The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project

by Kai Uchida

Project Website:

Digital Materials Repository:


Organized in 2012 by Gordon H. Chang and Shelly Fisher Fishkin, The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project is a project organized by scholars at Stanford University and several other schools across the United States, Canada, and China. It is a collective effort by the Asian American Studies community to render visible the stories, histories, and working conditions of Chinese immigrant workers who are primarily responsible for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Spanning more than 2,000 miles, the Transcontinental Railroad (constructed between 1863-1869) connected the rapidly growing American West to the rest of the developing United States and radically transformed the American industrial economy. The project is broad in scope and includes a scholarly initiative to enrich the historiography of the Chinese Railroad Worker history and Chinese-American histories. There are two prominently featured initiatives that speak to the restorative advocacy work that the project sought to do. The first is the oral history virtual exhibit, and the second is the reconstructed interactive and virtual tour of notable construction sites along the Transcontinental Railroad.

Containing recorded interviews from 32 participants who are direct descendants of Chinese laborers who worked on the railroad, the oral interview series (and the accompanying essay from historian Connie Yu) conducted by the Chinese Railroad Workers Project work functions as a work of outreach in two ways. First, it is an active initiative by Stanford University to invite scholars and independent researchers to use these materials for their own historical research and writing – particularly those residing in China and scholars in the United States working in Asian American Studies and labor history. Because very little was written about or by Chinese migrant workers on the railroad at this time outside of timesheets, disciplinary records, and labor contracts, interviews with descendants provide valuable context and testimony that would otherwise be lost to time. Second, this work of outreach also functions as a gesture from Stanford University to the Chinese-American community in California and North America to discover and share a collective sense of history and ancestry. While this can be interpreted as an ancillary and symbolic overture relative to the mission of the project to spur further research into its repositories, it is notable because Leland Stanford himself was a vocal critic of the Chinese immigrants in the United States, often making racist and disparaging remarks even as he employed them, paying them far less than his already underpaid white laborers. Stanford University would be well aware of its image as an inclusive institution of higher education and how the current views of the university do not reflect those of its founder.

Another way that this project speaks to the renewed scholarly and public interest in social and labor histories manifests in its virtual tour of notable construction sites along the Transcontinental Railroad. Written by Hilton Obenzinger and designed in conjunction with Stephanie Yu and Gabriel Wolfenstein at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), it is the most public-facing digital exhibit produced by the Chinese Railroad Workers Project. As an exhibition geared more towards public outreach, its interactivity and visuals are immediately striking in their prominence. Featured most visibly through this online exhibit is the interactive overview map, which forges a path through California and the American West and updates in tandem with scrolling through the exhibit page, highlighting salient excavation sites key dates, and difficult construction sites in the development of the railroad that were instrumental to its creation. However, some of the HTML and CSS elements of its web design are rather sloppy and not optimized for easy visibility or navigation. Some of the text of the various photographic captions are hidden behind images, and the overview map – while able to be turned on and off — often takes up too much of the screen to be used in conjunction with the historical commentary and accompanying images. Nonetheless, it is a very impressive piece of visualization and interactive public history. The ways that it reconstructs various sites and provides juxtaposed photographs of past and present-day railroad sites does a wonderful job in illuminating not only the incredible logistics of railroad construction but also the incredibly dangerous and demanding work conditions under which these Chinese laborers operated.

Overall, this project is an extremely effective example of advocacy and outreach work by Stanford. The Chinese Railroad Workers Project of North America reaches its multiple audiences and seeks to engage them in ways that enrich Asian American history, connects with Chinese-American communities, and encourages researchers to use Stanford’s digital repositories. Its oral history exhibit is rich in testimony, and its visual reconstruction of the Transcontinental Railroad – while somewhat flawed in its execution – is an excellent companion to understanding the incredible work, exploitation, and human sacrifice that went into building this feat of infrastructural innovation. Combined with its robust lecture series and a steady stream of publications, it can be considered a successful advocacy project that lasted nearly 8 years.


