Monday, June 4, 2018

Public History, Public Health

One of the things that's been fascinating about transitioning from working in museums that mostly dealt with political and social history around the American Revolution and early republic to working in a medical museum is that in the past three years, I have been exploring a whole world of resources that are now "must reads" and museums that are "must sees." It took me longer than I had intended to finally visit the Public Health Museum in Tewksbury, about half an hour north of Boston. In my defense, they are currently only open regularly two days a week, plus one Saturday a month, and only four hours a day, so it was harder than usual to plan a visit. In their defense, they are volunteer-run; I understand that this can pose challenges to being open regularly, and I applaud them for having both some evening and some weekend hours.

Image is of test tubes inside a wooden case . The tubes are flared at the base.
Mixed in with splashier items, like the iron lung and the 19th-century pedal-powered dentistry drill, 
are unassuming but important pieces of public health history like these tubes used in testing milk.
The Public Health Museum is informative, engaging, and a little bit quirky. It's clear that each volunteer has their own spin on the tour, which is true at almost any museum but perhaps particularly true here. Our guide was an animal lover who also volunteers with the therapeutic equestrian center on the hospital's campus. She went on a long tangent about the risks of misunderstanding what farm-fresh eggs mean, and encouraged us all to refrigerate our eggs no matter how fresh, unless we were absolutely sure they've never been refrigerated or washed. I always do refrigerate my eggs, but enjoyed learning about fresh eggs from her. Our guide's personal touch on the tour was also apparent when she was talking about the historical and present importance of safety testing and regulations for milk, in part because of the risk of bovine tuberculosis: she summed up this portion of the tour with the statement, "I like cows, but they are phlegmmy." I was reminded a little of my experience at the Boston Fire Museum, in which a volunteer said that the way to see the museum was to "plug into a person to get the stories," and a little of some of the volunteers I work with, who, if you're lucky, will tell you a funny story from their days as a nursing student or a resident.

Small wooden desk with some fliers, a clipboard, and a plaque with text and a man's photo.
The entry hallway was a bit confusing, but not because of this little desk,
 which features the guestbook but also a tribute to a late long-time volunteer.  

That said, the Public Health museum is fairly well set up for self-guided visits, as well. Overall, the labels are lay-friendly and informative. The museum has some problems that are pretty common especially in low-budget museums -- the labels aren't great for people with low vision, and even as the casual proofreader that I am, I noticed some cut-off sentences and other errors that I'm sure the volunteers are well aware of. On the other hand, I really appreciated the way the labels made the time frames clear. Tewksbury Hospital has at various times since its opening in 1852 contained an almshouse, a long-term care and psychiatric hospital, a site of isolation for infectious disease patients, a nursing school, and residential substance abuse programs. At many sites with a complicated or multifaceted history, labels discuss concepts very generally, and leave visitors with the sense that something happened "back then" without a sense of when "back then" was or of change over time. I do wish that both the volunteers and the exhibit labels were more aware of current practices for describing disability and disabled people, because I heard and read a lot of the kind of thing that I once thought was harmless until I learned better, such as calling wheelchair users as "wheelchair-bound" as if a chair weren't a freeing mobility device, and I wanted to hear more about historical patient experiences in the psychiatric wards rather than just historical theories about them.

A cardboard cutout of a cartoon bee, about three feet tall.
A mid-twentieth century public health advertising campaign,
Wellbee encouraged people to "be wise, immunize" once the polio vaccine debuted. 

The museum bills itself as the first museum in the United States dedicated to public health. I find it surprising that there aren't more -- it's such an important topic, rich with artifact and easy for visitors to connect to our own lives -- but I haven't heard of any others. It is well worth supporting and visiting, if you can make it there in their open hours (do check their website, as their hours change seasonally).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of The Emperor of All Maladies

A physician at work recommended the book or documentary The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer to me, and that seemed like a good reason to pick this title out of the many books and films about cancer that I might put on my list. I chose the 6-hour 2015 PBS documentary over the Pulitzer-winning 2011 book by Siddhartha Mukherjee simply because I have more things on my to-read list than on my to-watch list, but honestly, the documentary whet my appetite to read the book. Mukherjee appears frequently as one of the series’ many very articulate interviewees, and it’s clear there’s material in the book the documentary didn’t cover.

