Sexuality

Poster created by the Health Education Authority for the National Aids Helpline promoting safer sex practices, c. 1990. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

The history of sexuality is a history of bodies—how they fit together and achieve pleasure—and of minds—how desire and pleasure are experienced and rationalized given social and cultural norms and political ideologies. Public-facing histories (like twentieth-century LGBTQIA+[i] activisms) lend themselves well to the excavation of primary source materials—newsletters, picket signs, photographs, etc.—and their respectable interpretation (de-sexualized narratives of identity and equal rights). However, the inclusive historian must remain cognizant of who produced and preserved what evidence, when, where, and why—and how it has been and will be understood by new generations and audiences. This information shapes and comprises extant narratives of sexuality.

Much of human sexuality has played out behind the bedroom door of history, private and concealed. The evidentiary basis for such history is scant. As an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. How can we commit to being more inclusive, equitable, and service-oriented historians given the gaps and silences of the archive? We must always consider who or what is missing from our narratives, and why. Even given a wealth of materials and perspectives, how can we showcase the breadth and depth of sexual experience throughout human history given respectability politics, institutional censorship, and cultural expectations? Studying the history of sexuality brings with it questions of (in)decency and taboo, sex and gender norms, anachronism and bias—all of which create a maze of roadblocks the inclusive historian must continually navigate. This article will equip you with the tools necessary for understanding these challenges, the complexity of the history of sexuality, and examples of best practices for interpreting it.

Defining Sexuality

For the purpose of this article, sexuality can be taken to encompass the following:

  • Sexual orientation—an internal experience, our desires or lack thereof, and who we are or are not attracted to.
  • Sexual behavior—an external and usually private experience, the acts we do or do not engage in, and with whom we do or do not share them.
  • Sexual identity—an external and usually public experience, how we conceive of our sexual experience and what we call ourselves.

These concepts are crucial for an inclusive historian to understand when interpreting sexual experiences of the past. As will be discussed in a later section, the frameworks and language we employ to encapsulate sexuality often present social, cultural, and political biases.

Historicizing Sexuality

Historical actors’ desires, actions, and identities will not always coincide with our expectations. In fact, they rarely do. Take, for example, Michael Wigglesworth, a seventeenth century Puritan minister known for his best-selling poem The Day of Doom. An ardent Christian, father, and husband three times over, Wigglesworth struggled with his sexuality, as revealed through diary entries. An inclusive historian would not automatically declare him “gay” or “prudish” upon learning of his attraction to his male students and his shame about nocturnal emissions. Instead, the inclusive historian would differentiate his inner thoughts and desires (evinced in his diary) from his actions (marriage and children) and identity (or lack thereof).

An inclusive historian is wary of presentist assumptions about the sexuality of historical actors. Modern identifiers like “gay” or “homosexual” reinforce anachronistic ideas about how sexuality was experienced in the past. These words come with their own social, cultural, and political connotations. In the history of sexuality, language serves a very important purpose— contextualizing a specific time and place, and how a particular desire, act, or identity was named (if it was named at all). Wigglesworth serves as a nexus between Puritan sexual mores, their internalization, and individuated experiences of desire. In order to responsibly interpret his history, one must ask how he experienced his sexuality as well as how it might have been read by others. Did Wigglesworth identify himself as part of a nameless underclass of “sodomites” persecuted by society or as a sinner comparable to a drunkard or a murderer? Is the “incongruity” between Wigglesworth’s desires and behavior something to be read as a lack of self-acceptance (by today’s standards) or a spiritual struggle (by Wigglesworth’s own perspective)? The inclusive historian must balance the agency of historical actors (like Wigglesworth) to conceive of their experiences on their own terms, with a critique of the social, cultural, and political constrictions placed on them that shaped their self-conceptions.

American scholar David Halperin once argued that sexuality “is a cultural production: it represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse.”[ii] In other words, sexuality is a social construct and it is our job, as historians, to trace its genealogy—how experiences and conceptions of sex[iii] have changed over time. As French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality, sexuality has been framed by power dynamics that constitute “normal” and “abnormal” sexual experience.[iv] When we say that present-day American society is cisheterocentric,[v] we mean that it continually reinforces those norms about how sexed bodies and sexuality are experienced and described. But was this always the case?

The Importance of Language and Cultural Context

Queer theory serves as a useful framework for the inclusive historian because it encourages us to examine the sexual norms of a given context. “Queerness” (or what a given society deems sexually deviant) is a fluid concept and subject to change. Essentialists argue that sexual experience is innate to historical actors—that people are born with immutable desires. This position often connects to “born this way” and “gay gene” rhetoric, seeking scientific evidence to validate the experiences of queer people. While an important agenda, especially in campaigns against gay conversion therapy, essentialism is also tied to a long tradition of sexological activism and the medicalization of queer experiences. It also tends to conflate orientation and identity—such that “gayness” itself is timeless and universal, rather than homoerotic desire. Conversely, social constructionists find that sexual experiences are shaped by social, cultural, and political contexts—especially behavior and identity. Even if certain sexual desires are inborn, they, too, can be shaped by a person’s environment.

“Gender and sexuality inclusion” is typically considered a catch-all for (or, alternative to) the lengthy acronym of LGBTQIA+. But it has the potential to be much more than that. As inclusive historians, we recognize LGBTQIA+ identity is a specific set of identities, subsumed within a political movement that emerged from a particular time and place. Such terminology, its predominately Euro-American, present-day connotations, threatens to limit the scope of our scholarship. In reading backwards western queer experiences, historians have haphazardly applied modern identities to the sexual past and sought to derive a progressive political narrative. The inclusive historian must contend with this combination of presentism and Euro-Americanism. The misapplication of terminology such as gay, homosexual, or queer to sexual desires and behaviors of the past allows historians to describe non-normative experiences in terms relatable to present-day Euro-American audiences.

However, in order to best interpret and delineate queer histories, we must emphasize relevant temporal and geographic contexts—so as to avoid imposition of modern meanings and allow narratives of non-normative eroticism to emerge on their own, with their own language and self-conception. For example, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argues—“the many vocabularies possible under the umbrella ‘women who love women’ work to dismantle the closet by decentering it, by positioning this trope in a spectrum of constructions of sexuality in which mati, zanmi, bull dagger, or lesbian all carry their own cultural and historical weight.”[vi] Likewise, consider nineteenth-century German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who originated the identifier Urning (also known in English as Uranian) as a way of describing his inner desires. An attraction to men, Ulrichs believed, was an inherently feminine attribute. Consequently, he considered himself and others like him to be part of a third sex—with female sex drives (or psyches) and male bodies. In a conflation of what would now be considered intersexuality, transgender identity, and homosexuality, Ulrichs’ self-conception demonstrates the historical construction of sexed bodies and desires. Sex, gender, and sexuality have not always existed as separate concepts and, indeed, still do not in some cultures. The inclusive historian takes these facts into account when studying unfamiliar contexts.

Statues from the Saas Bahu mandir / Sahastrabahu Vaishnavite temple depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra, c. 11th century AD. Photo credit: Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr.

