Given our topic for today’s class, I thought that this blog post from the NCPH History At Work blog was particularly relevant: “On unpaid internships, professional ethical standards, and the NCPH jobs page.” We can talk in class about the way in which this represents an evolving code of ethics within the field, both in terms of our relationship to our many publics/communities and within our own professional ranks.
The Tallapoosee History Museum located in downtown Dadeville, Alabama. It is staffed and managed by volunteers from the Tallapoosee Historical Society of Tallapoosa County. Walking into the museum on a Wednesday or Saturday, the only days they are open, you are not instantly greeted by a staff member at the front desk as is common in most traditional museums. The layout of the museum does not include a front desk at all. The museum consists of the two large open rooms, the Bank of Dadeville donated the main room. In the back of the room, there is an opening that flows into a second large spacious room that the museum purchased and installed additional exhibits. Both rooms are filled with items of all sizes, age, and historical meaning. The museum features items such as an old wooden and castiron school desk, an iron wood-burning cook stove, a chair from a local barbershop, uniforms from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, and a large wooden delivery wagon that was used by Duncan and Sons Furniture.
The artifacts are arranged into loosely constructed exhibits of related artifacts with free-standing wooden latticework that serve to divide individual exhibits and the utilitarian purpose of creating additional display space.The interpretation and exhibit labels are minimal throughout the museum. Often simply telling what the artifact is, the year it originated in, and the name of the donor or original owner. The focus of the museum is entirely on the local, by locals and primarily for locals. The museum does not attempt to weave exhibits together into an interpretive narrative that connects to national significance, as National Park museums do. Instead, exhibits focus on old towns, historical structures, important individuals, and local schools from the county, some of which no longer exist. The artifacts have mostly been acquired through donations of items that span a wide range of time periods, subject matter, and arguably historical value.
In a local museum that is run by and funded by volunteers and donations, there are many differences from a traditional formal museum that is supported by an institution or government agency. The goal of the museum is not to interpret a particular event or person, or to emotional connect visitors with a site. The goal of the museum is to “preserve the history of Tallapoosa County for the current and future generations.” While professional curators and museum designers could criticize the museum, it achieves its purpose by sharing the stories, memories, and pieces of the history of Tallapoosa County. It is an excellent example of what public history looks like when it is done by the public for the public.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) is the official archival repository for the records of various state government agencies. Established in 1901, ADAH is the first state-funded archival agency in the United States. The institution strives to “tell the story of the people of Alabama by preserving the records and artifacts of historical value and promoting a better understanding of Alabama history.” In addition to collecting government records, ADAH actively seeks and preserves private records, including diaries, estate papers, sheet music, photographs, and three-dimensional objects.
The bulk of the archival material is available to researchers. The EBSCO Research Room is open to the public Tuesday-Friday and the second Saturday of each month. In addition to visiting in-person, ADAH maintains a digital archive. The digitization component is meant to allow access to more individuals as well as to keep up with the growing digitization demand. The webpage is updated regularly with recently donated collections, frequently requested items, and material that is deemed too fragile to examine in-person, i.e. early statehood records and Civil War letters. Searchable databases, including the Civil War Soldiers Database, World War I Goldstar Collection, and the 1867 Voter Registrations, are available on the website. Researchers can also browse through indexes that highlight Alabama church records, maps, and newspapers that are available on microfilm.
Outreach is an important part of ADAH’s mission. Staff members meet regularly with various historical, genealogical, and local government organizations to discuss proper storage, retention, various laws, disaster preparedness, and preservation practices. With funding being an ever-present issue, ADAH also provides information on grants and administers federal government grant funding to local institutions. The reference archivists often conduct genealogical workshops to help both the novice and professional.
Social media plays a prominent role in promoting ADAH’s programs. Food for Thought, a monthly lecture series sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, brings in a wide variety of lectures on Alabama history. Book talks are another avenue that serve as a promotional tool for those authors who have conducted research at ADAH.
The Museum of Alabama is another component in which the archival collections are highlighted. One of the exhibits, Alabama Voices, tells the story of Alabama using artifacts and “diaries, letters, speeches, songs, and other sources” to tell the story of Alabama from the early 1700s to the beginnings of the twenty-first century.
Given the large volume of records, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Without proper identification and publicity, little-known collections have the potential to be left in the dark. ADAH’s current home website is somewhat outdated, but a newer version is in the works. Luckily, they have linked their new and improved searchable database to the underwhelming homepage. The software is easy to access and use, but certain collection finding aids are more detailed than others. A reason for this, of course, could be the collection’s complexity and volume, yet those with little additional information hinder their potential and ability to aid a researcher’s work. For the researcher’s use and for the sake of uniformity, the website does use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). It is the author’s hope that the updated website will have an assortment of collection finding aids available to those who look to plan their visit.
