Collaborating to Commemorate the Suffrage Centennial

This summer, PhD candidates Cate LiaBraaten and Sean Jacobson created a video series for the Frances Willard House Museum’s commemoration of the 19th Amendment Centennial. This series, Suffrage Sundays. explores the connections between the temperance movement and the suffrage movement. In this blog post, Cate and Sean discuss working on a public history project collaboratively. To view the Suffrage Sundays video series, please visit the Frances Willard House’s Youtube Channel. For more information on the intersection of temperance and suffrage, please see this blog post Cate wrote. Additionally, check out another project from the Frances Willard House: Truth-Telling project: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.

Cate: Since I reached out to you about joining me on this project, what made you say yes? That is, what do you look for when taking on a new project, especially a collaborative one?

Sean: Honestly, the public history scene has felt pretty moribund since the pandemic. I had been hoping to get involved in volunteer work at public history venues during the summer, but when so many places closed, I had given up on things for a time. So when you reached out to me about Suffrage Sundays, I was thrilled to be a part of another collaborative project and apply skills I’ve gained both from my public history coursework and my training in video production. When taking on new projects, it’s always important to me that I’m doing something that either expands my historical knowledge or advances skills. Doing collaborative work is also helpful practice for anyone wanting to work in public history!

Cate: When it comes to technical skills, how much experience do you think emerging museum professionals need to have before taking on a project—is there room for learning on the fly?

Sean: I think technical know-how is becoming more important in making history accessible to younger generations. The pandemic has made this all the more relevant. That being said, the technology we have now on smartphones is to the point where you don’t need expensive equipment or a formal training in media studies to create good products. I think it behooves historians to pick up on basic video or editing skills because, not unlike writing books or creating exhibits, video production has largely to do with telling narratives. I think historians can overcome some of their intimidation by thinking about gathering footage, recording audio, and editing as analogous to stages of research. You can absolutely learn skills on the fly, especially if you pay attention to some basic tips and strategies (e.g., NEVER shoot in “portrait” mode on a smartphone, record human voices with an isolated audio track, etc.). There are tons of tutorials on YouTube. The best way to learn skills is actually by doing.

Cate: Sometimes it’s challenging for emerging professionals to do projects outside of a school setting or a highly formalized work setting. What are some ways you think people can make collaborative projects work when there’s no clear leader—no boss directly involved or professor?

Sean: I think what we did was delineate specific roles based on what each person’s strengths are. Since you know more about women’s history and the Progressive Era, I trusted your judgment when it came to what to include in the scripts, the images you wanted to include, and the overall purpose of the videos. Likewise, you trusted my judgment when it came to what B-roll footage to include, how to record your voiceover, and the inclusion of music tracks. It certainly helps that we already had that personal rapport with each other since we’re in the same PhD cohort! It’s definitely trickier when you’re collaborating with people you don’t know, so that’s why it’s important to articulate from the start what particular roles each participant has. When it’s a group of 3 or more, I think it’s always helpful to designate someone as a “project manager” to facilitate both internal and external communication. I also believe having a shared project folder in OneDrive or Google Drive is a must!

Okay, now my turn to ask you questions. What inspired you to undertake this Suffrage Sundays project in the first place? And why did you decide on a video series as a medium?

Cate: At the Willard House we’ve been planning on doing something to commemorate the 19th amendment centennial for a long time. We had a series of events for summer 2020 in the works and were kicking off Women’s History month in March when the COVID-19 pandemic really changed everything. I wanted to do some suffrage related programming that could be accessible to people at home. I considered building an online exhibit or website, but one of the Willard House’s most recent projects, Truth Telling, (led by Loyola PhD Candidate Ella Wagner) is on a digital platform, and I wanted to do something totally different–especially because that project already fits its medium so spectacularly! When trying to decide what to do, I came across a video series from the Smithsonian called “Light Talks” –two-minute videos about birds. I loved the two-minute video series format! 