Similarly, the expansion of queer American histories into nonwestern contexts necessitates a broadened vocabulary to describe sexual experiences. The globalization of queer narratives presents the conundrum of a neocolonial occupation of nonwestern epistemologies. For example, localized identities may be reclaimed from precolonial times and/or originated in the present-day to dispute the claimed universality of Anglo sexuality. Their persistence is irreducible to the American constructs of gay, homosexual, or queer. Localized identities directly oppose Euro-Americentrism in queer history because, as in all transnational and cross-lingual surveys of sexuality, translation is an act of approximation and cultural connotation is never fully captured. Therefore, sexual histories in nonwestern contexts are entities unto themselves and should not be treated otherwise. For example, tongzhi is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what westerners might call the LGBTQIA+ community, but was specifically adopted to counter Anglo identifiers. In other words, even if tongzhi is a modern identity, it may be anachronistically (mis)applied to Chinese history more readily than queer, which is not only anachronistic, but Euro-American in origin. The inclusive historian aids in the decolonization of history through selective language choice.

Modern distinctions of eroticism and romance between women is another example of how language informs the history of sexuality. Queer historians tend to resist ascribing “queerness” to female relationships, and are hyper-vigilant about presentist interpretations of affection. In lieu of same-sex sexual encounters, queer women are often said to have “romantic friendships” due to the absence of an explicitly articulated physical component to their bonds. Most queer women’s narratives rely upon private experiences articulated in the form of correspondence and journal entries, rather than more public records of the court and early activist treatises because female same-sex activity was rarely criminalized. Thus, historical work that glosses over the lives of queer women rests both in the seeming limitations of available primary source materials and in the phallocentric interpretations of extant evidence—in other words, claiming what constitutes intimacy (i.e., penetrative).

Political cartoon of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park while their husbands look on with disapproval, c. 1820. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

We must also bear in mind that queerness, while particularly relevant to a discussion of inclusive language, is only one facet of many in the study of the history of sexuality. Indeed, normative sexual desires, acts, and identities (and the language used to describe them) are much easier to excavate because they were openly reinforced rather than marginalized or erased from history. For example, Tom Reichert, Professor of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, considers how capitalism has reproduced cultural ideas about bodies, pleasure, and self-conception in The Erotic History of Advertising. Or we may consider the liminality of normative taboos and subcultures—wherein “acceptable” heterosexual desires and behaviors manifest in “unacceptable” contexts such as pornography or sex work. In turn, such experiences are re-eclipsed in the archive.

Ultimately, inclusive historians reorient themselves in an attempt to understand a different sexual experience or perspective, rather than fit those narratives into modern frameworks that are palatable to general audiences. The inclusive historian is successful in educating their audience about unfamiliar or even uncomfortable sexual experiences that challenge their preconceived notions on how sexuality may be experienced, acted upon, or identified.

Collection & Preservation: Considering Your Audience, Crafting the Narrative

The inclusive historian prioritizes provenance. The history of sexuality is often erased from lack of preservation of materials or, when materials are available, from a lack of context. As a collector for an archive, museum, or other repository, one must bear in mind how important source information is for interpretation.

For instance, many of the pornographic films at the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives—one of the largest repositories of sexual history in the United States—were acquired from anonymous donors. Beyond the occasional date of production, no information is offered regarding where the films were produced, by or for whom, or even how they were acquired and viewed. Understandably, taboo and stigma may have prevented the donors from revealing this information or even their identities. However, we are, once again, left with many gaps and silences in our narratives. What are the contingencies? The inclusive historian must identify creative methods of (re)interpretation and future preservation. Ultimately, absence is as telling as presence. What histories of sexuality get censored, based on the norms of their narrators, audiences, or the materials themselves?

For example, Sara Hodson, the Curator of Literary Manuscripts at The Huntington Library, processed the personal documents and correspondence of a gay man, containing the intimate details and confessions of their authors. In accordance with the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics (“respect the privacy of people in collections, especially those who had no say in the disposition of the papers”), Hodson considered the possibility of outing anyone were the letters made publicly accessible.[vii] Similarly, we must prioritize the consent of those whose names and images appear in pornographic materials, lest they be unwillingly identified as sex workers. And what if all involved parties are unidentifiable or deceased? Is attempting to locate and contact them (or their next of kin) for permissions already a violation of their privacy?[viii] Hodson’s “decision-by-avoidance”[ix]—allowing enough time to pass to ensure that public access has, in all likelihood, become a nonissue—while practical, does not allow us to tackle the larger philosophical conundrums of our work.

How are ideas about sexuality in a given historical context evinced in these materials? Conversely, how are these sexual materials evinced in particular historical contexts? In other words, sexuality both shapes and is shaped by history and society. Consider again pornographic materials—while certainly not unique to queer collections, they tend to be more prevalent, thus jarring a placid archivist or curator into recognizing the intractability of attempting to be both inclusive of sexual minorities and keeping their repository “respectable.” Indeed, once pornography intersects with identity and community, it is difficult to accurately position the “objectivity” of the processor. How do we reexamine the role of historians in crafting erotic histories, making them “suitable” for public consumption, especially when said histories are a part of a larger narrative of liberation and representation (e.g., the increasing visibility of queer material culture)?

How is the history of sexuality sanitized for public consumption at the cost of inclusivity? For example, the Western Australian Museum came under fire in 2018 for acquiring and exhibiting a glory hole. The glory hole is part of a wooden toilet door from a demolished train station—a popular hookup spot prior to the 1990 decriminalization of sex between men. This piece of material culture was part of a historic site, where a queer counterpublic was formed. As described in the introduction of this article, sexual behavior is an external and usually private experience, but not always. When sexual behavior is public, it could be identified as hookups, sex work, or masturbation. Such taboo history is not often discussed in museum, archives, or other public history contexts. “Public” sex takes many forms, is not easily defined, and has various social, cultural, political, and legal implications. Critics were primarily concerned with audiences—children who might see the glory hole on display. Despite the lack of anything explicit in the object itself, its implications are enough to shock.

The inclusive historian seeks to interrogate stigma. However, social, cultural, political, and economic considerations may constrain this process. Do you work at a small local archive or historic site, a national institution, private or nonprofit organization? Are you a Catholic schoolteacher with students under eighteen years of age or a tenured professor at a prestigious, liberal university? The inclusive historian’s dependence on private funders, corporate sponsors, and/or public opinion ultimately informs their work. Capitalism censors and drives the narrative, as does racism, sexism, classism, and ableism (past and present). The history of sexuality shapes and is continually shaped by the power dynamics of our society. As historians, we may, unfortunately, end up as cogs in the machine, churning out the narratives most palatable to those in power.

Crafting Grassroots Narratives

When attempting to craft grassroots narratives apart from institutionalized history-making, the inclusive historian prioritizes the direct involvement of the historical “subjects” themselves (if alive) or, if not them, then members of their community. Consider the differences and similarities between your audience and your “subjects.” Whose experiences are being studied and explained—and for whom? An inclusive historian does not speak for their “subjects” or give voice to their experiences.

The inclusive historian is wary of discordant curation, as well as collection—for example, white scholars “specializing” in Black HIV/AIDS history being chosen to consult on an exhibition over actual Black HIV/AIDS activists whose materials and oral histories were included in said exhibition. The inclusive historian understands that equitable practice permeates all facets of historical production—collection, interpretation, and consumption. Whose materials are preserved, who fits them into a narrative, and who gets to learn about the history? Consider the (in)consistencies in demographics between these three groups. In this example, tapping into public power-knowledge—elder community leaders’ memories and legacies, as well as younger constituents’ reflections and connections to this past—would have guaranteed the practitioners involved in the project did not fall into the trap of claiming working-class, queer, and trans histories of color and history-makers of color “don’t exist” but are, rather, excluded from and within elite structures.

