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.