#WomeninCulture: Women’s History & Public History

In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.

Social History’s InfluenceMyraSadker

Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history.[1] Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.

Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.

This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.

Women’s History in Museums

Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history.[2] Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.

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Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.”[3] Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.

Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.

However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.

Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives.[6] This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.

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Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework.[7] This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.

While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies.[9] This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”[10]

Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.

The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and  improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.

The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.

The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.

Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.

Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites

Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.

Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.

Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history.[12] These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.

Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.”[13] Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.”[14] Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.

Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.

Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.

In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.”[16] However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”[17]

This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.

The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.

Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites.[19] The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.

The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.”[20] Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.

The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home.[21] This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment.[22] Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.

The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.[23]

Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”[25]

The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.

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Endnotes

[1] Edith Mayo, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” The Public Historian, (5:2), 1983, 68, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed on November 20, 2013.

[2] Mayo, 63-73.

[3] Mayo, 67.

[4] Mayo, 68.

[5] Mayo, 68-69.

[6] Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.

[7] Melosh, 200-201.

[8] Melosh, 202-203.

[9] Melosh, 207.

[10] Melosh, 209.

[11] Laura Brandon, “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader, Edited by Amy K. Levin, (London: Routledge), 2010.

[12] Page Putnam Miller, editor, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1992, 13.

[13] Miller, ed., 7.

[14] Miller, ed., 3.

[15] Miller, ed., 71.

[16] Dubrow, 112.

[17] Dubrow, 112.

[18] Dubrow, 130-131.

[19] Polly Welts Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, editors, Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company), 2003.

[20] Kaufman and Corbett, 4.

[21] Kaufman and Corbett, 103-120.

[22] Ibid, 114.

[23] Kaufman and Corbett, 189.

[24] Dubrow and Goodman, 2-3.

[25] Dubrow and Goodman, 7.

[26] Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors, Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.

[27] Dubrow and Goodman, 96-110.

Bibliography

Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.

Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.”  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346948. Accessed November 22, 2013.

Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.

Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors.  Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.

Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed November 20, 2013.

Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.

Miller, Page Putnam, editor.  Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio & The Alamo – April 11

After leaving Galveston, we drove to San Antonio to meet up with my other set of grandparents (my mother’s mother and husband). We arrived, ate barbecue on the River Walk (because when in Texas…) and then set off to see the Alamo (because again, when in Texas.)

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The County Line – where we ate BBQ.

My mother, having grown up in Texas, had described to me her remembered impression of the Alamo when she went as a child on a school field trip. Having been raised and educated with the messaging of “Remember the Alamo”, she felt actually visiting was a let down. The site itself didn’t live up to the hype in her child’s view. With this conversation in mind, I was interested to see what I thought as an adult who had limited knowledge of the events that took place there beyond a showing of the Dennis Quaid movie somewhere along the way at school.

Of course, I don’t know how the site was interpreted in the 1970s when my mom would have visited, but if similar to today I could see how a child might not be able to get much from the site. The main building, the chapel, is a relatively small structure, lacking in anything “grand” that a child might be expecting given the great importance placed on the site and what happened there, the inside is not furnished in any way–there are no artifacts, no reenactments, displays, etc. It is mostly empty, with just a few signs, which are about the preservation of the structure and a few features to be pointed out, and a memorial in the back listing the names of those who fought and died there. So my mother’s lackluster experience as a child makes some sense. However, my mother told me she got much more out of the site as an adult and I think that is owing to a few factors. One, simply better understanding of the events that took place there, increased ability to imagine and empathize with what happened there on a human level, and the neighboring museum space in the long barracks which does have exhibits, artifacts, and interpretation.

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For adults, I think the power of the site is in its size. A small mission fortification held out for a 13 day siege against a larger army, waiting for reinforcements that never came. The fact that every soldier there died is another grave fact that really resonates when you stand in the space. However, I learned something new while there that also truly resonated with me. Local women, children, and some men who were not soldiers, who were brought into the Alamo for protection as the Mexican army approached and who hunkered down in one particular room, survived the attack and were released by Santa Anna to bear witness to what happened. Often you hear that every single person at the Alamo died, but this is not true. Santa Anna wanted others to know of his victory there. These people who, I’m sure feared for their lives, their children’s lives, for days, witnessed the death of all those around them, and then were set free. What emotions did they feel? What were their lives like afterwards? The site does not go into these questions, though it does speak about these survivors both in the Alamo itself and in the neighboring exhibit hall. These people are a source of history and of what happened there, but they are also just people who experienced something terrible. This I think could have been brought to life a bit more for visitors.