Salem Witch Trial Exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum

by Jenna Gillies

Salem Massachusetts is famous for its witch trials, so it should not be a surprise that one of Peabody Essex Museum’s (PEM) exhibitions focuses on this time period. The exhibition cannot be missed; it is the first one you walk by when you enter the building. You are greeted with a life-size poster that describes the exhibition’s focus, themes (idealism, justice, and frailties of human nature), and why the trials still fascinate us.

The exhibition starts with witch trial history before diving into the Salem trials. A wide variety of materials were used: disposition letters, census of arrests, warrants, and examinations. A map is used to illustrate Salem’s size and where the accused and accusers lived. Stories of the accused and accusers were told throughout, helping me learn how easily one could be accused of witchcraft. There was also a section on the recent memorials, built to remember the victims. There was an “In Memory” portion, listing the victims’ names, hometown, birth, and death. It helps remind the viewer that these victims are just like us and deserved more. However, a quote at the end, moved me:

“’Deafness to the voices of others is the root of injustice. Silence in the presence of injustice is complicity. Persecution for invented crimes is a symptom of injustice. Memory of those taken by past injustice should remain with us to guide us in the future’ _From the Salem Memorial Design Proposal by Maggie Smith and James Cutler 1991” (Salem Witch Trials 1692, 2020).

I thought this was very applicable to our world with its hostility towards those deemed different.  We are still dealing with injustice and if we do not act, history can be repeated. These trials should serve as a reminder for us to be kind, accepting and speak out for those who might not have a voice. Doing this will help stop injustice from spreading.

PEM did a great job trying to reach their audience, both locally and out of state.  Judging from the promotions’ various locations it seemed that PEM was trying to reach a specific audience: locals, tourists, and history buffs. There were several promotions near the organization: flags along the organization’s building and a floor to ceiling sign next to the entrance. The signs are in your face, making it hard to miss. A lot of tourists wander down Essex street to shop and eat, so it would be an easy way to draw people in. The promotions use the same painting from the exhibition, making it recognizable. However, the most strategically placed advertisement was the one near the Salem Witch Museum. It was located on a building opposite the Museum, deliberately placed so when a tourist walks out of the Museum, they will see it from the steps. It is also noticeable by car, for that is how it caught my eye. Once I went inside the institution, I walked by several promotions, covertly placed near gallery entrances. It was a constant reminder that the PEM was offering this exhibition right now. If these promotions were not there, other visitors might miss it altogether.

The museum also caters to those who cannot visit. On the exhibit’s webpage, you can click on a 360 degree tour video, which not only gives you the exhibition’s layout, but also clickable red dots that show what objects are being displayed and their significance to the exhibition. There is also a video by co-curator, Dan Lipcan, who describes the exhibition in great detail. He stops at specific spots to explain the history and the objects one would see. It felt like a personal tour, in terms of the amount of information he presented. Seeing this webpage made me feel that PEM succeeded in reaching their non-local audience. A viewer of this page would not only learn about the exhibition, but the materials and why they were picked. It helps a person feel as if they are there. However, if you are not familiar to the website, it might be tricky to navigate. The exhibition is not on the homepage; it is devoted to other events.

This exhibition was a powerful and moving one. While it shows the horrors that the accused went through, it also shows how the city of Salem and Massachusetts are trying to right the wrongs of the past through memorials and public pardons. This exhibition also reminds the viewer how quickly people can turn on each other and that anger and mistrust can lead to pain and suffering.

Works Cited:

Salem Witch Trials 1692 (2020) [Exhibition]. The Peabody Essex Museum. September 26, 2020 – April 4, 2021. 26

by Lisa Jenkins

In this “time of COVID,” libraries and archives have reached out to their communities to both provide support and help chronicle the lives of everyday people, collecting oral histories, videos, poetry, art, and more. The Maine Contemporary Archives project serves as an especially good example of cultural heritage professionals working to document the lives of their community members over the past year.

The Maine Contemporary Archives website, run by the Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative and hosted on Omeka, links out to the projects run by over a dozen Maine institutions. These are mostly Omeka sites run by public libraries, like Heart of Maine Community Stories and How’s Your Week Going? COVID-19 Story Archive, but also consist of projects from academic institutions and cultural organizations. The website is a treasure trove of information for all Maine residents looking to learn more about how their neighbors are documenting COVID. It is also an especially helpful resource for teachers and parents.