The inclusive historian must move beyond the notion that only “professionals” or “practitioners” can bestow historical authenticity. Even with “community-based” work, bear in mind that problems can arise. Oral history projects often appropriate people’s testimonies without compensation or involvement (such that practitioners take without giving back and are, in turn, celebrated for their “scholarship”). Similarly, “advisory groups” may invite token minorities to “sign off” on a predetermined narrative late in the planning process. But the inclusive historian values, supports, and prioritizes the knowledge and cultural production of people outside of the so-called public history field. What does the community get out of a history-making project? What does the community want from a history-making project? What rich and valuable experiences and insights can the community exchange equitably through a history-making project?

Conclusion

Interpreting the history of sexuality encompasses myriad subjects—movements and activisms; kinship and family-making; interracial relationships and mixedness; sexed people; stigmas against particular sex acts and desires; pornography and erotica; BDSM; sexology and medical institutions; eugenics, enslavement, abuse, and assault; reproductive health, STDs, and HIV/AIDS; sex work and the advent of cybersex. Once again, as an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. Documentary evidence for sexuality includes how-to books, skin mags, and medical literature. The material culture of sexuality includes sex toys, film, and contraceptives. At a historic site, where does sexuality hold relevance? Was sexuality truly confined to the bedroom? Bear in mind that sexuality can be experienced anywhere, anytime. And how do we move beyond treating the history of sexuality as something “dead,” to be mediated through materials separate from their original contexts? How do we involve the living in their interpretation—the first-person narratives of historical actors themselves? Finally, with the advent of the Digital Age, we may consider how our sexualities are mediated through technology and encourage our audiences to reflect on how their sexual experiences are similar to, or different from, sexual experiences of the past. As an inclusive historian, you must continually challenge yourself (and your institution) to expand what comes to mind when you think of the history of sexuality and, in turn, what sorts of materials and stories should be included in your narrative production.

Notes

[i] LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and additional identities.

[ii] David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?,” History and Theory 28 (1989): 257.

[iii] In another entry on “Gender,” a co-author will elucidate the differences between sex (as in a combination of biological and anatomical characteristics unique to an individual body) and gender (a fluid combination of roles, identities, and expressions). One thing to note on how interrelated these concepts are with sexuality is that they are all social constructs. We might often hear that gender is a social construct—born of societal expectations for sexed bodies. But what we do not often discuss is how sex is also a social construct—created by modern, western medical establishments to fit bodies into categories. The dichotomous categories of male and female are each a specific combination of myriad elements—such as hormones, chromosomes, and primary/secondary sex characteristics. Each of these elements has myriad manifestations—different balances of estrogen and testosterone, other chromosomes besides XX and XY, internal and external genitalia in different forms and sizes, etc.—and they occur in different combinations. In other words, sexed bodies are infinite and diverse. In turn, an inclusive, historical approach to sexuality would examine not just how different genders (roles, identities, and expressions) have interacted sexually over time but how different sexes (different bodies and the categories placed on them) have been desired and identified, fit together, and achieved pleasure over time.

[iv] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978).

[v] Cisheterocentric comes from ciscentric and heterocentric. Ciscentric comes from cisgender—cisgender people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (as opposed to transgender people, who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). Heterocentric comes from heterosexual—heterosexual people are attracted to people of another sex.

[vi] Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

[vii] Sara S. Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” The American Archivist 67 (2004): 200–201.

[viii] For an example of privacy rights violation posed by the advent of new technologies, please refer to Luke O’Neil, “How Facial Recognition Software Is Changing the Porn Industry,” Esquire, September 27, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/news/a48942/porn-facial-recognition.

[ix] Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed,” 200–201.

Suggested Readings

Ferentinos, Susan.” Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors.” History@Work. 1 July 2014. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/lifting-our-skirts/.

Hansen, Karen V. “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Gender and History 7 (1995): 153-182.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.

Liu, Petrus. “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?.” positions 18 (2010): 291-320.

NOTCHES: a peer-reviewed, collaborative, and international history of sexuality blog. At: http://NotchesBlog.com/

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. and George Chauncey. “Thinking Sexuality Transnationally: An Introduction.” GLQ 5 (1999): 439-449.

Tang, GVGK. “Sex in the Archives: The Politics of Processing and Preserving Pornography in the Digital Age.” The American Archivist 80, no. 2 (2017): 439-452.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ 14 (2008): 191-215.

Author

~ GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Tang serves on the Long-Range Planning Committee and Diversity & Inclusion Task Force for NCPH. To get in touch, visit @gvgktang on Twitter and gvgktang.com.

View from the Field: The Challenges to Being Inclusive in Museum Collections

Annie in the Mississippi Delta, 1920s. Photo credit: From the private collection of Marian Carpenter.

The quest for museums to be diverse and inclusive in staffing, leadership, and programs is not a new challenge. At a recent American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, delivered a landmark keynote that challenged museums “to be of social value by not only inspiring but creating change around one of the most critical issues of our time—the issue of diversity.” Cole’s speech compelled AAM to recognize the need for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion to ensure that the field remains relevant and sustainable.

In response to the need to be diverse and inclusive, museums, historic sites, and related institutions have written strategic plans that promise to include all voices, cultures, and histories in their board membership, staffing, policies, educational programs, collections, exhibits, and events. Efforts to make museum collections more diverse and inclusive, however, have been slow and problematic. Why? The biggest contributing factor is the lack of diversity within curatorial and collections departments. According to the 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Report, produced by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Ithaka S+R, the number of employed curators who are people of color is 16%, compared to 84% of curators who identify as white. Museums with specific cultural and ethnic collections often do not hire curators, collections managers, or registrars representative of the cultural origins or background of these collections; nor do they establish meaningful relationships with diverse communities.

Throughout my 23-year career in the museum field, I have experienced several occasions where I have had to defend appropriate cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care. I will endeavor to describe three incidents at various levels within my career where I have had to tackle challenging scenarios around proper cultural representation of difficult objects, overcome personal trauma and emotion associated with racially sensitive objects, and combat discrimination within historical collections. These specific accounts are shared in hopes of motivating my colleagues working in the museum field to be aware of these issues around inclusivity in collections, spark discussion, and speak up in defense of proper cultural representation.

Appropriate Interpretation of Racially Sensitive Collections

Newly established in my career and armed with the scholarly lessons that earned me my graduate degree in history with a special emphasis in African American history, I thought I was equipped for the curatorial responsibilities neatly outlined in my job description and evaluation. However, there were no university courses or examinations that could have prepared me for the encounter that I had with the chief curator involving the display of racially offensive African American toys that dated from the 1930s and 1940s. The museum didn’t know quite what to do with these toys and how to interpret the sensitive subject of race. Before my arrival, these toys received very little attention and care. They were stored behind different objects as if they didn’t even exist. In fact, the small African American collection that was housed at the museum had been overlooked and no additional funding was allocated to support the growth of this collection. My predecessor was tasked with developing a gallery designed to highlight the history of African Americans and this task left her very little time to grow and care for the collection.

