Summer wrap up

In a two-year grad program, you only get one summer break.  At the end of last spring semester, I knew I wanted to use the break to continue growing in my knowledge and experience.   Especially for someone who feels that they are playing a perpetual game of catch-up, even with his much younger peers, I wanted to make real progress this summer and gain valuable work experiences.  With the recommencement of classes just around the corner, I can say that I’m satisfied that I accomplished that.  Here’s some highlights.

After my experience with the Anne Braden Institute (see previous post), I began working more in earnest at the Kentucky Science Center.  As you may know, I fulfilled my public history internship requirement at the KSC last fall, and was the first UofL public history student to do so.  That’s not surprising, considering that history education is nowhere in its current mission.  What you may not know is that at one time it was.  Some explication is necessary here, and I’ll try to keep it concise.

The Kentucky Science Center’s roots stretch back to the Louisville Polytechnic Society of the 1870s.  Over time, the society’s collection of rocks, minerals, manuscripts, and zoological and botanical specimens came into the hands of the local public library, who displayed it in a loose, cabinet of curiosities style museum.  Very long story short, the collection was eventually transferred to the city and in 1978 moved into the current location of the Science Center on West Main Street.  The reuse of a historic building stirred up great interest, and an early exhibit in the lobby was about the history of the Carter Dry Goods building and historic West Main Street.  At that time, however, the museum was dubbed The Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science.  The original concept behind the museum (which in actuality never got very far off the ground) was to begin on the top floor with a seven-foot long model of the steamboat Robert E Lee in front of large picture windows overlooking the Ohio River.  As the visitor progressed downwards through the museum, they would be taken further and further back into Louisville’s past.  Local and cultural history would gradually give way to anthropological and natural history, and exhibits about the Falls of the Ohio and the region’s geological origins.

To do this, the museum undertook an active collections development program.  Representatives of Byck’s department store collected donations of historic clothing, hats, shoes, and accessories from the attics of the local community to create a substantial textile and “costume” collection which stretches back to the 1840s.  Louisville’s Heritage Corporation, which had been formed by the Chamber of Commerce in order to organize bicentennial celebrations in Louisville donated a large and excellent model circus collection commissioned by an eccentric local man in the 1930s and ’40s.  Numerous other personal items from the early twentieth century were collected from locals, which, combined with impressive anthropological artifacts from earlier donors, created a fantastic cache of cultural history.  In light of these additions, the word “Natural” was dropped from the museum’s title in the 1980s and it became the Louisville Museum of History and Science. 

Despite an action plan which gave equal weight to history and science in the museum’s programming, the writing was on the wall.  With the rise of Science Centers and IMAX in the late ’80s (and believe me, I’m keeping this as brief as I can), Louisville’s downtown museum shifted closer and closer to that mold.  By the mid-1990s, the transformation was almost complete.  A sweeping plan to reconfigure the museum into a hands-on science museum for children was carried out in the early 2000s.  Original artifacts were largely absent from this plan, though the best of the taxidermy was displayed in a thematic region called “The World Around Us”.  Institutional icons such as a mummy, two polar bears, a whale skull, and gemini capsule are permanently displayed in the “Discovery Gallery”.  Aside from the occasional loan, the balance of the collection is held in storage. 

This is where I come in.  I was hired to “reset” some of the displays of technology in the section titled “The World We Create”.  The existing artifact displays were stale.  They had been on display for several years and were merely curiosities with no subtext.  New guidelines called the Next Generation Science Standards required more interpretation to create parallels between science, engineering, and investigative learning. 

My first task was simple: a mannequin displayed with a 1905 gramophone that I had put on display during my internship needed a new dress.  The black one (see photo) was from the previous display and was of an earlier time.  For this I had the help of Jo Ross, a fashion expert who was responsible for the creation of the costume collection, and her fashion volunteers. 

  Here’s before: IMG_0199  ……………….and after.IMG_0381IMG_0382

This artifact is part of the interpretive story of the next display I created– my first large scale exhibit including costumed mannequins, artifacts, and interpretive text, which I’m proud to say I did entirely on my own.  Details on that one coming soon….


“Making Louisville Home for Us All” oral history project

Fair housing is a key component in social justice. Philosopher John Rawls wrote that social justice is “the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.” Fair housing refers to an end to the discriminatory systems that inhibit social justice in a locality and the remediation of those systems’ lasting effects. It promotes equity in housing policies and racial and economic diversity in all sections.

