Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Academe

Covid-19 Closes the USS Constitution.

BursteinCheryl Burstein is pursing a Masters degree in history at the University of South Florida.

Covid-19 Closes the USS Constitution.

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, a great many of us have been asked to hibernate for at least for the next month, and public spaces throughout the country have been forced to close, including entertainment and educational venues. As such the museums around the country have been shuttered. Through my perusal of the internet, I found many of the larger museums and museums in larger cities are offering wonderful activities for families and students ranging from downloadable histories of the time period, to craft booklets, and videos. I would like to share with you one museum has done an excellent job creating their site for viewer engagement,The USS Constitution Museum in Boston, MA.

They announce their closure on their website’s front page and in the same announcement proclaim they can bring their museum to you. On this page is a list of areas on their site that “serve students and the public who are working remotely, we will provide complimentary access to additional content on our digital platforms for adults, children, educators, and students”. [1] There are resources for pre-k to adult visitors, from knot tying, sailor games, or being on a voyage. Photos of artifacts are easily accessible as are histories and stories shared by the current museum historian, Carl Herzog. The museum has included numerous videos not only to invite you into their museum but also aboard the Constitution, herself.  Their commitment to the museum’s mission of engaging all ages in the story of “Old Ironsides” to spark excitement about maritime heritage, naval service, and the American experience is well articulated in the on-line offerings.[2] There is so much to do and see on this site, it will surely help pass the time at home as we wait for the virus to depart.

 

[1] ussconstitution.org  page 1 “read more” prompt in top box

[2] Ibid.

Three Viennese Museums’ Responses to Covid-19. Three Natural History Museum Vienna.

ObermuellerAlexander Obermueller currently works on his Master’s thesis on the Raiford prison uprising of 1971. Before coming to USF he graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on a project on the Austrian Civil War.

@nhmwien Natural History Museum Vienna

A picture showing the closed but well lit facade of the natural history museum Vienna informs the public that the museum remains closed due to Covid 19. Like the Jewish Museum of Vienna the NHM staff invites visitors to visit the Google Arts&Culture page to investigate some objects of their collection like the famous figurine Venus of Willendorf, in closer detail. Hash tags like #cultureagainstcorona and #cultureintimesofcorona accompany the post from March 17th.

NHM staff posts regularly in English and German and uses already existing digital material like a video on the current exhibition concerned with the moon. Astronomer and astrophysicist Gabor Herbst-Kiss stresses that even astronauts have to go into quarantine in preparation for their venture into space. Highlights of the NHM’s collection like dinosaur skeletons and the mineral collection make a featured appearance on the institutions Instagram channel. Staff first references the new reality, namely social distancing, directly in a post on Bronze Age jewelry. Its spikes supposedly assist in the quest to keep a distance from potentially contagious peers.

With schools closed, NHM staff devised a format to entertain and inform kids about the museum’s collection. In the first colorful episode of a segment dubbed #NHMWienFromHome facilitator and educator Elli Jegel talks about unicorns. Donning a unicorn onesie, Jegel takes kids into the mythology of unicorns and ties the popular creature to the museum’s collection. Another educator with the NHM, Jasmin Hangartner, talks about ancient salt mines in the region of Upper Austria. After introducing the life of salt miners, Hangartner provides a recipe that archeologist came up with, after closely examining preserved left overs and human feces. Hangartner takes the audience through

the preparation of the dish called “Ritschert.” In doing so, Hangartner skillfully combines the necessity of cooking at home due to the Corona shelter in place regulations and historical knowledge usually presented at the NHM.

Irene Gianordoli addresses the viewer directly and starts her video off with a reference to protective facemasks she encountered on one of her rare trips outside. To engage children, who form a large part of NHM’s audience, Irene combines footage from the museum’s dinosaur hall with a how-to guide to create dinosaur sculptures out of toilet paper roles and fun dinosaur facemasks for kids to wear. Crafting miniature dinosaurs out of the left overs of the rare commodity toilet paper or facemasks provides children with an opportunity to make sense of the current situation while tying them to the museum. NHM staff usually uses these techniques during on site visits to engage their young audience. By moving them online in a worthwhile manner, they achieve the goal of engaging an absent audience and aid parents in their struggle to keep children occupied.