Education and Archival Advocacy

The Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative has created lesson plans that encourage students to reflect on and document their pandemic experiences, interpret and engage with primary source materials, and learn terminology like “archive,” “metadata,” and “primary source.” More complex terms can be found on a Glossary page. What is special about this project is that students can apply their learning to resources that their own communities generate at this point in time.

The lesson plans are also a great example of advocacy for cultural heritage professionals because they demonstrate to young people what archivists and librarians do every day, and especially during this pandemic. Children from elementary to high school can learn about careers they hadn’t previously considered or fully understood.

For many people, archives feel like a place that stores old things. With this project, cultural heritage professionals demonstrate to young learners (and older learners!) that archives are dynamic environments that document history as it happens, and that community submission and engagement are key parts of that process. The website’s About Archives page makes it clear that materials collected will comprise the public record and benefit future communities, pushing the narrative that archives are active places of history creation.

Benefiting From Collaboration While Retaining Local Autonomy

The Maine Contemporary Archives Collaborative invites “Libraries, historical societies, museums, schools, and community organizations” to participate by creating their own Omeka sites or working with a pre-established project. They also invite participants to join weekly meetings to share skills and experiences.

The Maine Contemporary Archives notes that anyone from across the state can share stories on My Maine Stories, but that visitors should first check out the websites of their local institutions, which may have their own focuses and projects. For example, both the Bangor Area Community Archives Project and the Belfast Free Library COVID-19 Community Archives ask for residents to contribute items, but they allow for different types of submissions, with Belfast including audio uploads as an option while Bangor does not.

And all websites have different styles and designs to best reflect the materials they collect and display. But these institutions don’t just rely on contributions; they create their own materials. For example, Belfast’s two digital item collections are called Belfast Free Library, which highlights the programming that the library has hosted during the pandemic, and Contributions, to which residents can submit materials. Their Library collection contains images from and descriptions of programs like Halloween events and summer reading prizes, publicizing their own hard work as professionals and demonstrating their role as a member of and leader in the community during this time.

However, not all projects are equally good at attracting contributors. Some websites have little to no community contributions while others showcase dozens of items submitted by the public. This discrepancy can be due to any number of factors, but the Collaborative does try to help its member sites by way of a Facebook page and ways to share ideas about getting the word out.

An Example for Professionals in Other Regions

The creators of this site are advocates for their profession and their institutions and are invested in how they can involve their patrons and include their communities in the historical record. Their project serves as a testament to the power of collaboration through the sharing of skills and resources, and provides a solid example for professionals in other states and regions.

The Leo Baeck Institute’s 1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past

by Meredith Combs

Everyone knows some version of the quote that says those who do not learn history are destined to repeat it. The Leo Baeck Institute’s 1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past was created with that idea in mind: a project that tells the stories of Jews in Europe before World War II and reaches a young audience so they will learn, remember, and share those stories in the future. The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) is a research library and archive with locations in both New York City and Berlin. Their extensive collections are focused on the history of German-speaking Jews, particularly those living in Central Europe before the Holocaust.

The 1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past was presented by LBI as a digital exhibition that chronicled the personal stories of Jews in Europe in 1938. The project used archival documents dated from each day in 1938 to create 365 entries that create a window into the Jewish experience as tensions rose before the start of World War II. This multifaceted project focused on reaching a young audience who use social media and it was launched in 2018, eighty years after the events of 1938. There is a website with chronological posts as well as pages about partners, contributors, and related education materials. The education materials include eleven ready-to-use lesson plans. Additionally, there are Facebook and Instagram pages that feature the year of posts. There are two videos related to the project: a mini-documentary and a video called “Voices from the 1938Projekt.” Lastly, a selection of the documents created a physical exhibition at the Center for Jewish History in New York for the majority of 2018. An accompanying traveling exhibition went to five cities in Germany.