This (rather wordy) definition of fair housing was one of the last things I had to do for the Home for Us All: Fair Housing in Louisville-Jefferson County oral history collection. I was fortunate enough to be selected from a qualified pool of applicants to help get this collection uploaded to UofL’s Archives and Special Collections Digital Collections page and to create metadata for it. The most common definition of metadata is “data about data.” But metadata is essential for maximizing a digital collection’s usefulness. It informs the user of the type of information that the collection contains and where the collection came from. In addition, metadata provides a standardized framework for the material, which facilitates appropriate use and citation.

There were two distinct challenges to this project: the technical side and what I’ll call the philosophical side. The technical side required me to learn CONTENTdm digital collection management software in order to upload the interviews and transcripts (which were done in 2012 by Amber Duke and Nicole Cissell respectively) and create appropriate metadata for them. The philosophical side of the project required me to seriously improve my education about racism, institutionalized discrimination, and segregation in Louisville and beyond. CONTENTdm is a versatile software program used by over two thousand organizations worldwide (chiefly libraries). It is primarily used for digitizing and displaying manuscript collections, historical newspapers, and other ephemeral library collections.

In the case of the oral history collections at University of Louisville’s Archives and Special Collections, CONTENTdm is used in a way that its developers seem not to have intended. Each interview (an audio file which is streamed from the web) is joined to two other components­—an “introduction” page and a transcript. The function of creating these “compound objects” in CONTENTdm was ostensibly for digitizing multi-page documents like a yearbook, for example. However, because each part of the oral history’s complex object is totally different, each one required different metadata. The metadata for each piece is created separately in the CONTENTdm project client before being uploaded onto the web-based administration module. There, they are approved, indexed, and joined into a complex object which then receives its own metadata. In a sense, the metadata is created four times for each individual interview. In addition, all of the metadata created must adhere to a “shared vocabulary.” Each term describing the interview’s content must be pre-established in the Library of Congress subject headings. This ensures proper bibliographic control and promotes ease of use. It is a hairy process for a novice to learn, but after a few sessions, everything clicked and it felt totally natural.

The Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research is named after “a Louisville journalist, organizer, and educator who was among the earliest and most dedicated white allies of the southern civil rights movement.”[1] In 1954, an African American family (Andrew and Charlotte Wade and their young daughter) refused to be relegated to the “black part of town” and wanted one of the quality new suburban homes that were rapidly being built at that time. Since no realtor would sell to them, Anne and her husband Carl Braden acted as a front to purchase a home for the Wades. The first night in their new home, gunshots broke the front picture window and a large cross was burned in the Wade’s yard. After six weeks of steady harassment, the Wade home was dynamited by folks who refused to allow a black family to live in their neighborhood. The prejudice that caused realtors to refuse to sell the Wades a home in the suburbs was reinforced by the justice system– instead of focusing on the Wades’ right to their home, the Bradens were charged with sedition.[2]

Though the events of the Wade case occurred sixty years ago, the effects of segregationist housing policies remain. As entrenched as they seem, these practices of minority discrimination are only a couple of generations old. We live in a significant time ripe with possibilities for social change and awakenings.

To combat the lingering systems of inequality, the Anne Braden Institute was co-founded by the late J. Blaine Hudson, who was a longtime friend of the Bradens and former dean of the University of Louisville College of Arts and Sciences, and Cate Fosl, associate professor women’s and gender studies and Braden’s biographer. The Anne Braden Institute’s mission is “to bridge the gap between academic research and community activism for racial and social justice.”[3] This mission is fundamentally (or ideally) that of every public historian. Today, the ABI staff and interns host focus groups, lectures, and civil rights tours of Louisville. The Home for Us All Oral History Collection was just one small piece of the ABI’s outreach objective to educate the public about social injustices which still endure. In fact, a twenty year action plan was developed in conjunction with the project with the assistance of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission and the Metro Housing Council. Through research, outreach, and activism, the Anne Braden Institute hopes to promote racial and economic diversity in or neighborhoods and I proudly consider myself their ally. It was my pleasure to learn from them and to play a part in making this collection publicly accessible.        

  [1] [2] “Making Louisville Home for Us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing” Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission, 21. [3]  

Traveling Showmen: the American Circus before the Civil War by Stuart Thayer (A Review)

Hello, all.  I’ve decided to try and use this blog to keep up my writing during the summer.  I’ll be updating with book reviews and other interesting tidbits as I approach my thesis year.