In the latest post, biologist Andreas Hantschk takes his audience to a pond, where he focuses on the mating season frogs and toads. After catching a toad and explaining its physique, Hantschk emphasizes the importance of protecting native species. NHM holds large collection of amphibian specimen that visitors are usually allowed to explore. Tying both the biologist’s fieldwork and the museum experience together, Hantschk stresses that visitors would soon be welcomed back to the NHM.

NHM chooses yet another approach to engage its audience during the Covid 19 shut down. By creating a series of videos aiming at children, an important segment of the museum’s audience, under the title NHMWienFromHome, museum staff certainly addresses Covid 19 but also tries to provide a framework suitable for children to make sense of the new reality. Unsurprisingly, different institutions respond to Covid 19 with their respective audiences in mind. Whereas the Jewish Museum sticks to its current exhibition and caters to an adult audience, the NHM clearly created its video series with its younger audience and their parents in mind.

Among the three museums under consideration only the Wien Museum varies its content depending on the respective platforms. Whereas the Jewish Museum and the NHM roll out every post in the same manner on Instagram and Facebook, the Wien Museum creates different posts for Facebook. Attuned to the possibility of longer reads, Wien Museum staff links to their blog where curators provide in depth analysis of historical parallels to the current situation.

Covid-19 and Presidential Libraries.

JoshJosh Sanders is a M.A. student at the University of South Florida. He majors in 20th Century American history with a minor in 19th Century American history.

Covid-19 and Presidential Libraries

As the United States reacts to the coronavirus, I have taken it upon myself to see how presidential museums and libraries have responded. I have been following their Twitter accounts to see how they have interacted with the public. Generally, there have been two standard responses. A few of these institutions have continued in their normal interactions with the public, tweeting out their usual “this day in history.” The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Libraryand Museum has not even acknowledged the pandemic on Twitter, instead maintaining its routine. The more common and expected response is the attempt to tie the current crisis to some crisis during their presidency. For example, the Fred W. Smith National Library has tied the coronavirus to various eighteenth century diseases George Washington would have dealt with. Even if there is not a direct correlation with disease, these institutions have taken this as an opportunity to tweet out inspirational quotes of national unity and perseverance during adversity. The most active of these accounts are Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan, with their institutions tweeting inspirational quotes daily.

The most unique response has been that of the George W. Bush Center. Along with the typical inspirational quote, the Bush Center’s Twitter account is actively responding to the coronavirus outbreak. Rather than making a historical parallel to the uncertainty of the 9/11 aftermath, this institution has taken it upon itself to respond to the current crisis. In fact, they have made no correlation to 9/11 thus far. Instead, members of the Bush Center are writing about how to respond to the coronavirus. According to an article posted on March 19th: “Whether it’s reading lists to help with educating children from home, or teleworking tips to make your life easier, or insight from the unique perspective of Bush Institute experts on leadership during trying times, we’re working to provide a helpful, optimistic response to the unique times we’re experiencing together.” For the past several days, multiple times per day, their Twitter account has posted articles promoting social distancing, giving tips for online schooling, and suggesting activities to keep one busy at home.

This coronavirus activism seems out of place, especially in comparison to other presidential museums and libraries. However, I decided to take a look at how Dallas (where the Bush Center is located) was reacting to the pandemic. The local governments within the Dallas-Fort Worth area have been struggling to respond. A few days ago, a county judge threatened to overturn a stay-at-home order, believing it to be too strict. The McKinney mayor, George Fuller, said that he would ignore the judge’s rule and enforce it anyways. Another example is the mayor claiming on March 31 that citizens were ignoring social distancing measures by going to parks in large groups. As of April 3, Dallas county has extended its stay-at-home order until May 20. However, it seems that the struggle with the local government and actions of citizens was a cause of concern for those at the Bush Center. Since the local government was not responding efficiently enough, the Bush Center took it upon itself to actively respond to the pandemic. The Bush Center perhaps sees its role to engage with the community and provide materials to respond to the coronavirus that was lacking from the local government. It will interesting to see if the Bush Center continues tweeting coronavirus articles, or will it lessen now that the government has stepped in.

Capturing COVID-19

Miller 2Scott Miller is a PhD student at the University of South Florida. His area of concentration is 20th Century American history with a focus on the Cold War.

Capturing COVID-19

“For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle.” This is an excerpt from a letter written by a doctor stationed at Camp Davens (Massachusetts) during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Letters, diaries, and photographs from that period have provided historians with invaluable insight into the pandemic that took over 20 million lives.

