#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.

mountvernonladies
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.

IMG_7709

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.

____________

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.

History in Song: “Alive with the Glory of Love” by Say Anything

An alternative rock song about the Holocaust? That probably sounds strange. And the result has been described as an “intense and oddly uplifting rocker about a relationship torn by the Holocaust.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“Alive with the Glory of Love” (2004) by the emo/indie/alternative rock band Say Anything, is loosely based on the lives of the grandparents of the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Max Bemis. Both of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

The song tells the story of two lovers during the years of the Holocaust moving from the ghetto, to hiding, to work camps. But does so to an upbeat punk rock beat rather than anything one could call sentimental. A bit irreverent and written with more modern language, the song actually does a wonderful job of humanizing, personalizing, and giving agency to the story of Holocaust survivors.

The terrible atrocities of the Holocaust included dehumanizing entire groups of people including the Jewish, disabled, homosexuals, and others; however, the humanity of these groups lived on in their love for their partners and families, in their resistance, overt and covert, and in their ability to rebuild lives and communities after the war. Some depictions of victims and survivors of the Holocaust can put too much emphasis on what happened to them rather than what they were able to actively do in the face of such great oppression. This song shines a light on the relationships and emotions that victims might have felt when facing potential separation.

This song also demonstrates that all genres of music can be inspired by the past and are often connected to personal and family histories as well.

Music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUws596eChQ

Lyrics:

When I watch you, want to do you, right where you’re standing yeah
Right on the foyer on this dark day right in plain view oh yeah
Of the whole ghetto, the boot-stomped meadows, but we ignore that yea
You’re lovely baby, this war is crazy, I won’t let you down oh no no no
I won’t let them take you, won’t let them take you hell no no
I won’t let them take you, won’t let them take you hell no no
No oh no no no

And when our city vast and shitty
Falls to the Axis, yeah [the Axis powers of World War II consisted of Germany, Italy, and Japan.]
They’ll search the buildings collect gold fillings, wallets, and rings [the Germans were notorious for stealing any item of any value from the Jewish people including even their gold fillings and personal effects.]

But Miss Black Eyeliner you’d look finer with each day in hiding oh yea
Beneath the worm wood, ooh love me so good, [this line evokes the image of hiding beneath floor boards to avoid being taken away to the camps. Some Jewish theology equates wormwood with evil or at least with bitterness, but I am far from an expert there.]
They won’t hear us screw away the day, I’ll make you say

(Alive, alive, alive with love)
No I won’t let them take you, won’t let them take you hell no no
Oh no I won’t let them take you, won’t let them take you

Our Treblinka is alive with the glory of love [Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp in Poland and was the site of the genocide of 700,000-900,000 Jewish people and 2,000 Romani people by gas chamber]
Treblinka, alive with the glory of love yea
Should they catch us and dispatch us to those separate work camps yeah
I’ll think about you, I’ll dream about you
I will not doubt you with the passing of time
Should they kill me your love will fill me as warm as the bullets
I’ll know my purpose, this was was worth this, I won’t let you down
No I won’t, no I won’t, no I won’t
(Alive, alive, alive with love)
I won’t let them take you, won’t let them take you hell no no

** A few details of the song are not representative of the majority of the experiences of Holocaust victims. Since Treblinka was an extermination camp, not a work camp, the vast majority of people were immediately killed upon arrival with just a few men put to work to operate the gas chambers and bury the dead. Gas chambers replaced guns as the primary way of carrying out the genocide.

Organize Your Family Archives (Like Monica Geller): Step 3

Step 1: Start.

Step 2: Keep sorting and do your research.

Step 3: Make some storage decisions.

Now that you have sorted your collection, done your research to decide where each item should go, and assessed the size and condition of your collection, you are ready to decide how you want to store it. Album, scrapbook, or box? This depends on your specific goals for your collection and the features of your collection include size and condition.

IMG_3477
The one example we don’t want to take from Monica–storage.

Have a relatively small collection in good condition and want to whip it out whenever you have company and show off your photos and the stories behind them? A scrapbook may be the ticket. More effort is needed up front to create a visually appealing scrapbook, and care needs to be taken to use archival materials, but this is a viable option if you are feeling creative. This is also a good option if you have photos and related documents that you want to keep together for context. I will be scrapbooking my wedding photos and have made scrapbooks in the past for special occasions and vacations.

