In Their Own Words: Librarians in Wartime

by Victoria Johnson

A member browses the stacks of the fifth floor reading room at the Boston Athenaeum. The Boston Athenaeum’s Conservation Lab works to preserve the books in this room and others. (JR 365 Photo/Madeline Bilis)

The Boston Athenaeum (BA) is one of the oldest subscription libraries in the United States. Founded in 1807 by prominent society gentleman, today the Athenaeum functions as a library and museum complete with its own archive. Each year, the library hosts numerous events each month, ranging from book talks to lively soirees. While these events, along with the library and art collections, are very popular with patrons, the archives of the institution are usually overlooked. This past September, however, the BA hosted a remarkable live performance event which would have been impossible without using the archive.

On the evening of Tuesday, September 19, 2017, the Athenaeum hosted “A Tale of Two Libraries,” a live event in which a cast of four actors read carefully curated correspondence between the Boston Athenaeum and the London Library. The correspondence was arranged to provide a chronological glimpse into the workings of these two institutions during two defining times, World War I and World War II. This temporal context added depth to an already outside-the-box event. A live reading of a bunch of old letters doesn’t sound all that exciting—and yet, imagine what it would be like to hear the words of four librarians working around bombings and the Blitz. What could have been extremely boring instantly became emotional, real—a good thing it did, too, because that was exactly what its creators intended. To understand how and why this event was so memorable, I sat down with Carolle Morini, the Caroline D. Bain Archivist at the Boston Athenaeum.

As it turns out, an event like this one takes approximately two years to plan. It all started in 2015, when the director of the BA received an inquiry from the London Library, who wanted to know if there was any history of a relationship between the two institutions. The London Library was pleased to learn that there was, indeed, a relationship, confirmed by thirty years’ worth of correspondence held in the BA’s archives. The existence of physical evidence led to a visit from both employees of the London Library, with employees of one of their supporting organizations, International Friends, in tow. In preparation for their visit, Carolle was asked to conduct further research so that she may answer any questions the group may have. She took it one step further by organizing a display case, which included some of the aforementioned letters. As you can imagine, these letters—dated between 1913 and 1945 and detailing the experiences of librarians during wartime—were not only rich in institutional memory, but fostered a personal affection for their authors.

The visitors from the London Library and Carolle discussed options to share these letters with both institutions’ member. It was decided that a live performance would be the best way to share these letters with the public. Jesse Marquese, a writer who had done similar work in New York, came on board as the scriptwriter. With the writing underway, the next step was to figure out the mechanics: who would fund this event? Where would it take place? In the end, it was agreed that the Athenaeum would provide an honorarium and travel expenses for the actors, all of whom were New York based and chosen by Marquese, and that the event would be hosted twice—once in Boston, once in New York City. Marquese shared his script with Carolle, who provided edits in order to provide some local Boston context.

And now we arrive to the night of the event itself. The live production was witnessed by 60 audience members, some of whom were trustees’ emeriti and current trustees and BA staff. Two days later, the production travelled to New York City’s Knickerbocker Club, this time sponsored by International Friends. It has since been suggested that the production travel to the London Library itself in 2018, although this is still in development. Hosting the production at different locations will not only allow more users to experience the performance, but it will also continue to advocate for the value of the Boston Athenaeum’s archives—an element of her job that Carolle admits is difficult to do on a daily basis. As an audience member, I can attest to the power of hearing my own institution’s history through the words of those who came before me.

In her ten years as the sole archivist at the Athenaeum, Carolle can only recall one other event that utilized the archives. This is not to say that the events coordinators are uninterested in using the archives, but there is often little correlation between book talks and the institutional archives. That is exactly why projects like the live performance are crucial in advocating for the important of Carolle’s work as the archivist and of the archives themselves. Carolle anticipated an increase in archival inquiries after the event, which has not (thus far) transpired. However, perhaps even more valuable is that all who attended—the Athenaeum director, patrons, and staff—were able to recognize the importance of the BA’s archives and of all archives. In the end, Carolle considers this project a success: “it made people see that the work that I do is important.” Recognition and respect should, after all, be the goal of any advocacy project.





The Life and Serendipitous Afterlife of a Picture Postcard Exhibit

by Alden Ludlow


Alden Ludlow Greets Visitors at the Wellesley Historical Society

About a year ago I was tasked with putting together an exhibit for the small reading room at the Wellesley Historical Society. Having just reorganized and processed our Picture Postcard Collection, I decided it was ripe for use, featuring many images of a long-past Wellesley. The original exhibit morphed in unexpected directions. I have been able to adapt it for uses in different contexts, and it is becoming a versatile, expandable advocacy and outreach tool.

