The International Civil Rights Museum

While this blog entry does not focus strictly on experiences from my internship, it could not be more relevant to my thoughts and focuses of late. After discussing the interpretation of sensitive information with Heather, I ended up visiting the International Civil Rights Museum. This trip could not have been more perfect timing! After discussing the theory, I got to see the results of undertaking such an endeavor. In my talks with Heather, she mentioned being transparent as a method for presenting sensitive topics/images to the public. She gave the example of the Museum of the New South in Charlotte. The mere topic is touchy enough, but certain subtopics within the museum cause particular alarm. For instance, the museum includes pictures of lynching. As a student of history I believe this is the correct thing to do as these terrible events are indeed part of our history. However, these images may not be something that parents want their children to see. Since the museum still wanted to include these images as part of their exhibit, they simply put a cover over the photos with a disclaimer on or around the cover stating the images underneath were graphic and the viewer must take full responsibility for looking underneath the covers. This enabled the museum to make such history available to those who wished to learn about the topic without angering those who did not want to or were not ready to view such things. This trip would also give me a chance to take notice of other important aspects of creating exhibits, such as the space, information given, and the ways this information was given to patrons. With this in mind, I went to the International Civil Rights Museum.

My initial reaction was to notice what information the museum included in their exhibit and how they went about arranging this information. The lobby of the museum was open and airy, colored with blacks and grays and whites with a welcome desk in the center, a gift shop on the right, and a hallway on the left where the tours begin. In the lobby there were a few large panels, similar to panels that I have seen in WRA exhibits. I am not sure what the material is, but it is similar to the material used to make banners. These panels were hanging perpendicular to the floor and had both text and images arrange in an attractive manner so as to not overwhelm the reader too much of one or the other. Our tour guide was a young woman who thankfully had a booming voice, as our group was rather large and ended up growing during the tour. We began by examining an excerpt from the constitution declaring our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and what this really meant (white landowning males are the only people who have the right to these liberties). We then went into the “Hall of Shame.” This was a particularly important room for me as it held many images that were graphic. The tour guide stopped our group prior to entering the exhibit to make sure that everyone knew what lay behind the doors and giving them an option not to view the Hall of Shame if they had any reservations. I thought this was beautifully done and the way the images in the hall were laid out—each picture broken into a couple of pieces arranged closely together and raised so that there was light behind and around them—naturally drew the eye… as if more effort was needed. The images were naturally horrific. They included lynchings, people who had been beaten in various ways, and even a picture of Emmett Till. I couldn’t even make out his face. I wanted this, though. I wanted the discomfort and pain and sadness. I wanted the trauma of seeing things as they really happened and not just the whitewashed version of history that I was taught as a child.

As we moved on, we saw a video recreating the night before the famous sit-in of the A&T Four. We also saw a recreation of the dorm room where they planned their event (complete with authentic furniture donated by the school), the actual bar and stool and decorations of the Woolworth where the sit-in too place (it was all arranged as it had been in 1960), and went through a maze of walls and panels discussing different aspects of life and segregation. The tour guide made sure to point out the claustrophobic nature of the small space we were in and how this small, confusing, twisting maze of a space was much like segregation—complicated and hard to navigate. I enjoyed the fact that she pointed this out. Although it was impossible not to be aware of the confined space, I probably would not have made this connection immediately. Afterward, however, I doubt there was a single person in the group who did not think of this association while attempting to weave, scoot, squeeze, and inch around each other. I also thought it was a brilliant use of space. Although the museum had plenty of artifacts and literature, it took the experience to a whole new level that included the patron in a way that perhaps they didn’t sign up for, but that was effective in conveying the message on a deeper level than may have been experienced otherwise.

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I found it to be both instructive, humbling, and—dare I say—encouraging in these times of uncertainty. Although museum curating is not technically the job of an archivist, the museum was nonetheless fitting in its timing as the topic of sensitive information was still burning strongly in my mind. Besides, although my interest lies with archiving, a degree in Library Science opens the door to museum work for me as well. Perhaps my interests will develop or grow in these next few years. Regardless of whether I decide to pursue archiving or museum curating, the International Civil Rights Museum holds tremendous value to my understanding of collecting, interpreting, and displaying information to create a meaningful story.