As the world wrestles with a new pandemic, historians around the world are mobilizing to document this crisis for future generations. A recent New York Times article discussed how museums in such countries as Finland, Denmark and Switzerland are scurrying to record history as it unfolds.[1] The staff at Denmark’s Vesthimmerlands Museum have been busy capturing  photographs of the empty streets and shut down stores.  Museum curator Maria Hagstrup is quoted as saying, “Usually, we think of a museum as a place with objects behind solid glass. But right now, we have a chance to get people’s impressions in the moment, before they’ve even had time to reflect on them.”  When it is safe, the museum also hopes to collect objects relevant to the pandemic.

Here in the United States, several historical associations are reaching out to the public for help recording current events.

The Connecticut Historical Society has created a portal for residents to upload their personal stories, photographs and drawings. “We are living in historic times. We recognize that primary source material is the ingredient that history is made of,” said Ilene Frank, chief curator of the historical society in a recent interview. “One hundred years from now, people will be able to study the statistics about how many businesses closed, how many people got sick. We want the human touch, capturing the experience of living during this time.”[2]

Minnesota’s Historical Society isn’t new to documenting history in the moment. In 2016, following the death of native son Prince, the Society collected residents’ stories and photographs of the musical legend. Today, they are requesting COVID-19 related digital submissions— stories, images, sound files, or moving images.  Some selected material will be posted on social media, and some preserved at the History Center.

The Maryland Historical Society has created Collecting in Quarantine. The initiative consists of two parts. The first,  Letters from the Homefront, is asking Marylanders to email their first-person accounts of how this pandemic is affecting their lives. The Business Unusual element is requesting photographs to tell the economic impact side of this crisis.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/arts/design/museums-coronavirus-pandemic-artifacts.html

[2] https://www.courant.com/coronavirus/hc-news-coronavirus-connecticut-historical-society-20200403-5hj62dnw3zfpbpkfm37ps3e5zi-story.html

 

COVID-19 and Mount Vernon

thumbnail_Rebekah_MunsonRebekah Munson is a graduate student at the University of South Florida with a major focus on Medieval Sicily and a minor focus on Digital Bioarchaeology. During her time in graduate school she has worked on numerous digital archaeological projects and currently is the editorial assistant for The Historian.

Global Time of Crisis and Museums: A Frontline View.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted many factors of daily life in different directions and restructured how people are able to work, shop, travel, and participate in typical life events. As social distancing has become a new normal for many, with many working remotely, standard operating procedures have shifted. This is especially interesting as it pertains to museums because they fill a unique niche in society, and each museum has its own mission whether it is a living history museum or a fine art museum. While the focus of any given museum is different, they are typically institutions who seek to educate and inform the public of a variety of facets of the human condition from science and nature to history to art. Many famous museums have taken steps to put their collections online so that people anywhere have access to their collections from the safety of their home. Hosting collections online, however, is a very topical look at how museums and their staff are handling this global crisis. To further understand what is happening on the front lines with museum staff during this transition, I spoke with Megan Little who is a collections technician at Mount Vernon, the mansion of George Washington.

RM: What is your role (at Mount Vernon), and what do you do when there is not a pandemic? ML: My title is Collections Technician so, basically, I help take care of the objects on the estate. Normally it’s me and three assistant collections managers (we call them ACMs) who clean the mansion every day as well as handle any object movements, inventory, and etcetera.

RM: How has the time of crisis shifted the role or focus of your museum?

ML: The crisis has not really shifted the role or focus of the museum, rather it has shifted how the mission is shared. People are still learning about George Washington and his home, just not in person through guided tours and visits.

RM: Were there any plans in place in case of some type of major crisis?

ML: There is already a disaster plan for any major crisis that has procedures for crisis.

RM: What is the museum doing during this time? (in terms of programming, increased online presence/content, etc.)

ML: The museum is mainly concentrating on outreach through online platforms. There are live streams with the President of the estate on Facebook and Instagram where he discusses the history of one particular room in the mansion (he lives on the estate so he can walk over) as well as live videos with education staff members from their homes where they answer questions from the public. These videos concentrate on different topics and time periods relevant to George Washington.

RM: Did you have any mechanisms to help you improvise and shift operations and procedures? Have they been useful? Why or why not?

ML: We are lucky enough to be a larger museum, so we have more tools and staff available to make the shift easier. As far as specific tools and procedures, I would say that the fact that we

have our own departments such as IT and security has been useful and made the transition smoother as all the directions have been coordinated and the same.