Another detail pointed out by the few interpretive signs within the Alamo are the names of later soldiers carved in the walls. The Alamo had a life before the siege (as a Spanish mission) and a life afterward. It was used by later U.S. military installations, many of whom carved their names in the walls, marking that they had been there. The reasoning why is not completely described, nor is it probably definitively known, but I think these men, knowing what happened there, already knew this site would be an important part of history and they wanted to leave their mark on it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the glory of death as a sacrifice for liberty, freedom or another honorable cause. This is the traditional narrative about the Alamo, but of course real life, and as such, history, is more complicated than that. The exhibition space in the long barracks next to the chapel walks through the more complete picture; albeit carefully. Beginning with Mexican independence from Spain, the exhibit explains why US colonists moved to Texas, encouraged by the new Mexican government who wanted to populate the territory as protection against Comanche raids and enticed by economic incentives of land ownership, and the colonists’ reasons for revolting later after Mexico made changes to its immigration policy and constitution. The simple message that the Texans fought for freedom is more complicated when you reexamine the economic reasons that they moved to the Mexican territory, that they had essentially immigrated to another country and yet still felt entitled to US constitutional rights, and that they flouted Mexico’s changing laws concerning slavery, tariffs, and immigration. These reasons certainly do not mean that what happened at the Alamo was “right” or expected, but the struggle was not entirely black and white, good vs. evil. Mexico was attempting to control its territory and enforce its laws, and put an end to Texas’s rebellion. Texans were fighting to preserve a way of life to which they had become accustomed. The ultimate result was Texan independence, later annexation into the United States, and the Mexican-American War.

The exhibit also describes some of the other lesser-known events of the Texas Revolution such as the Goliad Massacre in which a Texan army surrendered to Santa Anna and was subsequently executed. This interesting article describes the disparate ways in which these two related events have been remembered, pointing out that the battle at the Alamo is easier to see as an honorable death because they did not surrender.

All in all, the events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and the aftermath of the Texas Revolution are more complicated than Dennis Quaid, the refrain “Remember the Alamo”, or even my brief, oversimplified summary above would have you believe. Visiting the Alamo has definitely encouraged me to dig a little deeper though. In that sense the exhibits in the long barracks next to the chapel really opened up a new understanding of the events that took place in the Alamo and may be almost more important to visitors’ understanding than the Alamo itself, the preservation of which is important, but is also the reason that these stories are not currently being told within the chapel’s walls. The few signs in the chapel which I mentioned above all reiterated the ongoing preservation efforts taking place there. While the main building (and what most would consider the Alamo itself) is not heavily interpreted, the Alamo’s importance is place-based. It is that feeling of being on the spot where something transformative happened because simple or not, what happened at the Alamo influenced a string of events that has shaped our world today.

*What originally was to be a 3 part series, will now be more–how many depends on how long I decide to rant about the rest of the trip. I felt the Alamo should stand alone though so as to not make this post too long by continuing to discuss the rest of the Missions in San Antonio that we visited. The next blog post will cover the rest of our trip in San Antonio, I think. 🙂 *

Public Historian on Vacation: 3 Part Series

I haven’t posted on promised subjects yet, but I am still researching and have half of a post drafted on the gendered history of baking. I just haven’t quite gotten that project where I want it yet, so I’m moving on to other topics for the time being.

I’ve been busy, at work & at home, including a vacation with my husband and my mother to her home state of Texas. We went to Galveston and San Antonio with mom and then split ways, with her off to Fredericksburg and us staying another day in San Antone before going to New Iberia and New Orleans, Louisiana.IMG_1811

While this was purely a fun, family vacation, I’m still a public historian even when on vacation. In each stop along the way we visited historic sites, museums, or historical areas with shops & restaurants trading on history. This three part series will share my thoughts on each of our destinations, beginning with Galveston, TX in Part 1 below. Parts 2 & 3 coming soon.

Part 1 – Galveston, TX – April 7-10

The first stop in our journey was Galveston Island, a beautiful island town along the Gulf of Mexico. A port city, the island itself has a long, interesting history, including being an entry point for immigrants much like Ellis Island, a battleground of the Civil War, a survivor of the Great Storm of 1900, and much more.

We were there to visit my mom’s paternal family including my grandparents, my great grandmother, and some aunts, uncles and cousins. My great grandmother lives right on the water on Tiki Island–it’s one of my favorite places and I could listen to her talk about her life for hours. She’s done a lot of our family’s genealogy and put together books of information, photos, documents, etc. At 95 years old, she’s lived an interesting and full life and is full of wisdom and love.