Our reading room is really a reading room in name only. It is a small, approximately 300-square-foot, multi-use space. Researchers do their work here; collection accession and processing occurs here. It serves as a lunchroom and as a space where the board of directors and various committees meet. As such, most of the people who spend time in the space are board members, volunteers, and staff. It is more of an “in-reach” space than an “out-reach” space.

My first task was to select postcards for the exhibit; my plan was to put enlargements of postcards on the limited wall space, and fill the display cabinet with items reflecting the related elements of postcard production and postal history. I developed selections based on three criteria, and ended up with about 25 enlarged postcards and a number of items for our small display cabinet.

First, the most interesting postcards were those manufactured during what has been called the “Golden Age of Postcards,” 1907 to 1915. Changes in postal regulations regarding the content and presentation of postcards led to an explosion of inexpensive, artistic cards featuring local landmarks all over the country. Many of the cards were manufactured in Germany, and World War I led to the decline in their quality and popularity.

Second, I wanted to highlight postcard use during that time. Often called the “postcard craze,” this time period found people using the cards much as we use social media today. At the time, most of the writers of the cards were educated, upper-middle class women. Wellesley, a wealthy town, with the added prestige of Wellesley College, was exactly the demographic postcards appealed to. My criteria were that the cards had to have correspondence written on them, which I could use to highlight the social situation of the time. The correspondence provided a window into the context of a limited span of time and space. Also, by 1903, Kodak had developed a camera which could take pictures that could be directly printed onto a postcard back; we had a number of these unique cards, portraying people from the town (including the 1913 Wellesley High School football team). These cards were exchanged or mailed to friends, usually within the town, and their uniqueness added a personal element to what was generally a mass-produced industry even then. I also obtained one of the cameras at a sale, to further enhance the display cabinet.

Third, I felt a number postcards chosen for the exhibit should challenge viewers in some way. Initially, I thought it would be difficult to “problematize” a postcard exhibit, but as I looked at the cards, it became clear that many of the buildings depicted had been torn down, some of them in recent years. Adding a subtle twist to the choices, I was able to highlight much of Wellesley’s lost architectural heritage. Later, I found out that the Wellesley Historical Commission found this highlighting less than subtle. Success! I managed to make a postcard exhibit controversial!

Once the exhibit was up, I immediately started planning a way to “capture” and archive it; I figured it would be up for a year or two. I put together a simple PowerPoint presentation in a way that reflected the flow of the exhibit, and captured all of its textual and artistic elements. Since we had the cards enlarged for use, we had high-quality scans of the images and related correspondence elements. I took photographs of the artifacts in the display case. This record of the exhibit was intended to be archival; it would come alive later on.

I had put together the “catalog” of the exhibit on my own time, and once I was finished with it I sent it to our executive director, and curator, so they would have it as a record of the exhibit. Board members were pleased with the exhibit, and at some point, the “catalog” circulated among them.

I began to ruminate. We didn’t have the funding to produce a real exhibit catalog, but I began to think about reworking the catalog into a more colorful presentation which I could then present to the board and volunteers. Sort of a slide show of the exhibit, but with added elements and without the limiting constraints of four walls. I could literally “spread out” and add elements, and better organize the flow of sectional elements I had incorporated into the exhibit (People/Vanished Buildings/The Great Outdoors/Postcard History and Use).

As I was thinking about these things, I was not aware that my archival “record” presentation was making the rounds with board members. I suspect some confluence of shared board members between institutions led David Ball, the executive director at the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History, and Henry Lukas, their education director, to contact me about doing a presentation based on the “catalog” I had created.

Philatelists know the Spellman, but the museum, sitting on the bucolic campus of St. Regis College in Weston, has an international reach and a successful local all-ages education program. Stamp collecting may appeal to a small segment of the population, but the topics postage stamps cover is vast; it is this subject-based approach which is at the core of their programs. They were interested in the postcard exhibit on many levels, particularly from a postal history perspective.

I set out to revamp the postcard PowerPoint into a full-fledged presentation, separating text from images, pulling quotes from correspondence for the individual slides, and adding images of the reverse of many of the cards. Having been a stamp collector as a youngster, it was easy for me to add a section to the presentation on how stamp and postcard history overlapped.

By September 2017, I was ready to go, with a 45-minute presentation which covered Wellesley history, stamp collecting, postcards and postcard history, the social context of postcard use, and actual correspondence from the cards. The early decision I had made to use only postcards which had been used as correspondence paid off. The small reading room exhibit had morphed into a compact yet comprehensive presentation, its scope and content widely expanded.

