Last weekend I attended my 10th college reunion. In addition to seeing people I haven’t seen since our 5 year, enjoying the annual alumnae parade (headed by a woman from the class of 1934!), and generally indulging in nostalgia, I had a chance to reconnect with two aspects of my undergraduate experience which helped shape my scholarly life: the History Department and the Vassar College Costume Collection (VCCC). Continue reading “Reunion”

Clio Wired Wrap Up

The question, since it’s not on the syllabus, was: what difference does new media make to doing history? Reflect on your time with us this semester.

I want to address these in two sections. First, the disclaimer that I am a new media fan, have drunk the kool-aid, etc. I think there are number of ways that new media makes a difference to the practice of history, and the class does an excellent job of covering them. What follows is just what I’m particularly excited about these days.

One of the best advantages new media has for history is the ability to easily embed non-textual sources. My favourite class in my MSc programme was the Material Culture of Gender in 18th Century Britain, where our sources were not only the books we read but tea tables, prints, advertising cards, furniture, clothing, and buildings. Representing these objects in traditional print media is problematic: either you spend a great deal of money for a (big, heavy) book full of large, full color glossy photographs or you save money, have a few color photographs, and end up describing the objects which you’re trying to interpret. Continue reading “Clio Wired Wrap Up”

Case Context

I spent today at the Ohio Historical Society, in their library and archive. It’s a lovely reading room, with skylights, and the staff has been amazing.

During my lunch break, I took the opportunity to wander a bit among the collection near the main staircase. Just off the central area, flanking what appears to be a pull-down screen presentation space, are 6 cases. The cases have a variety of objects all of which look to me to be American decorative arts, presumably from the history of Ohio. Every case has a label across the top, declaring them Treasures from the Name Of Person Collection (I don’t remember the name). There are no labels in any of the cases.

I felt the cases need labels for the object. There was no context, no presentation. A Windsor chair with some nice teawares, paintings, and other household goods. Some silver, a portrait, a vase. How do they relate? Why did they go into a case together? What is the collection, and why were these given to the museum? Yes, this information might be available on the website, but that only helps very inquisitive people with smartphones.

As I was thinking these, staring at a case of anonymous objects, the part of my brain which was still at work kicked in. I wondered about the Person who Donated. Donors can attach strings to their donations: things must be on display, or not. Some museums can decide not to accept the conditions, but sometimes it’s hard to refuse. I wondered if the donor wanted approval for label text, or if there was too much disagreement about how and what to write. One of the dangers of displaying everything or anything you receive as a donation is that the provenance you discover by research may not be what the owner thought they knew.

Writing label text is a difficult art. You have to capture all the important information without going on too long, convey it all in a way that is both coherent and yet comprehensible to all ages. It can be time-consuming, but it is important.

The cases, with their nameless, unidentified objects, frustrate me. I don’t know the reason, or reasons, why the objects have no labels; I don’t think the reasons matter as much as the need to tell the stories of these objects – and the people who interacted with them.

Little Bitty Books

Today I went to the local U to their special collections (the joys of working for a historic site!). In one of the boxes I requested were books – three larger ones and then a series of small ones. I mean small – less than two inches wide and at best three inches tall. Most of them were almanacs, from the 1810s and 1820s, just a single signature, most likely stab bound to the marbled paper cover. The lovely one had a red leather cover, with a overlapping tongue that fit into a loop on the cover. The cover was lined with some fabric and had a little pocket inside the flap for a pencil. All of these had calendars, with blank pages opposite each month for your own appointments.The person (or people) who owned these books used those pages, and also wrote notes and addresses in the flypapers.

They were wonderful little glimpses into early 19th century material culture in the UK, into the way people used books and other printed material. It is so very much the way we still carry little notebooks around with us, catchalls of information – or, more 21st century, our pdas and cellphones.