The PBS version ran in three episodes of two hours each. It’s lengthy and not nearly long enough to cover all of the social, medical, surgical, and preventive aspects of cancer. Each episode has some overarching themes and stories that form a bit of an arc, but I think it could have worked just as well with six one-hour episodes. The film largely focuses on the story of competing and shifting paradigms in cancer research, especially in research around cancer treatment, although prevention is also mentioned. The series also touches on shifting cultural attitudes towards cancer, from a time in the mid-twentieth century when cancer was mostly a taboo topic to the vocal fundraising, activism, and patient advocacy of today, but this topic is primarily presented in the context of the research. 

In addition to the ups and downs of cancer research,
the documentary discusses various public initiatives for
 fundraising and awareness, including the Jimmy Fund,
founded in 1948.



I could imagine some viewers feeling that the documentary was incomplete because of the comparatively short time it spends discussing environmental and consumer goods regulations (or lack thereof) and other attempts at preventing cancer that have grown as we as a society have learned more about carcinogens. I didn’t know what to expect going into the series, so I wasn’t disappointed, but there’s still more I’d like to know. One aspect that did frustrate me was that the story was very centered on the United States -- for example, it talked about surgeon general’s warnings against tobacco use, but not about the very large “Smoking kills” warnings that many countries have require on cigarette packages for decades. 

The series shows the personal impacts of cancer by following a number of patients and their families through the course of their treatment, and in some cases, through the end of their lives. Personally, I found the balance of modern individuals’ stories with historical and research information (which also includes patients’, researchers’, and advocates’ stories) to be just right. A lot of the history is within living memory, but within such a fast-moving field of study, memories of a treatment breakthrough twenty years ago can feel very much in the past.

It’s not the first documentary I had seen on illness, but especially with the sick kids being profiled, I was struck by the weird intimacy of having film crews follow people in the hospital.In my work at a medical museum, I have coworkers in the department that handle news and public affairs for our hospital, so I’ve had a very small inside look at that process. From them, my understanding is that there are stringent requirements for ensuring the camera crews have the permission of the patient (or their family for minors) and the care team, and most importantly, that they all understand that the patient can revoke permission at any time in the process. This made me feel better as I watched the heart-wrenching stories, with and without uplifting endings.

Perhaps my favorite of the personal stories was in episode two. A surgical oncologist became a patient when she learned that she had breast cancer. She is an attending surgeon, and she supervises residents as well as performing surgeries, and I imagined that sharing this intensely personal journey in a high-profile documentary was something that she did with the spirit of an educator. She did additional interviews about her experience, many of which are available online. Her own mentor from when she was training performed her double mastectomy.

Overall, I would recommend this film to anyone interested in the scientific or cultural progress we have made in addressing the complicated mess that is cancer. It's hopeful without being overly idealistic about the potential breakthroughs and roadblocks in the future.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Finding graves for strangers

I find cemeteries beautiful, sometimes. I like eerie and haunting places, and also well-maintained parks, and cemeteries can be both. I had come across the website Find-A-Grave before, mostly when searching online for a person’s name, and I had seen that some of them have photos. There’s a feature “request a photo of this grave.” I have to confess, I never really thought about who took the photos and why, nor about why people would request photos of a far-off grave. Then, a friend of mine mentioned that she has started trying to fulfill some of these requests. She says it’s a nice way to go for a walk with her camera, and to help people get pictures of family members’ graves. This is when I realized that I was overlooking something that’s important to people by not giving Find-A-Grave more thought. The users are probably a mix of amateur genealogists, maybe some adoptees looking for lost family, as well as historians and other researchers.