The evening of the presentation at the Spellman I realized that this collaboration was a perfect fit: the audience of about 45 included philatelists, amateur historians, and postcard collectors. The time I had spent processing the collection, putting up the exhibit, and assembling the presentation was crucial in being able to make the presentation an interactive experience; I was open to questions, had the answers, and lively discussion was incorporated into the process. The presentation ended up being over an hour. Many of the people who had attended brought postcards and stamps with them, and this led to an informal show-and-tell reception.

Sometimes collaboration is planned, sometimes it is serendipitous, as it was in this case. I kept pushing the boundaries of our small exhibit, and new opportunities presented themselves. While the exhibit and the eventual presentation were steps removed from encountering the postcards as primary sources, the process was in keeping with the education mission and vision of the Wellesley Historical Society. The collaboration with the Spellman allowed for expansion of the presentation for broader outreach, sparking interest from people of different, yet overlapping, interests. In discussions following the presentation, it was clear that what I had done could be replicated for surrounding towns.

While the outreach impacts of the presentation are easily measured, what is less easy to quantify is how the success of the presentation has looped back around and has made staff advocacy within the Society’s board of directors easier. Often boards have a difficult time determining what archivists do, but when they pick up the newspaper and read about the impact a presentation had within a segment of the population, the educational mission seems clearer. Additionally, they have become more open to new ways of doing things with the collections to broaden the audience.

In a final note, my “poking” of the Wellesley Historical Commission has taken a turn. Initially unhappy that I subtly suggested they were not capable of their role in historic preservation, they have now expressed an interest in having the presentation at one of their meetings. We may soon see if I am up to the task of doing outreach in the Lion’s Den.


Wellesley Historical Society:

Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History:

Wellesley Historical Commission:

Smithsonian postcard history:



Archival Sources On the Street

by Jenny DeRocher

La Crosse, Wisconsin is a city of about 50,000 people. It sits between tree-covered bluffs and the winding Mississippi River. The city’s downtown area is like many other industrial Mississippi River towns with traces of train tracks, red brick buildings with ghost signs, curving one-way streets, and a large green park bordering the river with a walkway. There are coffee shops, every kind of bar you could ask for, and an old-timey ice cream and soda shop. There are oddities, too. For instance, there is an authentic riverboat sitting on the riverfront waiting to give tours up and down the river. Above it is a faded thirty-foot statue of an unidentified Native American man that, offensively, has no markings of the local Ho-Chunk Nation’s culture (though it is meant to be a tribute to their culture). Farther up the river on the north side of downtown sits the world’s largest six-pack, thanks to the city’s history with brewing beer.

When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the charms of the historic downtown area gave me the same happiness as other students. However, the town-and-gown divide is felt fiercely in the La Crosse community. As soon as I became a Public and Policy History Major, I was immediately swept into the arms of Dr. Ariel Beaujot and her public history project Hear, Here. I was a newbie in the world of studying history and didn’t really understand what public history was—I just knew I wanted to go to school for library science after college. I didn’t know it at the time, but Hear, Here isn’t just a public history project, it’s a community archiving project that brings archival sources literally onto the street. Hear, Here is an oral history project that focuses on place-based stories that take place in the downtown area. It’s a grant-funded community project that is meant to bridge the town-and-gown divide, bringing voices of all kind to the forefront.

As students and community members working on the project in a classroom-setting, we had to network within the city to find at least two stories to contribute to the project. Once we found a story and an interviewee we wanted to pursue, we did primary and secondary research on the story. We interviewed the story-tellers as short oral histories with first-person narratives, and then edited these stories so they were 2-5 minutes long. Once they were edited, they were put into a phone system and assigned a phone number. Then, in the locations that these stories happened, we placed street signs that had the phone number for the story on them (see picture). People walking in the streets of La Crosse’s downtown area can see the sign, call the phone number, and listen to someone’s story of something that happened in the exact location they are standing. Some of the stories took place the same year we collected them. Others were from oral histories collected in the 1970s and took place as early as the 1880s. On the website, you can click on the gray icons in the interactive map, listen to stories, and read their transcripts. There are currently fifty stories in the project.

Photograph taken from an article written by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, a large funder of the project.
Photograph taken from an article* written by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, a large funder of the project.

The primary and secondary research each interviewer does for the stories is collected in an archival box at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center. This box also includes CDs with the full-length interview for each story and the edited version as well. For ongoing outreach, Ariel runs a Hear, Here Facebook page, where she keeps followers up to date with tours, story editions, and international Public History news. Every few months, she runs free walking and bike tours for the public to highlight specific stories. In early 2017, there was also a poetry contest, where community members submitted poems responding to stories. Winners received a cash prize and their poems are now also in the phone system for listeners to hear on the street. When you call the number, you can even leave a message to give feedback for the project or to connect with Ariel to record your own story; she’s always collecting new stories until the project’s end in 2020.

