Archive for August, 2017

My Experience as a Summer Museum Intern

by Alex Smith

During the summer of 2017, two Marquette University master’s students, Alex Smith and Emily Dattilo, explored careers in public history by interning at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear. Housed in an old Cream City Brick house on North 11th Street, the Chudnow is built around the quarter of a million pieces of Americana collected by Avrum Chudnow from the mid-twentieth century until his death in 2005. The current director of the museum, Steve Daily, received his MA in History from Marquette.

Paid out of the department’s Casper Fund (which also supports our annual Casper Lecture and provides travel money for graduate students delivering papers at conferences and doing research in archives), Alex and Emily worked half-time at the museum for ten weeks. One of Emily’s jobs was to help design a visitor experience for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.  This edition of Historians@Work is Alex’s reflection on his summer at the Chudnow.

This summer I worked as a part-time intern at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear. The history department sponsored this paid internship in which I worked two hundred hours over the course of about ten weeks. When I tell people that I worked at a museum, they often wonder what exactly I did on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. Hopefully this post gives some idea of what it means to work as an intern at a small museum like the Chudnow.

First, a little bit about the Chudnow Museum itself. The museum is located on 11th street in Milwaukee, just north of campus (only about a five minute walk from Sensenbrenner!). It is located in a historic home that served many purposes over the years. While it was built in 1869 as a single family home, Avrum “Abe” Chudnow, a Milwaukee lawyer and businessman, bought the house to use for his offices due to its proximity to the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

Abe Chudnow was also a collector. His father had been a junk peddler and so Abe had grown up salvaging and collecting old objects, many of them everyday items and appliances from the 1920s and 1930s. The museum now showcases these items in a

Speakeasy

Alex Smith tends bar at the Speakeasy exhibit.

layout similar to the “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. One room is an old grocery store, one is an old pharmacy, one is an old barbershop, etc. (While some of the exhibit spaces are permanent, items and objects in the museum are changed out frequently. By the time he died in 2005, Mr. Chudnow collected so much that only about 5% of his collection is able to be displayed at a time!

 

I did a lot of different things as an intern, even only working about twenty hours a week. One of the main things I did was give tours. Since the Chudnow is a fairly small and newer museum (it has only been open for five years),

Emily

Emily Dattilo stands in the soda counter exhibit.

 

it is mostly visited by smaller groups of people, mostly families, although they do occasionally get larger touring groups. Before I started giving tours myself, I spent several days “shadowing” tours given by Joel, the curator, or Steve, the executive director. This helped me learn about the different items and exhibits so that I could explain them on my own tours, and also gave me an idea of how to deal with giving tours to different groups. For example, some groups are very talkative and ask a lot of questions, while others were quieter. If the tour had older people, many of them remembered using old appliances or products or remembered old brands from their childhood. If the tour had kids or younger people, even objects like a switchboard, antique cash register, or old soda syrup dispenser seemed foreign.

 

When I wasn’t giving tours, there were plenty of other tasks to do. One was cataloguing new items into the collection. For this we used a museum archiving software. Much of Mr. Chudnow’s collection is still not formally catalogued, and the museum also sees almost 600 new items donated each year. Cataloguing involved researching the origin, value and historical significance of an item, as well as measuring, photographing, and labeling it with a number.

I also worked on several other projects. The other two summer interns and I worked on creating a new candy exhibit in the candy window. We selected antique candy tins and boxes around a Fourth of July theme. We also selected other antique food tins for a traveling exhibit that is now on display at a retirement home in the area. We also helped design and assemble a circus themed exhibit at the museum. In the existing barbershop exhibit, I researched several of the items on display and created information cards that we posted in the exhibit so that people could read more about the objects and their history.

A major event for the museum every summer is their “Founder’s Day” celebration. This year there were several bands that performed, as well as a cookout, tours of the museum, and a special display of classic cars. Several hundred people came to the event. As interns we helped get the museum ready for the event and made sure everything went smoothly.

