs. As more of a museum person, I find myself more interested in objects and personal stories than the built environment, which is more of the focus of historic preservation. However, the foundation’s educational programs such as its plaque program, guided walking tours, traveling exhibits, and public lectures expand the organization’s mission from preservation to education.

My role in the organization this semester has been one of many facets. I started the semester by researching the homes on the annual Azalea Festival Home Tour. These homes are all restored historic houses, put on tour for their aesthetic appeal and excellence in restoration or rehabilitation. Most of them this year had the foundation’s plaques, thus making my research a little easier. HWF maintains plaque files on all of the over 500 homes that have received a plaque. Information in these files includes the chain of ownership, architectural significance, and changes to the architecture or interiors over the years.

My next big project was an article in HWF’s newsletter about Brookwood, a neighborhood that is finally completing a National Register district nomination. Writing this article taught me more about Section 106 review and mitigation, which provided the funding for the nomination preparation.

In addition to these two larger projects I have assisted the director with preparing for meetings and events, such as the Annual Meeting and the Board Retreat by preparing presentations, programs and other materials as well as writing press releases. I also helped with daily administrative tasks such as answering and making calls and preparing mailings. Most recently, I have been helping with preparations for the Guided Architectural Walking Tours and National Preservation Month. HWF offers two different guided walking tours in the summer months. I assisted with scheduling guides and making edits to the tour scripts.

National Preservation Month has been my focus over the past few weeks. Every year, HWF gives out Preservation Awards to honor excellence in preservation projects, leadership, or other initiatives. HWF also releases an annual list of the region’s most threatened historic places, which draws attention to the places that are at risk of demolition or neglect. HWF takes nominations from the public for these two initiatives and it was my job to solicit nominations from other preservation groups, community leaders, and local historians and associations. I then compiled the nominations and prepared the files for review by the relevant committees. Preservation Month is a major undertaking for the organization, with an extensive calendar of events including fundraisers, public lectures and tours, the Preservation Awards Ceremony, and the release of the Most Threatened Historic Places list. While my official internship is complete, I will be returning to help HWF finish preparing for the awards ceremony and MTHP release as well as volunteer at some of the month’s events.

Overall, I learned a lot about preservation’s role in creating environments like Wilmington’s vibrant, historic downtown, as well as a bit about the economic benefits of preservation. I also found that some people in the community are deeply invested in maintaining the historic integrity of the place they call home, such as those residents in Brookwood that have pushed for the district nomination. Of course, I developed some practical skills as well, such as writing news releases and working with Microsoft Publisher to create programs and materials for events. In addition, I learned more about the history of Wilmington, my new home, and the resources available to learn even more.

While I finish up my time with HWF with Preservation Month in May, I will also be beginning a new experience volunteering at the Cape Fear Museum. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated my experience with the Historic Wilmington Foundation I am excited to return to a museum environment, which my various internships as well as my coursework in graduate school have told me is my favorite place to be. So stay tuned to hear about my adventures in collections this summer!

Spring Excursions

Since my last update, I have attended the North Carolina Museums Council Annual Conference, visited Charleston and Savannah with my house museums class, continued working at my internship with the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and nearly completed the exhibit for the Volga to Cape Fear Project. Needless to say, April has been extremely busy. So one update at a time: First up, the NCMC Conference.

The NCMC Conference in New Bern, NC was my first professional conference. Fellow grad student Jayd Buteaux and I traveled to New Bern for 2 days of learning and networking. This small, local conference was a perfect first experience. Smaller sessions and more opportunities for conversation with those around made it more accessible for a first year grad student with little to no experience networking (that would be me). We attended a session just for graduate students and new professionals about resumes, cover letters, applications, and interviews (oh my!), which was extremely helpful. I also attended a session on successful recent projects. One museum exhibit very successfully recycled exhibit materials from another museum to make a cost (and environment) friendly new exhibit that provided a more engaging atmosphere. This project brought some fresh ideas about how small museums with little funding can still be dynamic. Finally, a session about collections care and insurance opened my mind to the many things that can go wrong in the collections department of a museum (my planned area to pursue), but it also taught me about how to prevent, avoid, and handle such catastrophes. Overall, the conference broadened my mind and introduced me to new ideas and new people. I was especially able to meet a lot of students in other graduate programs in the state. To hear about the projects they were working on was interesting and it was exciting to share what we are up to at UNCW. The conference also allowed a little more exploring of New Bern, a place I had only been to a couple of times.