Hear, Here brings the history of the everyday person to light. We didn’t collect stories that support the already well-recorded narrative of the city. We collected stories about African American men getting wrongfully arrested in 2014, a woman chaining herself to a building to keep it from being demolished, a student from China excited to eat ice cream somewhere President Obama had reportedly been before, a Canadian tourist experiencing the Mississippi River for the first time, and a local Ho-Chunk man expressing his distaste for the offensive statue that’s supposed to represent him and his culture. We specifically tried to collect stories from voices that are often overlooked and have historically been underrepresented. Some stories are fun, others give voice to discrimination a community member has experienced. In either case, Hear, Here stories are concrete evidence that everyone experiences La Crosse in their own way and each one of these ways matters to the city’s larger narrative


The Rihanna Experience at the Museum of Science

The Rihanna Experience at the Museum of Science

by Ariel Barnes

The Rihanna Experience at the Museum of Science, Boston is a planetarium show unlike any other. For $10 visitors can listen to the greatest hits of Rihanna while being dazzled by a light show projected onto the planetarium’s screen. Developed as part of the SubSpace Project, The Rihanna Experience is part of a series that combines music from popular artists and the technology of the Charles Hayden Planetarium. When the Museum of Science created the SubSpace project in 2016, the first show featured the music of David Bowie. The planetarium shows were so popular that the Museum had multiple showings of The David Bowie Experience. Now, the Museum features two musical experiences each month, in addition to the Laser Floyd show – a staple in the planetarium from the 1970s.

Calling the planetarium show an experience is incredibly appropriate. The shows last approximately 40 minutes, but it feels like no time at all. The creators in the Museum of Science expertly pair the songs with amazing visuals. Images float across the screen in an almost dizzying manner, weaving and blending into scenes that astound. Using more than just lasers projected onto the planetarium screen the SubSpace Project shows utilize 3D animations and other software to amaze viewers. For The Rihanna Experience this includes but is not limited to images of diamonds floating through the sky while the song Diamonds plays. During another song a set of disembodied eyes float across images of a city skyline on the planetarium screen. Audible sighs of amazement and wonder fill the planetarium during the show.

The SubSpace Project is part of the exciting summer adult programming at the Museum of Science but the program was so popular they expanded the series and they now have shows outside of the summer months. Attendees of all SubSpace Project programs must be at least 18 years old. This year they continued the summer series with the addition of shows featuring the music of Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Coldplay. The series is aimed at bringing adults into the Museum of Science by using the technology available within the museum in fun and interesting ways. The shows will not teach you about the night sky but the combination of visuals and music create a concert experience that is not possible at any other venue.

Using the state of the art technology available in the Museum of Science the staff crafted shows for many artists including Prince, Beyoncé, Björk, and Tom Waits in 2016. The shows are designed to reflect the work of the artist. The Museum of Science created a multimedia experience for the Björk show that reflected the tone and atmosphere of her work, while The Prince Experience’s visuals were a celebration and accompaniment for the album Purple Rain. The Lady Gaga Experience at the Museum of Science was a massive event, that included more than just the planetarium. The Lady Gaga Experience titled “Monster’s Ball” was a one night only event in 2016 that invited adults to party at the Museum of Science.

In October, the Museum of Science invited lovers of retro scary movies to watch films in the planetarium on Saturdays with its Saturday Night Creature Features. Every Saturday in the month of October the museum featured a different retro scary movie, including The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Over the summer as part of the blockbuster exhibit POPnology the museum had showings of classic science fiction movies in the planetarium. Each of these events were part of the Museum of Science’s push for adult programming.

The planetarium at the Museum of Science is also the home of some other blockbuster shows, including the upcoming program Synesthesia Suite: Constellations. On November 30th the Museum of Science will have two performances by artist Mary Bichner and the Planetary Quartet. Like the SubSpace Project this program is designed for adults, with the museum saying that adults are the recommended audience on their website. The museum promises that the event will be a magical night that combines synesthesia, music, and stars. For this concert, the music is accompanied by live visuals projected onto the screen. The event is guaranteed to be unlike any other concert. Programming like the musical experiences, movie nights, and unique concerts allows the Museum of Science to offer adults living in the Boston area a truly one of kind experience, while still using the technology available at the museum. Fun and unique adult programming at the Museum of Science shows to visitors that the museum is not just for elementary school trips but an engaging destination for everyone.

Currently playing in the planetarium is The Rihanna Experience and The Justin Timberlake Experience.