Overall, I had a great experience interning at the Chudnow Museum this summer and would highly recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in public history. Even though the Chudnow is a relatively small museum, I feel like I got a lot of experience with many different aspects of museum work. You can check out the museum’s website at http://chudnowmuseum.org/.

Alex Smith is a second-year MA student at Marquette University. His primary research interests are the interactions between religion, culture, and society in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Thoughts on Confederate Monuments (My Own and Others’)

By James Marten

As the storm over Confederate monuments intensified during the late summer, it became obvious that I, along with anyone else teaching a Civil War class this fall, was being given an incredible teaching moment.  What better way to show students that the Civil War was a living, breathing event, a powerful way to represent—or to disrupt—American values and assumptions in politics, race relations, and culture.

But how to do it? One does not want to overtly politicize a course; by the same token, this is an incredible opportunity to underscore the relevance of history to modern Americans.  This isn’t a new thing, of course; historians have long explored the “memory” of the Civil War, particularly its causes and its results.  Books like David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) and Caroline E. Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013) examined the complicated ways in which Americans have sought to memorialize and politicize the Civil War era.

The monument issue that erupted early this month, like the previous controversy over the presence of the Confederate flag in southern capitols and courthouses, tended to pit those who argued that the flags and monuments  were simply representations of a southern “heritage” that should be recognized and honored against those who maintained that they promoted a racist past and should be ignored or taken down. Similar arguments have taken place on college campuses in both the South and the North, where controversies have boiled up about renaming buildings named after slaveowners. At our sister institution, Georgetown University, the institution’s ownership and sale of slaves in the 1830s inspired much soul-searching, a major research project, and the renaming of a major building on campus. (Check out the Georgetown Slavery Archive for more.)

The monument issue has been simmering for a few years now, but the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists used a statue of Robert E. Lee as a 800px-Lee_Park,_Charlottesville,_VArallying point, forced it into the public consciousness, particularly after President Donald Trump’s original comments blaming the deadly violence that occurred in Charlottesville on the actions of “both sides.” The city council had decided to remove the statue last spring; a lawsuit has delayed that action. (The story of Charlottesville’s Lee monument can be found in this New York Times piece from early August. The monument is pictured to the left.)

Like many of my colleagues in the field, I’ve struggled to decide exactly what I think should be done.  I teach in a private university in a northern state, so no one is likely to ask me about what they should do about Confederate monuments.  Yet it seems important to me to figure out for myself—and to have a ready answer should students (as I think they will) ask me about it.  Although I favored the elimination of the Confederate flag from public spaces, I’ve been something of an agnostic on monuments to the Confederacy.  But to me, now that the latter have been “claimed,” it seems, by white nationalists, it seems that whatever virtues there were in keeping the monuments intact have been compromised. As a result, I now support the removal by local authorities of Confederate monuments from public places.

But this blog is less about my opinion than it is about providing readers with a short introduction to some of the questions related to the monuments, and to point them in the direction of some excellent articles and blog posts by historians engaged in the issue. (For a great “roundup” of blogs, articles, and essays, see Megan Kate Nelson’s blog, “Historista.”)

In order to understand the monument issue, it’s important for us to distinguish the various motivations for the erecting a monument. The fundamental question when considering the appropriateness of any commemoration is this: why is this person or event being commemorated? What raises this circumstance or this person to that level of importance?

The vast majority of monuments—the kind found in small town squares and Confederate cemeteries—were mass-produced, generic statues of common soldiers. They were picturesque, but hardly works of art. (The historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage offers a brief history of these monuments—and a wise approach to dealing with them—in his essay published on Vox.)

