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.