Shortly after the conference, it was time for another excursion; this time, it was off to Charleston and Savannah for a whirlwind tour of 6 house museums in the 2 cities over a 3 day period. While a lot to take in, touring so many different house museums allowed for more direct comparisons. We saw 3 sites in each city. In Charleston we went to Drayton Hall, the Manigault House, and the Aiken-Rhett House. In Savannah, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Isaiah Davenport House, and the Owens-Thomas House.

Drayton Hall, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.
Drayton Hall, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.
Interior of Manigault House, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.
Interior of Manigault House, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.


These six places were operated by various organizations ranging from preservation non-profits to decorative arts museums. Our experiences in Charleston and Savannah are the basis for a paper and a presentation about how house museums can more effectively engage with their audiences and be more relevant or meaningful. My specific angle on this topic is the interpretation of gender in house museums. Alarmingly, only 3 out of the 6 museums even included information about women’s lives beyond mere mentions. Two of those were the most inclusive of women’s voices. Even so, none of the houses actually interpreted gender history in that none discussed the relationships between men and women or explained the underlying reasons for differences between men’s and women’s lived experiences. If house museums can more effectively explain women’s lives in the past, women in the present are more likely to see themselves represented in the story of the house, something not always guaranteed on a visit to a house museum, many of which bear the name of the man who owned it rather than the women who lived or worked in it. Similar issues are involved in the interpretation of other social history issues like class and race. However, these two topics, especially class, seemed to be more integrated than gender. Issues of race and slavery, after being a hot-button issue at historic sites for so long, were included at all sites from the period of slavery. However, as with gender, mere inclusion does not equal integration. Some sites merely mentioned slaves, while others segregated information about enslaved people to certain spaces rather than integrating them throughout the house.

Slave Quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston, SC. Photo by Author.
Slave Quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston, SC. Photo by Author.

In addition to fueling my interest in the need for interpretation of gender, the trip to Charleston and Savannah was a great experience where we were able to see various approaches to interpreting the past. Aside from a lack of completely satisfactory gender interpretation, a few of the sites were quite successful in their interpretive goals and it was interesting to see that tours with different approaches could still be similarly successful and enjoyable. And of course, both cities are beautiful and full of interesting history and waterfront views, so that didn’t hurt.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, GA. Photo by author.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, GA. Photo by author.
Charleston, SC. Photo by author.
Charleston, SC. Photo by author.

The semester is winding down–my next updates will discuss the exhibit which opens in a matter of days and reflect on my internship this semester. Stay tuned!

Interpretive Plans, Home Tours, Newsletters, and Social Justice

The semester is flying by! The Volga to Cape Fear project has moved along smoothly and we now have an official title for the exhibit. Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region will open April 29th in Randall Library’s gallery. Our interpretive plans have been turned in and sent to our Advisory Committee for their review. We (the student curators) will be meeting with the committee this week to hear their comments on the plan and ask them for clarification on any points we are unsure of. Once the interpretive plan is finalized we will move into design.

My section of the exhibit is on immigration from 1991 to the present. I present what life was like in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, why some people decided to emigrate, what the process of immigration to the United States is like both in terms of filing paperwork and leaving behind home, friends, and family, and how new immigrants adjusted (and continue to adjust) to life in the Cape Fear Region. Research on all of these topics was necessary as well as finding photos and choosing objects either from those we collected last semester or by suggesting new acquisitions for flushing out the major concepts. I connected major points from my research to the objects in order to show visitors why immigrants left Russia and Eastern Europe, the difficulties in doing so, and the challenges to adapting and maintaining culture. I can’t wait to translate the interpretive plan into design and finally into a real product.

In other news, my internship has kept me busy as well. I have continued to work on the Home Tour, finishing up the descriptions for the docents by wrapping up research and interviewing the home owners about the renovations they have done to the homes as well as any interesting antiques or heirlooms they have in the home. In the process, I’ve seen many of the beautiful homes that will be on the tour and learned about what draws people to own, restore, or renovate historic homes. The homes all carry with them unique features or interesting stories related to their former owners. These small details are the most interesting to me and I enjoy hearing the current owners talk about these small ties to the past that can still be seen in their homes.

