If These Walls Could Talk Redux (Oral History in Museums)

A year ago, I was assigned a chapter from the 2011 book Letting Go:  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World about an interactive exhibit at the Minnesota History Center called “Open House”.  You can read my original blog entry about the reading here.  Since the exhibit utilizes oral history interviews in a raw, yet creative way, the reading was assigned again this semester for the Introduction to Oral History course.  As much as I would like to claim otherwise, my original post was by no means exhaustive, so this could be considered a reflective redux to that entry.  In addition, this time around the assigned reading was accompanied by an essay by Anna Green about an exhibit in New Zealand which also used raw clips of oral history interviews to construct a museum exhibit.

In both cases, the exhibit creators have proven that even in a direct playback format, oral history interviews can be effective and engaging artifacts in their own right.  The New Zealand project was built from two hundred student-conducted interviews with the inhabitants of Frankton Junction, a large railway community.  The interviews were then edited and spliced together based on discussions of childhood, youth, women, and men in the community.  Each of the six sections was given a total of about ten minutes’ playing time:  already a daunting expectation of museum visitors.  Complicating the aspect of time limitations was the inherently difficult decisions about whose voices to include:  splitting a hair into “representativeness” on the desirable side and “stereotyping” on the side to be avoided.  As with any museum exhibit, all-inclusiveness is not possible, nor is it the desired outcome.  In this case, I think that any shortcomings in the clips can actually be beneficial to exhibit curators, prompting visitors to want to participate in order to add experiences which they might feel the exhibit lacks.  As Benjamin Filene wrote about the Open House exhibit, visitors suddenly “recognize that they themselves had something to say.”  Unfortunately, this exhibit doesn’t seem to have capitalized on that opportunity.  A guestbook near the exhibit’s exit recorded the thoughts and experiences of visitors, but this being a limited student project that may have already overrun its projected time frame, none of these memories were ever committed to tape.  As Green points out, the project even as it was exceeded the human resources normally available to museums.  Perhaps public history classes should guest-curate museum exhibits more regularly.  What say you, Louisville?


Parkland Oral History Project, Take One.

For my Introduction to Oral History course this semester, we are working on the first phase of a project intended to shed some light on the experiences and memories of West End residents–particularly in regards to the events of May 1968 in the Parkland neighborhood.  Civil unrest was building, and on May 29, at the corner of 28th and Greenwood, a rally protesting the reinstatement of a white police officer who had needlessly beaten a black man, Mr. Manfred Reid, burst into a riot.

The first phase of the project is to record the memories of men and women who had grown up in the neighborhood, and who were there that day.  In order to assemble an accurate and balanced history of the day’s events for the historical record, we are conducting interviews with Parkland residents, most of whom have never been asked to contribute to the story of that day.

My first interview for the project was with Mrs. Beverly Jones, who grew up South of the Parkland neighborhood in an area which was then commonly referred to as “Little Africa”.  Her husband Donald sat close by and intermittently contributed his perspective.  As this wasn’t my first rodeo, I expected some improvement in my interview style from the ones I conducted during my internship at the Science Center.  However, the old nerves turned jittery and jangly as I waited on the Jones’ doormat, and I struggled to speak clearly and calmly.  Fearing that I would miss some vital piece of information, I began the recording almost immediately upon being seated at the Jones’ kitchen counter.  Luckily, my narrators were obliging and understanding, and were thankfully disposed to enlightening this hobbledehoy historian who grew up in some of the whitest places in America.  Mrs. Jones was a delight, and had a lot of wisdom and strong feelings to impart.  She expressed a sense of helplessness though, and felt that the positive efforts going on in Louisville’s West End weren’t reaching the right people.  I assured her that by contributing to our project, along with her simple everyday influence, she was helping the eventual revitalization of the neighborhood.  I only hope that my small part was done well enough to someday be helpful, too.

More exhibit work

A second full-length display case for years held a mid-century hair curling gizmo along with a seated mannequin in a striking sharkskin dress.  My task was to create a new technology display which would meet the Next Generation Science Standards.  While the new standards are meant to stimulate creative problem solving and scientific investigation, the exhibits I started building during my internship and continued this past summer demonstrated what inventors and engineers had already accomplished using these techniques.  I was free to explore the collection and use whatever I found to achieve that end.

On one hand, the opportunity to access such a collection and create displays that would be seen by thousands was enormously gratifying.  It isn’t a chance I took lightly, and I don’t think that many in my position as a public history student can say they’ve had a similar experience.  On the other hand, I had very little guidance in the process.  Once written, my text required the approval of the Science Center’s Director of Education & Experience.  She was also always willing to offer ideas on exhibits if I got stuck.  My immediate supervisor would also answer specific questions if it came to that, but in general, I was isolated in the collections department during the hours I spent at work.  This meant that I, too was challenged to come up with creative solutions and use whatever materials I could find in the abandoned department.

Eventually I decided to compare traditional phonograph technology with its most advanced and relatively unknown variation, the Capacitance Electronic Disc, which is a playback-only video system developed by RCA in the late 1970s.  CEDs are basically phonograph technology pushed to the extreme.  A single 12-inch disc holds an average-length movie, though it does need to be turned over halfway through.  This technology failed to catch on because although it was priced similarly to VCRs, CED systems did not allow home users to record from television like VCRs did.  Because of this, they have become a technological oddity.  Although the Science Center has a permanent moratorium on collections acquisitions, a CED system along with several discs were accepted last winter.

I chose a child’s turntable from the 1950s with a 45 rpm single (which would be displayed with an appropriately-attired child-sized mannequin) to compare to the CED player, which was released in 1981.

The best part of the process was choosing clothing.  I especially enjoyed the search for the perfect 1980s T-shirt for my proud CED owner.  Suffice it to say, it was a much different experience than dressing the c1905 mannequin from my previous post.  Here are some photos from the process…

IMG_0389 IMG_0390 IMG_0391

As much as I liked the rainbow shirt, I ultimately decided to swap it for something distinctly local–a WLRS T-shirt, which I discovered was a local rock station located nearby in the 800 building.  I was also able to locate some late-70s ankle socks.  The children’s clothing from the ’50s in the collection was sparse, and though I don’t think it screams mid-century, this red dress was the best I could find.  I admit that it took me a few tries before I understood how it was supposed to go on.

The exhibit explains how phonograph technology works, and compares the length of the groove on a 45 with that of the CED.  Here are some shots of the finished exhibit, front and back…


On the black stand (which was built for me so speedily by the operations department and I covered with black felt) is a magnifier showing what a phonograph cartridge looks like, with arrows pointing out the styluses (styli?).


The arrows were crafted very carefully out of little foil star stickers.

Admittedly, certain things about the exhibit are not ideal.  The felt draped over the CED’s stand and the way the text is mounted onto it is rather clumsy and unprofessional.  If I’d had my druthers I would have had another plinth for the CED player.


The shirt was too long, but that was no problem; I just did what she would have done- tied a side knot.

This exhibit was a “learning-on-the-job” type experience.  Overall I am happy with it and proud of how it turned out.  It represents a surprising amount of research, trial and error, and planning.  Though I now feel that a one-man curatorial team is not sufficient, it taught me a lot about what I am capable of.

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] http://anne-braden.org/who-was-anne-braden/ [2] “Making Louisville Home for Us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing” Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission, 21. [3] http://anne-braden.org  

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.