Photo albums are likewise easily accessible and easy to share with visitors. A little tricky if you have many photos of various sizes though. And not ideal if you have a large collection and not a lot of shelf space as they can get bulky. Photo albums with caption spaces are great for recording all those details you learned in your research.

Archival boxes are usually best in terms of preservation since they are completely enclosed and will most be most efficient in terms of space if you have a large collection. Boxes are best for fragile photos that can’t stand up to the page turning involved in albums. Photo boxes comes in a variety of sizes.

boxoption
Photo box from Gaylord Archival. Image from http://www.gaylord.com

When ordering your supplies, pay attention to dimensions, materials (remember to look for acid and lignin free), and capacity. You may also want to invest in some archival quality pens, or pencils, acid-free tissue paper, folders, envelopes, or archival sleeves, depending on the storage solution you decide on.  Part of the services I offer includes helping you make these supply decisions based on the specifics of your collection.

Now is also when you may want to decide if you want to digitize your collection before you file it all away. It’s a good time to scan, label, and save your digital files before you find a more permanent home for the physical copies.

cellphonetechnology
No judgement, but join the 21st century and digitize!

In today’s age, I recommend digitizing your photos for many reasons: accessibility, sharing, and preservation being the top. Digitizing your photos means you can access them at any time without physically needing to pull them out–this makes it quick and easy to locate particular images and also connects to preservation. The less the physical copy is handled and exposed to light, dirt, oils in your fingers, etc. the longer it will last.

Finally, the biggest advantage of digitization is the ability to share your family photos with your family and friends even across physical distances. I plan to digitize my family collection to be able to share with my parents and siblings as we are spread across three different states.

Like the physical files though, to digitize you need to consider storage. Depending on the size of your collection, you could need much more digital space than you should probably be putting on your hard drive (it would slow your computer down quite a bit), or then you could fit on a standard flash drive. I would recommend an external hard drive and/or a cloud-based application. My husband and I have an Amazon Prime account which includes unlimited photo storage so I will be making use of that feature in addition to saving the images on an external hard drive. Having two copies helps ensure you don’t lose your files! Other cost efficient cloud options include Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, and Flickr. These options are make sharing much easier. And sharing is caring. 🙂

sharing

Stay tuned for next steps including the digitization process, file naming and labeling!

Organize Your Family Archive Like Monica Geller: Step 2

Step 1: Start – Prepare your space and dive in to the sorting.

Step 2: Keep Sorting and Start Researching

So you’ve started trying to sort through your family photos, but may have been overwhelmed by the sheer number you have, or how many you weren’t sure about either the date, the people pictured, or the location.  Deep breath. This may be when you decide to stop and hire professional help. *ahem–me* Or if you want to dig a little deeper for your inner Monica Geller, here is how to proceed.

IMG_3451

I began sorting by decade, knowing that everything would not be in perfect order right away, which is totally fine. Now that everything is roughly sorted, I am going through each decade’s pile with a more discerning eye to the order with the aim to get everything in chronological order, at least to the right year. If many photos are undated, it will be nearly impossible to have the photos in month/date order as even the people who lived through the events in the photos may not be able to remember which happened first or exactly what month and day.

IMG_3457

So if your photos are undated, how do you go about deciding which order they should be in? The first step if possible is to ask the subjects of the photos, the person who was likely behind the camera, or other close relatives who may recognize the subjects, places, or time periods.

IMG_3469

Even Monica could use a little help from her relatives…

 

What some of my research looks like–texts to my mom.

But what if no one remembers? There are other ways to figure out approximate dates. Obvious first options–check the front and back of the photo for the dates that were printed on the photo. Keep in mind that those dates are when the photos were printed, not taken. Depending on how quickly you or your relatives took their film to be developed will determine how close those printed dates are to the taken dates.

nanaphotos

Also common are handwritten dates and other info on the backs of the photos. If there is identifying information on some photos, you can then use context clues for similar looking photos–photos of family members where they look the same age, photos taken in the same house, etc.

 

It is also helpful to pay attention to hairstyles, styles of dress, and background details including signs, places, home decor, etc. to get an idea of time period. (Hopefully your family wasn’t behind the times too much.)