I live very close to a good-sized Catholic cemetery. I’ve walked by it hundreds of times. I went for a walk inside the cemetery once, in the early morning, because it’s a place that’s green and quiet. Earlier this week, I looked it up on Find-A-Grave, and found that there are over 3,000 memorials in this cemetery in their database, 66% of which have been photographed. There were 23 outstanding photo requests, the oldest one made four years ago and the most recent one three days ago. I wonder how often people attempt to fulfill these requests, and whether any of the yet-to-be-found graves are miscataloged, not in this cemetery at all. The people’s death dates ranged from the 1890s to the 2000s. I set out with my phone, trusting its camera, to see what I could find.

It took a little while to get into a rhythm of searching. Where possible, Find-A-Grave has specific locations within a cemetery, but this wasn’t true for any of the ones I was looking for. I set the list to view alphabetically, and tried to walk methodically through the rows of graves, scrolling through the list as I went until I practically had it memorized. The tricky part was that only part of this graveyard is laid out on something that could be recognized as a grid. I tried to hug the edge and start with the last row, but the last row kept changing. Finally, I started in the far corner, where there is a series of rows that move almost diagonally outward, and paced back and forth, looking at one side of a row at a time because some of them needed fairly close inspection.

I only spent about 30 minutes my first time out, and I don’t think I found anything. There was one headstone with no first names, but one of the last names I was looking for. I took a picture just in case, but I haven’t uploaded it yet. I’ll wait until I’ve covered more ground. Part of me thinks I’d like to keep going back until I’ve walked every row. I like this cemetery, which has so many Irish names and reminds me that I’m part of the Irish diaspora population that I don’t often feel strongly connected to.

I wasn’t raised with any strong traditions surrounding death and burial. Other people’s traditions sometimes fascinate me, and sometimes I just find them baffling. I sometimes work with human remains (typically skeletons) or depictions of human remains in my job in a medical museum, so I’ve read a lot on the ethical considerations around collecting and displaying the dead. The museum field has a troubling history in this arena, but I often don’t feel an immediate tug when I hear about, or see, exploitation of human remains; what I’ve found helpful is to look at conversations about the use of other people’s dead bodies from the perspective of consent. Plenty of people do have very strong feelings about how their own or their loved one’s bodies should be treated, some based not only in personal or religious beliefs but in religious obligations. Thinking about whether a museum, a medical school or another institution has a person’s consent in how their remains are treated makes it easy for me to see how horribly wrong it is to mistreat a dead body. Since I have read a lot about this topic lately, thinking about other people’s traditions around death has become a fascinating but stressful topic for me. Museums have (sometimes recently or currently) used human remains to justify scientific racism, to dehumanize and other disability and deformity, and as a money-maker without compensating the families of the deceased. In a way, taking a peaceful walk with the hope of connecting someone with a relative’s grave has given me a more positive way to relate to strangers’ remains, beyond thinking about how to influence such a large problem.

In the two find-a-grave walks I’ve taken so far, I haven’t found any of the 23 people I’ve been looking for. I get excited every time I find one of the last names on my list, but they haven’t yet had the right first names. My walks have been short, because I tend to go in the early evening, and as the sun begins to set, names in headstones become hard to read long before it gets dark. I would be much more excited about the whole process if I had actually found something so far. This wouldn’t make a good game. At the same time, it feels a bit like a scavenger hunt. It’s a strange combination of feelings in this activity, peaceful, hopeful, playful, reverent. I don’t know who the people making the requests for these photos really are, or what the photos, if I end up being able to take any, will mean to them. My hope is that they’ll mean something.

Image is of the end of a row of stone grave markers of various heights. Behind them are trees and a bit of sunset.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

“What's the DAR?”

The 126-year-old social and civic club Daughters of the American Revolution has a partially deserved reputation for being stodgy, exclusive, and country-club-esque. I imagine that the TV show Gilmore Girls gave them a boost in name recognition and also reinforced their snobby reputation (even if we agree to set aside the 2016 revival “A Year in the Life” as its own thing). For those not in the know, the title of this post is a nod to Luke in the show. In reality, the DAR is an organization shaped by their rule that to be a member, you must prove you are the blood descendant of a Patriot in the American Revolution.

I became curious about the DAR because I had a coworker who was involved and loved it. She talked about writing reports on local history for her chapter newsletter, researching the lives of overshadowed women in the Revolution, and having a multigenerational group of friends, all things I like. A few years later, I got curious again after a colleague at a historic site I care about mentioned that without the DAR’s preservation efforts, the site probably would not have made it this far. (I won’t name the site because a rival organization to the DAR, the Colonial Dames, currently gives them more money.) It seems that whatever else the DAR does or doesn’t do, the interest in American history is not a thematic wrapping that the DAR puts on over idle tea parties on Emily Gilmore’s patio -- it’s a central and substantive part of their work.

I couldn’t put “join the DAR” on my list of things to do for the blog, because I didn’t know whether I’d be allowed in, since I don’t know if my heritage qualifies. Instead, I decided to do research into whether I’d be eligible. In this post (extraordinarily long, for this blog!) I chronicle my explorations of the membership process, which ended up raising personal questions as well as research questions.

One of the numerous genealogy publications published by the DAR.

Blogging about considering joining an organization is tricky. I’m very picky about adding new indefinite time commitments to my plate right now, but, like with Toastmasters, I’m serious about giving it a try, and I don’t want anyone I meet while exploring the group to think that I was playing at undercover reporting. My hope here is to have a new experience, and write about it for other people who might be interested, to save some people the time and give others the nudge they need to jump in.

I thought I might be eligible for membership because I knew that a great-aunt had traced a branch of my family in the US to back before the Revolution. My first step was to go to the DAR website and learn the process. It’s clear they’ve worked against their reputation, with photos of Black and Latina women on the front page and the phrase “regardless of race, religion or ethnic background” showing up repeatedly. Their requirements for membership are very precise: you need to be able to prove a blood relationship (adoptions are explicitly out) to a Patriot of the American Revolution. There’s a rigid list of things your ancestor could have done to qualify as a Patriot in the DAR’s eyes, such as serve in the Continental army or participate in the Boston Tea Party. To prove the relationship, you need copies of legal documents like birth certificates or census records -- the kind you can find with an Ancestry.com login if you’re lucky, or hours of library research if you’re not -- either all the way back, or connecting you to another DAR member.

I’m not the first and won’t be the last to notice the many categories of people who are excluded from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Immigrants need not apply. People with adoption anywhere in their family history would need the genealogical records of biological ancestors and proof of a link to them, which isn’t how adoption works for many families. People whose families used closed adoption or didn’t go through an agency may be out of luck. People with gay parents or parents with low income are likely to be in that position. The way “official” records work, and thus the way traditional genealogy works in the US, throws in even more exclusions. People whose ancestors lived in poverty, moved a lot for work, or didn’t belong to a church will have a harder time proving lineage. People whose ancestors were born out of wedlock or as the result of sexual violence between someone with Patriot pedigree and someone in a marginalized group may never find “official” paperwork because it doesn’t exist. For a taste of the tensions between “traditional” genealogy and marginalized groups, I recommend this Slate article, and the book Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America by Francois Weil (which also discusses why many people love geneaology). 




Do I want to be a part of an organization that’s so cavalier with their exclusivity? And one that’s committed to being apolitical apparently without examining the ways the status quo is politically charged? The latter is probably a topic for another post, although I’ve explored the more general version before. Thinking about exclusion, on the one hand, their stance has clearly evolved since they were founded. People within the organization had to be a key part of this change. I could reap the benefits (history club!) while gently pushing my chapter towards being more reflective of the true diversity of our society and our past. My local DAR chapter is in Watertown, MA, and I could see how they are connecting with the large Armenian population there, if they are. On the other hand, there are other mountains to work on moving, and I’m not sure I want to give the DAR my money. It’s not clear from the website how expensive it is, or what projects my dues would support.

Fast forward several months. When my dad emailed me a scan of a 1990s computer printout, the product of my great-aunt’s research, he noted “This page is from a genealogical list of the descendants of James Antram, who came to Burlington, NJ from Essex in England between 1678 and 1680. You and I are in paragraph 46, ten pages later.” There it was -- according to Aunt Jean, I am the six times great-granddaughter of John Antram, James Antram’s grandson and a Revolutionary War soldier.