One example of a post is the one from February 11th titled, “Sell the Jewelry: Brothers in exile worry about their parents.” The caption translates a highlighted section which says, “By the way, do you happen to have mom’s jewelry with you? Because mom had sked me if you told me, because I advised them to sell it, so that they would have means to live.” This correspondence between two brothers, one in France and the other in New York, highlights their concern for their parents’ welfare. They were concerned with their parents’ emigration plans, but also how they would support themselves in the meantime. At that time Nazis had restricted which professions Jews could participate in which changed the financial situation for many families. Students often learn about the atrocities of World War II, but this letter between brothers reveals that the hard times started with smaller aggressions.

The aim of this year long project was to reach a young audience, such as high school students, by using a social media style of communication with the accompanying Facebook and Instagram pages. The Instagram only has 184 followers, but the Facebook page is liked by 4,022 people. This means that the social media presence of this project was able to reach over 4,100 people. A young audience is a version of a “non-traditional” user of the archives – meaning someone who is not a historian, academic, genealogist, or administrative user. While the primary purpose was for the stories of Jews in 1938 to resonate with today’s youth, there is also a secondary objective of showing these non-traditional users what types of information and documents can be found in an archives. This introduction to archival material through social media style posts is successful outreach because the young users could become long-term users of libraries and archives. Another advantage of this mode is that people from all around the globe can access these materials online. The accompanying lesson plans are designed for teachers, but once again it reinforces the goal of sharing these stories with a young audience eighty years after the original events.

Along with successfully reaching a new audience, this exhibition succeeds as a work of advocacy because of the content LBI and their partnering institutions shared. The materials explain the changes Jews faced throughout 1938 and how the Jewish community felt in those moments. Capturing their feelings and their humanity through these posts is an invitation for the viewer to emphasize. This project not only advocates for people from the past but also for those lessons to be shared with generations to come. This expansive project was a year-long effort that successfully raised compassion, awareness, and understanding about Jewish life in Europe eighty years prior.

Creating “Collection Connections” at Tulane University Libraries

by Martha Ball

As you watch the “Collection Connection” video for the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography archival photos flash while you hear the opening notes of “Main Stem” by U.S. Army Blues. Curator Melissa Weber shares that through these images Ralston Crawford captured “joy, grief, rituals, cheating, dancing, selling, boredom, drunkenness, religion, lust, sickness, hard work, friendship, and so many other things.” Tulane University Special Collections (TUSC) and Digital Scholarship and Initiatives (DSI) hope that their collaboration on these videos inspires viewers to discover even more emotions and topics by accessing the collections online.

Tulane University Libraries. (2020, May 29). Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography – COLLECTION CONNECTION Ep. 1 [Video].

The “Collection Connection” video series consists of “visual introductions” to collections within TUSC. Each video is under three minutes and includes narration by a curator or another TUSC staff member, images and music from the collection, and a call to action for the viewer in the form of a link to the digital collection and an invitation to donate any related records. TUSC and DSI began making these videos in May 2020 as promotion for digital engagement during the pandemic that kept both experienced and new archival users at home. The eight videos are representative of the scope of TUSC’s holdings, spanning from the Gutenberg Bible Leaf to the Louisiana Political Ephemera Collection, from a Sanborn Fire Insurance map to a Carnival costume design from 1892.

In an article for ArchivesAware! Alan Velasquez, Unit Coordinator for DSI at Tulane University Libraries, shared that the team hopes the videos will serve as outreach to both researchers and donors, offering an initial spark of interest that will ideally lead to further discovery. This intention is clear in the videos, as each video introduces its respective collection through a survey of many images and themes, or a focus on one particularly representative image, such as the Carnival costume design. The format lends the series both variety and versatility, as Velasquez shared that the videos are utilized as timely content for the library’s social media accounts, relating the collections to the present Carnival or election season.

Tulane University Libraries. (2020, June 11). Carnival Collection – COLLECTION CONNECTION Ep. 2 [Video].
The “Collection Connection” series is therefore content that can be used to reach users and donors at a variety of points in their discovery process, from happening upon the video while scrolling through Instagram to selecting a video that matches their interest from the library YouTube page. These videos exemplify TUSC’s vision to “create pathways to evolve understandings of the past and present” by serving as an access point for further engagement. This approach follows the idea of an archivist as a “facilitator” through outreach, encouraging open use rather than serving as a formal gatekeeper to access, dictating how the user might utilize the collection.

