After my two weeks of army fun in the sun in Virginia, I returned for the final week of my internship. The week started as usual with housekeeping on Tuesday. That completed, we set up a photo area to take pictures of firearms for my exhibit. Photographing the pistols was easy enough, but photographing muskets and fowlers turned out to be much more difficult. We had to set up a much longer roll of paper for the background, and in order to get far enough away to have the entire weapon in my shot I had to use a ladder and take pictures from above.
Pictures taken, I proceeded to edit them, which mostly consisted of cropping them. I continued that for the rest of the day.
Wednesday began with some additional editing to my core labels, and then writing my caption labels. Before I finished those, we went to get a musket out of the exhibit case for a picture. This proved to be much more difficult than it should have been, as we had to dismantle a large portion of the case to get it open. Ideally, exhibit cases should be designed for secure yet easy access to the objects. That way, objects can be rotated, exhibits can be kept fresh, and no one has trouble getting to them. This case was designed in the 1970s however, and needs improvement in various areas.
Once finished with this, I returned to writing captions and editing my photos. Ideally, I’d like to edit out the background and musket stands and turn it into a transparent layer, but unfortunately that process takes a lot of time. Once done with that, I began uploading the weapons to Omeka, which is a fairly simple and repetitive process.
Thursday was my final day. We started by going to the Muhlenberg Brigade huts to do some training with the interpreters on what was in the exhibits to help them provide better interpretation. After this, I continued work on Omeka, which mostly consisted of copy-pasting my already written labels into exhibit builder and then fighting with the web layout until I had it the way I wanted. Once my exhibit was up and ready on my website, I went into the park's Omeka sites to sort out the previous exhibits and upload mine. However, I discovered the park had two separate Omeka sites as well as a site called Atavist. While I was able to do an Omeka API import to get my content into one of Valley Forge's Omeka sites, I could not transfer my theme over and ran out of time to sort out consolidating the rest of the park's web content. I will be back at the park as a volunteer to fire the cannon again and to help sort out the web mess I found.
Total hours I spent at the park for this internship: 141.25
This week started with a trolley tour of the park. The trolley tours are run by a private organization in cooperation with the park, so the tour guide is not a park ranger. However, at each stop where park rangers are, the guide is not allowed to provide interpretation, and the rangers provide it instead. This means the park still retains some control of the content.
While each tour guide is different, the guide whose tour I was on gave a remarkably up-to-date and nuanced history of the park. For example, included in his tour were remarks about public memory and memorialization, just not in academic lingo.
After the tour, I continued work on my exhibit. I began drafting long, academic versions of my labels for later conversion to short, readable labels. I also considered how I was going to organize my exhibit. That done, I started the process of converting them from paragraphs into short labels, deciding to stick with a 50 word limit. As always, this was a challenging process of elimination and clarification.
On Wednesday, I focused on helping complete the annual inventory. Items worth more than a certain value are considered controlled property and need to be inventoried every year, while other items are selected for inventory randomly every year (the idea being eventually all items will be accounted for). Since most of the high-value items are weapons, this is where we spent most of our time (which makes me perfectly happy). However, we did run into some difficulty finding some objects. Fortunately, I knew from before that two of the firearms were in a different cabinet than the one listed, so we could find those right away. On the other hand, some of the letters and books we had to find were also in a different place than they were listed, and it took us longer to find them. We also came across two wall guns which were called muskets in the catalog. When they were cataloged initially, the NPS did not have wall gun in its nomenclature book. We checked to see if it was in the updated nomenclature, and sure enough it was and we were able to update it in the record. The point of all this is that collections work is never done, as things can always be updated and refined.
I did not work Thursday this week, as I had to leave for annual training.