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Me, my great grandma, and my mom.

While we were primarily there to visit family we did get in a little sightseeing with two visits to The Strand, Galveston’s historic business district downtown near the port, a trip to the Rainforest Pyramid of Moody Gardens, and a special peek into American National’s archives exhibit space.

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My mom and I outside La King’s.

The Strand is full of restaurants, boutique stores, and tourist shops, all housed in Victorian-era buildings. A favorite of mine is La King’s, a candy and ice cream shop where I love to stock up on salt water taffy. The store has been on the Strand since 1976 but makes 1920s style candy and ice cream treats, and strives to create a “unique atmosphere of days gone by.”

The Strand is a quintessential historic district for tourists, with all of the charm and romance: Beautiful architecture, delicious ice cream and food, plenty of shopping. There are also nearby museums and historic tours for those more interested in the history.

This kind of commercial area trading on the charm of history raises some questions of how these places influence the public’s perception of the past. While romanticizing history, one could argue the popularity of these places also means that the public has an interest in history. But does that interest extend to more complicated or difficult histories? More on this as we continue on to our other destinations in the next two parts.

 

While in Galveston, we also visited Moody Gardens, a huge local attraction with three large pyramids, each housing a different kind of exhibition, as well as other activities including a beach, a ropes course and zipline, a paddlewheel boat, etc. The pyramids include an aquarium pyramid, a rain forest pyramid, and a discovery museum pyramid with changing exhibits. We only had time for one attraction so we chose the Rain Forest Pyramid. Not a history museum obviously, it functions as a hybrid between a botanical garden, an aviary, a zoo, and a natural science museum, describing and educating visitors on the wildlife within.

 

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The highlights of the Rain Forest Pyramid would have to be the sloth, the many colorful birds, two monkeys, and the ocelot. Many of the animals, including the birds, the sloth, and the monkeys were not separated from us by fencing or glass and the close proximity was really incredible.

We also got to visit the archives exhibits at the top of the American National building owing to the fact that both my grandparents (plus my great grandfather) used to work there. The exhibits there were very nicely done and include some really cool artifacts such as the life insurance payouts for Bonnie and Clyde. (Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.) There was also a lot of history about the city before and after the Great Storm of 1900. An added perk was the amazing view from the space which overlooks downtown Galveston. All in all, a great example of a corporation drawing on its history to create interest, drive branding, and inspire employees and guests alike.

 

One of our final stops was the beach, along which runs the 17-foot-high Seawall constructed after the Great Storm of 1900. That hurricane caused so much damage and loss of life that it led to major renovations across the island to raise buildings and of course inspired the Seawall. The first part of the Seawall (about 3 miles long) was completed in 1904 and by 1963 had been extended to 10 miles.

 

Galveston is a truly interesting and beautiful place and there is so much more to it than what we fit into this most recent visit. There is the Railroad Museum, the Bryan Museum of the American West, the restored historic Pleasure Pier, and more. I would love to learn more about the port as a gateway for immigrants and their lives once they arrived–something to look into until our next visit. 🙂

Stay tuned for Part 2 – San Antonio – The Alamo, the Riverwalk, lots of Missions, and more.

Updates and potential new project!

First of all, the 40th Anniversary online exhibit is looking good and is ready enough to be viewed! To check it out for yourself click here: preservation40.com. Please feel free to let me know what you like, dislike or think could be improved or expanded upon. Public history is all about connecting with the public and knowing how the audience best learns and gains from the work including exhibits, literature, programs, etc. There is no point in interpreting and presenting history to the public if the audience doesn’t enjoy or learn from it! So comment on the pages of the website itself, comment on this blog post, or email me at ebullock@live.unc.edu with any comments, concerns, complaints, or suggestions!

The sections of the online exhibit on adaptive reuse, art exhibits and music, community events, educational programming, and historic exhibits were the sections I worked on while PSCH Through the Years was put together by fellow intern Ben based on the souvenir yearbook he created for the Preservation Society’s 40th Anniversary Celebration back in September. I recommend starting with the tab on adaptive reuse and the history of the Horace Williams House if you are not familiar with it already. The other tabs simply give examples of how the house has been used over the Preservation Society’s history. Finally, the PSCH Through the Years gives an overview of the important preservation projects the society has accomplished.

Other than finishing up the online exhibit and scanning a few remaining photos, I will soon (hopefully) be beginning a new and exciting project. I don’t have many details yet except it would be an oral history project in which I talk with and learn from a former resident of one of the historic homes of Chapel Hill. I will be learning more about the process of carrying out an oral history project and then contacting the individual to get started. I am excited about the project and really hope it comes to fruition as I would get to learn a valuable new skill and learn more about a house the society is trying to save. I think it would be a very valuable experience.