Video outreach projects require staff time, technology skills, and a commitment to social media as outreach, which all necessitate institutional support. It is clear that this project matches the stated mission and values of TUSC, serving as a specific product of these larger goals. TUSC states that its mission is to “facilitate the broadest possible access,” specifically investing in technology in order to encourage use. The 8 episodes have received a cumulative 2,000 views, which does not include an average of 120 views per video shared across social media. This demonstrates reach, especially when it is considered that the Howard Tilton Memorial Library Instagram account has 529 followers as of writing. This metric conveys the importance of making the videos under three minutes, as they are able to function effectively within social media platforms.

The success of this project demonstrates both the effects of institutional investment in a “series” project, where there are now multiple videos offering multiple access points rather than a one-off production. It is also clear that cross-departmental collaboration has proved beneficial, generating content that can be shared across the library and TUSC social media accounts. Hopefully more exciting projects will come out of this work, inviting new user groups to explore the collections.


Further Reading

Tulane University Libraries (2020, December 7). Collection Connection Series [YouTube Channel]. YouTube. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from

Velasquez, A. (2021, February 17). Using Short Videos for Archival Outreach. ArchivesAware!.

Vision, Mission, & Values. Tulane University Libraries.

Manly Art Gallery & Museum: Celebrating 90 Years During Lockdown

by Beth Armstrong



What does a regional art gallery and museum do when Covid-19 derails its long-planned 90th anniversary programming? That is what happened to the Manly Art Gallery & Museum (MAG&M), a small but significant museum located in a popular beachside community near Sydney, N.S.W., Australia. MAG&M, pronounced “mag and m,” is the oldest metropolitan regional gallery in New South Wales, and sits right on the wharf of Manly Cove. Manly is a mere 11 miles, and 20-minute ferry ride, from Sydney. It is both a tourist destination and tight knit community, with famous beaches, a busy pedestrian area with shops and laid-back pubs, and a lively street party vibe. MAG&M is steps from the ferry dock and the Manly Scenic Walkway, a popular 10-kilometer coastal trail. It thrives on visits from day-trippers eager to explore Manly’s natural beauty and creative culture.

MAG&M has a small footprint, with only three galleries in a low-slung, unassuming building. While modest, the structure houses an impressive collection of Australian art, including paintings, drawings, photography, ceramics and beach ephemera (think surfboards and vintage bathing attire). The museum owns pieces by well-known Australian artists such as Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Will Ashton and Lloyd Rees, as well as works by aboriginal and contemporary artists. It also offers a wide assortment of cultural programs, such as films, artist meet-and-greets, live music and art classes. Funding by the Northern Beaches Council, the local government organization overseeing the area, and other sources allows MAG&M to host visitors without charging an admissions fee, and its location is a perfect escape from the Australian summer heat.

In commemoration of its June 14, 2020 birthday, MAG&M had several events planned to begin in April, centered around a special museum-wide display entitled “Treasures from the Vault: 90 years,” an exhibition featuring key highlights from its extensive collections. MAG&M also selected nine local designers to create a unique object inspired by each decade of the museum’s history, from the 1930s to the 2010s. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic left the staff scrambling when its doors abruptly closed in March.

How could they showcase their collection, including a new acquisition and unique objects from its nine designers, without visitors? The answer was both virtual and inspired. Instead of opening its special exhibition, MAG&M offered a suite of new virtual programs, including short films, “create with MAG&M” learning content, online exhibitions and digital copies of former exhibition catalogues. They also took to Instagram, using Instagram stories to showcase a work from their collection each day for 90 days. A new video was produced to highlight the Treasures from the Vault exhibition (linked below). Finally, their new acquisition, a painting of Sydney Harbour by Archibald Prize winning artist Wendy Sharpe, titled Blue Harbour, was unveiled on Facebook and Instagram on June 14th.

The most unexpected move by the staff, however, was an idea designed to bring the local population to the building. During the height of the shutdown, tourists stayed away from the ferry, leaving Manly to the Northern Beaches community. Unable to go to restaurants or shops, the locals took to the walking trails, which travel along the coast as well as around town. MAG&M, sandwiched between several popular walkways, used its large front windows to showcase works of art at night. The windows, draped during the day to protect the artwork from the sun, would open each night to reveal a new work from the Treasures from the Vault exhibition for public view. This was a calculated move to keep the locals connected to the museum.