I was briefly a little disappointed. It took me a few days of turning it over in the back of my mind to figure out why. I have dim memories of Aunt Jean’s visit when I was maybe eight or nine. She called it “cousin-hopping,” staying with various relatives while asking them about genealogical data (although in retrospect, I imagine the visit was largely social, since we wouldn’t have had any information my grandmother didn’t also have). She told us my brother and I were the 11th generation in our family since our ancestor moved from England. I was fascinated because I had never thought about spans of time in generations before. The man who immigrated, James, was a Quaker. At the time of Aunt Jean’s visit, I had recently learned about pacifism, and had heard that the early American Quakers had largely been pacifist, and I was excited to learn that I had descended from someone who was probably a part of this tradition. So, I was disappointed because my eight- or nine-year-old self would have been disappointed to also be descended from a soldier (although certainly, there has been military service in my family more recently than that!). It’s interesting to see how parts of my family’s past have meant different things to me at different times in my life.

Equipped with the information that I should be able to become a member of the DAR if I want to be, I moved on to the next steps: submitting a prospective member information request form to be connected with a representative from my local chapter, and looking into the documentation I’d need to provide about my ancestor and my lineage. My first interactions with the membership process went smoothly, although (since I didn’t fill out the pedigree fields in the form) I was told “You will have to have some idea of why you feel that you are descended from a patriot,” which makes sense in their vernacular, but to me, was amusing phrasing.

As I mentioned earlier, I had personal questions as well as research inquiries to make. I’m not sure that the DAR’s pedigree requirement really serves their stated mission. I understand that as a group that cares about and celebrates American heritage, they would want to encourage their members to do genealogy research, but plenty of members skip that requirement the way I would have, by resting on the research a family member has done. Wouldn’t it be better to to admit any woman who can demonstrate that she has researched her family tree a certain number of generations back? Or, since genealogy research can be more difficult for some populations than others because of the a lack of well-preserved records, could the DAR offer genealogy research classes to prospective members -- they basically already do this part -- but require that new members take the class, rather than requiring that their research have a certain outcome? It’s easy to say that the DAR doesn’t want to change because their organization is racist and anti-immigrant at its core, but I don’t personally have enough evidence to make that claim. I don’t know whether those are really the motivations, or whether the tradition of using pedigree as a membership criterion is just so deeply entrenched in the DAR that its members are unwilling to face the actual impact of their policies.

An image of "Today's DAR" from their website.


Given that I’m pretty uncomfortable with one of their core policies, but very curious about the organization as a whole, I was deeply ambivalent about joining. I planned to go to one of the meetings that my local chapter holds that’s open to new members, so I could at least get a taste of it, but they’ve only had two in the year or so since I started looking into this, and I had a conflict each time. Given that, I decided to ask two more questions that would help me decide: whether the DAR is open to all women who meet their criteria, or whether they secretly exclude trans women, and how much membership costs.

Fast forward a little more. I learned that dues are annual, $25 to the state and national society and $40 to my local chapter annually. For me that’s enough to make me pause but I could swing it if I were enthusiastic -- I’m giving the specific numbers because I couldn’t find them on their website.

Regarding whether all women who meet their criteria are welcome, the registrar of my local chapter wrote to me, “I will check with the DAR executive board for the transgender policy, and let you know.” Not a terribly welcoming response, but I waited for her follow-up. She wrote, “The Registrar General's office has returned the following information:

DAR applicants must have a birth certificate confirming female gender, and same lineage rules apply.

If you have any questions, you can contact the Registrar General's office via the DAR website or DAR mailing address in Washington, DC. I hope this is helpful information.”