But the debate has largely revolved around the larger, usually equestrian, statues of individual politicians or leaders. The president and others have cautioned that taking down Lee sculptures puts us on the slippery slope that could eventually lead to the destruction of monuments to founding fathers who owned slaves. Yet structures honoring to Washington, Jefferson, and other slaveholders were not built to commemorate their slave owning, but to honor their contributions to the formation of the United States.  On the other hand, the only reason there are monuments to Robert E. Lee is because he led the largest army fighting the United States in our country’s bloodiest conflict.  Without the Civil War, he would have been a well-respected colonel in the US army that no one would have remembered after his death. He, like many other Confederate military and political leaders, had, long before they joined the Confederate cause, sworn oaths to protect the United States as officers in the armed services or elected officials.

Moreover, most of the monuments that are currently being attacked, supported, or taken down were put up between the 1890s and the 1910s. By this time the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war—in the best American tradition, the South had fought courageously and nobly for principles in which they believed—had captured the imaginations of southerners and many (not all) northerners alike.  But it was also the decade in which Jim Crow segregation and the disfranchisement of African Americans in southern states were nearly complete, and a time when lynching of African Americans had begun to reach its crescendo.  The Lee statue in Charlottesville did not go up until 1924—the same year KKK members openly paraded at the Democratic National Convention, a show of force that reflected the organization’s rebirth in 1915 (atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, which would become the site of another monument to the Confederacy). As Eric Foner has said, the monuments were expressions of power, not patriotism, and were not intended to represent “our” shared history, but a very specific version of history. (See Foner’s Op-Ed in the  New York Times.) James Grossman argues that comparing Confederate to Union monuments creates a false equivalent; however much one admires the courage of Confederate soldiers and the capacity of southern civilians to endure hardship, their cause hardly matched the moral and political high ground of the Union cause, or of the American cause in 1776 (to which it is often compared by southerners). (Grossman’s thoughts are part of a CNN roundtable on the issue.)

It says a lot about the leniency of Reconstruction and the racism of the post-war North that Confederate memorials could proliferate so widely and quickly throughout the confederate memorial at ArlingtonSouth with little pushback from the North. There were certainly examples of opposition—some Union veterans and others bitterly opposed the building of a Confederate memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where a number of Confederates had actually been buried, but it nevertheless was unveiled in 1914—but generally they were accepted and the issue was, well, a non-issue. (For more on the Confederate memorial at Arlington, go to the cemetery’s website.)

Despite their belief that the monuments were direct links to Confederate racial policies and motivations, most historians have, for many years, believed it more important to provide context to these representations of a specific time in our history, to explain their symbolism and the uses to which they have been put. Yet that may be impossible now, and many historians are changing their minds.  (Civil War blogger Kevin Levin explains his change of heart in this blog for the Atlantic, while  Matthew Stanley indicates why he changed his mind at the Emerging Civil War blog.)

Some politicians are also taking aim at monuments to Confederate commanders at battlefield parks. Battlefield monuments occupy a somewhat different place in the construction of memory.  Their original intent was to mark the movements and accomplishments of military units and commanders.  The more elaborate sculptures and structures—to commanders of specific units, or memorializing the fallen from individual states—are original pieces of art. And there is a rough balance in the number of monuments to Union and Confederate commanders and units.

I personally would prefer the battlefield monuments to be left alone. But I also would urge the National Park Service to be aggressive and pro-active in interpreting the monuments, which have for the most part been left to “speak” for themselves. The last decade or two have seen numerous debates among and between public historians and meade1_18471138_stdacademic historians about how battlefields should be interpreted, particularly in terms of the causes of the war, the motivations of the men who fought it, and the public memory of that war.  It seems to me that the monuments provide a great opportunity to explore all of these issues.  Because they capture moments in time—both the moment being commemorated, and the moment in which the commemoration occurs—they can be tools that, if done right can help visitors understand not only the battlefield, but also the war’s larger meanings. (The photo to the left is of the Gen. George G. Meade statue at Gettysburg.)

Interpreting symbols of racism, inequality, and extreme political beliefs—particularly when substantial groups of people do not see them that way—is a tricky business requiring a great deal of nuance. Recent events suggest that nuance may no longer be possible.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011).


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