Fortunately for MAG&M, Australia was successful in limiting the impact of Covid-19. MAG&M reopened on June 2, 2020, delaying its anniversary exhibitions by only a few months, although visitor numbers were limited by safety protocols. Their actions during those months showed that the staff has a savvy understanding of outreach in the 2020s. As stated by Director Michael Hedger, “We believe that you need to be more than just a gallery to do well, these days. It’s no longer just a passive thing. Technology is now changing so fast, that galleries need to provide a more immersive experience for the visitor and embrace all the various mediums of display.” Mr. Hedger also emphasized the importance of staying connected to the Manly community by showcasing local art. These actions should enable MAG&M to thrive in the future.

For more information about MAG&M and its virtual offerings, see the links below:

MAG&M Online

“Stitching History from the Holocaust” Exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

by Amanda Miano

“Paul and Hedy Strnad are trapped as the Nazis close in. Can Hedy’s dress designs and their cousin in Milwaukee help them get to the United States? All efforts failed. Hedy and Paul perished in the Holocaust, but their memory lives on in the letter and sketches which form the core of this haunting exhibit. Come and experience Hedy’s designs brought to life” (Stitching History from the Holocaust).

“Stitching History from the Holocaust,” was an exhibit on display from September 14, 2014 to March 1, 2015 at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee and is currently touring across the United States. For this unique exhibit, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee partnered with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to create dresses based on Hedy Strnad’s designs. The museum’s goal was to do more than present Hedy and Paul’s story. Rather, “. . . completing this project for [Hedy was] a meaningful act of memorialization, as it [brought] Hedy’s talent and creativity into the current day” (UW-Milwaukee Digital Humanities Lab).

It is important, when considering the impact of this exhibit and how it promotes the museum’s vision, to understand the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s mission statement which reads as follows: “The Jewish Museum Milwaukee is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of the Jewish people in southeastern Wisconsin and celebrating the continuum of Jewish heritage and culture. . .” (About). To fully understand how this exhibit complements the museum’s overall mission, we need to take a closer look at the Strnad’s story.

Paul Strnad wrote a letter in 1939 to his cousin, asking for help in securing an affidavit, necessary for he and his wife to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Paul also sent eight of Hedy’s dress designs, as a way of proving that the couple could secure an income if they were allowed to immigrate. Sadly, the couple were imprisoned before they could secure safe passage and were eventually murdered in a concentration camp. The letter and sketches were not discovered until 1997, when the Strnad’s of Wisconsin found them in the basement of their family home. They donated the documents to the Jewish Historical Society in Milwaukee. These items became part of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s permanent collection when it opened in 2008.

For a museum whose focus is on “. . . preserving and presenting the history of the Jewish people in southeastern Wisconsin and celebrating the continuum of Jewish heritage and culture . . .,” it is obvious why they would want to make people aware of this couple who sought refuge with their cousins from Wisconsin (About). Furthermore, this exhibit is dedicated to celebrating the continuum of Jewish culture, in that it presents the artistic abilities of one Jewish woman who should have lived to see her creations take form.

Now it is time to consider how this exhibit has aided the museum in promoting advocacy and outreach within the larger Milwaukee community. Using the dresses as sources of inspiration, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee partnered with Arts@Large, a local arts education organization, and with Milwaukee Public Schools to allow a select group of 7th and 8th grade girls to take a behind the scenes look at the work that goes into costume designing. The eight girls who were chosen spent time with the staff of the Rep’s Costume Shop, where they learned more about Hedy’s dress designs and the hard work that went into designing and crafting these dresses. The girls were tasked with documenting their experience through photography and then, as a way of reflecting on all that they had learned, they were instructed to paint life-size self-portraits based on Hedy Strnad’s sketches. By allowing the girls this opportunity, the museum and Arts@Large not only gave them a space to showcase their own work (as each of their portraits were featured in an exhibition at the Arts@Large gallery), but also gave visitors the opportunity to see Hedy’s dresses worn by the next generation.