You can learn more about the SubSpace Project here:

Boston globe article

WBUR ARTery article

Nixon Now: Divisions on Display

by Jessica Chapel

The entrance to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
The Entrance to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

You can’t cut an American president out of history. How, then, do you represent a president driven from office in disgrace and his complicated legacy? During a recent California trip, I took a detour on my way from Los Angeles to San Diego to ask those questions.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened in Yorba Linda — a one-time farm town in Orange County — in 1990, 16 years after the 37th president became the first president to resign from office. Unlike every other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon did not plan to donate his library to the National Archives. It was a privately run institution supported by the Nixon Foundation, holding the president’s diaries and his pre-presidential papers.

Congress controlled his administration’s records, more than 44 million pages of documents, plus photographs, film — and the infamous tapes. The 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Act gave custody of the presidential files to the Archivist of the United States, a move intended to thwart any destruction of records from Nixon’s scandal-blighted presidency.

Feelings about Watergate and Nixon’s record were still running high when the library opened and museum director John Taylor postponed making two Watergate tapes available. Historians complained about the withholding of materials as much as they did the slant of the exhibits and the presentation of the one Watergate tape incorporated into a display, a decision that Taylor defended as a matter of serving visitors.

“The fact that we are the Nixon library does not deprive us of the ability and indeed the responsibility of placing the information we present in some historical context,” he told the New York Times. “Some people use the word ‘cover-up,’ and what they’re saying is that in fact they do not wish for the Nixon library to put forth its interpretation of this document.”

In 2007, after decades-long legal wrangling, the National Archives assumed administration of the Nixon library and museum, and the presidential records were moved to Yorba Linda. The transfer culminated in a wholesale renovation of the exhibits that closed the museum for a year, a joint project with the Nixon Foundation. The museum reopened to the public in October 2016.

One year later, I was waiting with a dozen other early birds on a Sunday morning for the library’s doors to open. I wanted to see how the revamped galleries told the story of a president whose name has become synonymous with abuse of power, a politician who has been both pop culture joke and high culture inspiration, the subject of numerous biographies, and a man who attempted to craft his own myth from the first sentence of his 1977 memoir: “I was born in a house my father built.”

The conflict in how Nixon figures in cultural memory is matched by a seeming conflict in how the dual keepers of his library and legacy manage outreach and advocacy.

On the Nixon library social media channels managed by the Nixon Foundation — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat — posts tend toward Nixon’s acknowledged successes, White House events, and happy family moments. Most of the comments on these channels are positive, but there are instances when followers misunderstand who is posting and why: “If you knew the month and date why didn’t you include it instead of all those unnecessary hashtags?,” one commenter asked on Instagram, seeking the original date of a photo. “We are not an archival page,” the account replied.

Earlier this year, a Nixon library tweet was interpreted as trolling president Donald Trump, prompting a public rebuke from the National Archives.

The Nixon library social channels were also used to question the work of filmmaker Ken Burns, whose Vietnam War documentary aired on PBS in September. “There is no factual support for anything in this sentence,” read one Instagram post, referring to a point on page 347 of the companion book to the film.

Both the National Archives and the Nixon Foundation maintain web pages for the library and museum. The .gov site is oriented to researchers, with information on newly released materials and upcoming events. The .org site is a slicker home for the foundation’s other programs in addition to the library and museum. It was the Nixon Foundation that used its site to respond to Nixon biographer Jon Farrell, who — citing a note written by Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman that Farrell found while doing research at the Nixon library — wrote that Nixon subverted president Lyndon Johnson’s peace efforts in Vietnam late in the 1968 presidential campaign.

Misunderstanding a monkey wrench,” answered the foundation, arguing that Farrell’s interpretation came down to a dash.

Walking through the exhibits, I catch Nixon’s 1972 reelection jingle: “Nixon now, Nixon now, more than ever, Nixon now.” The galleries are bright and interactive. In the Nixon in China room, visitors can pose for pictures with cutouts of the president and First Lady at the Great Wall. At another exhibit, visitors can lift the earpiece of a phone and hear segments of Nixon’s taped calls. Even FDR taped conversations in the oval office, the exhibit tells me. “Tough choices,” blares another, inviting me to struggle — via touchscreen — with the sort of decisions the president had to make.

I come to the Watergate gallery, and if it’s no longer a darkened room occasionally haunted by Haldeman, it is still an unwelcoming room with text-heavy exhibits. I’m not sure who it’s for — amid all the words, the impression is of a reckoning avoided.

Read more:

James Worsham, “Nixon’s Library Now a Part of NARA,” Prologue Magazine, Fall 2007.

Andrew Gumbel, “The Last Battle of Watergate,” Pacific Standard, December 8, 2011.

Christine Mai-Duc, “The ‘New’ Nixon Library’s Challenge: Fairly Depicting a ‘Failed Presidency’,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2016.

Electric Youth at the Boston Science Museum

by Jessica Hoffman

Boston Museum of Science Theater of Electricity

Two large metal mushrooms loomed above me, barely obscured by the thin shield of wiry threads fencing them in. The room glowed with an otherworldly light. The air crackled with spiraling energy. Suddenly, the loudest noise I’d ever heard pierced my ears as a white-hot jagged beam of magic erupted from the machine, cracking rhythmically against the metal.

The Museum of Science was making lightning again.

It’s the first school trip I can remember. I don’t know how old I was. I don’t remember much else about the museum (other than grade schoolers arguing about the merits of astronaut ice cream.) I don’t even remember much else about the show. But years later, I can still hear the humming and the cracks. I can still feel the anticipation and fear humming through my body. I can still remember how bright it was. How beautiful and how terrifying.

Boston’s Museum of Science tries to be as interactive as possible. The lightning shows are one of the rare moments when visitors must sit, watch, listen, and most definitely not touch anything. They are also one of the Museum’s evergreen showstoppers.

The shows are a demonstration of the world’s largest Van de Graff generator: 40 feet high and over 80 years old. It was built in 1933 at MIT but, after technology moved on, the generator moved as well, relocating to the Museum as a permanent exhibit and a field trip staple for most Massachusetts school children.

The Museum puts on hundreds of lightning shows a year, thrilling and terrifying people of all age groups. In keeping with the spirit of the Museum, the exhibit is a practical and approachable demonstration. Shows last for 20 minutes and use clear language — science for everyone. Presenters use fancy scientific words, but also explain concepts in clear ways that relate to our everyday lives. Which, in turn, allows us to understand the basics of electric current without a physics degree or hours watching science documentaries.

Most importantly, it is memorable, not only because of the lightning crashes, but because of the presentation. The show not only teaches us about electricity with words, it also shows us practical demonstrations. Using tools like light bulbs, props like child volunteers, and humor, the presenters explain core concepts of electricity such as conductors, current, and why we won’t get electrocuted if we stay inside our cars.

The exhibit impressed on me at an early age some core concepts. Science doesn’t need to be scary. It can be fun. The same holds true for other types of museum exhibits. Not everything can be participatory. Not everything can be a blockbuster or a spectacular show. But every exhibit, if done right, can take a topic that might seem boring or dry and make it fascinating. We just need to find a way to make people not only understand what they are learning, but care and take it away with them.

Good storytelling transcends age groups and interests. If we present our stories in compelling ways, if we talk to our audiences in clear voices, if we talk and write and exhibit for the everyman, not the archivist or curator, we expand our reach. We can’t talk down to people and treat them like they don’t belong in our world. Nor can we terrify them with complicated jargon. But if we tell good stories and reach out — even to caged audiences of elementary school kids intimidated by the topic — some will listen.

Years later, the Museum of Science has always remained one of my favorite places in town and the place I’m most likely to recommend to tourists. Because I remember my experience there. I remember the joy and wonder. And I trust that the Museum will allow others to experience those same feelings.

I moved back to Boston last year and returned to the Museum for the first time in years in the middle of the winter. My science reporter best friend in tow, we explored every inch of the exhibits, playing with all the exhibits with abandon and learning new ways to look at things. We hadn’t budgeted the lightning show into our visit, but we still snuck in near the end. And while I might be years older, while I might understand the science behind the magic, the spectacle hasn’t dimmed.




Object Stories at Portland Art Museum

by Julia Newman

Object Stories is hosted by the Portland Art Museum

Beginning in 2010, the Portland Art Museum launched Object Stories as a way to challenge the grand and limited narratives frequently supported within museums. The first iteration of this outreach project invited community members to share stories inspired by an object in a small recording both located in the museum gallery. In speaking about this project in a piece for the Art Museum Teaching forum, the current Director of Education and Public Programs Mike Murawski explained the goal remained “to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries.” Although museums are increasingly beginning to recognize the importance of community involvement in the construction and execution of exhibitions, many institutions continue to do their work behind closed doors without community input. Object Stories actively worked to involve the larger Portland community at all levels of planning, implementation, and in the actual structure of the exhibit. In order to execute this initiative, the Portland Art Museum’s education department partnered with multiple community organizations including the Northwest Film Center, the Milagro Theater and Write Around Portland. The first round of Object Stories showcased stories from community members and also worked with schools to highlight the voices of young students. These stories were then made available within the exhibition space and were collected in an online digital archive. Overall, this project continues to reach new audiences by offering a different type of experience that asks visitors to actively engage with the museum space.