Sean: How did you go about selecting topics and featured items for the episodes? Would your process have been similar or different if you were choosing items to exhibit in a museum display?

Cate: I think it was very similar to creating an exhibit. I came up with a broad theme first: that suffrage work and temperance work were overlapping areas of women’s activism and leadership. Then I thought about what artifacts we had that tell that story. Some things I knew I wanted to use immediately, like the suffrage map. Other things, like the Lucy Stone letter, I found after our archivist, Janet Olson, directed me to suffrage-related materials in the archives. 

Sean: What about writing the scripts? How did your previous public history training come into play when trying to write scripts for short videos?

Cate: Writing the scripts was both like and unlike other projects. In a way, I thought about what I would include when writing object labels–a balance of generalized information and information specific to the item. I also thought about giving tours of the house museum–what would I say (or have I said) to visitors about the specific objects if we were seeing them together and in person? I think teaching experience helped too, because there’s never enough time to say everything you want to say! 

Sean: What did you learn from this project, and how would you do anything different for a similar project in the future?

Cate: I’ll start with the second question–one thing I might do differently is give more overview information upfront. Most of the audience of this series will likely already know what temperance is and who Frances Willard was. In a similar project I would likely broaden the scope.  One thing I learned from this project was the power of networking (for lack of a better way to describe it). When I decided I wanted to do this project, I knew I didn’t have the videography skills needed to create as high-quality videos as I wanted, and fortunately I already knew you! I liked thinking of this project as an opportunity to highlight the strengths of a colleague as well as the story itself. I could have done the videography myself, but it would have turned out worse and taken more time! It was really nice to see what using different people’s skill sets can produce.

Refusing to Forget

A Collaborative Digital Humanities Project

This is a project that seeks to foster knowledge and awareness of racial violence along the US Mexican border in the early twentieth century, including by putting up historical markers, offering programming such as lesson plans and museum exhibits, and removing celebratory statues and plaques of the perpetrators of the violence. Although the victims of the time were of Mexican descent rather than African American, the resonances with questions of policing and race today are quite clear.

Review by Benjamin Johnson.

Visit Refusing to Forget’s Website.

Just Mercy, the Innocence Files, & Solitary

Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) & The Innocence Project (The Innocence Files) & Albert Woodfox (Solitary)

Both of these resources address the racism deeply rooted in our criminal justice system. It is important to remember that the issue of racism transcends far beyond profiling by police in the streets. The criminal/judicial system has remained comfortable exercising deplorably discriminatory policies/practices. We must realize this and make a change. These resources will both shed a light on the reality of wrongful conviction (transcend any of mistaken identity or lack of evidence to the contrary of guilt) and the horrors of being Black in prison (and prison conditions in general).

Review by Grace Ruane

Get Solitary at Loyola University Library.

Get Just Mercy at Loyola University Library.

Watch The Innocence Files on Netflix.

Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

Anthony S. Parent. Jr.

Parent argues that the settlers did not only fall into a slave society but instead they manipulated laws consistently to enslave Africans. It also deconstructs the myth that all the settlers were great men who knew exactly what they were doing.

Get this book at Loyola University Chicago Library.

Review By Casey Terry

New Book Reveals Whaling in Chicago and Questions of Public History

By Daniel Gifford

Imagine a museum dedicated to whaling, set on a venerable old whaling ship from New Bedford, floating majestically in Chicago—first at the foot of the State Street Bridge, and later in the gleaming White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Whenever I tell people this is the subject of my new book, The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago and the Twilight of an Industry (McFarland Press, 2020), they invariably say how cool it all sounds.

Figure 1: The Progress in the South Pond of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Book of the Fair, Fin de Siècle Edition, Section Three. Hubert Howe Bancroft. (Chicago: The Bancroft Company, 1893).