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History: Warts and All

Lately the subject of representation of sensitive topics has come up in my Humanities 324 class. This led me to question the topic from an archivist’s point of view, so I asked Heather about it. How, for instance, would an archivist (or even museum or exhibit curator) interpret subjects like racism, lynching, the Holocaust, or the Confederacy? I find that people often get very upset when approached with these topics because they make them feel uncomfortable, guilty, emotional or defensive. As a student of history, this is sometimes difficult for me to understand. I don’t view facts of history as particularly offensive or perhaps I do, but I see my emotional reaction as a chance to explore the subject and my reaction to it. Either way, I do not believe censoring history does anyone any favors and is, in fact, a blatant attempt ignore fact and construct history to fit one’s own wishes and is detrimental to society’s understanding of past events. But what does an archivist think about this and how does it influence their work?

First Heather pointed out other reasons why documents in the archive would be restricted. Within the Black Mountain College Collection, for example, there are student files that are restricted because of laws prohibiting the release of student grades and records. Documents can also be restricted due to their physical condition. If a document’s integrity may be easily compromised, archivists obviously would prohibit patrons from handling it. If possible, the archivist may find another way to allow patrons to view the document such as scanning or photocopying it. Then again, a document or collection may be restricted based on the wishes of the donor. What I am interested in, however, is how or why an archivist or curator would restrict information for fear of offending patrons. Heather had a couple of interesting things to say on the subject. First was that, although history should not be whitewashed, one still needs to be sensitive to the climate around them. (One of Heather’s favorite sayings is history is history—warts and all.) She used the Zebulon Vance exhibit that the WRA did as an example. Instead of focusing on Vance as a slave owner (a very sensitive topic lately), the talked about the other things that Vance did in or for the area. She pointed out there are still ways of approaching a topic or a person without focusing on the offensive. Then she said something that had a tremendous impact on me; she said that historians have an argument to prove, but archivists were just there to present facts. This really made me think. All of this time I have been approaching my internship from a historian point of view. While it may seem easy to distinguish the two in one’s mind, I find it quite difficult to turn off Historian Kristen and turn on Archivist Kristen. I still plan on pursuing a degree in this field, and I am sure that time will encourage my archiving abilities, but for now this is something that I must remain aware of.

Conservation vs. Preservation- I finally understand the difference.

This week I revisited conservation at the WRA. A volunteer had an old newspaper from the 1940s and wished to have the very back page to be mended as it had a large advertisement of her family’s business on it. Since the paper was from Pennsylvania, it did not fall into the WRA’s jurisdiction, but Heather was happy to help out since it was for a long-time volunteer and so she set me to the task. To mend the paper I used a water soluble, heat-set tissue and a small soldering iron. I had performed this same procedure last semester so I already knew how to go about the mending. First, I had to rip bits of the tissue off of the sheet of tissue. It is especially important that the tissue is ripped as this would ensure that there are individual stray strands of fabric that would cling to the newspaper when heated. After the bit of tissue is arranged over the whole or tear that it is meant to cover, I took the soldering iron and simply applied heat to the tissue. This caused the tissue to melt to near invisibility, creating a patch and stabilizing the newspaper. This particular tissue is also water soluble, meaning if for any reason the patch needed to be removed, one could easily do so with water. The soldering iron is also important as the heat can be adjusted based on the needs of the paper being mended. Some paper may scorch more easily than other papers.

In regards to theory and method, this experience allowed me to further explore preservation and conservation with Heather. Admittedly, I got the two terms confused at first. Preservation is the continued protection of documents or items that are already stable. Examples of preservation are acid-free folders, archiving appropriate boxes, and putting documents in a climate controlled environment. Conservation, on the other hand, is when an archivist or conservationist has to work to stabilize a document before it can be placed into an appropriate place for safekeeping. In some cases, conservation work is necessary to prevent further decaying of the document. Mending the newspaper was a minor form of conservation and was essential for maintaining the integrity of the newspaper. However, as we are not trained conservationists, our work on the paper was very minor. Should the document in need of repair be important, rare, or valuable, it would be sent to a professional conservationist. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources employees a trained conservationist, but she is stationed in Raleigh and serves the all the branches of the NCDNCR. She may have over a hundred of requests at any given time for items needing her attention. That being the case, if an item is in need of minor attention, Heather simply performs the conservation at the WRA instead of sending it off. I left with a better understanding of preservation, conservation, and the intricacies of bureaucracy.