My responsibility as curator of the African American collection was to acquire new objects through loans and purchases as well as interpret and develop exhibit displays that would appeal to the museum’s targeted audience: children. My assistant and I worked with the museum registrars to properly document the collection, including the racially offensive toys. In planning for several upcoming exhibit displays to showcase the African American collection, one of the chief curators asked me to incorporate the racially offensive toys into the exhibits. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the possible lack of understanding by children along with the potential to offend parents, I turned down the initial suggestion, offering several justifiable reasons.

The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. Image credit: Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University.

Eager to create a teachable moment for both my colleagues and museum visitors, I provided the chief curator with an alternative way to showcase these toys. I volunteered to develop an interactive program that would allow visitors to learn about the negative stereotypes that were attributed to African Americans and recognize how these toys contributed to prejudices and discrimination that were taught in American popular culture. Because the program would be geared toward children of all ages, I explained that this would be a great teaching moment to demonstrate the importance of respect for all cultures and ethnicities. I was shocked that the chief curator didn’t share my ideas nor was she interested in expounding on the history of negative representations of African Americans. She demanded I place the racially offensive toys in the exhibit displays. Was this really happening? What book or guidelines could I reference to stop this insensitive act? What about all of the meetings that I attended that encouraged me to display African American objects and to develop exhibits that celebrated the historic achievements and culture of African Americans? I can’t remember how many days passed before the chief curator and I discussed again the usage of the racially offensive toys. I do recall that when we spoke, I warned her that this plan to display these toys would shatter the relationship between the museum and the African American community. She responded by telling me “maybe that’s the type of attention we need from the African American community.” Stunned by her answer, I told her that I would not display the toys. The chief curator was secure in her decision. I asked another African American museum colleague for advice and she was prepared to alert the local news stations. My connections with the African American community gave me the support I needed to challenge the chief curator. The museum was spared any unnecessary publicity and the racially offensive toys were not exhibited. Was this a victory, or was I unearthing the reality that some of the curators in this museum were not willing to accept inclusiveness?

Learning Points: As a member of the collections and exhibition departments in your museum, you have a duty to interpret cultural collections truthfully and with respect. Never compromise your integrity due to the pressures of colleagues who may not share the same ethical understanding or responsibilities. Always look for teachable moments to enlighten colleagues and the public when dealing with sensitive materials. I can’t stress enough the importance of building meaningful relationships with communities that are not appropriately represented. Their support and trust will be key to measuring the museum’s goal to become more inclusive.

Receiving and Processing Racially Sensitive Collections

After working in the museum field for over 12 years as a curator and registrar, I considered myself well experienced. I had the awesome opportunity to work at several different museums which allowed me to manage and exhibit a number of diverse collections that represented American culture. My interest and ongoing training in public history gave me the advantage in connecting with local African American communities to help them preserve and interpret their histories. I received invitations from colleges and universities, including historic Black institutions to teach and mentor students about museum careers with a special focus on professions as curators, registrars, and collections managers. I mostly appealed to history students and emphasized the importance of object documentation.

Throughout my career, I have processed hundreds of racially sensitive objects and my ability to identify and research these collections became second nature. I was accustomed to documenting objects that were both uncomfortable to look at and to discuss. I often had to console many donors that were uneasy about having these racially sensitive objects connected to their families and thus many of these donors opted to remain anonymous. However, I never expected that a particular donation would almost hinder my ability to fully document an object.

In routine fashion, I accepted a call from a donor that wanted to remain anonymous. Emotionally distraught, the caller informed me that she had found a post card while cleaning out the home of an elderly relative. She was utterly disgusted to know that the relative had saved this particular item. I assured her that the museum would accept the post card along with any historical information. The caller mentioned that she would enclose it in stationary and mail it right away. She didn’t describe the content of the post card and I didn’t ask. The object arrived within a few days. When I opened the beautiful stationary paper, I was horrified to see a black-and-white post card of four African American men hanging from one tree. I knew that lynching photographs were often sent as post cards, but I had never actually seen one.

The post card was sent with no additional information so I had to examine the photograph carefully to find clues that would reveal the timespan and possible location of the lynching to help me find out more about the African American men that were murdered. It took me weeks to process this post card. I was haunted by the bodies hanging from the trees and the faces of the African American onlookers that were standing nearby. I wanted to pass this to the registrar or slip it into a folder to be processed later, but an upcoming collections committee meeting forced me to complete the documentation. To heal from this emotional trauma, I incorporated the lynching post card in my lectures and workshops to teach other museum professionals how to accept racially sensitive materials.

Learning Points: How do museums prepare their collection staff to handle the uncomfortable emotions of processing racially sensitive collections? How can the community help? I challenge museum professionals to ask these questions. Because museums want collections to be more diverse, there must be an investment to make resources available for collections staff to learn how to work with sensitive materials. I encourage staff to openly discuss with other colleagues and communities that share these difficult histories. Be willing to listen and learn from community or local historians and invite them to help with the documentation of these objects.

Preventing and Advocating against Discrimination in Collections

As a seasoned museum professional in collections, I was comfortable working with various types of cultural objects. Collections care is paramount for all objects donated to or purchased for the museum—at least that is how I was trained, in accordance with AAM collections stewardship policies. As collections manager at a history institution, I worked collaboratively with the museum curator. Our relationship soon became frayed when the curator refused to store a significant Latino Art Collection on the same shelves with framed European paintings. At first I thought the curator had misunderstood my request to rehouse the Latino Collection in the permanent storage area. The reality became clear to me. This was not a mistake. The curator purposely devalued the need to administer equal care to an object simply by its cultural affiliation. This was unbelievable. Apparently, my predecessor had tried unsuccessfully for two years to incorporate the Latino artwork on the shelves of the main collections storage. Instead, the framed art pieces were either hung in various staff workspaces or stacked in the hallway. Was I experiencing firsthand cultural object discrimination?

I immediately alerted my supervisor to this act of subtle racism that was practiced through selective storage of objects based on culture and race. He supported me in my plan to care and store all collection objects equally. With several interns, I moved the entire Latino Art Collection to the designated art storage in the main collections building. It took several weeks before the curator noticed the newly stored artwork on the shelves. She retaliated by trying to get other staff to move the objects out of the main collections building. Her efforts became pointless when I reminded the curator that it is the duty of the museum to care for all collections as stated in our collections management policy.

Learning Points: The degree of object care should not be determined based on cultural affiliation or race. Cultural object discrimination does exist, but in subtle ways. The way to detect this is by asking questions: How and where are cultural objects housed in collections storage? Have they been properly documented and accessioned or are they stored in uncatalogued or unmarked boxes? Do the collections that represent a specific ethnicity or race receive the same financial funds and treatment?

I applaud the museums and institutions that are conscious of the care of their collections on an equal scale regardless of their cultural affiliation, but there are many that do not exercise that level of consciousness. I witnessed this inequality at a history institution several years ago when my interns and I were conducting research for an upcoming online exhibition. The African American collection of rare photographs and documents from World War I needed serious care and treatment. The collection was stored in worn archival folders and boxes. I was shocked that the institution allowed us to physically handle the photographs because of their fragility. When I asked the assistant if this collection would be digitized soon to prevent unnecessary handling, she told me that was their hope, but there were no definite future plans. Sadly, the donors gave these priceless photographs and papers of their military service with the museum’s promise that their items would receive the best quality of care.

Collections managers, conservators, and curators should feel empowered to speak up for the care of all collections. Don’t be afraid to correct colleagues. Challenge leadership to allocate appropriate funds to treat and document objects, particularly the ones that have a significant connection with local communities that are not represented in the museum.