The Progress was conceived as New Bedford’s paean to American whaling. Thousands turned out for her departure from the Massachusetts city as she began her journey across North America to Chicago. On that blustery day in June 1892 few would have questioned the assumption that the whaling industry would be gloriously represented and lauded at the most important world’s fair in the nation’s history.

Instead, the Progress was a failed sideshow of marine curiosities, a metaphor for a dying industry out of step with Gilded Age America, and an unmitigated disaster. The enterprise lost her investors a significant fortune, especially Chicago coal baron Henry Weaver. The Progress became a running joke in the final years of the nineteenth century. At one point the once-proud whaling bark was advertised for sale in the classified ads of the Chicago Tribune, just above the notice, “Wanted—A well trained driving goat.” Fire and dynamite eventually sent her to the bottom of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Calumet River.

What does it mean to transform a dying industry into “a museum piece”? That ultimately was the question I kept returning to as I researched and wrote about this strange moment when the history of the American whaling industry intersected with the 1890’s most celebrated freshwater metropolis. It remains a decidedly relevant question today as modern museums strive to preserve, interpret, and contextualize industries such as coal, steel, and manufacturing. Like those industries now, whaling was not dead by the 1890s, just greatly reduced. But it did still continue, remaining a way of life for a cadre of men and their families.

Discovering the ignominious fate of the Progress in Chicago thus opened doors to a decidedly contemporary set of lessons for museum practitioners today. What, exactly, went wrong? And what, if anything, can we learn from those failures over 100 years later? To answer those questions, I realized that I needed to go back much further than the heady months of the Columbian Exposition. That is why my book starts in 1850s New Bedford—the golden age of American whaling. Just like many industries and communities today, New Bedford had developed its own historical memory around whaling’s place in the American narrative. In the case of New Bedford, this blossomed into a literal religious zeal for the industry. The illuminative products of whaling—lamp fuel, lighthouse oil, clean-burning candles—became infused with the Quaker faith, built upon a foundation of light-versus-dark metaphors, beliefs, and practices. When New Bedford’s motto declared Lucem Diffundo— “we diffuse light”—it was both a civic statement and an evangelical claim.

This sort of industrial pride can be incredibly useful for conceiving and executing a museum. That instinct fed the idea of a whaling museum at the Columbian Exposition. The problem is that it can also create blind spots and tunnel vision. Over and over I found a disconnect between New Bedford’s inherent belief in whaling’s relevance and romance, and the way the trade was perceived by others. This included the Chicago syndicate that ultimately funded and ran the museum.

As the Progress journeyed across North America to Chicago via a network of rivers, canals, and finally the Great Lakes, she made a series of intermediate stops as a ticketed attraction. Curious sightseers in Montreal, Buffalo, Racine, and Milwaukee all got a chance to visit the whaling museum before her grand debut in Chicago in July 1892. Tracing that journey as a public historian was especially illuminating because it also showed how the museum changed the further away from New Bedford it went. Today, public historians take it as an article of faith that a museum needs to be connected to its community. The Progress is a terrific case study in this concept, or more accurately, its opposite. The further from whaling’s heart the bark traveled, the more it was severed from its community—a community that was already a shadow of what it had once been.

Figure 2: “The Arctic Whaler Progress.” G.A. Coffin. “There She Blows. (Chicago: Arctic Whaling Exhibit Co., 1893).

Each stop on the way to Chicago seemed to push the Progress further and further away from the concept of a faithful representation of whaling and the whaling industry. When the whaleship arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan, the transformation into a museum of exotica, curiosities, and maritime hodgepodge was nearly complete. By the time she was moored on the Chicago River, even her New Bedford whaling crew had been replaced with freshwater sailors from Chicago’s schooners. My book explores this tension between an educational experience emphasizing completeness and authenticity, and an entertaining experience emphasizing crowd-pleasing spectacle. This push-and-pull dynamic from more than a century ago is surely not lost on museum practitioners today.

Figure 3: Cover, Souvenir Brochure, State Street Bridge, Chicago. 1892.