While Hedy Strnad never did get to see her dresses in all their beauty, her name will live on through her artistry. When they were fabricating her dresses, the Rep’s Costume Shop gave each piece a “Hedy Original” label, “. . . allowing her to posthumously have the fashion line taken from her by the Holocaust” (UW-Milwaukee Digital Humanities Lab). So, while the Nazis took her life, they could not erase her from the memories of those who, thanks to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, have been able to view her beautiful creations at the “Stitching History from the Holocaust” exhibit.

Trot Trot to Worcester: “Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer” is coming to class

by Gretta Cox Gorton

While school field trips normally consist of a chaotic litany of permission slips, long bus rides, and a brown bag lunch, fifth graders in Worcester’s public schools are having a revolutionary kind of learning experience.

Contemporary picture of “Isaiah Thomas,” courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Instead of students taking the usual trek to an historical site, such as Old Sturbridge Village (thirty minutes southwest of the city), to talk to reenactors stirring vats of maple syrup or fleecing wool, the reenactor comes to them. Born out of a one-man play created by former American Antiquarian Society outreach director James D. Moran, actor Neil Gustafson brings the AAS’ founder, American printer, Revolutionary, and Worcesterite Isaiah Thomas to life in the dramatic program “Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer”.




Portrait of Isaiah Thomas in 1818, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston in 1749, and began his lifelong career as a publisher after his mother indentured him to a printer at age 7. He would go on to famously publish the politically antagonistic Massachusetts Spy, which consistently toed the line of attracting British suppression efforts in the infancy of the American Revolution. This tension culminated in the days just before the Battle of Concord, when Thomas fled Boston for Worcester, printing presses in tow (the property he left behind was destroyed). In Worcester, his career in the printed word flourished. Beyond continuing to print and publish newspapers and books, and eventually writing a history of publishing himself, he established the first national historical society, the American Society of Antiquaries (now the American Antiquarian Society), in 1812. Well known in the publishing world, and locally as a significant historical figure, Thomas is one of the lesser known American Revolutionaries, but has nonetheless had an immense impact in the creation and dissemination of early American political values.

The program which brings 1812 Thomas into the 21st century is currently sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and has been engaging historically minded audiences in Central Massachusetts on and off for over two decades. And while any historical society, senior center, or museum can book “Thomas” for a performance, since the Society’s bicentennial in 2012, the program has gained a very special and specific audience – Worcester’s fifth graders.

Through partnerships with the Worcester Public Schools, CultureLEAP (which offers intensive curriculum based cultural experiences to all students in a given grade), and an interactive online curriculum aid to assist educators in connecting classroom materials to Thomas’ visit, students get the rare opportunity to put down their Chromebooks and interact with a figure from the history they’re just beginning to learn about in earnest.

Dressed in 18th century garb, “Thomas” tells his life story, and introduces students to original documents from his heyday, providing direct and animate access to both local and national history. He proudly tells them about his achievements, like publicly reading the newly minted Declaration of Independence on the steps of Worcester’s City Hall, the first time it had ever been read aloud in New England.

He answers questions, in and out of character, like whether or not he had any pets, if he can take off his wig (to which he kindly proffers “you never ask a gentleman to take off his wig in public”) and what it felt like to be separated from his mother at such a young age. Acting as a piece of “living” history, Gustafson’s character provides insight into Thomas’ personal life and experience living and working during a time of incredible political upheaval. The performance demonstrates not only how different life was in 1812 (“pets” were mostly farm or working animals) but also how similar experiences like struggling for a more just and equitable society are across space and time.

Artists like Gustafson are no stranger to working with public history and its curators. Archives and cultural heritage sites are known to invite artists into their reading rooms and outreach programs as collaborative partners to create contemporary paths for visitor engagement, something artists are uniquely positioned to do. No sound or video evidence exists to document Isaiah Thomas, for obvious technological reasons so we rely on artistic renderings to embody this lost element of the historical record. Art imitates life, and in the case of “Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer”, art successfully engages audiences in how we connect to our shared history, specifically the people who made it (or, at the very least, printed it).

Further Reading

Information about the program and how to book “Thomas”:

Worcester Telegram & Gazette article about the program:

A short video of Gustafson as Isaiah Thomas: