Highlights from the Chicago Metro History Fair, Suburban Regionals

history fair

Official image for the American, academic competition of National History Day, 2014.

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Niles North High School in the village of Skokie, Illinois, hosted the Suburban Regional Competition for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The top 300 students from nineteen suburban secondary schools came to Niles North in order to present 150 historical projects in the format of poster-board exhibit, research paper, performance, documentary, or website. Emelie and I decided to attend the event as first-time, volunteer judges. After two orientations, the event organizers paired us with a veteran judge and assigned us to Room 2030, where we were tasked with judging a panel of 5 group documentaries. The following blog post is a reflection on that experience.

Continue reading “Highlights from the Chicago Metro History Fair, Suburban Regionals”

Separating Cultures in Opening the Vaults at the Field Museum

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On Friday, October 23, 2013, the Field Museum of Chicago launched its temporary exhibit Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair in their Holleb Exhibition Gallery on the first floor. To be clear, this post is not intended to be a journalistic review of that exhibit. If that is what you are looking for, I can only direct you to reviews by the Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson and the TimeOut Chicago reporter Jake Malooley. Instead, this post is intended to address a singular, structural assumption that other reporters have not fully discussed. This assumption is the strict and continued separation of Western civilization from other cultures—an intellectual separation that was embodied in the structure of the original Columbian Exposition of 1893, and reaffirmed one-hundred and twenty years later in the structure of Opening the Vaults.

Before addressing this assumption, the reader should first understand how Opening the Vaults is experienced. Visitors enter the exhibit by winding around a gray partition and into a small, square room. This room displays some basic information about the Columbian Exposition: a ledger of expenses, a map of the grounds, a blown-up poster of the Statue of the Republic, a timeline of events (from the publication of On the Origin of Species to the opening of the Field Museum in 1921), and a few exotic and practical artifacts, such as a heart-shaped coconut, the skeleton of a giant amphibian, and the original book of collections from the fair.

After leaving this introductory room, the visitor enters the giant, high-ceilinged hall in which the rest of the exhibit will take place. First, they will walk down the right side of the hall, and then they will turn the corner and walk down the left side of the hall, at the end of which, the gift shop awaits. All things considered, this space is both smaller and more basic than I had anticipated. Speaking of content, Opening the Vaults is separated into four distinct sections, indicated by overhanging banners. These sections are as follows:

          Appreciation and Preservation: Animals

          Demonstrating Natural Resources: Plants

          Understanding and Misunderstanding: Rocks & Fossils

          Displaying Other Cultures: Issues and Challenges

The first three sections of the exhibit, dedicated to non-human phenomena like animals, plants, and rocks, take up the entire right side of the giant hall. The final section, dedicated to displaying human cultures, takes up the entire left side of the hall. This separation could not be more conspicuous. The exhibit is like two halves of a single brain, with natural phenomena on the right side and human cultures on the left. But before critics praise the exhibition curators for devoting half of their floor space to the representation of non-Western cultures, they should also remember that this strict separation between Western science and “other” cultures is not exactly a progressive interpretation of the past. On the contrary, this separation was perhaps the foundational principle of the original exposition; it was built into its very structure.

Visitors to Opening the Vaults need only to study the map displayed in the entrance room to understand this strict separation. While the fairgrounds inside Jackson Park contained white, neoclassical buildings that were intended to represent the culmination of Western civilization—scientific buildings dedicated to fine arts, engineering, forestry, horticulture, transportation, and electricity—the fairgrounds outside the park were dedicated to displaying non-Western cultures. It was outside the fairgrounds, on the Midway Plaisance, that visitors beheld such attractions as the Hungarian National Orpheum, the Lapland Village, the Algerian and Tunisian Village, the Chinese Village and Theatre, Old Vienna, the German Village, the Turkish Village, and more. In a stroke of unparalleled symbolism, the Dahomey, West African Village was positioned directly across from an ostrich farm.