In addition to continuing work on the Home Tour, I have also assisted with preparing the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s spring edition of the News, the organizational newsletter. I have written an article on the Brookwood neighborhood, the latest community to seek National Register district designation, a process now underway thanks to funding acquired through another development’s Section 106 Review. I have learned more about the kinds of situations that spark Section 106 review (through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966) as well as the kinds of results that can come out of mitigation. The newsletter should be out by the end of the month.

I have also worked on numerous other small projects, such as contacting people to seek nominations for Preservation Awards or Most Threatened Historic Places, two initiatives that HWF presents in May as part of National Preservation Month, compiling lists of guides for guided walking tours, contacting potential docents for the Home Tour, and taking photos of properties for inclusion in the newsletter.

The final update comes from my Historic House Museums course in which we have been discussing the role of house museums, particularly how house museums can engage in social justice. We have Skyped with several professional in the field, including Liv Sevchenko who has been involved with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. It is inspiring to learn about sites that use history and historic sites in order to engage people in dialogue about modern issues. This is a goal I think worthy of aspiring to in both house museums as well as other forms of museums and historic sites.

The semester is headed toward crunch time with many upcoming events including a trip to the North Carolina Museums Council Conference next weekend, Historic House Museums course trip to Savannah and Charleston to tour some examples, the Historic Wilmington Foundation Home Tour, and of course, the production and installation of the exhibit.

Exhibition, Interpretation, Preservation

My second semester of graduate school is in full swing (except for being on a snow hiatus today and tomorrow) and it is going to be a busy semester. The three words above (Exhibition, Interpretation, and Preservation) sum up the major topics I am learning about this semester. I am taking two courses: Museum Exhibition and Topics in Public History: House Museums. I am also fulfilling the program’s internship requirement by interning with the Historic Wilmington Foundation, a local preservation non-profit. Along with continuing my position as a teaching assistant, class and internship keep me busy, but this semester promises many hands on learning opportunities.

The museum exhibition course continues the Volga to Cape Fear Project, began last semester in the collections course, by taking the objects we researched and the oral histories we conducted and using them (plus more research, some audience research, and design concepts) to create an exhibit on Russian and Eastern European migration to the region. So far, we have discussed possible themes and have conducted surveys of potential exhibit audiences in order to find out what people know, don’t know, and want to know about our topic. Soon we will develop interpretive plans which will compile our research and be our guides to designing and fabricating the exhibit (which will open at the end of April!).

While the concept of interpretation is inherently wrapped up in exhibition, it is also a major topic under discussion in the course on house museums. House museums are a peculiar institution, different from stand-alone museums in that the space directly affects what can be interpreted. Thus far, we have explored thematic tours (what makes a good tour, how themes are developed to support a storyline) and how house museums are physical manifestations of microhistories, a genre of history scholarship that, when successful, combines biography, narrative, and context in an accessible and engaging way. (See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, an excellent example of microhistory.) The course involves tours of real historic homes in order to be exposed to tours and to be better able to discuss the various ways to interpret historic homes. Already we have toured Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC and have a trip lined up to tour homes in Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. I’m very excited to learn more about historic homes and the best ways to share these historical resources with the public.

Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC. Photo by author.
Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC. Photo by author.

Finally, preservation is a topic that I’m fairly acquainted with from my previous internship experience with Preservation Chapel Hill (and of course is directly related to house museums). Through my internship I am learning more about the intricacies of operating a preservation non-profit at the Historic Wilmington Foundation. The organization has a staff of only 4; however, it carries out a relatively vast number of events, services, tours, and preservation projects. So far, I have assisted in preparation for the Annual Meeting, for which I helped update the presentation with this years’ highlights, projects, committees, etc. I also prepared the program’s insert listing membership opportunities and upcoming events. I am also assisting with preparation for the upcoming Board Retreat, assembling materials for board members to use over the next year. In addition to assisting with these kinds of events as they arise, my ongoing project is researching the houses on this year’s Home Tour, which will take place in April. I am researching each home to uncover its story and explain its architectural significance in its historical moment.

Being only three weeks into the semester, I am sure there is much left to learn and share. Updates on all projects to come!

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.

The ‘Stuff’ of History

The Volga to Cape Fear Project has continued fairly smoothly since my last post. I have conducted two out of three oral history interviews, received several objects on loan for the exhibit that will go up in the spring, and am in the process of researching and writing the loan recommendation that will tie together information about the objects, what I learned in the interviews, and secondary source information about the history of Russia and immigration to the United States. Particularly, I am focusing on the interview I did with a couple who immigrated relatively recently, in 1995, and the things from their life that represent their journey.

The research involved presents a unique set of challenges. Several of the objects I am researching are books that are written in Russian and all of the objects were either made or sold overseas, making the likelihood of finding information about their manufacturing or advertising, etc. by using U.S. research resources very slim. The first problem can be solved by asking one of the wonderful members of our advisory board to help with the translation of the basics: title, author, and publisher information.

Since the Volga to Cape Fear Project is part of my class on historical collections, we are learning how to process artifacts as well. So far, we’ve practiced marking ceramic and textile objects with their accession numbers and making padded hangers for storage of textiles. Part of these techniques involves learning to sew simple stitches (used for attaching tags to textiles and making the padded hangers). Having never done any sewing before, this is a skill I will have to practice more!

I (in back/left) and fellow grad student, Jayd Buteaux, practicing marking ceramic objects with nibs.
I (in back/left) and fellow grad student, Jayd Buteaux, practicing marking ceramic objects with nibs. Photo by Dr. Tammy Gordon.

The next steps are to finish the loan recommendation, conduct the final oral history interview, and finish transcribing oral histories and processing both the interviews and the objects. Processing involves paperwork, cataloging, marking, and creating proper storage.

Overall I have learned so much not only about Russian culture and immigration but also about proper care and storage of artifacts, something I have been exposed to at previous internships but am now getting more practice in.

New beginnings

Since my last post I have moved to Wilmington, NC and have started graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In two years time I will have a Master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history. Over the last couple of months I have adjusted to living in the city of Wilmington and am continuously adjusting to grad school itself. This semester I am taking the required first year history grad class in historiography as well as two public history courses. One is entitled Public History: Theory and Practice and the other is Historical Collections. Already I feel I have learned so much and have been exposed to ideas and practices that are going to enrich my future career in museums.

Through the Historical Collections class, we (the grad students) are also able to get real hands-on experience in the field. We are working on a project called The Volga to Cape Fear. The project is centered around collaboration with the Eastern European immigrant community of St. Helena, a small town located in neighboring Pender County founded by Wilmington businessman Hugh MacRae in the hopes of creating farm colonies to stimulate the local economy. Ultimately, through the project and the coursework of the collections class we will learn how to research material culture, make loan recommendations, and borrow and care for objects. Next semester the project will continue and culminate in an exhibit.

The first step of the project has included getting to know our advisory committee which consists of Eastern European (mostly Russian and Ukrainian) immigrants or their descendants. The knowledge of the committee has been a huge help in beginning our research and we are so appreciative of the time and effort they have already put into the project. Members were able to provide primary and secondary sources on the individuals buried in the cemetery as well as contact information to others who had information. Their assistance and enthusiasm makes the project even more enjoyable.

The first assignment related to the project was a biography of individuals buried in the St. Helena Cemetery. I chose three related individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo. Anna was a widow when she immigrated. Her passage was paid by her stepson, Julian. Paranka came to the U.S. to marry Julian and care for his children from his first marriage. Their interlocking stories led me to research the importance of family for immigrants, especially for women, as well as women’s experiences in immigration. I found that there were restrictions at Ellis Island that prevented women from traveling alone unless sponsored by someone already in the United States due to the fear of them becoming public charges. Also, family and community facilitated the transition to life in the United States, helping men to find jobs and older women, like Anna Debaylo, to adjust to U.S. life.

Finding Anna, Julian, and Paranka on census records, Ellis Island ship manifests, birth indexes, city directories, and transit receipts brought them to life in a way, recreating their journey to the United States and their life once they arrived. Why do people leave their homelands, travel on crowded ships, and pay good money to go to a foreign place? For a better life? Is that what they found? The next phase of the project will hopefully answer some of these questions as well as offer up new ones for thought. We will begin conducting oral histories with immigrants and their descendants to learn more about those buried in the St. Helena Cemetery as well as about the community at large and the forces of push and pull that brought these people to the Cape Fear. We will also be looking for the material culture, the objects that make up life and memory, the tangible things that tell the stories and represent these journeys and new lives as immigrants in St. Helena. We will borrow these objects for the exhibit on the community to be completed next semester. I’m excited to continue this project and look forward to working with more members of the St. Helena community.