Over the last month or so my UNCW public history colleagues and I have been busy. Those still in coursework have been busy at work on the Still Standing project, taking the visitor evaluation data we gathered last semester and applying it to a new exhibit opening next month at the Bellamy Mansion. While they’ve been hard at work on that, I have been working on thesis revisions and continuing my positions as assistant in University Archives and as archivist at the Bellamy Mansion. However, even in the midst of all of this, we have also found time to attend a couple of conferences and write some guest blog posts about our work.
At the end of March a group of us attended the North Carolina Museums Council annual meeting in Durham, NC where we presented a poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation project and attended sessions on a variety of topics, including collections management, graduate training and job skills, and exhibit techniques and collaboration. The conference and the poster session offered excellent opportunities to meet other North Carolina museum professionals and share our work while learning about other successful projects across the state. While there we were asked by North Carolina Connecting to Collections to turn our poster presentation into a guest blog post. The post can be read here: Collections Conversations Guest Blog Post. Both the poster presentation and the blog post described our methods and results in the visitor evaluation project conducted last semester. The visitor surveys and focus group interviews revealed a need to interpret slavery and slave dwellings more fully, better contextualizing the wide variety of experiences of slavery. Many visitors had a limited view of slavery and slave dwellings based on movie portrayals of large, rural plantations. Slavery in other locations, such as urban areas, looked a lot different. Our visitor evaluation data points to this issue as a gap in need of being filled. We were happy to share our project at the poster session where we had many engaging conversations and to expand the conversation via the Connecting to Collections blog.
More recently, several of us also attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. This national conference offered many interesting sessions and the opportunity to meet renowned public historians from all across the U.S. and Canada. I attended several interesting sessions, including one entitled “Edging in Women’s History” which offered case studies of museums and sites working to further their inclusion of women’s history in collections, exhibits, and programming. This session offered some inspiration and interesting ideas for me to ponder as I finish my thesis on women’s history in the collections and exhibits at the Cape Fear Museum here in Wilmington. Most interesting to me was a presentation on finding women in collections, which pointed to some similar challenges as I have noticed at the Cape Fear Museum, including cataloging methods that focus on the obvious physical description or donor without acknowledging more nuanced connections to women or issues of gender.
Another session explored issues of race and gender in leisure culture and how histories of segregated recreation spaces or histories of concert venues can be used to highlight and better understand these issues. Recreation and leisure activities offer easy access points to today’s visitors. These topics and spaces offer a way to make history of race and gender relatable to today’s public.
At the conference Leslie Randle-Morton and I were also able to accept the NCPH Student Project Award Honorable Mention for our work with Jayd Buteaux on Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region. Prior to the conference we were also given the opportunity to write about the exhibit development process and share our experience working with the community who helped bring the project to life. That post can be read here: NCPH Guest Blog – Push and Pull.
In addition to the engaging sessions and the opportunities to hear from and meet interesting public historians, NCPH offered a chance to see Nashville. Rich in history and music, it was a great host city for the conference.
Both conferences were such wonderful experiences. Moving forward, I am focusing on my thesis revisions and preparing for my summer thesis defense and graduation. I am also wrapping up my time as graduate assistant in University Archives, a position that ends with the semester next week. However, I will be continuing to work at the Bellamy while I complete my thesis this summer and continue my search for a full-time position.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I would share a bit more information on my thesis. My research began as a resource evaluation for the local history museum in Wilmington. I was aiming to discover what kind of materials the museum already had in its collection that could be used to improve its interpretation of women’s history. The current exhibit, while inclusive of women in some parts, does not present a balanced interpretation. Women are largely missing from the earliest sections of the permanent exhibition on colonial and Revolutionary era Wilmington and remain marginalized in the interpretation of the 19th century. The only sections of the exhibition that include women in more balanced numbers are those interpreting the 20th century. However, even then women’s roles are not placed in their gendered context. Differences between men’s and women’s lives aren’t explored. Furthermore, the 20th-century exhibit sections focus on women’s public roles rather than also including their domestic roles.
My earliest theory as to why the museum lacked a more balanced or in-depth interpretation of women was that perhaps the collection was lacking in artifacts that could offer insight into women’s lives. This led me to assess the collection. I found instead that the collection was full of possibilities; however, the collection also needs more research and a clearer collecting focus on gender in order to fill in gaps and better understand the materials that are available.