An object deserving of additional study that is part of my daily life is my insulated YETI brand tumbler. The outside surface is a lightly textured seafoam green color and the entire inside is smooth, stainless steel. The cup is used almost exclusively with a clear plastic lid of the same brand. It can hold twenty ounces of liquid and weighs approximately three pounds. The cup is around eight inches tall and three inches in diameter. Notably, it is heavily insulated and vacuum-sealed. It is double-walled stainless steel, which supports its utilitarian value. It is used for both hot and cold beverages and keeps them at the desired temperature for an inordinate amount of time. The manufacturer’s logo is prominently displayed twice on the bottom sides of the cup and again on the base of the cup, as well as on the lid.
The cup was designed by the YETI Company in Texas, but manufactured in China. Since it is a cup, I mostly use it for drinking liquid, but occasionally will eat cereal out of it in lieu of a bowl. It also has the potential to hold items such as pens and other similarly shaped objects. Cups or tumblers such as this are not rare. Cups of this brand and similar cups of different brands are ubiquitous, especially on a university campus. The YETI Company began manufacturing tumblers such as this in 2014, and I was given my tumbler as a birthday gift in May of this year.
This object has clear utilitarian value. Its insulation allows me to drink iced coffee on the hottest of days without worrying that my coffee will become warm, or that the ice will melt. I also use it to drink water, which remains insulated and cool to drink. Another aspect of its utilitarian value is its reusability. This is important because I believe in reducing the amount of waste that I create by using reusable objects such as this tumbler. The reusability of this cup also indicates that it has social and cultural value to people who share the same desire for sustainability. It has sentimental value as well because I received it as a gift from someone I love. The object has cultural value because the YETI brand is popular among college students and in college towns. It is also seafoam green, which is also a popular color among people in my age demographic.
I use this cup every day to drink both water and coffee, and I carry it with me to campus often. When I am not carrying it with me, it resides either in the kitchen near the refrigerated water filter or on my bedside table. In a century, any historian can use my tumbler to infer that I drank beverages pretty regularly, and that insulation was an important factor in my choosing a cup for daily use. They could also infer that this particular cup was chosen for its brand name and color, as both are popular within campus culture.
This 1840’s pink silk dress is from AU Theatre’s vintage stock. the dress was bequeathed by former chair and costume design professor, Lois Garen from her personal antique clothing collection when she passed away in 1980. The AU Theatre’s antique clothing is stored separately from the costume storage and is used for teaching examples for my Costume History and Costume Construction classes. The dress has water damage from the roof drainage flooding experienced when giant storms have hit the building.
The dress is hand stitched; the sewing machine had not been invented. The gown equivalent to a modern size 2, the waist is 221/2″ , bust 31″, skirt length 43″ for a woman approximately 5’8″ tall. The gown would be worn over a corset and the skirt held out by as many as 6 petticoats, to achieve a soft, bell shape. A chemise, worn directly on the body would protect the inner gown from body perspiration and oils. The dress is made of light pink changeable silk. A design of blue roses is woven into the pattern. The roses change colors tones of blue, depending on the lighting.
The dress is lined with finely woven linen in the bodice, no lining in the skirt. An 8″ hem of blue polished cotton gives the hem protection from the elements. The same polished cotton is used for a hidden pocket in the right hand fold of the dress. The pleating of the skirt is cartridge pleating to the waist edge of the bodice. This is formed by folding the waist edge of the material back, arranging it in close cartridge pleats (like the pleats on the sleeves of graduation robes) and sewing the top fold of each pleat to the bodice waistline. The narrow piping hides the join of the skirt to the bodice. The dress has the same piping in the shoulder seam for shape and durability. The dress is trimmed at the neck, sleeve cap and bottom of sleeve bell with a pink scalloped manufactured trim. The dress has 1/4″ steel boning in the seams.
The stitch used to construct the dress is a running stitch in pink silk in the skirt seams; the skirt is cut in lengths to allow the selvedge to be the finished edge. There is a center back placket of self-silk for the gown’s closure. The gown in closed by 16 manufactured hooks and eyes hidden in the placket. The bodice shape is obtained with bust pads, which hold out the upper part of the bodice, and achieve the sloped shoulder look. The inner finishing of the bodice seams is in black cotton thread. The gown does not show signs of alteration, which is of significance in antique garments. The fabric is expensive and could have been made into another dress, or made for another wearer, but it is intact. The polished cotton in the hem still retains its sheen, so it has been laundered only a few times, if at all.
Why was the gown saved? It shows very little wear. There is water staining up the dress hem, as if the gown was worn through a deep puddle; however the silk is not dirty from wear. Perhaps the gown was made for a special occasion and then saved, not given away, worn or remodeled.
As a costume design professor I rely on history to teach the construction of garments and base the design of costumes for productions on historic clothing silhouette. The beautiful draping of this gown is not available in books; there is very little information on garment construction of this period. On a daily basis I teach students about garments, their history, and their significance. The social culture of the world of this garment is gone, but the dress survives for students to see the intricate hand stitching someone labored hours to make. the world of the theatre production is ephemeral, our productions last but a couple weeks. This garment is here for us to study 170 years later, and practice some of the draping and sewing lessons the dress tells us.