Defending cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care takes courage and a lot of patience. I credit my friends, mentors, and fellow colleagues for giving me direction and advice to speak out and educate colleagues and leadership on the importance of diversity and inclusion. I hope these examples will alert my colleagues of cultural exclusivity “red flags” within collections, generate meaningful conversations, and encourage individuals within the profession to take action where needed.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, 2018, https: //www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/.

Schonfeld, Roger C., Mariët Westermann, and Liam Sweeney, “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, January 28, 2019, https://mellon.org/resources/news/articles/art-museum-staff-demographic-survey-2018/.

Author

~ Marian Carpenter has over twenty years of experience in collections management and exhibitions. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Afro-American Studies from Indiana University and a Masters of Arts in American History with a concentration in African American History from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the Associate Director of Collections/Chief Registrar at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Digital History

The United States Census Bureau used Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) to transfer data from paper questionnaires to microfilm from the 1960 through 1990 Censuses. U.S. Census Bureau, 1960s, Wikimedia Commons.

Digital history is an approach to researching and interpreting the past that relies on computer and communication technologies to help gather, quantify, interpret, and share historical materials and narratives. It empowers individuals and organizations to be active participants in preserving and telling stories from the past, and it unlocks patterns embedded across diverse bodies of sources. Making technology an integral component of the historian’s craft opens new ways of analyzing patterns in data and offers means to visualize those patterns, thereby enriching historical research. Moreover, digital history offers multiple pathways for historians to collaborate, publish, and share their work with a wide variety of audiences. Perhaps most important, digital methods help us to access and share marginalized or silenced voices and to incorporate them into our work in ways not possible in print or the space of an exhibition gallery. This essay provides an overview of the multiple ways historians are using digital tools to research and share inclusive histories with broad audiences.

The Growth of Digital History

Over the last twenty-five years, digital history has grown into a subfield of its own. Using computers to assist in both historical analysis and the sharing of historical narratives is not new. Economic and social historians began adopting computer-based statistical methods in the 1960s to analyze historical data as means for documenting and quantifying different communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as personal computers became more available and accessible, some historians created simple databases of sources, transcriptions, and numerical data derived from their own research. The birth of the Web and the first modern browser, Mosaic, in 1993, opened new means for sharing, networking, and collaborating in ways not previously possible. Using computer languages designed for the Web, historians found opportunities for crafting and publishing narratives filled with links to other resources, creating non-linear pathways that encouraged new ways of reading.

An important milestone occurred in the 1990s when cultural heritage institutions began creating digital copies of their holdings and sharing them online for free. The Library of Congress’s American Memory and the New York Public Library’s first iteration of the Digital Schomburg collection were path-breaking resources that facilitated access to sources for historians and students. Genealogists, collectors, and enthusiasts benefited from these collections, and the Web provided a means for them to share their passion and connect with others. Genealogists, in particular, benefited from digitized databases of passenger records from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation records documenting immigrants entering Ellis Island. In this period, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also began its long history of providing access to digitized U.S. Census records and other public records.[i] Collector Omar Khan launched a website filled with his collections, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, driven by his personal interest in the histories of South Asia. Soon after the site launched in 1995, Khan connected with scholars in and of the region and the Harappa grew beyond a hobbyist’s project into an impressive online resource containing collections and exhibitions on two distinct eras in South Asian history.[ii] Motivated by the potential to expose and document voices from underserved and under-heard communities, individuals and organizations gravitated to the Web to harness the power of computers to collect, analyze, and present digitized data.

Digital Collections

Today, digitized collections of primary sources from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums continue to facilitate access to existing collections. Many of these collections replicate existing archival structures and collections. As such, digital collections can reproduce the power structures, and absences, involved in the creation of the original physical archives. At the same time, digital scanning and photography, combined with web protocols, have allowed individuals and organizations to build, curate, and share more inclusive collections around themes and communities. Online collaborative research collections, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean, combine resources from multiple organizations to serve an international and multi-lingual audience and promote the study of Caribbean history and culture. Since their founding in 2004, their governance model is designed with principles of equity and inclusion: decision-making is shared and the combined monetary and professional resources are distributed equitably across more than forty institutions.[iii] When designated physical spaces for certain types of archival material do not exist (or are limited), people are creating digital spaces to fill the gap.

An important example of digital collections work documenting under-heard voices is the Colored Conventions Project. Led by Gabrielle Foreman and a large collaborative team at the University of Delaware, it brings together newly-digitized sources related to Black political conventions from the 1830s to 1890s into a website that includes minutes from local, regional, state, and national meetings discoverable by year, place, and subject tags. To make the scanned documents fully text searchable, Foreman and her team collaborate with students and community groups, including African American churches, to transcribe documents and research the lives of individuals mentioned in meeting minutes, most of whom are not national figures. Through this community-sourced research, a new story of African American political activism is emerging.[iv]

Many digital collections projects begin outside of academic institutions. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), led by Michelle Caswell and Samip Mallick, began as a way for the organizers to see themselves and their community in history. After ten years of collecting digitally, it holds thousands of items making it the largest collection of South Asian American history.[v] When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) first formed, they lacked a physical collection and turned to digital means to jumpstart their efforts. The museum launched an online Memory Book in 2007 that asked visitors to share their stories, family photos, or traditions. These early contributions influenced how curators shaped their interpretative priorities and helped them build their physical and digital collections. This practice also informed their digital strategy from the institution’s earliest stages.[vi] These digital collections provided building blocks for writing and teaching more inclusive histories.

Teaching and Learning

Some of the earliest digital history projects sought to bring students into direct contact with digitized primary sources and multi-media interactives to teach historical methods and analysis. History Matters offered one of the first free online U.S. history courses designed for high school and college classrooms, based on the textbook and CD-ROM, Who Built America?. By assembling different types of primary sources to represent many voices from the past and publishing guides to help students interpret different kinds of evidence, History Matters demonstrated the potential for building inclusive and synthetic teaching materials for the Web—such materials are now collectively known as Open Educational Resources (OERs).[vii] Since these early projects, educators have posted lesson plans, activities, and other materials online, which has created a need to aggregate these sources in central places for teachers, leading to sites such as EDSITEment and Teaching History.org.[viii]

Immersive websites and games have also played an important role in history education. In Who Killed William Robinson?, launched in the late 1990s, Canadian historians experimented with an immersive site that invited students to closely examine primary and secondary evidence pertaining to a specific historical event. Designed to help undergraduates understand historical methods and uncertainties in the record, the project asked students to spend time reading about the contexts surrounding the murder and associated events, then dig through a collection of primary sources and different interpretations of the eventsStudents using the website quickly learned how murky evidence presented at trial led to the conviction and execution of a Chemainus Indian and many questioned the verdict. Project co-creators, Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, wove together the social, cultural, and political contexts at work in colonial British Columbia to help students solve the mystery behind the death of William Robinson and other African Americans who migrated to British Columbia in the 1860s.[ix] Designing investigative activities like Who Killed William Robinson? and other serious educational games requires an intense amount of technical and research resources to build and sustain as web browsers evolve and the use of mobile devices continues to increase.