As a small part of my research, I also conducted a visitor survey with 20 visitors to the museum over the months of December 2014 and January 2015, collecting data on about 5 different days in that time span. While this is not a large sample, it does provide some insight into what visitors know about women’s history and what they would like to know more about. The survey revealed that visitors are interested in women’s history and would like to see more of it at the museum. When asked to rate their interest in women’s history on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being not interested and 5 being very interested the overall average interest level was 3.85. Women made up 11 out of the 20 visitors surveyed and their average interest level of 4.45 clearly indicates that seeing the history of people they can relate to is important. The nine men surveyed, however, still came up with an average interest level of 3.1. Those who commented on why they rated their interest level as they did mentioned their female relatives and one explained his daughters’ interests in sports and science. Furthermore, when asked if they would like to see this museum specifically include more information on women’s lives, 15 visitors gave an affirmative answer (ranging from “sure” and “yes” to “absolutely”) with only 2 visitors giving negative responses and 3 visitors being unsure. Of those 15 visitors who wanted to see more about women, 10 were women and five were men. Those who did not want to see more were both men and two out of the 3 who were unsure were men. Only one person described their impression of the museum’s current interpretation as “balanced” while most others were able to name topics they would like to know more about or weren’t included in the museum. When asked to give words or images they associated with women’s history visitors commonly spoke about women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and specific notable women from history. Also noted often were women’s accomplishments and how women’s lives had changed over time. However, when asked to give words or images they associated with the word gender, most visitors felt unsure or simply stated “male/female” or “men/women,” indicating a lack of understanding of the concept of gender. Five visitors gave no associations only stating that they were unsure or could think of nothing. Based on the findings of the survey, it seems that visitors could benefit from exhibits that discuss the daily lives of both men and women and explain how ideas about gender informed these lives and how those ideas changed over time. Overall, museums need to better incorporate women’s experiences in the past but also place those experiences in context of gender. It is no longer enough to just add women to the mix.
In my case study I point out the wealth of resources available and offer specific examples of objects and topics to consider integrating into the exhibits. I also explore past exhibits, collections policies, and collections planning materials in order to try to determine the museum’s institutional relationship with women’s history, finding that the topic of gender has not been explicitly included in planning. Ultimately, I argue that women’s and gender history need to be more explicitly considered in museum collections planning, research, and exhibitions in order to fully consider the impact of gendered expectations on women’s and men’s lived experiences. This case study also offers a road map for other museums, outlining the steps necessary to improving interpretation including assessing the existing collection, critiquing current exhibits, and taking stock of local primary sources. I think most museums will find that more materials are available than they think for interpreting the diversity of women’s history.
My thesis is still undergoing revisions, but ultimately I hope it helps museums to advance their interpretation of women and gender and demonstrate the need for a more balanced representation of women as well as the need for making better use of available resources. And while it’s Women’s History Month, I hope museums will consider making women’s history a priority all throughout the year, integrated throughout their exhibitions.
This coming weekend is the North Carolina Museums Council conference in Durham. I’m looking forward to some great sessions on collections and my classmates and I will be presenting our poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation about slave dwellings. Wish us luck!
Since my last post, I’ve been busy at work on my thesis, continuing my work in University Archives, starting a new archivist job, and preparing to attend a couple of conferences in the spring.
First up, my thesis. I have officially drafted a complete thesis, from introduction through conclusion. I am now officially in the revision process, working to make my central argument stronger and clean up my prose. My next post will share a bit of the insights of my thesis, which is about the need for improved interpretation of women’s and gender history in museums. As it is Women’s History Month in March, I will celebrate by sharing more on my thesis in its own post. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, my work in University Archives continues. I recently had the opportunity to curate a small exhibit on the history of the Honors Program at UNCW. I worked with the Archivist, Adina Riggins, and the head of the Honors Program to identify items we could use to tell the story of 50 years of Departmental Honors and 20 years of a cohesive Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit drew on documents and objects representing major milestones, such as the first honors thesis, a photo of the first graduate of the Honors Scholars Program, and the dedication of Honors College, renamed to emphasize the success of the Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit also showcases the various activities and endeavors that students in Honors participate in including a research journal, a literary publication, an award-winning newsletter, research conferences, and field trips. The exhibit is located on the second floor of Randall Library between Honors’ offices and University Archives. You can read more about it in a post I wrote for Archives/Special Collections’ blog, Dub Collections: Honors Exhibit.
In addition to my position as graduate assistant in University Archives I have begun working as the part-time archivist at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington. This position entails reorganizing the museum’s archival and artifact collections for better use by researchers. Some of the items will be deaccessioned or put on long-term loan to other institutions so that they can be better cared for and more easily accessed by researchers. Also, items not in line with the museum’s mission will be deaccessioned. An archive relating to the museum as an institution and its history will also be organized and set up. So far, I have been taking stock of the various materials and arranging the documents into categories for easier processing, removing damaging attachments, duplicates, and unnecessary materials.