Policies, Procedures, and Hurricanes

My time spent at the WRA today was devoted to learning about the security and administrative aspects of archiving. The first part of my time was spent with Sarah Downing. Security and procedures were topics that were particularly relevant today as the headquarters for North Carolina archives in Raleigh just sent out a copy of the policy for stack procedures to the archivists (the stacks are where the collections are kept). Since Sarah had to step away for a few minutes and Heather was not at the WRA at that particular moment, I volunteered to remain in the research room to answer the phone and assist anyone who might come in. It was therefore important that I know a few things since I would be alone (with two semi-new volunteers). The policy as dictated by the state indicates that no one, save for staff and volunteers, are allowed to be in the stacks. Even so, it is recommended that anyone entering the stacks signs in. Now, this isn’t always practical. In the case of Sarah and Heather, they may go into the stacks numerous times a day, so signing in every time just doesn’t make sense. Policies like these are open to slight changes, of course. The policy for the stacks at the Outer Banks History Center (where Sarah was last stationed) does not allow volunteers into the stacks until they have been there for a certain period of time and have gained the trust of the employees. We also discussed other policies, such as what items are allowed in the search room and the proper procedure to request permission to use images from the archives in published works.

The overall theme was, of course, security and maintaining order in the archives. It is always of the utmost importance to know exactly what is going on in one’s archives at all times. Limiting who has access to collections (within the stacks) and what items, such as food, liquids, or large backpacks, may be in the same room as the collections when researchers are using them helps protect the unique—and sometimes fragile—documents that researchers are working with. It also ensures that no items will go missing or become misplaced if a researcher attempts to return the item to its shelf in the stacks. When Heather came in, we also discussed archival procedures. Its appears that during the last hurricane (Matthew?) this year, the state archives in Raleigh experienced flooding in their basement. However, due to observances of proper safety measures, nothing was harmed. The main practice that saved the collections was the fact that the bottom shelves of the bookcases that house the collections were at least three inches off the ground. As a matter of fact, they were about six inches off the ground. Although six inches is well above the recommended height, it is a much safer height than three inches. The head archivist at the location also acted quickly, removing all collections from the area and hiring a professional industrial hygienist to come and clean the area properly. Her quick response ensured the safety of the documents in her care. While I did not work with my Duberman project as much, it was an instructive day that provided a lot of valuable information. In discussing my desire to increase my knowledge on such procedures, Heather has given me some literature to read and said that we will spend some time in the near future focusing on how to handle disasters.

 

WWI and Killing Birds with Stones

In the time since my last post (I cannot apologize enough for my tardiness! Please rest assured that I am in fact spending time with the archives!), I have continued with the same project that I recently started. Going through and Martin Duberman’s interviews has turned out to be a far slower process than I had initially expected, although it is not without its rewards. I am still going through Eric Bentley’s interview (it is quite long) and have found quite a few things that will help me on a personal project in the future. I am also starting to get a feel for the different voices and players and particularly big events at BMC. Although I am only on my third interview, I have come across multiple mentions of the same events, such as the catastrophic breaking up of the college, as well as individuals’ personal opinions, reflections, and recollections of other staff members and students. The opinions and reflections are particularly interesting to me. Let us take one example: Josef Albers. Simply known as Albers, he was a dynamic figure at the school from the beginning. While some remember him as a quiet man who was lost in the world of his art, some (such as Bently) remembers him as quiet and cordial but also ready to take sides in some of the bigger arguments if need be. He also remembers him as having… um…  inclinations towards the girls, but restraining himself. In fact, it is a known but little discussed fact that Albers had an affair with a student.

I had another interesting experience this week at the building where the WRA is located–the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. I had the pleasure of attending Dr Pearson and Ashley McGhee’s World War I presentation! The presentation itself was wonderful and gave me a great idea of the type of work that I would be doing next semester in Digital History, but more importantly it was also an opportunity to see the types of events that take place here.  What was particularly special about this lecture was the fact that I had little to nothing to do with it (save for helping out a bit with the exhibit). This means that I had a slightly more objective view of the event that evening. My internship and future plans are focused on archiving, of course, but this does not mean that I will not be asked to step in and help with other things, such as arranging exhibits or helping set up and promote lectures. Why, I found out about the lecture from the WRA’s Facebook page! I am also sure that, if Heather had been in town, she would have been there in a heartbeat and had and would have done everything she could have to help the presenters that evening. On a completely unrelated note, I also got to use this lecture as a cultural event for Humanities 324. That’s like killing… what? 4 birds with one stone? A win-win-win-win for me!