     Traveling Showmen: the American Circus before the Civil War by Stuart Thayer is a slim volume that the author all but admits was written from memory. In the appendix, Thayer writes, “It is possible that 30 years of research into this one not overly-complicated subject could well lead one to feel that he knew something about it” (123). Though I am not familiar with Thayer’s other works, including the prestigious three-volume Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1860, I would like to suggest that the subject is perhaps more complicated than Thayer acknowledges. Like the overwhelming majority of historical works on circus, Thayer’s book is too insular, too inflexible. It rarely acknowledges U.S. history as a whole, even when events external to the realm of circuses had acute effects on it. Thayer’s book therefore bolsters the nostalgic, antiquarian pattern now prevailing in circus writing. The result is a book which feels more like a guide book for starting a circus c. 1850 than a work of serious historical scholarship.
In terms of content, Thayer seems unwilling to venture outside of the circus antiquarian bubble to explicate developments therein. Chief among his historical omissions are discussions about the nature of the rural economy in the nineteenth century and the improvement rhetoric surrounding the Second Great Awakening.
Though Thayer indicates that the Panic of 1837 caused the downfall of the Zoological Institute (a group of cooperating menagerie owners that Thayer consistently labels “actually a corporation” without explaining further), he attributes the overall decline of traveling menageries after that year to their “static nature.” “How often will the public pay to see a tiger confined to a small cage?” He asks. “… Or a cage full of busy monkeys, no matter how entertaining? A lion is forever a lion and is not going to transform itself. (5)” I would argue that economic conditions affected more than just menagerie owners. The Panic would certainly have had a strong effect on their patrons as well, leading to the overall decline. Thayer also ignores the concurrent pattern of menageries being absorbed by circuses as a possible explanation of the declining number of menageries.
Though absent from the narrative, the assertion that these traveling shows exhibited mostly in rural areas is helpfully illustrated in an appendix. Thayer casually refers to the “hum-drum” village life as a factor in the traveling showman’s success. (36) In the preface he writes, “[The oncoming circus caravan] carried a promise that, for a time at least, there would be something different from the routine of village life” (ix). He relates an old trouper’s “interesting comment” that “stopping at a farmhouse to ask directions was often fruitless, because rural people in those days seldom ventured more than a few miles from home” (49).
In another part of the book, Thayer announces that “Old Bet,” the second elephant ever to be exhibited in the United States, was shot to death by a farmer in 1821 for unknown reasons (7). John Culhane, a circus historian contemporary to Mr. Thayer, provides the answer: according to the diary of the Rev. Dr. William Bently, the elephant was shot “because he took money from those who could not afford to spend it” (Culhane, The American Circus, 20.) This intriguing anecdote provides further rationale for including a discussion of the household economy of small yeoman farmers in the early nineteenth century. Such analysis would help give the book the historical relevance it lacks.
Thayer also repeatedly refers to moral objections to the circus that were often raised by clergy. At one point, he attributes these to “the mores of the Puritans, the Quakers, and their like” (8). In fact, the Protestant religious fervor of the nineteenth century was a reaction against Puritanism. The swelling of individualism and democratic feeling during the Second Great Awakening resulted in widespread condemnation of amusements. Thayer asserts that unlike the “European” theatre, nativists did not demonstrate against the circus because it “had no intellectual agenda, no political ends, no moral attitudes.” (111). However, circuses of this time period often did include political orations and opinions. Talking clowns like Dan Rice frequently soliloquized about local and national scandals, and blackface minstrels, common in antebellum circuses, often sang comic songs about topical political concerns. For an example, an 1846 review of the Great National Circus, for example, praised the equestrian skills of rider Charles J. Rogers, who performed a “piece on the Oregon question, in which he represented the Pilgrim Fathers, John Bull, Brother Jonathan, and the Gladiator” (Louisville Morning Courier and American Democrat, Aug. 21, 1846).
There is no doubt that Thayer has done his research. The compilation of names, facts and figures that make up the book seem to attest to that. What are missing are citations. Thayer once again acknowledges this problem in his postscript. However, the lack of citations makes Thayer’s extensive research nearly useless to subsequent scholars. It creates an intellectual “dead end” in which citations of his book become fairly meaningless–reliant on his “thirty years of research” as an adequate source. In effect, he asks us to just “take his word for it.”  Traveling Showmen does not convey an overall sense of what the circus was, what it represents, or where it came from. Instead, the book serves as an impressive compilation of research of limited usefulness.