RM: How has the transition been to working from home?

ML: The shift to working at home has been equally difficult and easy. As a collections staff member, I am used to working with the objects: cleaning, inventory, etc. While working from home gives me the chance to catch up on paperwork and other desk work, I miss the hands-on aspect of my job. So at least for me, the hard part has been adjusting to how my job has temporarily shifted to something more remote.

During this time of crisis, it is important to not only think of the role that museums are playing through their online content to stay relevant and providing a platform of accessibility to those who are unable to visit these sites in person – due to quarantine, finances, or disabilities among other reasons – but also to pay attention to those who are facilitating this shift on the front lines. Without the front-line staff, none of this would be possible.

For content from Mount Vernon, follow them on Instagram.

Three Viennese Museums’ Responses to Covid-19. Two: The Museum of Vienna.

ObermuellerAlexander Obermueller currently works on his Master’s thesis on the Raiford prison uprising of 1971. Before coming to USF he graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on a project on the Austrian Civil War.

Three Viennese Museum’s Responses to the Current Crisis.

@wienmuseum Museum of Vienna

The city’s “general-purpose metropolitan museum” announced its closing with a generic text-based shareable on March 11th.1 Almost a week later the social media staff shared a poster of the 1937 hygiene fair in Vienna, bridging the present crisis with past events related to hygiene. Vienna witnessed these exhibits in 1906, 1925, and 1937. The post states that hygiene encompassed a wide variety of measures not just simply protection from infections. Wien Museum_Poster of the hygiene fair of 1937_March 17, 2020By using this poster, the social media staff shows flexibility and creativity connecting past and current events to call on the public to “stay save and at home.” The hash tags #museumfromhome and #closedbutactive are also frequently used. Hygiene makes another appearance in a post about the renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner. By stressing Wagner’s focus on comfort and hygiene as pillars of truly modern architecture, the long history of concern for hygiene is once more displayed.

In their next post, museum staff again refers to the current crisis and advertises its reading material at the same time. By depicting a backpack used by food delivery personnel, a booming job not only because restaurants closures, museum staff simultaneously refer to a new reality and reminds its audience of previous exhibitions on service sector jobs at the same time. Wien Museum_Food delivery backpack_March 19, 2020Attuned to the more casual tone on Instagram, staff posted a picture that lauds well-practiced social distancing: Only one person sits on each bench in the park outside of the Wien Museum. Again, the connection between the crisis and new social practices, namely social distancing, is tied to the museum by using a picture of the near vicinity.

Wien Museum_Social distancing at the park in front of the museum_March 20, 2020The new reality forces many of us to be confined to our homes by shelter in place ordinances all across the world. For those lucky enough to continue their jobs at home and not being fired, this change often results in a more relaxed working experience. Fitness and recipe challenges pop up all over the Internet to make the prolonged indoor stay bearable. Especially those employed in secure jobs and equipped with financial savings embrace the new homemaking or Biedermeier movement and embark on proper baking sprees. Being on lock down also confronts people with their living space and the Wien Museum jumps that train by referencing museums’ focus on and exhibitions about the home under the hash tag #atmuseumsanywhere. By sharing a picture of author Franz Grillparzer’s home, the social media team acknowledges the current, (en)forced fixation on the home.Wien Museum_At Home_Franz Grillparzer's home_March 24, 2020

In the last post, museum staff references lock down as a well rehearsed strategy against infectious diseases throughout history. Picturing the Viennese plague column erected in 1693 between deserted outdoors cafés evokes a deserted image of a City on lock down. A user even notices the black color umbrellas, which resemble black ribbons. A link leading to an article on hygiene in Vienna and the construction of the sewerage system accompanies the picture. In an effort to include the public the Wien Museum initiated Corona in Vienna: A Historical Collection Project. To catalogue the impact of the crisis on daily lives, the museum called on the public to send “photos of things that exemplify your new private or professional life in the times of Corona.” Museum officials promise to include these objects into the museums collection. Among the pictures already submitted are Corona themed graffiti, documentation of fever curve and an emergency phone call, empty shelves without toilet papers, a homemade face mask, a stuffed toy virus, a shopping list of an elderly neighbor who was not able to go outside, and depictions of home schooling experiences.

Wien Museum, in contrast to the Jewish Museum of Vienna, refrains from any references to their current exhibition, but instead chooses to embed the current state of emergency into the history of infectious diseases, hygiene, and changes in daily life. The museum’s blog even features long-reads about the history of greeting rituals. While the JMV aims at attracting visitors to its existing exhibition, the Wien Museum called on the public to contribute their experiences and objects that exemplify this unprecedented crisis.

Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp and Covid-19.

Lauren
Lauren Piccinini is a Master’s student with the University of South Florida. Her area of concentration is American History with a specialization regarding American Prisoners of War.
Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp and Covid-19

As the world slowly turned to a grinding halt due to the rapid spread of 2019-nCoV, commonly known as Coronavirus, the historical community began racing to find a way to continue “front-line education.” In this defining and unprecedented time, the world must find a way to move forward without actually moving, thus social media has stepped into the forefront as a source of delivery for museums, national parks, and educational institutions. Utilizing this technology and platform, historical institutions have been able to reach a whole new audience during this time of quarantine and social distancing.

One such institution that has embraced this way of meeting with the community is the National Prison of War Museum, which sits on the remains of the Andersonville Prisoner of War camp. Andersonville Camp, formerly known as Camp Sumter, was built as a Union Prisoner of War camp during the American Civil War and was designed to hold roughly 10,000 prisoners. Andersonville 1When it opened to receive prisoners in April, 1984, the Confederacy was ill-equipped to deal with the Union prisoner population. This is clearly evident as the camp was not fully completed when the first prisoners arrived. Nonetheless, the camp continued to accept prisoners and by August, 1864, the population within the camp swelled to over 33,000 men. As a direct result, the conditions within the camp deteriorated and mortality ranks surged, to almost 13,000 Union soldiers. The leading causes of death within the camp were chronic diarrhea, dysentery, and scurvy. While Andersonville was only in operation for fourteen months, it received over 45,000 soldiers and is notorious for being the largest and most deadly Confederate Prisoner of War camp. [1]

Following the American Civil War, Clara Barton and Dorence Atwater, a former prisoner, returned to the site in order to categorize and rebury all of the deceased men. Since that time, the camp and the burial grounds have fallen into the hands of the National Park system. In recent years, the camp dedicated a museum on the grounds to inform the public on the perils of being a prisoner of war and expanded the scholarship beyond the American Civil War. Annually, the camp hosts Living History weekend, night tours, and educational seminars that are designed to engage the average citizen into the topic of prisoners of war.

When the novel Coronavirus began to spread in the United States, the park took notice and by March 18, 2020, the camp made the decision to close the museum for the safety and wellbeing of their guests, volunteers, and employees. Andersonville 2On March 24, 2020, the camp, having been influenced by the Center for Disease Control and the state of Georgia, closed the park grounds to visitors and they have suspended all military honors during burials at the National Cemetery, which is the burial ground that Atwater and Barton established and sits on the camp grounds. In an effort to remain connected to the individuals who intended to attend a workshop or visit the museum, the park service has engaged the public using livestreaming capabilities on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram.

On the morning of March 28, 2020, Ranger J with the National Park Service at Andersonville greeted thousands of people who were interested in taking a virtual tour of Andersonville. As I sat comfortably on my couch, I saw people checking in from places near and far: Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Utah, Iowa, South Dakota, England (UK), Switzerland, and Afghanistan. While geography certainly was not a commonality with the viewers, the topic of Andersonville prison site certainly connected all of us. For the next 40 minutes, Ranger J introduced an unimaginable amount of people to the history of the camp, the players involved with the camp, and answered questioned posed by her viewers. By midday on March 29, 2020, Ranger J’s livestream had been viewed over 17,000 times. I believe that it is safe to assume that this is largest amount of people who have “visited” the camp in a single morning. Due to the overwhelming popularity, the camp has decided to dedicate Saturday mornings to “Social Saturdays,” with the next stroll occurring on April 4, 2020. This upcoming stream will focus on the burial grounds and the history associated with those interned.[2]

As the world changes, historical institutions have to adjust in order to deliver their content to a new population. During these uncertain times, it appears that the use of livestreaming tours has generated new life into old topics. While quarantining seems boring and lifeless, it is an excellent time to learn something new, of which Andersonville National Park has delivered. Make sure to tune in this, and all upcoming, Saturdays for information on the site, the prisoners who suffered and those who were responsible.