Besides starting a new job, I have a couple of other announcements. First of all, my classmates and co-curators on the Push and Pull exhibit project and I received honorable mention for the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award and we will be traveling to Nashville in April to attend the annual conference and awards breakfast! We are very excited to be acknowledged for our work and so thankful for all of the community members who shared their stories, artifacts, and expertise with us so that we could curate such a wonderful exhibit that has now been shared so widely. It’s amazing the feedback and interest the project has received. The news of our award was shared by UNCW. You can read more about it here: UNCW News – Public History Students’ Project Receives Honorable Mention from National Organization.
Another project from the UNCW Public History program will be getting some attention at the North Carolina Museums Council conference later this month. My classmates and I will be presenting Still Standing, our visitor evaluation project on the preservation of slave dwellings, at the conference’s poster session, sharing our process and the results of the visitor evaluation. Those still enrolled in courses have used that information to work on an exhibit this semester that will open in April. We look forward to sharing the first part of the project’s insights with the North Carolina museum community.
I’m looking forward to attending the conferences and meeting other public historians, finishing my thesis, and continuing my work in archives.
A week ago I slept overnight in the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s slave quarters.
Your reaction might, like others who I told before the overnight stay, range from “What?” to “Why?” to something like, “You don’t hear that everyday.” So, let me provide some context and explain why I decided to sleep overnight in a slave dwelling.
Joseph McGill, an employee of the National Trust, the National Park Service, a consultant to historic sites, and a Civil War reenactor, began a non-profit organization called the Slave Dwelling Project. The project began with the simple act of Mr. McGill sleeping in slave dwellings. He began in South Carolina and has since slept in dwellings all across the South as well as in less-known slave spaces in Northern states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The purpose of the overnight stays and the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring awareness to these structures and their need for preservation. Many of these structures are in danger of being demolished or of falling down due to neglect. Slave spaces have historically not been a focus of historic preservationists who have instead worked to save, preserve, and restore architecturally-significant buildings for their aesthetic value rather than historic. Mr. McGill’s efforts have brought attention to these spaces and helped to save several of them.
At many of his stays Mr. McGill has invited others to join him and thus when his visit to the Bellamy Mansion was arranged in concert with UNCW’s Public History Program, students and others were given the opportunity to stay the night as well.
Why did I decide to join the stay? My reasons were both professional and personal. In many ways Mr. McGill’s project and methods are a clear example of public history in action. When sleeping in these spaces and attracting public attention, Mr. McGill is encouraging connections between people and the past. Hopefully, he is inspiring some people to think about the importance of saving structures, objects, and other tangible evidence of the past, even if that past is painful. Hopefully, he is helping people to understand slavery on a more human level, to think about the experiences of those who lived in slave dwellings, and to realize that the stories of some groups of people have been undervalued and underrepresented in the past. These hopes were the basis of my professional interest in the project and the overnight stay. I wanted to know how he carried out the stays and how others reacted to them. I wanted to know if this experiential method was a helpful approach to presenting history to the public. These hopes also were a huge part of my personal interest. It’s hard to separate my professional goals and interests from my personal interest in history and my belief that learning from the past can impact our present and change our future. I wanted to connect with a difficult past, reflect on the lives of enslaved people, and be open to the emotions and ideas that might be sparked by spending the night in a slave dwelling.
My interest in and decision to participate did not, however, remove all doubt, anxiety, or concern for what the experience would be like. I worried about having difficult, uncomfortable, or awkward conversations even as I was prepared for and wanted to have these important discussions. I worried about how others would perceive my interest in participating because of my race. And I worried about other more practical or shallow concerns such as how well I would be able to sleep in a sleeping bag on a hard floor, if I would be warm enough, and if my back would be sore in the morning. Despite these concerns and worries I showed up to the Bellamy Mansion that evening ready to listen to Mr. McGill speak and participate in the overnight stay.
The evening began with Joseph McGill speaking to a public audience at the Bellamy Mansion Museum about his previous stays and the goals of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill spoke about the origins of the project as well as the challenges he has faced in gaining access to some slave dwellings. It was interesting to hear about the slave dwellings that are on private land and the varying attitudes of those private owners toward the project. Some welcome his stays and make efforts to acknowledge the presence of extant slave dwellings while others deny him access.