While my particular visit to the senior’s center differed from everyone else’s, I did learn a great deal about the two women whom my partner and I interviewed. Steven led the discussion, while I interjected every now and then to ask more pointed questions for clarification on some of the matters that we our seniors discussed. We were lucky, and had two intelligent, hardworking women who were willing to share their life’s experiences with us. We learned about cooking and cleaning, quilting, their forms of childcare, and about their upbringing. I was particularly drawn to our interviewees, one of whom had had a similar upbringing to myself. She came from an agricultural family that grew tobacco, and spent her summers with her grandparents, helping out in the fields, learning how to sew. Our other senior shared my passion for family and cooking, and she quilted as well. In the time I spent with those two ladies I found myself listening to many aspects of a “bygone era”, but still able to find instances where their past and mine overlapped. They had wonderful stories and opinions about the topics that we discussed, and their charisma made our interview process less awkward. I am honored to have met them, and I look forward to working with the information we gained from the interview in the upcoming project, and I definitely classify the visit to the Senior’s center a success, even if I did drive circles around it for the first hour or so…
In lieu of a final exam for this class, you can opt to lead class discussion for a day. You can find more details about this (potential) assignment here. It’s also linked in our syllabus. If you’re interested in leading class discussion, you can sign up for a subject, day, as well as a consulting meeting with me through the linked assignment. First come, first served. You are also welcome to take a final exam during our regularly scheduled exam period.
Reflecting on the oral history ethics readings both before and then after visiting the senior citizen center did the gravity of the implications of a maliciously used oral history became evident to me. Just from the 7 to 10 senior citizens that came to the center that from my direct contact, serval had either vision, movement, or literacy difficulties. These characteristics became quite evident while trying to review the release forms, having to go over several small (a sentence or two) sections repeatedly. A malicious or unethical interviewer could with ease take advantage of an illiterate subject. An illiterate interviewee would have to take what the interviewer says at face value, being unable to discern what the release form actually allows. The incredibly intricate ethical landscape has given form to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), while even though the process can be cumbersome, most if not all projects should go through its processes. The IRB is meant to protect the subject, the interviewer, and the institution/or project from unethical practices. While I do think it is inherently impossible for any person to be truly objective because of the human aspect that is more often than not present in interviews. An interviewee’s or interviewer’s voice, sex, clothing, personality, or a countless number of other characteristics may trigger a person’s unconscious bias, swaying them to ask or act in different ways. While a project in its overarching objectives might change after different stages of a project, it is the responsibility of the interviewer to effectively communicate why and in what ways their voice/stories will be used. Because of prolonged time together an interviewer and an interviewee might become comfortable in their relationship. This, however, brings danger and other questions to light. Does an interviewee communicate something in confidence to their friend the interviewer, is it needed to be explicitly stated? Does an interviewee consciously alter their narration in order to continue the appearance to the interviewer? While these questions might, and probably will continue to be evident, they are important topics to explore and be wary of with every subject.
The Auburn Housing Authority Oral History Project interview day with Auburn Senior citizens arrived long before I felt confident to conduct an actual oral history interview. I visited the Leo Twiggs exhibit meet and greet session with the senior citizens last month at the Jule Collins Smith Museum to encounter a few people we would interview. I felt that , other than a group discussion over the luncheon that included one senior citizen (Alice), I did not meet anyone. The museum tour of the exhibit did not lend itself to interaction with the senior citizens in the group I was with. At the Housing Authority visit, Alice was again in attendance and eager to tell her story. Alice is very close to my age, has an upbeat attitude and lots of energy. I hoped that she would be willing to talk to me, and I did seek her out to interview. My partner Tara made the interview move smoothly. finding us a separate space from the main room, she kept a positive, comfortable vibe throughout.
It is hard to be objective in an oral history. Hard to keep personal comparisons of life trajectories out of the story, especially when the interview turned into more of a conversation and some easygoing story telling. The purpose of the oral interview was for Alice to be able to tell her life story, not a chat on a neighborhood stoop in Brooklyn. Should there be a responsibility of the interviewer to the interviewee? I think definitely, yes. I felt protective of the interviewee. I perceived that I was responsible for the story she was willing to tell. I felt responsible for the tears that fell as she told difficult crossroads of her story. Why had I asked that question? Why did I pursue that story, when it would have been easier to ask a different question on a less vulnerable topic? Is it okay to keep going down a story path that is not on the guiding questions list, but told about areas of Alabama history not often heard? the story of her grandmother, a country midwife and her grandfather, an unschooled, but knowledgeable folk art doctor could have been its own interview topic. Alice knew how that type of medicine was practiced and where the herbal medicines were grown.
Ethically, where can the relationship with the interviewee develop? A power dimension is hard to ignore and makes the relationship unequal. My status as a professor is hard to ignore, even though I tried to be just one of the students in the Public History class. I don’t think I succeeded.