The Progress’ years in Chicago up until the fiery dynamiting in 1902 are filled with stories both hair-raising and sad, all of which I trust will be fascinating to any Chicago history aficionado. She sank in the Chicago River with 200 schoolchildren aboard. (Spoiler alert: they escaped!) She sat encased in ice on the Columbian Exposition fairgrounds while workers built the White City around her. Henry Weaver—whose coal money brought the Progress to Chicago and funded the eventual “Arctic Whaling Museum and 10,000 Marine Curiosities Between Decks”—went into receivership. The brand-new Field Columbian Museum bought and displayed the Progress’ vast collection in its first year, only to have museum curators rebel and unceremoniously kick the whaling artifacts out of Chicago at the first opportunity.

By the time I had worked my way to the end of the story, I was fully conscious of the temptation to point fingers and cast blame. Was Henry Weaver the villain here, or perhaps Chicago itself? Did the city’s Gilded Age love of everything modern and profitable make a whaling museum doomed from the beginning? Ultimately, I leave it up to the reader to decide, but I believe simple answers are elusive. Instead, I hope that my book sparks conversations about how to honor communities that may not be ready for their final eulogy or want a museum to become their mausoleum. The story of the Progress is a microhistory for those interested in commemoration, speaking to us over a hundred years later about how to value an industry. All we need do is listen.

The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago and the Twilight of an Industry by Daniel Gifford is available on Amazon.com and other online vendors: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08945YF7F/

Daniel Gifford, Ph.D.’s career spans academia and public history, including George Mason University, George Washington University, and the Smithsonian Institution. A scholar of American popular culture and museums studies, he currently teaches at several universities near his home in Louisville, Kentucky.

You Never Forget Your First: a Biography of George Washington

Alexis Coe

Not only is historian Alexis Coe one of the only women to ever write a biography on George Washington, she’s one of the only female historians to do so in over one hundred years. Drawing back the curtain on one of America’s original “Great Men”, Coe engages with archival sources to reveal the man behind the mythic figure. For example, one of the most popular enduring (and silly) myths is of Washington’s teeth being wooden. The truth is far more ghastly; the teeth came from slaves. Coe’s analysis coupled with her accessible writing style makes this the perfect introduction into presidential biographies for those often intimidated by the male-dominated genre. Her writing challenges us to question as to how men of American history are molded and warped into mythic figures, propped up as infallible figures of god-like proportions. We’re asked to challenge our belief in these figures and how we use their legacy. This biography properly introduces us to George Washington as he was and challenges how we remember and learn about the American Revolution and the men who led it.

Get this book at Loyola University Chicago Library.

Review by Erin Witt

The American Police

Featuring Khalil Gibran Muhammad

On this hour-long episode of NPR podcast Throughline, Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad discusses the historic use of police brutality as a method for condemning and controlling the African American community. Muhammad draws context from his 2011 book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He describes how slave patrols provided some of the earliest policing in the American colonies. After the Civil War, Southern states passed the Black Codes, which heavily restricted newly-freed slaves. The Black Codes evolved into the Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation and fueled white supremacy. During the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s, black Americans fled to the North, hoping for a better life. However, the police in the North refused to help black Americans as they faced violence and discrimination from their white neighbors.

Muhammad demonstrates that the police have a long history of brutality and corruption in America. He concludes by reflecting on the death of George Floyd and offering his thoughts on what long-term changes need to be made to address police brutality in America.

Listen to this Podcast on NPR.

Review by Rachel Madden

Slavery by Another Name

Directed by Sam Pollard

This PBS documentary, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon, examines the history of prison labor from the end of the Civil War into the 20th century and how it was designed to perpetuate forced labor along racial lines even after slavery had been abolished. It shows in vivid, gut-wrenching detail how an institution was created to serve a few over the needs and dignity of a great many, told through first-hand accounts, letters, newspapers, and a wide range of other contemporary sources.

Watch this documentary on youtube.