This week began with a bang on July 4. Several bangs actually, as I helped operate the cannon for the park's July 4 celebration. Sad puns aside, the artillery demonstration, musket demonstration, and nearby bake oven demonstration are the primary living history events for Valley Forge, and only happen on special occasions. They also draw large crowds, and provide a different way for park rangers and volunteers to interact with the public than during normal operation. While waiting between shots, I was given a primer on the NPS's new emphasis on facilitated dialogue. This method of interpretation relies on the interpreter to engage the public directly and solicit their input in new ways, involving them in the dialogue and relating to their experience. It steps beyond telling a story and answering visitor questions. However, it challenges the more seasoned interpreters who are often reluctant to adopt a new style. Also, it can only be applied for smaller groups (using it for 150 people simply doesn't work), and it requires a lot of preparation.
Since Tuesday was the fourth, we did cleaning on Wednesday instead. Following that we set the vault up to take pictures of our new accessions from Hopewell. We used white fabric as a background and special lights to mitigate shadows. We took two pictures for each: one with the accession number and measure, and one without (in case someone wants to use it for public display). I will need to take pictures of several weapons for my exhibit, so this was excellent practice for that. However, I expect challenges stemming from the length of 1700s firearms. I finished the day with more research and exhibit planning.
On Thursday I took a guided tour of the park with the Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources. She has played the key role in park planning for the past 15 or so years, and pointed out all the changes that have been made during that time. I also saw many parts of the park I was unaware of, and got a greater appreciation for how many natural and cultural resources the park has, and how few staff and little money the park has to steward its vast resources. I also got a view of some of the methods the park uses to deal with this problem. Often, all that can be done is to stabilize a building, leaving it without a good interior or in many cases even a floor but at least still standing. Some buildings are used for park housing, but that program generally loses money. Some buildings are leased for various uses, with specific restrictions and with all profits going back into conservation. That program brings in money for the buildings, and often lessees put their own money into restoring the building in accordance with park guidelines.
I also saw in many of the locations a huge amount of potential for interpretation of all the other history in the park, including industrial history, agricultural history, recreational history, etc., but sadly that potential will probably never be reached simply because it isn't the period of significance in the park's enabling legislation, because those stories are completely overshadowed by the story of the winter encampment, because most visitors are primarily arrive to learn the story of the winter encampment, and because the park is already maxed out in what it can afford to interpret and support anyway. The only way that potential could be reached is if the park doubled or tripled or maybe more in staff, visitation, and resources, which if possible is still in the distant future.
My internship continues to progress. First up this week was cleaning, as usual. However, after this we had to organize lots of archeology that was just brought into the collection. Since there was not enough room the way the drawers were currently set up, we had to rearrange the cabinets to make room. It appears that half of collections work is simply finding places to put things.
After this, I did research and content development for my exhibit, but I was quickly sidetracked when I started reading about pocket pistols. These were small, rifled, screw-barrel pistols which could be carried concealed in pockets, and were often carried for personal protection while traveling and in cities. This opened up a whole new class of civilian weapons for me to talk about, which can be related directly to the concealed carry of handguns today.
Back to collections work. Valley Forge recently received some new accessions from Hopewell Furnace, and our next job was to put them into the collection. We followed the best practice of putting the accession numbers on using special paint to write the numbers. Typically we would choose the least conspicuous place to write the numbers, but Hopewell had put numbers on previously, so we figured the best place would be right near wherever Hopewell’s numbers were (which were generally inconspicuous). After this, we proceeded to physically re-number a section of archaeology accessions, which had accidentally been given the same numbers as the archaeology we catalogued earlier. Also, I noticed some of the archaeology finds were incorrectly labeled—for example, a spark plug was described as a bolt. I noted this in the paper records so they could be re-labeled in the catalogue. We then put slides which a janitor had saved from the trash back into storage.
Following this I continued my research, focusing on turn-off pistols and the finer distinctions between fowlers, trade fusils, and regular fusils. I realized just how blurry, and perhaps artificial, the lines are between them, and that in my exhibit I will have to find a careful balance for explicit, understandable definitions of slippery subjects.