[1] Information on Andersonville POW camp obtained from: McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[2] Information on Andersonville National Park obtained from: “Causes of Death” Available from https://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/causesofdeath.htm, “Alerts & Conditions” Available from https://www.nps.gov/ande/planyourvisit/conditions.htm & “Camp Sumter/Andersonville Prison” Available from https://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/camp_sumter.htm

Three Viennese Museums’ Responses to Covid-19. One: Jewish Museum Vienna

ObermuellerAlexander Obermueller currently works on his Master’s thesis on the Raiford prison uprising of 1971. Before coming to USF he graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on a project on the Austrian Civil War.

Three Viennese Museum’s responses to the current crisis

Covid 19 not put only an end to in person classes at universities and schools but forced museums all around the world to close down for an unforeseeable time as well. Without in person visits, museums struggle to remain relevant. Some institutions could fall back on well-developed online tools and modes of digital engagement. For many closing their doors to an audience who is not able to attend proves to be a big challenge. How can institutions that promise to provide a close up experience of history (or art) through the “authentic” objects they exhibit, transition to an online experience that inserts another filter between the wanting audience and the powerful aura of unique objects. In this article I discuss three Viennese museums and their different approaches towards the challenges that Covid 19 entails.

@jewishmuseumvienna

Former journalist and head of the Jewish Museum Vienna Danielle Spera chose a format reminiscent of her former profession to announce the museum’s reaction to Covid 19. On March 11th Spera, correspondent like a microphone in hand, told the museum’s Instagram audience that the Jewish Museum will be closed, at least until April 3rd. Spera also invited visitors to follow the Museum’s online presence to make up for the lost opportunity of an in person visit. A week later the museum staff started using the hash tag #closedbutactive to emphasize its efforts to serve visitors and remain relevant during the Corona crisis. JMV_Danielle Spera announced that the JMV is closed due to Covid 19_March 11, 2020Danielle Spera guides virtual visitors through the current Ephrussi exhibition and narrates what visitors usually experience on their own. The hash tags #digitalmuseum and #museumfromhome signify the mediated museum experience. Another hash tag #jmwanywhere stresses the possibility to visit the Jewish Museum Vienna from anywhere. Additionally the social media team started using #stayathome a call on the community to protect those who are vulnerable and stay away from an institution that usually aims at attracting visitors.

In another episode of the virtual tour through the exhibition Spera references a video interview visitors would be able to watch on site. Visitors quickly encounter the limitations of the improvised museum tours. The video interview is not accessible to the online-audience probably due to copyright issues, the lack of time resources, or other inhibiting factors – this is uncharted territory and we all come up with strategies as we go along. JMV_Danielle Spera guiding a virtual tour through the Ephrussi exhibit_March 25, 2020The Jewish Museum Vienna’s permanent exhibition is accessible via Google Arts & Culture and on the current exhibition one can find an image video produced for the kick off of the exhibit, yet the current situation calls for improvisation. Virtual visitors profit from a rather exclusive format – it rarely happens that a museum director herself guides you through a tour.

Four days after the start of the minute long tours of the exhibit, the static camera position begins to move closer to the discussed objects, to allow visitors to engage them in more detail. Besides tours of the current exhibit and the weekly “Shabbat Shalom” posting, the director of collections makes a special appearance to commemorate the 250 anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday. A series of events, organized under the umbrella of #Beethoven2020 had to be canceled due to the virus and cultural institutions all over Vienna struggle to move the scheduled events online. JMV_Danielle Spera guiding a virtual tour through the Ephrussi exhibit, closer look at Parochet_March 25, 2020Corona not only presents a challenge to institutions as a whole but also forces museum professionals to step into the spot light or get engaged with social media. Whereas the trained journalist Danielle Spera performs her tours eloquently other museum staff understandably struggles to adjust to the unfamiliar and challenging setting.

Public History During Covid-19 Days.

20_0305_opa_coronavirus-micro (1)My graduate Public History seminar this semester has been driven online thanks to CV19. This of course has barred the possibility of people coming up with new interesting projects. A few students already have something clever going on, so they are taken care of and are burrowing away. But the rest of us decided that the best thing to do was focus on the web and explore how public historical sites, museums, and other related entities are coping with this pandemic. The plan is to share their findings here. So, over the next few weeks I will be posting students’ work as we take a look at how public history reacts and responds.

So you want a doctorate in history….