One result of the Columbian organizers maintaining a strict and superficial separation between cultures is the idea that natural science is the domain of Western culture. Visitors should contemplate the idea that plants, animals, and rocks are considered separate from non-Western cultures in the exhibit Opening the Vaults, just as disciplines like forestry, horticulture, and manufacturing were considered separate from non-Western peoples in the original Columbian Exposition. Also, as visitors to Opening the Vaults should notice that the right side of the great hall is rooted in individual, exceptional heroes of science. Visitors are encouraged to experience the story of plants, animals, and rocks through a specific taxidermist, anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist. On the left side of the exhibit, however, visitors largely hear the stories of faceless, non-Western cultures.

Critics might argue that the relative obscurity of non-Western individuals is a consequence of our limited, historical knowledge, but the work of historians like Ian Tyrrell reminds us that reinforcing these imbalances often amounts to a confirmation of the narratives upon which they were originally based—narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. Following this logic, there is likely to be more information about non-Western peoples at the Columbian Exposition than the American narrative would suggest. Also, the imaginative work put forth by the Native Americanist Daniel Richter, in his Facing East from Indian Country, emboldens historians to challenge the empirical restraints of historical sources, and recreate the individual experiences of non-Western participants at the fair in meaningful ways. Just because the Columbian Exposition happened in the past, does not necessarily mean that interpretations of the present have to remain bound to its limitations.

In returning to the gilded age, the American historian Robert Rydell, in his All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (1984), argues that “the idea of progress made manifest at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, in short, was presented along racial lines in an organization system devised by several eminent scientists.” By the time of the Columbian Exposition, seventeen years later, this pseud-scientific separation had reached a high-water mark of cultural expression. As the social and cultural historian Gale Bedermann discusses in her book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995), “The White City depicted the millennial advancement of white civilization, while the Midway Plaisance, in contrast, presented the undeveloped barbarism of uncivilized, dark races.” As Bedermann continues, “the Midway provided an implicit comparison between the White City’s self-controlled civilized manliness and the inferior manhood of dark-skinned primitive men…”

As the racial, exceptional, and gender-based analyses of historians like Robert Rydell, Ian Tyrrell, and Gale Bedermann have shown, the primary function of separating “other” cultures from the White City, as well as individual heroes from the unknown, was to construct a conscious and self-aggrandizing distinction. Western visitors could come to the fair and understand the extent of their civilization, modernity, and sophistication not just by visiting the domains of science inside Jackson Park, but by comparing those domains, and their respective heroes, to the massed and foreign cultures exhibited on the Midway. In a comparable way, visitors to Opening the Vaults are encouraged to understand the advancements of Western science generally, and the Field Museum specifically, in relation to representations of non-Western cultures.

I have tried to explain that a strict separation between non-Western cultures and Western science both existed in the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and continues to exist in the current exhibit Opening the Vaults; but why is this separation problematic? Why should we care? The problem is that separating “other” cultures from the narrative of Western science encourages people to think of the latter as something that developed in isolation, without influences and motivations from the rest of the world. This separation obscures the manifold ways in which Western, scientific discourse had utilized foreign cultures in order to define itself against them. But it also obscures the way in which Western, scientific discourse was built in partnership with non-Western peoples. For example, how can we properly understand the taxidermy of Carl Akeley without understanding the role that African guides played in helping scientists on their poaching excursions? Most importantly, the strict and continued separation between “other” cultures and Western science obscures the fact that Western civilization was based, at least in part, on self-conscious motivations that needed to be constantly justified.

In short, this post argues that intermingling Western and non-Western cultures fluidly in Opening the Vaults would more adequately reflect the historic relationships that characterize our past, not just direct connections between individuals like Akeley and their unnamed African accomplices, but more historic relationships between the institution of slavery and the rise of the American economy. In this case, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, racialized notions of science were very much at play. While the current exhibit at the Field Museum displayed all cultures and peoples from the original exposition with attention, respect, and dignity, they did not seem to question the basic assumption that different cultures inhabit a space which is separate, both intellectually and physically. This seems to suggest that, while Western sensitivities about “other” cultures have matured since the Columbian Exposition, Western notions of inter-connectivity have not.

In closing, this post is about more than just Opening the Vaults. It is about how historians and curators deal with representing cultural space. Whether one group is trying to define itself through comparison, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, or one group is trying to highlight other groups through isolation, as in the case of Opening the Vaults, can the practice of strict separation really be the most-creative way to represent the past? Is there a better way at hand?