A blurb

I conducted my very first oral history interview last Thursday.  Though it makes me cringe a little bit to hear myself stammer and stutter through my questions, my subject, Ms. Dell Courtney, was excellent.  She was very gracious and helpful, and seemed to enjoy talking about the Hundley collection and Heritage Corporation.  I look forward to future correspondence with her.  I’m currently working on transcribing it, and realizing how much time it’s going to take to type out a 45-minute interview. 

I’ve also started organizing materials for my internship paper.  I have a ton of things to sort through, but I think (hope) it will be an interesting read that will add to the existing scholarship on the way that experience-based museums use their collections.

Some other viewpoints on colorized historic photos

Some other viewpoints on colorized historic photos

Colorized historical photos and more podcast waffling.

Recently, I’ve noticed a number of historical black & white photographs, some of them quite famous, which have been digitally colorized floating around on the web.  This blog brings together some stirring examples.  On the one hand, I can get on board with this trend as a way to more easily identify with historical subjects.  There’s something about a black & white photo that feels like a barrier.  It feels like it is hopelessly removed from us, as a part of a distant and foreign past.  Like the beginning of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film (or Pleasantville for a more recent example), it’s almost as if the past really did look that way, until magically one day, light decided to act differently, and a dizzying range of color became visible. Of course we know better, and colorizing photos brings them closer, and we feel as though we can see things as they truly were.  [As a footnote, several classic b&w films have also been colorized.  See ]

On the other hand, what does this mean for the future of digital media and museums?  Is it feasible to imagine a day in which a museum’s online photo offerings were reinterpreted in color?  Could this be considered just another way in which museums and photographic archives attempt to bring the past to life? If so, would the proliferation of this practice somehow devalue the original photos?  At the risk of overemphasizing the parallels, there are already plenty of young people (and some not-so-young) who write off black and white films as uninteresting and irrelevant.

Though color photos are easily desaturated in photoshop and b&w photography never went away, does the reverse action–effective colorization– affect the matter of authenticity in a new way?  In my mind it seems similar to other examples of historical photo doctoring such as the insertion of Boilerplate the robot into the historical record.

Obviously, I have more questions than answers on this subject, but I think it could inspire some rousing debate.

In other news, we are now one week from the due date for our podcast project.  I’ve found it really difficult to piece together an interesting narrative from these disparate interviews conducted by somebody else.  It was also overwhelming to me that I initially assumed I would have to quickly educate myself on not only the history of Jewish Louisville, but Jewish culture writ large.  Thankfully, my partner has put together some coherent groups of quotes that I think will serve us well.  For my part I think that the anecdotes about Jewish participation in the Heritage Weekends of the 1970s have come together nicely.  Hopefully the two parts will gel and make sense.  More on this later, as I’m sure this story will have a dramatic ending.

Podcast & Operation Brightside

As the semester starts to wind down, there are still two major projects hanging precariously over our heads in History 612.  The most pressing is the creation of a podcast using the Main Street Association oral history interviews–most of which were conducted 6 or 8 years ago by Susan Foley.  I can’t say I necessarily knew what a podcast was going into the class, even though I had heard several of them.  As I’m thinking about tackling the project, I just keep trying to imagine myself to be Ira Glass.  I can see it.  I think it’ll work. 

For this project we (we being the graduate students in the class) have each been paired with an undergraduate student.  I think I got pretty lucky, in that my partner is a thoughtful and dedicated student of history, though she is also extremely busy as of now.  The biggest challenge will be our communication and the delegation of the work.  The theme of our project is the impact of the Jewish community on the development of the Main Street business district.  It’s really her pet project, and one that is relatively foreign to me, so I imagine I may have to take a backseat in the research department and handle more of the script and assemblage of the pieces.  I’m interested in the form, though, and may consider putting together another podcast of my own in the near future.

In fact, I’ve arranged my first oral history interview (this for my internship project), and I’m a bit nervous about it, but excited about what information it may bring. 

Lastly, I volunteered with my neighborhood association and Operation: Brightside on Saturday to clean up Limerick.  It was a friendly, easygoing group of people, and I’m glad to have met them.  I spent most of the morning clearing brush from an overgrown lot in an alley.  Two abandoned garages were behind the overgrowth and the area had become an ideal spot for litterbugs and illegal dumping.  After clearing it away and pitching the garbage (including some clothes, broken dishes, roof shingles, and a whole lot of beer cans), I felt accomplished in that the properties are now more accessible and noticeable.  It’s amazing what a few hours, a bow saw, and a machete can accomplish.  Thanks, Limerick.