Okay, so I have serious concerns about this. That doesn’t sound like a formal written policy, but perhaps an answer to my relayed question, and makes me wonder whether they have a written policy on inclusion at all. Why no email address to ask? My contact’s emails on this subject were a bit officious compared with her previous emails, and no longer seemed to be trying to get me to join. More importantly, requiring a birth certificate with a female gender marker is highly exclusionary. Changing your birth certificate is illegal in some states. In most states where it is possible, it’s expensive, and some states require that people undergo gender confirmation surgery before getting proper identification. Surgery isn’t financially or medical available to many people, and regardless, isn’t an accurate indicator of whether someone is transgender. This policy kind of sounds like a poorly thought-out attempt to exclude trans women (based on the false assumptions that birth sex means something about gender and that you can’t change a birth certificate), but I don’t know whether that’s the case. It could easily just be an attempt to dodge the issue, saying, “if your state says you’re a woman, you’re a woman,” while ignoring the fact that getting the state to accept your gender isn’t an option available to all women. I’m not comfortable with a women’s organization dodging the question of whether trans women are women.

I used the contact form on the DAR website to give a short summary of my concerns and ask for clarification, but it’s been six weeks, and I never heard back. Obviously, I’m not interested in joining a women’s organization if they’re not open to trans women as well as cis women, but I struggled why the DAR’s apparent dodge on the issue is a dealbreaker for me when the organization’s issues around race, created by their insistence on demonstrable pedigree, was not necessarily a dealbreaker. After a lot of thought, I concluded that while both issues matter to me, I went into the process of exploring DAR membership already knowing about the race issue, and thinking that if I did feel inspired to become a member, I’d work to do my part to raise the relevant questions from within my local chapter. I feel similarly about doing my part to raise the relevant questions about being welcoming to all women. If an organization I cared strongly about was unwelcoming or deliberately excluding trans women, I’d probably try to make change before I considered leaving, so if I were otherwise inspired to join a group with these issues, I might still join and try to make change. I think that the real reason this is a dealbreaker for me with the DAR is that I’m not interested enough to try to work for inclusivity from within on two different fronts. I’ll leave that to the people for whom it’s a meaningful, fun intergenerational history club that already plays a role in their lives.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Plantation Next Door

I was first drawn to the book Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm, by Alexandra Chan, because the research in this book was used extensively by the museum that now interprets that New England farm, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In some ways, I found this book a more useful and interesting introduction to archaeology than From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book I picked up specifically to learn more about archaeology (and reviewed on the blog here). I’m partly biased because Slavery in the Age of Reason focused on the sub-field I’m most interested in, historical archeology (as in not prehistorical) that’s done in conjunction with historical or archival understanding of the same space. But, it’s really not comparable with From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book about archeological understanding in popular imagination, while Slavery in the Age of Reason describes the findings and implications of a specific archaeological investigation. The book originated out of Chan’s dissertation at Boston University, and it shows in the embedded tables of aggregated data. It’s a book that leaves its methods exposed, which I appreciate, although that sometimes slowed down the narrative.

The book's cover uses a photo of a 1905 
pagaent at the historic estate, a silhouette 
replacing the "servant" in blackface in the 
original photo.
Overall, I think the book would be quite comprehensible to someone who has never visited the site. Being very familiar with the Royall House and Slave Quarters in its current incarnation as a museum -- the lawn that once made up part of the gardens, the slave quarters building which had been renovated and finished before it became a key part of the site’s interpretation, and the house’s first two stories, furnished to evoke the Royalls’ lives -- I found the book’s descriptions of the site easy to navigate. I worked on a visitor data project for the museum a few years ago; I’ve been on more than a dozen tours of the house, so I’m not exactly the typical reader, but I was readily able to visualize the spaces Chan described, remembering scenes I hadn’t thought about at all recently. The book doesn’t rely heavily on having a mental map of the estate, and only a few chapters rely on that at all. I definitely recommend a visit to the Royall House and Slave quarters if you’re in the Boston area, but you shouldn’t avoid the book if you haven’t been. However, I do think my knowledge of the site helped me feel less lost while reading the sections that were heavy on archeology terms or methods. I suspect that readers without familiarity with either the site or archeology would find the book denser.