Adaptive Reuse

The online exhibit about the adaptive reuse of the Horace Williams House is coming along very well so far. Most of my originally planned concepts have been uploaded including content about the art and historic exhibits that have taken place at the Horace Williams House as well as the community events that have been held there.

Additionally, I am in the process of expanding the exhibit by incorporating other ways in which the house has been adapted for various uses such as the music program and educational programming. I will be adding photos and documents related to these two aspects of the house’s use as well as more primary source documents for all of the uses of the house. I aim to make the exhibit multidimensional by using photographs, documents, and links to other content so that viewers can learn about the house and its importance for the Preservation Society in a variety of ways. Lately, I have been looking through the archival materials here at the Horace Williams House to find documents to use in the exhibit. I enjoy looking through the old newspaper clippings.

In addition to working on the exhibit, I have continued to scan the few remaining photos from the collection and will catalog them and put them on the discs with the rest from the summer.

I can’t wait to share the finished project of the exhibit. It will be done in time for the 40th Anniversary Art Retrospective in November!

More than a House

So far this semester I have been working on the exhibit about the Horace Williams House for the 40th Anniversary Celebration alongside fellow intern Ben. My part of the exhibit will showcase the adaptive reuse of the Horace Williams House through its use for art exhibits, historic exhibits, and community events.

After some initial difficulty with the first format for the website we tried, the site is now coming along well. The site will feature both the exhibit about the adaptive reuse of the house as well as the projects done by the Preservation Society over its forty-year history, which is Ben’s section.

Other than the exhibit, I have continued to scan new images found in the archival collection and will be adding them to the digital collection. Here are a few of the new images.

Chi Phi House image used in the 1997 Holiday House Tour. Photo from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Collection.
Burch Reed House image used on the 1997 Holiday House Tour. Photo from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Collection.

Time flies!

It’s hard to believe that I am about halfway through my summer internship with the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill! I am really enjoying my time here including what I am learning and experiencing as well as the people I work with. I am also really looking forward to the month of July which is full of new experiences.

Since my last update I have continued to scan, label, and catalog photos. I have been primarily working with prints now, but also some negatives. Scanning prints is more time consuming than scanning slides as the regular scanner simply takes longer to process a picture than the slide scanner did. This has slowed down the number of images I can get done in a day, but I am still moving along.  I have already scanned all print photos from the 1970s, 80s, and most of the 90s. Many of these printed photos are of events put on by the Preservation Society as well as of the Horace Williams House and other historical properties. I don’t know the exact number right now, but I estimate that I have cataloged over 2,200 pictures. I still have some photos from the 90s left and then I head into the 2000s! I hope to finish digitizing all of the photos on site and then put them onto discs by category for future reference.

The Mangum Smith House on the 1981 Candlelight Tour. Photo from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Collection.
The 1984 Candlelight Tour Gala held inside Gimghoul Castle. Photo from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Collection.
Guests at the 1994 Preservation Society Gala. Photo from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Collection.

Also left to do in July is my online exhibit. Ernest Dollar, the Executive Director, has helped me not only to identify some of the photos, but also to realize a theme from the pictures I’ve been scanning: the adaptive reuse of the Horace Williams House (as a home for the Preservation Society) as well as other historic homes (through house tours) in order to encourage appreciation for history and preservation. How the Horace Williams House has been used over time in order to help the Preservation Society preserve Chapel Hill is something that can be pieced together from the photographs of the many events and preservation efforts over the years. I plan to use these ideas in the online exhibit I am supposed to curate. The exact details are not ready yet, but it seems like my exhibit will be a part of the larger 40th Anniversary website that is being organized. I am excited to start preparing the exhibit and to learn more about curation from Ernie.

I am also looking forward to several other events in July including the Old-Fashioned Fourth of July event and our intern field trip to Bennett Place, Stagville, and Leigh Farm. I have never been to any of those sites so I am excited to visit new historical places.

Also coming up is our field work day at the Edward Kidder Graham House. This property is in dire need of restoration; however, the owner needs more money to continue. The owner is therefore trying to sell an adjacent lot in order to raise more money. We are going out in an effort to clean up the yard of the house to make the neighboring lot more appealing and to hopefully improve the perception of the house itself, as something worth saving. When we visited the house it was depressing to think of this piece of history just rotting away or being demolished, so I am looking forward to doing what I can to help protect it.

Until then, I will keep scanning!