In the field of history, all doctoral programs are built on the intentions of the first mitzvah in the Torah — Pru Uvru — be fruitful and multiply. The idea is to produce the next generation of faculty to take off when we all, I dunno, die, I guess. If the Talmud’s Sages were to rule on a doctoral program they might conclude that a faculty member has fulfilled this professional mitzvah once they have hooded one student—or better yet, when that one student has a tenure tack job. In fact, many faculty reproduce more like Ghengis Khan than like a pair of well-to-do physicians in today’s Frankfurt or San Francisco. MyHorseFeathers-Groucho dissertation director oversaw somewhere in the range of 75 newly minted PhDs in his long career. Virtually all of them hatched into good academic jobs. Few today though could claim such professional fecundity—the world has changed so much in such a short time. Forty years of budget cutting, maligning, and beast starving has turned what was once a somewhat prestigious pathway to modest middle class comfort into a medieval cast system where all rewards accrue to a few while armies of overqualified contingently employed souls toil trapped in a dead end that makes the title “professor” a painful insult.

Each year people like me have to sit with ambitious, intelligent, motivated budding scholars and are called upon to smash to pieces their dreams of an academic career—no, I cannot fulfill the mitzvah of professional Pru Uvru on your behalf. Larry Cebula put it more bluntly in his noted 2011 post “No, You Cannot be a Professor.”

While I share much of Larry’s outlook, I am not totally on board—and that is why I wanted to write this here so that I don’t have to do it over and over each cycle. Each year I have more or less the same exchanges about how to get into a program and what to expect. I am restricting myself here to the front end–this is not meant to be a post about the job market–but obviously the market and admissions blend. My own experience with students denies me the ability to say that they cannot be professors—I know for a fact that they can be–real ones, tenure track and all. But—and this is a big one—they have to be pretty exceptional. By that I mean that there is a magic combination of ambition, stick-to-it-ness, and raw talent that also needs to fuse with some other sort of off-screen alchemy—skills, background, experience, and so on—that can make one stand out. On top of that, one had better be ready to publish, attend, and self-promote from the start. Long gone are the days when one could wait out an economic storm by hiding in grad school.

These days, that is like hiding from the rain by running into the nearest house. But the house is inhabited by a human flesh eating Minotaur, and is a working abattoir with massive sharp blades spinning and skittering every which way, and is on fire. All told, you are better off staying in the rain. So, take a deep look into your soul dear applicant and ask yourself the hard questions. What did you write in your Statement of Purpose? Did you share your life-long love of history? Did that begin when your family visited historical sites? Did [fill in topic here] fascinate you even from childhood? If the answers here are yes, then thank you for playing—Doris will meet you at the door with some lovely parting gifts (who am I kidding? As if we would have the budget for parting gifts! We don’t even have the money for cookies in a monthly meetings!).

Lesson One: Grad School is a Job. You are asking the state or a private institution to fund you to be a student—that funding comes in the form of small stipends and in the form of tuition waivers. If you are not in the running for funded education, or have been accepted to a program that wants you to pay for the privilege, well, I see Doris coming with your parting gifts.

Price-is-Right-Game-Show
http://www.wonderlist.com

Past performance is the only visible (albeit imperfect) measure of future success. What have you published thus far (I had a history magazine article under review when I applied)? What projects have you worked on that bear on what you intend to do with the school’s money? Conferences presented at so far? As the old saying goes—dress for the gig you want, not the one you have. So, show us how you have been dressing up as a working scholar already. A good statement of purpose needs to read more like a research grant than a personal bio—since from the school’s perspective you are asking for its money. So unless you can muster that sort of letter, save yourself the trouble. Doris…..?

Lesson Two: Doctoral Study is Relational. As a doctoral candidate you will be building, ideally, a fairly close and long lasting relationship with another human being—preferably one whose work you find influential. That is not to say that you need to be a clone, but the mentor relationship is the core of the experience. It is your mentor’s name you will cash in on at first and it is their contacts list that will constitute your first line of professional allies. In most cases, your first opportunities will come from their projects, and of course you will spend years learning to write to their standard. It is surprising how many people apply without even so much as a mention of the name of the person their interests suggest they will be working with. Astounding! If that is you, you have failed Test One—and it is a biggie.