80sfriends

The size of your prints can also be a general clue to age. For example, standard 4×6 wasn’t the standard until the 1990s. Smaller prints were more popular in the 1970s and 80s. And even smaller prints (like teeny tiny) were common in the 1940s. And finally, if in doubt, using estimations is fine.

IMG_3576
A print from the 70s, two from the 80s (one early, one late), and two from the 90s (one early, one late).

Now, what do you do with the information you gather from relatives and your research about specific images? For now, I would recommend making notes on a separate piece of paper. Writing on the photos themselves is not recommended for two reasons, physical preservation of the photo, and preservation of the context of the photo. If you add your own notes to the back of a photo that already has writing on it, or worse, you write a note that turns out not to be correct, later viewers of the image may not be sure what was written originally and what was added later.

The information is better added later in a caption in a photo album (with an archival quality pen or pencil) and in the digital record’s metadata, which we will discuss more in depth later.

As you go forth and gather information from relatives also consider recording more formal oral history interviews with them. There is nothing like preserving a relative’s voice and their stories. More on oral histories later or contact me to see how I can help.

Stay tuned for next steps–deciding on storage, both physical and digital, and labeling.

Organize Your Family Archive Like Monica Geller: Step 1

So you want to get your family photos and other archives in order but you aren’t sure where to start. Dig deep and harness your inner Monica Geller! Yes, that Monica Geller, from the 90’s hit sitcom Friends.

animated

Step 1: Start.

Easier said than done, but to get started you have to dive in. But in an orderly fashion.

Start with a dedicated clean, dry space for your project. You don’t want to start and stop this project, having to regather everything every other day, so I don’t recommend using your bed, dining room table (unless you never eat there, which I totally get), or coffee table.

IMG_3464

My space for now and my relatively small family project is a desk in our office/my husband’s man cave, which has been cleared of said husband’s stuff. (read: junk.)

IMG_3497

With clean, dry hands, start going through your collection. If already in older albums(i.e. albums in need of replacing), great! Leave them in for now. See if your collection is already organized in some way, by date, event, or some other way.

bytheedges

This initial stage is to get a sense for how many items you have, what they are, and what you would like to do with them. And by all means, enjoy the trip down memory lane. That’s what it’s all about.

picturelooking

In the case of loose photos, especially if they have gotten out of order, just start sorting by whatever parameters make sense to you, but I generally suggest date.

IMG_3453

I took my collection of loose photographs and initially began sorting by decade. I will refine it as closely as possible by year later.

This initial sorting has given me an idea of how many photos there are, what time frame is included, and how much research I might have to do in order to figure out dates, names, etc. It also brought my attention to the fact that some of the images are bent, torn, or sticky–some have tape or glue residue on the back. (Monica would not approve.)

But this is a start and you now have an idea of what you need to do in order to sort better (in my case, some phone calls and FaceTiming my mom are going to be necessary), some problem areas that will need to be addressed (sticky backs), and an idea of how large your project is–something that comes into play when deciding what supplies you will need to store your collection in.

Feeling your inner Monica yet? Or still feeling overwhelmed? I am a Monica and happy to help with your family archiving project. Contact me and let’s talk!

Stay tuned for Step 2 in the series!

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.

IMG_2468
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.

IMG_1512
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.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

15 Social Media Tips for Museums and Historic Sites

In my current role as archivist and media assistant for a private company I’ve picked up a few social media tips that can be applied to history museums, historic sites, and other institutions wanting to post historical content to social media platforms. Some of these tips are also informed by my time managing social media for a small non-profit museum. Many of these tips are true across the board -from large company to small non-profit -while a few are more specific to smaller institutions. Putting these out here in the hopes of helping a museum or historic site that is trying to jump start or reinvigorate their online presence. Let me know if you have any other tips to add!

  1. Have goals for your use of social media. Don’t just have accounts because you feel like you should in today’s media age. (Although many, in the millennial generation especially, will expect to find your institution on the web and on social media and not being there could cost you visitors.) Be clear about what you want to achieve with your platforms. Make goals for your audience or engagement levels and aim to use social media to ultimately increase interest in your mission and visitation to your institution.
  2. Tie historical content to the present. To increase reach and interest tailor your content to current events and relevant topics such as holidays, anniversaries, seasons, events, and this day in history type posts, etc. Be prepared to write about how history informs, impacts, and compares with the present. This helps your audience relate to your content and demonstrates the importance of history as lessons for the present. bkiinsta
  3.  