What do you think?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.

A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers


As part of a summer research project sponsored by the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professorship in Women and Leadership, I created an online exhibit exploring how the women of the Chicago Woman’s Club (CWC) shaped ideas about crime and proper womanhood around the turn of the twentieth century.  My research yielded troubling questions about the ways in which we historically—and contemporarily—talk about violent femininity.

I encourage you to explore the exhibit for some delightfully colorful language that makes the early Progressive Era an entertaining period of study.  In the meantime, here’s the main gist: the white affluent women of the Chicago Woman’s Club considered it within their distinct purview as wives and mothers to protect and reform delinquent children and criminal women in order to make Chicago a better, safer city.  Members of the CWC saw criminal women and delinquent children as both causes and victims of urban crime, a perspective which positioned the clubwomen as saviors of the women, children, and the city.

Continue reading “A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers”

Section 106 in Action!

Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.
Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.

Anyone with the least amount of training or education related to the management of historical resources knows the importance of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). Section 106 is deceptively complicated and vague, resulting in negotiations between preservation ideals, community desires, and economic development.

The head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State and the head of any Federal department or independent agency having authority to license any undertaking shall, prior to the approval of the expenditure of any Federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license, as the case may be, take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The head of any such Federal agency shall afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established under Title II of this Act a reasonable opportunity to comment with regard to such undertaking.—[16 U.S.C. 470f — Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, comment on Federal undertakings]

As public history graduate students, we are well-versed in the letter and spirit of Section 106. But rarely do we have the opportunity to observe the process in all its messy and contentious glory. Recently I attended a Section 106 public hearing related to the $203 million reconstruction of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Wilson Station. The Wilson Station project is using tens of millions of dollars from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and sits in the Uptown Square Historic district—-thus triggering the 106 process.  Uptown is a neighborhood well-versed in community political participation, and has long served host to very diverse expectations of development, preservation, and economic and political justice (Hey, someone should write a dissertation about that). The CTA, FTA, the alderman’s office, and the City of Chicago have an enormous stake in the project that is deemed a necessary infrastructure upgrade and an essential key to the eternally-incipient ‘revival’ of Uptown. These factors, combined with the minimalist and impressionistic nature of Section 106 itself, promised to make for an interesting evening. This initial 106 meeting lived up to my expectations.

Continue reading “Section 106 in Action!”

Navigating the Past from our Pockets : Instagram and Public History

Anyone that knows me personally knows I’m quite the nerdy hobby photographer. Just read my archives on this blog to find out for yourself. So, when I caved and finally purchased my first smart phone last December, I immediately uploaded Instagram and started snapping away. For those of you scratching your heads and asking, “Insta-what?”, Instagram is a smart phone app (now also available on iPads) that functions like Twitter for the aspiring photographers of the world. You snap photos, add filters, and can share your photos with other Instagrammers who “follow” your feed. In turn, you can follow others, too.

With Web 2.0 now all the rage, a variety of history-related apps are available for our smart technologies. From the Library of Congress Virtual Tour to Historypin to Oregon Trail, history is literally right inside our pockets and purses. Smart phone technology has in many ways democratized access to history and history-related resources like never before. Which leads me back to Instragram. As a public historian, over-eager photog and smart phone user, I find these three worlds colliding on my iPhone 5 all the time.  In their photo-sharing ways, Instagram users are also sharing, shaping and navigating the past. So, how do we explore history with Instragram? How do I?

Below are just some of the ways. I’ve included my original captions with the images. To follow my Instagram happenings, you can follow my account annie_cullen on your smart technology or take a peek at my online profile here. Disclaimer: yes, I take too many pictures of my cats.

Instagramming History
Dream bathroom. #cuneomansion #oldshit #latergram #publichistory @zhenshchina

Instagramming History
Last set of books for the last semester of graduate school.