You are asking the school to pay you to do research, and yet you failed to even research the department enough to convincingly talk about how Professor Magic has shaped your thinking on Your Chosen Topic, and how she/he is an ideal match for your work. On top of that, what sorts of university resources, ancillary programs, library collections, and so on are vital to your success in Your Chosen Topic? If the best you can muster for a reason to attend a program is proximity, well, Doris is ready with your basket. There is also a secret punch line here. Grad school is not undergraduate education, and admissions do not work the same way. Sure, past grades and all that are important. But more important is if Professor Magic wants to take you on as a student! Yes, that’s right, this is a buyer’s market and the merit of a student’s interests are central to admissions. It is not an issue of snobbery—it is one of workload and realistic expectations. Will Professor Magic be on leave? Does she/he have too many students now or a book deadline they are pushing? Is what you want to do close enough to Professor Magic’s work that they feel they can help you in the first place? If you have not researched these questions before you apply, and even perhaps met with Professor Magic for coffee to talk this all over, then Doris is tapping you on the shoulder.

Lesson Three: History Programs Train You to Be a Historian. Not Much Else. No Plan B (formerly known as Plan B) has been a big topic in virtually every academic historical society. Departments all over the land are soul searching and head scratching to see what else new PhDs can do other than being professors. In truth, I don’t think the news is great here. People trained to be professors and who have been successful in that role are not the best positioned to teach you to work in business, say for example. Ask yourself this question: what skills can I learn in a doctoral program that I cannot gain in some other more time and cost-effective way? In most cases, there answer is not many. No matter how much we fret about it, doctoral training is still Pru Uvru—we are still training people to be professors. These days that means much more attention to digital media than a decade ago, and that is good news. But the computer training one might get in a history department is a pale shadow of what you might get elsewhere or even on your own. The challenge of digital media to the way history is practiced is really one of disrupted information delivery systems and author credentialing. There is not a mini job boom in digital history outside of a few job listings—at least not one outside academe large enough to set a career upon, and probably not one for which you need a doctorate. The centerpiece of doctoral education is still the dissertation—and that remains a book- length written work resting on original research. We are approaching a time where it may be commonplace for dissertations to be digital projects, and some of those projects might be patentable software or marketable digital projects.

I for one welcome that—and I am working with students who see the world that way. But—if such a project is to be successful, it will rely on coding skills and computer knowledge gained well before doctoral study began. Class work will be working towards prepping candidates for an average of three comprehensive exams in various fields each resting on a reading list of between 60 and 100 books. There is not a lot of time to become masterful at coding in that preparation period, and so far, few in any programs have been willing to throw away the old models to make room for something new. But then again, if you are applying I am sure you have done all the research to understand upfront just what the program will be asking of you….! Is there an ongoing digital program or project at your chosen school that is central to what you propose to do? Again, I am sure you will have noted that in your researching the program. If not, Doris is waiting.

Lesson Four: Just Because You Like it Does Not Make it a Field. Sorry boys, WWII is not an academic field. Modern Europe is, but not a war—no matter how much TV seduces you over and over with endless press-molded documentaries. From the very beginning you need to be defining yourself and your interests in terms the field understands. This is a guild, and you are a supplicant asking the guild to dispense resources to recognize you as one of its own. It is a quirky guild—we love nothing more than a member who can shake things up. But it is also a classic case of needing to know the rules before you can break them. If you cannot define yourself in terms the guild recognizes, then it will have a hard time seeing you as a prospect.

One way to get in the swing is to look at the current job adds posted by H-net and the AHA. But of course there is a catch. The discipline is super fashion conscious. I won’t say that we mindlessly chase shiny objects, but since we are always looking to up turn the world, or to have our worlds up turned, we are sensitive to new ideas—and pretty into them. So even though it pays to know what is hot at the moment, know that while also knowing that there will be something else hot in a few years or even less. And nothing is less hot than last year’s fashion. The ideal topic is one that seems cutting edge at the moment of proposal, but has the elasticity to morph into the new cutting edge six or seven years from now. That is one heck of a challenge—but Doris is waiting if it is too much.

Know this though. None of us on this side of the line are happy about the current situation. We want to retire, eventually, and at our retirement dinners we want to be surrounded with friends and family—and especially by the many students whose careers we helped start. Setting a promising student’s career in motion and watching them mature into a confused, overloaded, and bitter faculty member is one of life’s great pleasures. If we had our druthers, programs would be fully funded and there would be scads of creative opportunities—we could get back to pretending that academe was a meritocracy. Ah, the old days! But others have set us all on this path and we are just along the dismal ride. So am I saying Nevermore? Not really. What I am saying is tread softly and advisedly in the minefield, and put yourself through the wringer before you put yourself through the wringer. But, you should probably just not put yourself through the wringer. Here comes Doris with some nice gifts and nice life outside academe.

 

 

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