The next and most recent iteration of Object Stories features stories and objects curated in relation to current exhibitions on display at the museum. These object stories still seek to disrupt the traditional museum by interjecting personal experience and community voices into the customary art exhibition, but have a more focused approach to the inclusion of community storytelling within the museum. In 2014, the Object Stories gallery space was renovated and the recording booth was removed in order to exhibit Revival/Remix in conjunction with the Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music exhibit. This new type of exhibit continued the object/story format with individuals telling a story surrounding a particular object, but sought to highlight underrepresented or under-recognized communities in the Portland area. The objects are then displayed in the Object Stories gallery with the stories available on nearby iPads. The most recent Object Stories exhibit, Igniting Voices, documents the stories of activists and advocates for social justice in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the recent transformation of Object Stories speaks to the many complexities involved in the capturing of community storytelling and the resources required to maintain such an outreach project. Or perhaps the museum realized the mission of involving community voices in exhibitions could continue with a smaller and dedicated effort. Nevertheless, Object Stories continues to bring new voices into the museum space through a commitment to active community involvement.

The community response to Object Stories has been overwhelmingly positive. The project has been recognized for its inclusion of community voices and differing experiences, and has been featured in the local news on numerous occasions. Additionally, Object Stories has been highlighted some members of the larger museum community as a successful outreach project. The Portland Art Museum has also consistently hosted a Object Stories Community Opening that offers another opportunity for new visitors to interact and engage with the museum. Overall, the Portland Community continues to recognize and support this outreach initiative.

This project’s archival component is also compelling to consider. Object Stories has archival implications for these stories have been archived and will continue to be preserved by the museum. Initially, the recorded stories were available in a digital archive, but that interface is no longer available. It appears the museum has worked to transfer most of the stories onto the museum’s YouTube channel, but feasibly the museum is also maintaining the corresponding files and records within the institution’s own repository. The museum will be responsible for preserving these stories and thus, the museum archive will hold stories that introduce new voices. As long as the Portland Art Museum remains open and committed to community involvement in the museum space, Objects Stories will carry on important outreach in the Portland community and will continue to demonstrate the potential of such work to challenge the ever-pressing authority of the museum.

Stay Tuned!

Dear Archives Unboxed readers!
Starting next week, we will be moving to a new format for the blog. Simmons SLIS students have been busy writing about outreach & advocacy projects.
After a brief hiatus, we will return with this series of project profiles that will dazzle and inspire. Stay tuned to learn more about Rihanna light shows at the Boston Planetarium, a postcard exhibit with legs, and a murder mystery night at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and so much more….!
I want to send out a big thank you to all of our profiled professionals who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with students and share their expertise for SLIS476. You are all wonderful people.

Meet Margaret Grant Cherin, Collections and Exhibitions Curator

by Constance Hyder

Margaret Grant Cherin is the Collections and Exhibitions Curator at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college in Great Barrington, MA. After studying Art History at Smith College, Margaret continued her studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, earning a master’s degree in Medieval Art History. Starting her career in art museums, she worked in various capacities with the Norman Rockwell Museum, Clark Art Institute, Williams Museum of Art, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Venice Biennale, and Jacob’s Pillow, before she began at Simon’s Rock in the early 2000s as a part-time exhibitions curator in the Daniels Art Center. After a time, she was asked to oversee the school’s archive as well, and when she made full-time she divided her time between her responsibilities in the archive and in exhibitions. In 2010, wanting to improve upon her skills as an archivist and gain a deeper understanding, Margaret began working toward her MLIS at Simmons College, completing her degree two years later. In recent years, strong student interest led Margaret to shift her focus more to the archiving aspect of her job. This interest is strong enough, in fact, that a work study position was created in the archive, something Margaret expanded into a for-credit internship for the coming semester.

For Margaret, outreach and advocacy are the fun part of archival work. Sure, it can be difficult—most people do not have a concept of what archives are, much less what you can do with them. When Margaret brings students into the archive for the first time, their shock is palpable. Archives are associated with the grand scale of the National Archives—or a high-tech secret lair like something out of a Dan Brown book—but instead they get what is essentially a small room stuffed full of boxes. Still, this dissonance usually only serves to make the archives all the more remarkable. When Margaret explains what the boxes hold, all the different types of materials, their enduring value, and all their possible uses, students tend to, in her words, freak out. It gives them a different context, and students are often so thrown that she can see it in their face the moment they understand.

It’s this sort of understanding that Margaret sees as a key element of successful outreach and advocacy. What you want as an archivist is a reaction: a connection meaningful enough to provoke a response. She points to alumni events and reunions as examples of this, with one project in particular as particularly powerful. At a recent event, they showed a film one of her students had made out of archival materials. Using hundreds of pictures paired with audio from the long-term faculty and staff interviews in the Simon’s Rock Institutional Oral History Project, they created a Ken Burns-style documentary on the school’s history. This resonated so strongly with the audience that people were crying after the film ended—that is when Margaret knew it was a job well done.