The book provides insight into a situation that was in some ways, remarkable -- the Royall family was extraordinarily wealthy and held more people in slavery than anyone else in Massachusetts at the time. In other ways, it was very commonplace -- slavery was a regular part of New England society at the time, and while the practice wasn’t universally unquestioned, it wasn’t regarded a shameful secret or a mark of bad character to hold people in slavery. Chan returns to the contradiction pointed out in the title several times. This was supposed to be the Enlightenment, a time when justice and rationality were en vogue, and yet people were enslaved. The book does not resolve this tension (how could it?) but does some work to reveal the myth of benign Northern slavery, such as by calculating how often the Royalls separated enslaved people from their communities and families through sale or trade. Moreover, it shows us glimpses of the real and human lives that the people enslaved on the site lived, from their clay pipes to their salvaged and repaired plates.

Monday, January 8, 2018

History Happening in Manhattan: the African Burial Ground

Unintentionally, I use analysis as a way to distance myself from the emotional power of difficult historical truths. At least, I do this some of the time, and it’s something I need to stay aware of. I noticed this, although perhaps not for the first time, when I was filling a notebook page and my phone’s photos folder at the African Burial Ground National Monument Visitor Center in Manhattan. There was so much I wanted to analyze and document about the informative and moving exhibits -- I took notes for this blog post, for a work project about museums and human remains, and for a personal research project about using historical documents in exhibits. At the same time, other visitors were engrossed in the material, while I was one step back.

I’m not unique in this regard. Museum professionals and historians as well as anthropologists, journalists (...the list goes on) are frequently guilty of over-intellectualizing historical (or present) trauma. Sometimes it’s a measure of self-defense, and often the analysis isn’t the problem, but the way the analysis is handled is. American academic fields and related professional fields are still dominated by white people of European descent, while so many of the historical injustices we study were perpetrated by white Euro-Americans against other groups. In a related issue, some of the analysis can veer into “trauma porn,” or a salacious fascination with picking apart others’ trauma. The personal element is only a piece of this landscape -- the problem is reinforced by who gets grant money, jobs, and publication opportunities, and whether researchers treat people in affected communities as study subjects, or consult them as valued experts. But it was personal distancing I caught myself doing at this visitors center. The exhibits are about American history, so the topic is my heritage in addition to being moving on a basic human level, but as a white person, it’s already easier to distance myself from the enslaved Africans buried on the site than it would be for many others, as they are not my ancestors. I tried to check back in to the powerful story, while still taking notes on the museum’s approach. Continuing to distance myself completely would have been a disservice to my own experience of the site, as well as irresponsible.

The African Burial Ground was used from 1627 to 1794 by the community of enslaved Africans who lived in Manhattan and whose forced labor built much of the city. Slavery continued in New York until 1827. Scholars estimate that 10,000 or more people were buried in the African Burial Ground.

The visitor center, which opened in 2010, takes about an hour for a thorough visit. It starts with a short introductory film, which moves back and forth between depicting an enslaved child in the 18th century preparing for her father’s burial, and telling the story of the site’s rediscovery in 1991 and the work on the part of African-American activists -- the descendant community -- to save as much of the site and the intact burials as they could from development, damage due to rushed excavation, and most of all, from being ignored by the city and the federal government. The compromise they won involved a relatively small area of open space. In 2007 an artful, meditative monument was dedicated on the site as a memorial to the burial ground’s unnamed occupants. Interpretation in the visitor center does not shy away from describing the effort it took to get the site recognized; both the advocacy and the celebrations by the descendant community is now part of the site’s story, and of the story of New York City.

More than 400 intact graves were excavated by a team of archaeologists, and meticulously studied and documented by specialists at Howard University. The film quotes a member of the team who recalled being asked repeatedly, “are you going to show the bones?” She remembered realizing that for a lot of the public, the bones are what would make the story feel real. The visitor center does not display any real bones, or any of the real personal effects of the dead. All of them were reinterred in a joyous and reverent public ceremony in 2003. However, it does have a wall with an image of each grave site during excavation, so the visitor can see every skeleton. I’m sure the decision to display these images is controversial -- the people buried there were certainly not able to give their permission -- but it sounds like it was a considered decision, led by the descendant community, and the effect is quite powerful.