Historians are also sharing and creating undergraduate and graduate-level syllabi online to encourage more inclusive reading lists and assignments that acknowledge and respond to current events. Responding to racially-motivated violence in the 2010s, educators began generating reading lists to promote teaching the history of racial violence, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. One example is #CharlestonSyllabus, initiated by Brandies University professor Chad Williams, following the horrific 2015 shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The resulting community-sourced resource, now maintained by Keisha Blain and the African American Intellectual History Society, is filled with books and articles on relevant historical topics, many of which were written by scholars of color. These efforts encourage instructors to teach and discuss difficult historical, cultural, and political topics with their students.[x] Through these examples, we see historians building both simple and complex projects to engage students in historical thinking and research.

Digital Exhibits and Publications

Unlike a print article that has an accepted structure and form designed to be read sequentially, digital narratives offer historians the ability to create non-linear paths to explore themes and paths of argumentation and invite conversations with community audiences. Some projects invite users to see complexity in history by following different pathways through layers of content including: links to digitized primary sources; visualizations of historical data in maps, graphs, or charts; and narrative threads that work together to address historical questions in ways not possible in print monographs or exhibition catalogues.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is an example of an online exhibition that accompanied a traveling show developed by EMP Museum and the University of Washington. American Sabor’s bilingual website invites Spanish and English speakers to learn about the musical contributions of Latinx musicians and how their culture shaped the American popular music scene after World War II. Site visitors learn about Latinx migration in and out of particular regions, hear musicians’ oral histories, learn about musical styles such as the Rumba and Mambo, and listen to sample songs. This exhibition brings together multiple kinds of sources—including sound—that are important for telling more inclusive histories by using digital means to craft historical arguments about the past.

Digital publishing platforms such as Scalar, Omeka, WordPress, and Manifold offer historians the means to bring together annotated media and sources with long-form writing and embed visualizations not possible in a book. In one example, Matthew F. Delmont has created an online companion to augment his print monograph, Why Busing Failed. The digital edition is a free and accessible version of his research that incorporates in-depth examination of multimedia sources and provides him the opportunity to reframe his academically-focused monograph as more approachable online essays that offer twelve new ways to rethink the way that the history of school desegregation and civil rights is taught in American schools.[xi]

Professional organizations are also turning to free digital publishing platforms as ways to reach and support their members by discussing new scholarship, but also to provide a voice for their organizations’ advocacy roles in the profession and public policy, as well as in struggles for social justice. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) publication Black Perspectives, an award-winning digital history site with dozens of contributing scholars, promotes and disseminates “scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture.” The National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History decided to publish The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook online as a free resource not only for their members, but also to open the practice of history for diverse communities of practitioners and directly support inclusive and equity-focused historical work in public settings.[xii] Free online publishing software facilitates a type of dialogue that many inclusive historians already engage with in other ways; however, it expands the reach, depth, and breadth of these conversations.

Collaborative Digital Public History

Digital public history practitioners collaborate with groups outside of the academy and other formal cultural institutions to document their experiences and work together in telling their histories. For example, Outhistory.org launched in 2008 by a team led by Ned Katz to facilitate collaboratively-written histories of the LGBTQ community. The project collects personal reflections, but it focuses on using its Wiki publishing platform as the means to collaboratively write and discuss episodes important to the diverse LBGTQ community. As the number of contributors grew, so did the project’s stature as a resource for LGBTQ history.[xiii] Public historians are also actively trying to change understandings of American history and the shared racist, colonial, and exclusionary legacies that are made visible through current events. Denise Meringolo created Preserve the Baltimore Uprising to document the events of protest by those living and experiencing it in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The project began as a crowdsourced, community collecting project, but it continues to transform as Meringolo works with Baltimore residents, including high school students, to reflect and interpret this series of events within the historical roots of racial injustice and political unrest in their city.[xiv]

In reaction to racially-motivated police violence in 2014, museum professionals Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, started the hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson to begin a long conversation about how museums and cultural heritage organizations might improve and change racial and cultural understandings within their communities. By hosting regular conversations on Twitter and blogging, Brown and Russell encouraged museum professionals to examine their hiring practices, collections policies, and public programming offerings.[xv] By using social media platforms like Twitter with hashtags that can be followed in-real time and asynchronously, robust conversations occurred in ways that are not possible within the confines of conference presentations or other in-person meetings. There are risks, however, when public historians participate in community conversations of highly-contested historical episodes, such as the building of Confederate monuments in the early twentieth century. In the absence of skilled facilitation, it can sometimes be difficult to participate in thoughtful and rational discussions and it is easy for discussants to be dismissive, rude, and even threatening. People of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women are more often targets of racist, sexist, and exclusionary attacks on social media. Preserving these active conversations and saving the public witness of events recorded in real time is important but not easy. Most social media platforms are commercial entities, so saving these conversations requires understanding terms of service for each platform, user rights, and advanced technical knowledge to harvest conversation streams. Led by archivist Bergis Jules, the Documenting the Now team has developed tools and workflows to enable saving of social media hashtags and streams for future research.[xvi] No matter the project, digital public historians encourage and facilitate active participation of communities to increase understanding of the past and contextualization of the present through digital means.

Computational Analysis

Digital history that requires computer programming languages to explore historical data through visualization is often referred to as computational analysis. This approach can be most helpful for exploring collections of digital sources and other types of data that can be visualized to frame research questions or expose the relationships among people, places, and ideas. Using spatial data, some digital historians interpret landscapes by generating maps. Exploring the constructions and connections of place and space are important when studying the spread of commodities, ideas, and people, as well as the impact of public policies on physical places. Through careful research of local records, Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC visualizes segregation in twentieth-century Washington, D.C., neighborhoods by mapping the restrictive covenants, block-by-block, across the city. Weaving together legal challenges, historical photographs, and other sources on a map, this project offers a good example of how placed-based storytelling can make systemic racism visible in concrete ways.[xvii]

Textual analysis, more commonly used in literature and rhetoric fields, offers methods for examining language use by identifying language patterns and themes based on combinations of words and phrases across bodies of texts (corpora). Historian Michelle Moravec employs these techniques when examining documents related to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Through analyzing the rhetoric amassed across six volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, Moravec can see how the white editors framed the voting rights movement’s rhetoric. By excluding radical voices and women of color who saw suffrage as one step toward achieving equal rights for all women, the compendium’s editors focused on issues pertinent to themselves—property rights of married white women.[xviii] These limitations are important to identify when researching a large body of sources. Since computational methods require digitized and machine-readable content, the absence of inclusive collections presents real challenges. Online collecting and recovery efforts mentioned earlier in the essay are an integral piece for creating an inclusive digital history.

Social network analysis helps digital historians to explore relationships between different entities and visualize them. The Linked Jazz project team, led by Cristina Pattuelli, spent years extracting and identifying names of jazz musicians, composers, and leaders through recorded transcriptions of oral histories, photographs, and documents using computational techniques. The team built a database of names and identified connections, such as band member, mentor, influencer, or collaborator. They then asked for assistance from historians, fans, and jazz musicians to identify and confirm the relationships and other biographical information from this community. Driven by metadata that links individuals across multiple collections, Linked Jazz generates visualizations that show the many connections of individuals lesser known in mainstream histories, such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, a prominent Japanese band leader and musician.[xix] Engaging in computational analysis requires a digital historian to create datasets, and data needs definition to be processed. Forcing uncertain information into a fixed value, such as a date or specific place, when source material may not offer that certainty creates tension for historians and may mean that a specific digital method cannot reasonably be employed as means for analysis. This also can make computational methods less accessible than other areas of digital history.