    Keep it short and sweet. As much as I completely understand the desire to be educational and share as much information as you can, keep posts short or link to longer content. Social media is a competition for attention spans. Keep it short and catchy and always try to include something visual to draw readers’ attention. Posting a link to your website for more information allows your audience to read more if they’d like without bombarding them with a ton of text in one post. Also, keeping it short may pique your readers’ interest enough to bring them through the doors to learn more.

    tumblr

  4. Take advantage of popular hashtags to reach a larger audience. #ThrowbackThursday for any content from the past; #TransformationTuesday for compare/contrast photos of a place/person/etc. in the past and today; #FlashbackFriday; #WaybackWednesday, etc. If a trending hashtag applies to your institution, take advantage and weigh in.
  5. But be unique. In addition to standard hashtags that you can piggy back on – branch out and come up with your own unique social media posts that fit your collection – examples – a medical museum I once worked at used #FreakyFriday for followers to guess the use of strange looking medical instruments from the museum’s collection.
  6. Plan in advance. Schedule posts out so you aren’t scrambling for content at the last minute. Take a look through your archives and collections for interesting and relevant content for the next month and plan out posts, images, etc. This helps you to get all of your social media planning done at once and takes up less of your time. Take advantage of Facebook’s scheduling feature and look into HootSuite or similar for scheduling tweets.
  7. Be flexible though. Fortuitous, relevant finds in your archives can make for great posts; world events might result in changes needed to your scheduled posts – be prepared to edit or switch out posts after you’ve planned them.
  8. Know your limits. You don’t have to post historical content every day, especially when you are just starting out. Determine how much staff time can be devoted to social media planning. Also, you don’t want to exhaust all your best content too quickly – spread it out so you aren’t repeating topics too closely together.
  9. Check your stats. Pay attention to engagement results and gear your posts towards what your audience seems to respond to the most. You can also use analytics to find out who your audience is and who you may need to try to reach better.
  10. Go behind the scenes. Consider sharing behind the scenes photos and videos about unique and interesting aspects of the museum or collections care. Instagram, Facebook Live, and Snapchat are all platforms well-suited to behind the scenes action.
  11. You don’t have to have them all. Focus on the platforms that work the best for you and reach your primary audiences. You don’t have to have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. You can pick the 2-3 platforms that make the most sense for your content and your audiences. Mostly sharing photos of artifacts? Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are probably plenty, but Flickr may interest you as a way to store and organize images into virtual galleries. Videos? YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook may be the three you want to focus on. Wanting to keep more of a blog where there’s a bit more room to write–Tumblr or another free blogging site may be what you’re looking for. And you can share links to the blog content on your other platforms. Trying to reach a young audience with behind the scenes sneak peaks? Snapchat and Instagram may be what you need–but it will likely take a little longer to build audiences there.
  12. Diversify your content. Don’t always post the same thing to all of your platforms. It’s OK to replicate posts across platforms most of the time, but also try to diversify your posts. Facebook is better for longer posts, article shares, and video. Instagram is best for images and short videos. Twitter for short announcements, images, article links, and short videos. Mix and match and have some content be exclusive to a specific platform.
  13. Respond. Try to respond to reviews, comments, questions, and messages that come in through your social media platforms. A quick “like” or simple thank you message would suffice for many comments. Interact with your audience and learn from their feedback.
  14. Keep up your profile. Make sure your institution’s profile is up-to-date with correct hours, address, contact information, and website. Also, keep a consistent style, tone, and voice across your profile, platforms, and posts that fits with your goals for social media as well as your overall mission and brand.
  15. Don’t overwhelm your followers. Don’t post too many times in one day. You don’t want to overwhelm or annoy your followers. 1-3 times a day is usually enough on Facebook and Instagram. Twitter can be a used a bit more, especially if you are live tweeting an event or retweeting relevant, interesting materials for your followers.

 

These tips would hopefully help any institution striving to incorporate historical or educational content into their social media plans. Have patience in growing your audience and engagement. Link to your platforms from your website and be sure to let in-person visitors know what platforms they can find you on. Have any other tips? Does your institution do anything unique or have you had a successful campaign on social media? Let me know!