The small visitor center packs a lot of information and emotion. It includes replicas of items buried with people on the site, a good explanation of various techniques used to understand as much as possible about each person from their remains and grave site, and an exhibit about the lives, culture, and work of enslaved Africans in New York. When you visit, I recommend taking the time to immerse yourself fully in the exhibits and in the meaning of the site.


The outdoor memorial. Image by Wikimedia Commons user dmadeo.

Postscript: What I’ve said above about over-intellectualizing historical trauma is simplified, over-simplified, for the sake of space. If this is an issue that affects you and you feel I got it wrong, please feel free to let me know in whatever level of detail you have the energy for. If you’re new to the idea, here is an article about what trauma porn is (although the article relates to current events). Here's a scholarly source on the historiography of trauma as a category (which I have not yet read, but it is well-recommended). For more on the scholarship and lived experience of race as it intersects with the museum field, I recommend LaTanya Autry's blog Artstuffmatters, and the blog Visitors of Color. That's nowhere near an exhaustive list, just two that are on my mind at the moment.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Horrible stories well told: reviewing “Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery”


Three journalists, Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, were shaken by what they found as they did research for a special edition of Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. Their mid-2000's project exposed the newspaper's and Connecticut's participation in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. After saying, “but wait, weren't we the good guys in the Civil War?” and grappling with their new understanding, the three expanded their focus to write the book Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery. Between the ivory trade, the business of kidnapping blacks from the North to sell into slavery, the rum industry, and the textile industry, all of which are described in the book, Northerners were not just complicit in the system of slavery. They participated.

In some ways, I think Complicity would be a better book if it weren't written in the face of the national myth that the North was against slavery without complications. The introduction in particular feels a little sensational and “gotcha,” as if the authors expect readers' minds to be blown by the new information, and that style doesn't hold up well if the reader already knows some of it. The mere fact that Northern traders and industrialists profited handsomely off of slavery is shocking in the sense that it's appalling, but only a surprise to some. In addition, the chapters are poorly linked together, without much to describe how the New Haven carriage makers, Philadelphia taxonomists, and New York slave smugglers fit into the same larger economy. The effect is that each chapter stands alone, but together they form a litany of the different ways the rich and powerful in the North were some of the worst offenders in perpetuating the cruelty of chattel slavery. The exhausting effect on the reader could not, and should not, have been avoided in writing about this subject. However, because Complicity does not have much pulling the chapters into a cohesive whole, you could read three chapters profiling different industries, or thirteen, and get a similar effect.

Of course, this book was indeed written in the face of the national myth that the North was not complicit in slavery, with the intention to wake readers up. The extent to which Northern fortunes were made on the backs of slaves – including those newly kidnapped from Africa in the 1860s, decades after the US outlawed the international slave trade – is not just shocking but genuinely surprising to most people. If we ever reach a time in our society when the impacts of Northern industries are a part of the story of slavery as it's commonly understood, a book like Complicity might be written somewhat differently, making more of a scholarly argument even though it's for a general audience. As it is, the book focuses on making just one statement: this really happened.
                                                    

Despite my wondering what the book would be like if readers already understood “how the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery,” I learned a lot from the book, and enjoyed it to the extent that you can enjoy reading a history of exploitation. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American history. The profiles it gives of various industries involved in the slave economy are highly informative. I sometimes think that journalists make the best history writers in terms of storytelling. Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns which I reviewed on the blog, is an example, as well as modern classics like Barbara Tuchman. In Complicity, Farrow, Lang, and Frank join this tradition, with horrible stories well told. Recalling the Philip Graham quote that journalism is “a first rough draft of history,” the authors mused in the book's conclusion that they were “doing what reporters rarely have a chance to do: present a second draft of history.” The legacy of slavery has been retold and reshaped countless times in American history, so often with the aim of dismissing the extent of the harm or shifting the blame. As a historian and a citizen, I deeply believe that each successive draft of how we understand our past ought to be a more accurate one. It's clear that Farrow, Lang, and Frank share this goal, and have done useful work toward it.