Challenges for the Field

Despite the field’s efforts to build an open and collaborative community, digital history methods can be exclusive and challenging to practice. Digital historians have worked to be inclusive of underrepresented and under-served communities in their project work, but they have not been as successful in expanding the corps of practitioners. Even still, efforts such as the multi-lingual Programming Historian, offer step-by-step lessons with sample data and content for learning different digital methods, free open source software, and workflows. Started in 2008 by William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, Programming Historian is now a free peer-reviewed publication supported by an active cohort of authors, editors, and reviewers committed to teaching, fostering, and growing an inclusive community of practitioners.[xx] Other efforts to increase capacity can be found through free professional development opportunities offered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, and professional organizations, as well as fee-based courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and many universities. National networks, such as RailsGirls, are working to give young women free training in computational thinking and programming and, in this way, seek to create a more inclusive workforce in the technology sector.[xxi] This essay shows that digital methods and projects offer dynamic ways for creating, publishing, and collaborating on inclusive history projects. While this essay does not address digital infrastructure, it is important to note that historians are contributing to these new methods and the scholarly communications ecosystem through the development of and contributions to free and open source software that undergirds much of the work cited here.[xxii] A major challenge for us, is to be active in conversations about preserving and sustaining the open digital infrastructure that makes this inclusive digital history work accessible for all in years to come.

Notes

[i] Library of Congress, American Memoryhttps://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; New York Public Library, Digital Schomburghttp://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19/; Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/family-history-center; Family Search has grown tremendously since its launch in May 1999, as an outgrowth of the LDS Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah, https://www.familysearch.org/.

[ii] Omar Khan, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, original website content lives here http://old.harappa.com/, and the updated newly-designed site is found at http://harappa.com/.

[iii] Digital Library of the Caribbean, http://dloc.com.

[iv] P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, Sarah Lynn Patterson, et al, The Colored Conventions Projecthttp://coloredconventions.org.

[v] Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

[vi] Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Memory Book, 2007-2011: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/memory-book; Laura Coyle, “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

[vii] Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and American Social History Project, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Webhttp://historymatters.gmu.edu.

[viii] National Endowment for the Humanities, EDSITEment, https://edsitement.neh.gov/; Kelly Schrum, et al, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, TeachingHistory.org: National History Education Clearinghousehttps://teachinghistory.org.

[ix] Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Landhttp://canadianmysteries.ca/sites/robinson/home/indexen.html.

[x] Dan Cohen, “A Million Syllabi,” DanCohen.org, blog, March 31, 2011, https://dancohen.org/2011/03/30/a-million-syllabi/; Chad Williams, et al, #Charleston Syllabus: https://www.aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/.

[xi] Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar: https://scalar.me/anvc/; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Corporation for Digital Scholarship, Omeka: http://omeka.org; WordPress Foundation, WordPress: http://wordpress.org; University of Minnesota Press, Manifold, https://manifold.umn.edu/; Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed, digital project, http://whybusingfailed.com/anvc/why-busing-failed/index.

[xii] African American Intellectual History Society, Black Perspectives, https://www.aaihs.org/black-perspectives. Black Perspectives won the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History in 2017.

[xiii] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “OutHistory.Org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

[xiv] Denise Meringolo, Maryland Historical Society, et al, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising, http://baltimoreuprising2015.org/.

[xv] Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” The Incluseum (blog), December 17, 2015, https://incluseum.com/2015/12/17/we-who-believe-in-freedom-cannot-rest/.

[xvi] Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, et al, Documenting the Now, https://www.docnow.io/.

[xvii] Prologue DC, Mapping Segregation in Washington, DChttp://www.mappingsegregationdc.org/.

[xviii] Michelle Moravec, “‘Under this name she is fitly described’: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage,” Women and Social Movements 19, no. 1 (March 2015), http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/moravec-full.html.

[xix] Cristina Pattuelli, et al, Linked Jazzhttps://linkedjazz.org/.

[xx] The Programming Historianhttps://programminghistorian.org/.

[xxi] National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities, Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program, https://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/institutes; Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria, Canada, http://www.dhsi.org/; National RailsGirls, http://railsgirls.com/.

[xxii] Software is developed and maintained by historians and humanists at institutions, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (Zotero http://zotero.org; Omeka http://omeka.org; and Tropy, http://tropy.org); Stanford University’s Humanities + Design Lab (Palladio, http://hdlab.stanford.edu/palladio/); and Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (Scalar, https://scalar.me/anvc/scalar/). Individuals contributing software include Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell (Voyant Tools, https://voyant-tools.org/) and Lincoln Mullen (R packages: https://lincolnmullen.com/code/).

Suggested Readings

Brennan, Sheila A. “Public, First.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/83.

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.

Coyle, Laura. “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55.

Gibbs, Frederick W. “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” The American Historian, February 2016. http://tah.oah.org/february-2016/new-forms-of-history-critiquing-data-and-its-representations/.

Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian, 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

Leon, Sharon. “Complicating a ‘Great Man’ Narrative of Digital History in the United States.” In Bodies of Information, Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, edited by Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont, 344-366. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Graham, Shawn, et al. Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. London: Imperial College Press, 2016. http://www.themacroscope.org/2.0/.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54

Rosenzweig, Roy, et al. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/rose15086.

Tilton, Lauren, et al, editors. American Quarterly Special Issue: Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities 70, no. 3 (September 2018). https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/13.

White, Richard. “What Is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, February 1, 2010. http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.

Author

Sheila A. Brennan is a digital public historian and strategic planner with over 20 years of experience working in public humanities. She has directed dozens of digital projects and published an open access digital monograph, Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the Post (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Material Culture

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, January 8, 1974. Image credit: El Gráfico, Argentina, Wikimedia Commons.

Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., come face to face with a vast array of iconic objects from America’s past, including a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, the light bulb Thomas Edison used when he first publicly displayed his invention in 1879, and the inaugural gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013.[i] These things—boxing gloves, a light bulb, and a gown—belong to the category known as material culture, what the folklorist Henry Glassie described as the “tangible yield of human conduct” and the historian Leora Auslander called “the class of all human-made objects.”[ii]

People throughout history have had a complex relationship with the objects they create, use, live with, sell, discard, and treasure. Although human beings by definition create material culture, they cannot control how objects are used or the meanings that come to be associated with them. For historians, objects have many stories to tell: there is the story of an object’s invention and creation; stories about an object’s useful life (who acquired it and for what purposes it was put to use); and stories of what we might think of as its “afterlife,” when an object is taken out of circulation to become a part of an institutional collection where it becomes available for historians to study. Collecting a wide range of objects and uncovering as many of these stories as possible can help create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Historians’ Use of Material Culture

Historians have not always invested significantly in studying material culture. Earlier generations of historians concentrated largely on politics, war, and economics, predominantly relying on written primary sources, mostly created by elites (and often elite men) who had the time and resources to create a documentary record. Collectors and curators at museums and historic sites were often similarly focused on collecting and displaying what had been owned by the elite.[iii] These curators devoted themselves to questions of provenance and connoisseurship, which focused on the artists and craftspeople who had made the objects and on the museum’s acquisition of the finest examples of specific types of decorative arts, often furniture and ceramics, to build these elite-focused collections. The social historians who rose to prominence in the field beginning in the second half of the twentieth century built on the work of a relatively small group of pioneering scholars and curators who had long been interested in telling the stories of non-elites. Beginning in the 1960s, widespread attention became focused on the past lives of ordinary men, women, and children.[iv] Because they did not usually leave as rich a written record as the wealthy did, their lives had to be explored by other means. The material world contained many objects that could help to reconstruct and tell their life stories. Material culture began to play a much more significant role in the work of this later generation of scholars who sought to better understand the lives of non-elite men and women.