Continue reading “Navigating the Past from our Pockets : Instagram and Public History”

Loyola History Graduate Student Conference: Having Some Fun

HGSAHGSAHGSAHGSAHGSAHGSAHGSAWith another year, the Loyola History Graduate Student Association pulled off another (and potentially the best) Annual Conference. In between deep thought and dialogue, we had a few moments of laughter. Enormous thanks to HGSA President Amelia Serafine and HGSA Treasurer Laura Johns for making this day an overwhelming success.  Pictured are graduate students Katie Macica, Joshua Wachuta, Patrick Turko, Kim Connelly, Chelsea Denault, Dan Ott, Matt Sawicki, Erin Feichtinger, Aaron Brunmeier, Kristin Emery, Annie Cullen, and Rachel Boyle; Loyola Professor of History Dr. Kyle Roberts and Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Dr. Chris Cantwell; family and friends.

To see more photos of our HGSA Conference, visit the Loyola History Department Flickr Photostream by clicking here.

Photos by Anne E. Cullen.

Revising the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” [Roundtable]

For the 9th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Revisionist Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of “Revisionist” Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 3 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus–click here

The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park (WBEZ/John Schmidt)

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 has received depressingly little notice even here in the Great Lakes region, home to several important sites of that conflict. An exception to this general apathy relates to a space on Chicago’s Near South Side where, on August 15, 1812, a band of Pottawatomie overwhelmed about 100 evacuees from the US Army’s nearby Fort Dearborn. The confrontation was a rout: 28 American soldiers were killed and 28 were captured. Civilian losses–a complicating matter in the ongoing memory of the event–amounted to 14 killed and 15 captured, including 3 women and 12 children.

The Anglo-American perspective of the event prevailed as the dominant interpretation of the violence, most notably in the seemingly undisputed appellation “The Fort Dearborn Massacre.” However, as many American Indians have sardonically noted over the years about white-Indian conflicts, ‘When the whites win, it’s a “battle,” when the Indians win, it’s a “massacre.”‘ Continue reading “Revising the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” [Roundtable]”

It’s Lurking in the Cemetery

In a recent post, contributor Gregory Ruth discussed how for him “autumn has meant archive time.” I wish I could say the same, as I’m sure my scholarship would markedly improve with more time spent with the “yellowing records.”  For me, however, the magic of autumn lies in beautiful displays of brightly colored leaves, in apple cider straight from the mill, and in the quiet stillness of cemeteries.  That’s right, cemeteries.  What better time of the year to explore the history and memory ensconced in Chicago’s cemeteries than in October?  So, forget about your Halloween costume,  that paper due in November, and that mountain of laundry — tour a cemetery instead!  Although the haunts may not be as terrifying, I promise you history is alive, and it’s lurking in the cemetery.

Boyington Gate at Rosehill Cemetery

Rosehill Cemetery at 5800 North Ravenswood Ave, Chicago

Located on Chicago’s North Side, Rosehill Cemetery is the oldest and largest non-sectarian cemetery in the city.  Chartered in 1859, Rosehill was still in its formative years when the American Civil War broke out.  In an effort to advance its reputation within the community, the cemetery actively pursued the families of prominent war dead in hopes of having them interred at Rosehill.  In part because of these efforts, the focal point of the east side of the cemetery is a Civil War section featuring the Our Heroes: Civil War Monument designed by Leonard Wells Volk, the Major General Thomas Edwin Greenfield Ransom Monument, and several prominent battery monuments.  The Civil War section lies just inside Rosehill’s castellated gothic gate designed by William W. Boyington (the architect of the Chicago Water Tower).

On the west side of Rosehill is Chicago’s largest public mausoleum.  Designed by Sidney Lovell and dedicated in 1914, the mausoleum features Italian Carrera marble, Doric columns, and Louis Tiffany stained glass.  Notables interred in the Rosehill Mausoleum include Aaron Montgomery Ward, Richard Warren Sears, and John G. Shedd.

The Chicago History Museum offers guided walking tours of Rosehill East and Rosehill West, but unfortunately, their fall tour dates have already passed.  The cemetery is open daily, however, so stop by for a walk anyway.  Interspersed with the cemetery’s more famous occupants – twelve mayors of Chicago, four governors of Illinois, several former Congressmen, a Vice President of the United States, twelve Civil War Generals, and countless architectural, commercial and social notables – are the graves of the veritable unknowns.  Their history beckons.

Graves of Union Soldiers at Rosehill Cemetery

Continue reading “It’s Lurking in the Cemetery”