I like to say that I am a second-generation digital humanist. My father, George H. Brett II, became interested in computers in the late 1970s, helped the University of North Carolina system evaluate computers/operating systems, was the first sysadmin of the Humanities listserv, and worked for decades in what was then humanities computing.

It was my Dad who introduced me to email, mu*s, html, terminal, servers, the internet, the world wide web, twitter, and THATCamp, along with countless other things which aren’t necessarily relevant to computers or the humanities. We had a conversation before my first THATCamp to establish whether he could say “that’s my daughter” (he could), and even with that it apparently took people a while to realize that he was my Dad.

There is so much I want to say about his life and what he did, not just for me but for so many people. So much, in fact, that I cannot seem to say any of it.

My father died this afternoon, after a fight with a brain tumor and, eventually, pneumonia. His family was with him, and I am grateful to everyone at RRCHNM and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason for not only making it easy for me to drop everything and come up to be here, but for telling me to do it and never letting me doubt I was making the right choice.

I have created an Omeka installation to collect people’s stories and pictures of my father. Even as he was in his final days, I discovered things he did and lives he touched I’d never known about. The site may be buggy at the moment – I only just installed contribution – but if you have something to share, please do.

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, by which I mean the friend I have known the longest, leaves the country today. She is off on her first posting as an employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and over the next twenty or thirty years she will get to live in all sorts of interesting places.

Her father worked for USAID all during our childhoods, so she has already lived or spent extended periods of time in Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, not to mention North Carolina, Massachusetts, and the DC metro area. Every summer, she would come back to our hometown in North Carolina with her mother and brother. Her mom had seen too many USAID and foreign service kids grow up without a sense of place, a rootedness, so she determined that my friend and her brother would spend months every year in the town where both their grandparents lived.

Recently, we went out to dinner. My friend had just finished speaking at a panel on “third culture kids,” a term for children whose parents work and live in country or culture different from that of their origin. Most of the literature about third culture kids talks about their distance from their ‘home’ country, the place which issues their passport. I get the sense that coming back to North Carolina helped assuage some of that alienation and differentiation, which was, of course, the point.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about all of this on a blog which focuses more on history and my experiences as a PhD student? Because my friend’s experience resonates with the family about whom I want to write my dissertation. One of the first US consuls in England, married an Englishwoman and had five children, all of whom em/immigrated to the United States at some point in adulthood and there stayed. Were they English or American or something else? These five people are in some ways the cultural precursors of my oldest friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be intrigued by their story if I hadn’t grown up with a friend who lived overseas, but neither can I deny an increasing interest in the cultural history of early diplomats and citizens living abroad and their families.

When my friend was applying for the job, I got to sit down with someone and act as a reference. They wanted to know if she was reliable (she is), but also get a sense of how well she would represent the country. I answered, truthfully, that I felt she had grown up knowing that she was a representative of the country, and I thought she did it really well. What did it mean for people (men, women and children) to represent a nation which was only years or months old?

Safe travels, friend. Who knows where the future is going to take either of us.


Quick thought: accessibility and angles

On Sunday I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum out at Dulles with my parents, a friend, and the friend’s two sons aged almost-5 and just-6. Due to recent knee problems, my dad opted to use a wheelchair for the day.  As a result, his eye level was roughly equal with the boys’. Dad ended up noticing signatures inside the wheel well of one plane, and other details that were blocked at the angle of a standing adult.

It occurred to me that it would be a good exercise for curators and exhibit designers to go through their exhibits in a wheelchair (or at least a rolling desk chair at its lowest height). This would allow them to see the space from the perspective of children and persons in wheelchairs, and might lead to some rethinking and redesigning. It might even be a chance to put ‘easter eggs’ at kids-eye-level!

The Donor Side

This past week I participated in the museum donation process from the other side – the donor side. My father was donating some of the papers of his father and grandfather to a military museum, and my sister and I joined him.

The initial meeting with members of the collections and research departments was relatively familiar to me, having witnessed it happening in my own department when I was at the historic house museum. They explained the process of accession – slightly different from what I was used to – and we talked about the content and history of the 2 trunks, display table, and assorted files and scrapbooks. They were very excited about some of the material, and sensitive to the fact that it was sort of hard for us to let it all go. They are, however, going to digitize everything, and we’ll get a pdf of the finding aid once it’s complete.

The best part of it all, however, wasn’t even on the original itenerary. Dad of course mentioned that I had just worked in a curatorial department, which led to some friendly colleague chat with the research guys. They suggested that, after visiting my great-grandfather’s aircraft (undergoing restoration), we visit their office building, also the collections storage site. Continue reading “The Donor Side”

Listening and hearing

Last night, I attended a “Listen…and be Heard” session hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (yes, I am Episcopalian). The session was very productive as a member of the diocese – I went feeling nervous and left feeling very respected and respectful. I also went into it intrigued by the process, and I think it could be used by public history and preservation communities when dealing with difficult issues.

Here’s how it worked: everyone showed up and was given a name tag with a little number on it. The number was for our small groups, which came later. The small groups didn’t end up quite as mixed as they might have, despite the fact that if you came in a clump they tried to give everyone a different number. I think so many people walked in solo that it affected the random-mixing nature.

Anyway, there was coffee and cookies as we waited for the session to begin. Eventually (well, at the scheduled start time), we all gathered in the sanctuary where the Bishop addressed the crowd. We opened with a prayer, and then he talked a little about how the process of the listening sessions was developed, and about what the session were and were not. A priest who is part of the administration of the Diocese (I cannot recall her name) gave us some instructions. She said that anyone whose group was in an area with other groups and where they might have trouble hearing should come see her and they would be switched to one in a quieter location, which I thought was an excellent concession to the older members of the crowd. Then we broke into our small groups.
Continue reading “Listening and hearing”

My Grandfather

My paternal grandfather died on Saturday. He turned 87 at the beginning of this month.

I’m doing my best not to focus on the loss, on the fact that (more than likely) whoever I marry will never have met my wonderful grandfather, and think instead about what time I did have with him. After all, my maternal grandfather died when I was about four years old, and my memories of him are limited to an impression of pale plaid and beige, of the smell of pipe tobacco, and an overall sense of being loved. Which is wonderful, but different from the memories of a man who I knew for almost thirty years.

My grandfather was a living connection to the events of the 20th century. Not just for me – a few years ago he sent me a clipping from his local paper, talking about the travelling portion of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and how Vietnam vets were talking with the junior high kids, helping them to understand the reality of that history. My grandfather was named in the article, and his picture was there too. I have that clipping somewhere. He loved talking about history, whether it was his, our family’s, or the world’s.

Continue reading “My Grandfather”

One man’s past is another man’s present

The last two days I have heard things on the local NPR station which very clearly brought to my attention how things I consider to be very much The Past are still The Present for others.

The first was not a full story, but the lead for a story later on (which I didn’t hear). It was about politicians in some state running for office and in the sound clip one of the Republican candidates was railing against the evils of Socialism. The second was about a group of people of faith, Pastors for Peace, who go to Cuba in violation of and protest against the ban on travel. The reporter mentioned that there is legislation to try and soften the embargoes, but that an Anti-Communist lobby group is fighting to keep things as they are.

From a purely logical standpoint, I understand that the reasons behind the concerns. I know that the Baby Boomers and those before them, who make up a great deal of the “Powers That Be,” still carry the emotional weight of the Cold War. For me, however, that war is history, the past, something to be learned from, not something to be continued. Continue reading “One man’s past is another man’s present”

Change vs. Exchange

I am reading the Baron Montlezun’s Voyage fait dans les années 1816 et 1817: de New-Yorck à la Nouvelle-Orléans, et de l’Orénoque au Mississippi, although only the part about his visit to Orange County, Virginia (perhaps I might read the rest later). He had a conversation with President Madison, at the latter’s house, where they swapped stories about American Indian boys who were taken into European or European-American communities, educated, and then invariably (in the context of the conversation) returned to their “savage” communities.

There is one translation of Montlezun, published in parts in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1945. The footnote for this conversation adds “For a parallel case taken from North American history, we refer the reader to Smyth, who says that Indians educated at William and Mary in colonial days returned to their savage life, as soon as they went back home.”1

What strikes me is the assumption that the American Indians would stay. Historically, I understand the perspective of the Baron and the President, and even the mid-20th-century scholars, who knew that the European lifestyle was far better than the savage one in the wilderness. It was folly, to them, to abandon it. The actors in their stories who took or invited American Indian boys (because they’re all men in this instance) to “civilization” were probably trying to improve them.

From a modern perspective, however, the first thing that springs to mind is undergraduate year abroad. You go somewhere strange, learn about this other culture, then go home and share your experience with friends and family. Many of the native individuals in the story went at least semi-willingly (the young boy who went to France with General Lafayette was sent by his father, but who knows how he felt about it?). What better way to learn about your allies than to live among them for a while? It’s a strategy which also works with enemies.

There’s not a huge point to this post, merely an observation. Some people may expect foreign students who come to study in the US to become Americanized and remain, but it’s not surprising to us (I hope) that they come, learn, and go home again.

1 L. G. Moffatt and J. M. Carrière. “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (1945): 206.

Home Sweet Home

I started writing this post almost a year ago, when a number of stories all came together at once. There was  NPR  talking about the effect of the recession on home ownership, and a promotional piece from one of the local stations about a woman who was presenting her research on the Sears homes-selling method, particularly selling the idea of ‘your own home’ in the post-war era. Then there was my own housing situation – at the time, I was trying to find a new housemate. Things got rolling, and the post fell by the wayside.

Now, about a year later, my own housing situation is in flux again. I’m not going to stay in my (gorgeous, poorly insulated 1940s bungalow) rental. I face the choice of trying to find a place of my own that I can afford or finding a house and housemate. And here’s the thing: I have never in my entire life (adult or otherwise) lived on my own.  I’ve never had a house/apartment/studio/condo all to myself.

The reason is simple: I have always lived in areas where it was expensive to live alone, and I’ve never had the kind of income which could bear that expense. Most people I know have had to find a roommate or three after dorm life. Somehow, I feel as though there is a rite of adulthood I have not completed. At the same time, I am clearly aware of how modern that idea is, living without another person.

Perhaps it does not get as much play in historic house museums and other venues as it might, but people rarely had a place to themselves. Women, particularly, lived in family units or at least with other people. If you were rich, there were servants about; if poor, family and neighbors. There were (and are) cultures and classes where having your own bed was unusual. Amanda Vickery, in her Radio 4 series on private lives, does a wonderful job of discussing just what ‘private’ meant to people in the 18th century.   On a far more mundane level, I have to explain to people new to historical costume that, yes, a working woman’s clothes could lace up the back because there would have been someone around to help her into them (and out again!).

I know all of this – in fact, I love this aspect of human history, all jumbled together and social. I am aware that the bachelor pad, the single apartment after college, is a very modern invention, although I’m not sure when it took such a strong hold as definition of adulthood. I know that living with other people is a perfectly historical practice. It does not, however, stop me from wishing I could find a nice little place to call my own, at least for a year, where it would be me and my furniture and my Books.

The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?