In fact, it is projects like this—the ones coming out of the work study program—that Margaret shows the most enthusiasm for. The value she places in her student workers is clear, going beyond the assistance they give her as a Lone Arranger. When the position first opened, Margaret used to give them boring tasks like refiling; but because she wanted them to actually get something out of the experience, she began encouraging students to take on projects of their own instead. When they were able to channel their own personal interests into their work, it improved the final product and a forged deeper connection. The aforementioned oral history project is one instance of this. While it began as an aspect of the school’s 40th anniversary celebration, a student worker suggested reviving it to augment the photographic exhibition they planned for the upcoming 50th. Not only did the project find life in later outreach projects as well, but Margaret stresses that it is involvement like this that can change the way students think about their school, and give them a greater appreciation for it. The student, Molly McGowan, wrote an article on her experiences which can be found here.

In this way, the work study program seems to be Margaret’s most successful outreach project. The students’ point of view and insight is essential in strengthening Margaret’s own outreach work, and their growing enthusiasm turns them into advocates themselves. Students have carried their experiences into other parts of their academic life, improving the archive’s visibility and affecting the mentality of even the Provost himself. It is the interest of Simon’s Rock students, workers or no, that Margaret considers instrumental in getting the archives out of the basement.


Meet Dr. Kenvi Phillips, the first curator of Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library.

Dr. Kenvi Phillips, curator of Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library.

by Sony Prosper

I recently met with Dr. Kenvi Phillips to discuss advocacy and outreach in the context of a curator working in a research library. Kenvi comes from a rich cultural heritage and history background. She received a bachelor’s degree in History. She then earned a master’s degree in Public history and doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington D.C. She has worked in the Anheuser-Busch tour center, the National Park Service/National Archives for Black Women, the History Factory, the Moorland Spingarn Research Center, and now works as the first curator of Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Schlesinger Library is a research library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. The library’s holdings date from the founding of the United States to the present and include more than 3200 manuscript collections, 100,000 volumes of books and periodicals, and films, photos, and audiovisual material. The material documents the lives of women of the past and present and reflect a strong collection of resources for research on the history of women in the United States.

Hired in 2016, Kenvi is leading the charge to ensure the Library’s collections are representative of a diverse group of women and reflective of the full American experience. The charge is part of an increased interest in diversity and inclusion on the Harvard campus in the past several years. A big part of her job is building relationships and trust on-campus, in the Northeast region, and across the country. She is constantly traveling to meet with potential donors, planning workshops and public programming events, and performing personal outreach.

Meeting with potential donors includes making them aware of the value of their material, offering suggestions for where to place material, and creating a relationship built on honesty, integrity, and respect. Part of making donors aware of the value of their material, Kenvi notes, is “including their voice and values in the way we classify collections in our care.” “We owe it to ourselves,” she continues, “our children, to do this work.” Touching on the memory of her grandparent’s materials being thrown away, Kenvi is also adamant on offering suggestions outside of Schlesinger Library. “Part of the job is making sure the donors place their material anywhere other than leaving them in a basement,” she remarks.

At the time of our conversation, Kenvi is working on multiple workshops, public programming events, and on-campus and off-campus outreach efforts. The first effort is a workshop in conjunction with Spelman College, a historically Black college and a global leader in the education of women of African descent in Atlanta. The second is a major public program in conjunction with the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists in Boston. The third is a concerted effort to talk with Harvard alumni of color to fill institutional holes. The fourth is an effort to attend other events throughout the various centers, institutions and programs – the Hutchins Center, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Poet Laureate Program – in the Greater Boston area. Kenvi also performs personal outreach when attending local Juneteenth programs, public library programs, and other community programs.

When asked about the importance of outreach and advocacy, Kenvi harkens back to the 1960s and 1970s. She notes it was a period where questions like “why are we not talking about women’s history or black history” entered the mainstream. She continues “we partly did not talk about them because they were not present in the “mainstream” archive, we did not have the documents to support the existence of various groups, and so did not have the memory of these groups.” She continues, “it is important to collaborate directly with potential donors and place the evidence of their existence here at Schlesinger or elsewhere through outreach.”

When asked about a project she has recently done, Kenvi mentions the planning of “The Difficult Miracle: The Living Legacy of June Jordan,” a joint project with Columbia University. The project is a celebration and discussion with activists, poets, scholars, and the public of June Jordan’s work. The discussion will be followed by a poetry slam and reception. One of the goals for the event is to provide an opportunity for face to face contact with the community outside of academia. Hopefully, this event creates a space where “we can learn together,” Kenvi pauses, “and provide more awareness of our collections.”