Historians who study the material world undertake creative and interdisciplinary work as they engage with historical archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, museum collections, and written sources (including probate records, store accounts, and catalogs) that help us better understand material culture. Collections of everyday items can serve as valuable repositories of information about the lives of the ordinary men, women, and children who inhabited the past and help modern-day museumgoers connect to their stories.

Witnessing Objects

Many historians and public history institutions today rely heavily on material culture to tell compelling stories and engage visitors. One common kind of object collected by museums is the witnessing object. These objects were present at a pivotal moment in the past and serve as tangible links to that history. Being in the presence of one of these witnessing objects enables modern-day people to feel connected to a specific moment or event in the timeline of history. In April 2012, for example, when President Barack Obama visited the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, he took the opportunity to sit on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the event that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. Seated on the bus, peering out one of its windows, President Obama physically occupied the space and could imagine seeing through the eyes of leaders and participants in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Material culture as “witness.” President Barack Obama on the bus Rosa Parks rode that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, on exhibit in With Liberty and Justice for All, at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, April 18, 2012.

The ability of material culture to connect visitors to the lives of those who left little evidence in the written record has led museums to seek out new kinds of witnessing objects. In advance of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, sought out material evidence, for example, from the Middle Passage—the horrific journey across the Atlantic that brought more than 12.5 million captive Africans to North and South America. What the Slave Wrecks Project ultimately found was the wreck of São José Paquete de Africa, a ship headed to Brazil, which sank in December 1794 off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The more than 200 men, women, and children who perished in this single tragedy were forgotten until the ship’s discovery in 2010. Despite the thousands of slave ship voyages, this wreckage was the first ever recovered from a ship that sank while carrying captive Africans to the Americas. The ship is a material remnant frozen in time at a moment when it was a tool of the slave trade. Iron ballast, which weighed down the ship for its voyage because human cargo was lighter than the material goods ships like these often carried, was part of what was found at the wreck of the São José. At the Smithsonian, these ballasts stand as witnesses to the horrors of enslavement. As Lonnie Bunch explains, the exhibition of the material remains of the São José are displayed in a reverential “memorial space.”[v]

Multiple Contexts

But to stop there—to let objects only speak for themselves as witnesses to important moments in the past—greatly limits the interpretive potential of material culture. Even objects associated with famous events and people often began life as unremarkable material things. Material culture objects are embedded in multiple contexts—their production, their use, and their “afterlife” as objects of display—from which we can learn a great deal more than their association with past events and people. Furthermore, many scholars who study material culture argue that material culture does more than reflect historical processes; it can also shape them. Of the objects we have already considered, we can also ask: Who made them? What kind of employment practices did these laborers work under? What can we learn about wider social dynamics from these objects? What did these objects mean to the people who owned and used them? In what ways did these objects shape individual and collective identity? What could we learn, for example, about who made Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves? How did Thomas Edison’s invention change how people lived and worked? What does it say about our gendered understandings of the U.S. presidency that we collect and display the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies? Current-day museumgoers can be challenged to think about how material culture reflected and shaped human identity in the past and at the same time be given opportunities to make connections to their own relationships with the material world.

How to Analyze Material Culture

To understand material culture, people must study the object itself, as well as interrogate a wide variety of other sources. These additional sources—documents, oral histories, other material goods—allow us to develop a more complete picture of the many meanings of material culture.[vi] Without these other avenues of information and understanding, the complex past meanings of the material world would remain largely obscured. Scholars have developed guidelines to assist researchers interested in doing this kind of multi-level analysis of objects. Material culture scholar Karen Harvey has developed a beginner’s approach to fully interrogate an object, which includes three steps. The first step is to develop a physical description of the object. If at all possible, get into the same room as one of the objects and, if it is small enough (and accessible), hold it in your hands. Then describe the object by considering “what the object is made of, how it was made and (of course) when; production methods and manufacture, materials, size, weight, design, style, decoration and date.” The second step is to “place the object in historical context, primarily by referring to other evidence. Here we can explore who owned this (or similar) object, when, and what they were used for.” In this step, the focus is on how the object was used and by whom during a particular time period. In the final step, an even broader view is taken to begin exploring what the object meant in that time period. Placing the object into this “socio-cultural context” enables a deeper understanding of the significance of the object in people’s lives.[vii] To add a fourth step, you could also consider the history of the object once it moved into a museum collection, considering when it was displayed and why.

Early Twentieth-Century Polk’s Dairy Milk Caps from Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paul Mullins.

One such object whose meanings were uncovered only through the interrogation of a wide variety of sources are the foil milk caps from Polk’s Dairy in Indianapolis, Indiana. Historical archaeologist Paul Mullins has studied the city’s historically African American neighborhoods, where a frequently recovered item is a foil milk cap, an item used to close glass milk bottles in the early decades of the twentieth century. At first, researchers set them aside because they appeared to reveal little more than the fact that the occupants drank milk. But as Mullins recounts, an elder of Indianapolis’ African American community later told them how the city’s Riverside Amusement Park, open only to whites, allowed African American admissions one day each year. Foil milk caps were the required admission token, and African Americans in the city called it “Milk Cap Day.” The example of the Indianapolis foil milk caps shows how objects of the material world reflect the larger historical processes in which they are embedded—in this case racism and segregation in the mid-twentieth-century United States—and how even these ephemeral pieces of material culture took on new layers of meaning and could provide more inclusive interpretive possibilities.[viii]

Notes

[i] This entry is adapted, with permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, from Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2017), 98-101, 109.

[ii] Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 41; Leora Auslander, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 1015.

[iii] Gary Kulik traces the development of history museum exhibitions in “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present,” Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 2-37.

[iv] See Ellen Fitzpatrick, History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Briann G. Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 167-204.

[v] Roger Catlin, “Smithsonian to Receive Artifacts from Sunken 18th-Century Slave Ship,” Smithsonian, May 31, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sunken-18th-century-slave-ship-found-south-africa-180955458/.

[vi] As an example of this kind of material culture scholarship, see Rebecca K. Shrum, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance,” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 271-298. https://doi.org/10.1086/669669

[vii] Karen Harvey, History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1-23. One of the earliest sets of guidelines, and one that has been very influential, is Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1-19.

[viii] Paul R. Mullins, “Racializing the Commonplace Landscape: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal Along the Color line,” World Archaeology 28, no. 1 (2006): 60-71.

Suggested Readings

Harvey, Karen. History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources. New York: Routledge Press, 2009.

Katz-Hyman, Martha B., and Kym S. Rice, eds. World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, 2011.

Lubar, Steven. Inside the Lost Museum: Curating Past and Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object.” From the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association, Material Culture Caucus.

Winterthur Portfolio. The leading American journal of material culture studies.

Author

Rebecca Shrum is Associate Professor of History, Associate Director of the Public History program, and Adjunct Affiliated Faculty, Museum Studies at IUPUI.