After the public presentation we ate dinner and moved from the big house to the slave quarters, all gathering in one room of the 2-story building for what I expected to be a deep and interesting discussion led by Mr. McGill. We started informally chatting about a variety of things and McGill did share with us two examples of the responses he gets from the public. One was an angry email asking to be removed from a mailing list and charging the Slave Dwelling Project with “race baiting.” The other reaction was that of a child who participated in the project and wrote Mr. McGill a card admiring his work. These two reactions demonstrate the issue of race in our modern society and how the past is so central to discussions of race today.
Beyond sharing those reactions, Mr. McGill did not structure the discussion that followed as I expected, allowing conversation to flow in any direction. This led to some interesting discussions of other slave quarters he had stayed in and others we students knew about from our work on Still Standing. Also, one of the women staying with us explained why she had wanted to participate in the overnight stay. She discussed her connections to the past and her interests in genealogy. As an African American woman who had found enslaved ancestors and felt so connected to her past through genealogy the overnight stay was another way to connect to her family past. Listening to her speak reminded me of the strong ties some people have to the past and people’s interests in their personal and family history.
While some parts of the discussion were interesting, engaging, or fruitful, others meandered off topic. The overall experience was not what I had expected, with no one asking tough questions and no attempts at helping those staying for the first time to harness the power of the place. The power of place lies in context and in a person’s knowledge of the importance of where he or she is standing. Those moments when I felt connected or awed by the power of place were when I separated myself from the discussion going on and thought about the enslaved people who lived in the building. As we were gathered in one room, I thought about the prior residents’ gatherings in that dwelling, for work, for meals, for worship, rest, or fellowship. I tried to imagine the range of emotions they might have felt toward the big house and its occupants. From the window of the quarters I could see the big house. A usually very beautiful structure, in the dark and from the vantage point of the slave quarters I thought the mansion looked ominous, looming over the space. After our discussion ended and several of us students went upstairs to sleep, I thought about the sleeping arrangements of those who lived here when it was first built. I thought of the cold, of the luxury of my modern sleeping bag made for cold weather, of the electric heat that was temporarily placed in the dwelling. Throughout the night as I tossed and turned on the hard floor and woke up periodically, I looked forward to the morning when I could leave, go home, and take a warm shower. But then I thought of those previous inhabitants and how at the end of a night they could not leave. As I stood up and stretched sore muscles and stiff limbs, I thought of those rising from uncomfortable nights’ rests to perform a variety of manual tasks all day. It was these inner thoughts that were most powerful. I think that the Slave Dwelling Project could more effectively harness the power of place by encouraging these thoughts and reflections in those who choose to participate in the overnight stays. Had I not known a little about the history of slavery and the Bellamy Mansion, the experience might not have been as powerful. Mr. McGill could make his overnight stays more educational and more meaningful if he gently encouraged the free-flowing discussion in certain directions.
However, I understand why he does not. Mr. McGill’s mission with the Slave Dwelling Project is to raise awareness of the need to preserve slave dwellings. He does not extend this mission to include educating the public about the value of slave dwellings and the stories they can tell. But perhaps he should. If the power of place was harnessed to help people better understand slavery and the lives of those who lived in slave quarters, cabins, and numerous other kinds of slave spaces then the need to preserve those spaces would be even clearer.
The day following the night in the quarters, UNCW hosted a panel of speakers including Joseph McGill, Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum, Dr. Nana Amponsah, African historian in UNCW’s history department, and Dr. Donyell Roseboro from the Watson School of Education. These speakers highlighted some of the important themes surrounding discussions of race, slavery, memory, preservation, and education. Most interesting to me was Dr. Roseboro’s discussion of the need to consider the agency of enslaved people rather than merely assuming they were passive victims. While enslaved African Americans were subjected to many things, they remained human beings and resisted slavery in many ways, namely by surviving it and forming communities, families, and other relationships despite their enslaved status. The panel encouraged further thought and reflection on the Slave Dwelling Project and my overnight stay and was a very valuable experience in its own right.
Overall, my night in the slave quarters was enlightening and meaningful, sparking a great deal of personal and professional reflection on slavery’s history, how we tell that history today, and what bearings that history has on our present. However, I think the experience could have been deeper if the context of slavery at the Bellamy Mansion had been discussed, if I knew more about the lives of those who resided in those quarters, if not only their work and negative living conditions were considered, but also their fellowship, family life and resistance, and if I had been confronted with more challenging questions of race and the influence of the past today. I think if the Slave Dwelling Project shifted its focus from awareness and preservation to education its programs could resonate deeper, if not wider, with those who join Mr. McGill for his overnight stays.