Thursday was a training day for all the new and seasonal employees and interns in both Valley Forge and Hopewell parks. The parks are administratively connected, although they maintain separate collections, sites, and site staff. So I spent the day learning about the parks, the NPS and NPS operations, and meeting new staff from other departments. It made me realize just how big the NPS is and how varied its responsibilities—not only does Valley Forge need to conserve and interpret the winter encampment, but also manage the ecology and environment, and maintain federal law.
For my second week, I worked four days starting Monday.
Our first task was to clean up the vault tour we set up last week. This meant checking the accession numbers on all the objects and placing them back in the cabinet we got them from. While down in the vault, I then did some research on the weapons in Valley Forge's collection to choose some to put on my exhibit. I made a list of all those I thought could fit well, including all the fowling pieces in the collection and all the rifles. I wanted to use some muskets as well, of which Valley Forge has many. So I narrowed them down by which ones were more likely to have been owned by civilians, including a worn dog-lock musket and one that was stamped by New Hampshire with a stamp used when the colony was impressing civilian arms into colonial service. I also selected a French musket for variety. I avoided picking muskets made for government contracts or imported by the colonies to fight the American Revolution.
I then attended a meeting about a door lock in one of the buildings. While I won't provide specifics, it was interesting to see how a relatively minor issue which had a simple fix could be argued over and cause such a large commotion among park leadership. While it did feel like it might have been blown out of proportion, it was good to see the different perspectives of different department leaders, and how each department thinks a bit differently.
I then checked out how Valley Forge's Omeka site works, to help prepare my exhibit. I made a lot of style changes on my Omeka exhibit theme to make it more readable and less stale. This involved me learning more CSS and HTML, which made it take longer than it would have for a seasoned CSS veteran.
As usual, Tuesday was housekeeping day, and I helped clean Washington's HQ and Varnum's just the same as I had last week. After this, we moved several reproduction objects (camp equipment/furniture mostly) from storage in a dirty garage to a cleaner storage space. We also hosed down several objects to move later to the Muhlenberg brigade huts.
On Wednesday we finally went to clean the exhibit cases in the stables by Washington's HQ. The stables have Pennsylvania clay as a floor, and it gets all over the cases, and eventually starts building up inside the plexiglass. Ideally indoor cases should be kept indoors, which works in theory. In reality however you only have the resources you have, and you get no choice but to make them work. So we opened the cases and cleaned them out. Hopefully they won't need to be cleaned for another year or so.
After this we moved the objects we prepped for the huts over to the huts and placed them on exhibit there. The exhibits are constantly evolving as new objects are added and the rest are rearranged. After this I continued research on my weapons exhibit.
Thursday started by moving archival boxes down into the archives. These boxes had records from the latest archaeological dig, which had been done prior to an asbestos remediation project. Any time the park builds or changes the landscape, they must first do archaeology on the site to preserve any artifacts, so new archaeology is often going into the collections. We would deal with the actual objects later, but for the moment getting the boxes from the office into collections was enough.
Once we got archives in place, we looked for records on weapons for me to use as research. Most of the records focused on military weapons, and were not that helpful for civilian weapons, although I did learn more about longrifles and their development.
After this I continued work on my Omeka theme, and then got outfitted to fire a cannon on July 4.
So I finally started! Here's how it has gone down so far....
Unsurprisingly, I spend my first day getting to know the park and some of the staff. Right away, I got a behind the scenes tour of the Visitor Center and the displays there. My supervisor was very involved in creating the exhibit, and was able to tell me all the stories of how it was planned and how the plan was changed as the exhibit was developed. It highlighted the difficulty of doing public history, where many different people want to assert their influence on the exhibit, and how many different voices can insert chaos into even the most perfectly designed exhibit. However, from the visitor's perspective seeing the exhibit today, it would be impossible to know how many compromises were made and to realize the full extend of the struggle that went on over word choice, fonts, colors, layout, etc.
After hearing the story of exhibit development, I got to see the vault and take a look at Valley Forge's collections. Of the collections spaces I have been in, this was the most professional, organized, and secure. Most of my experience has been with small museums with few resources, so it was nice to finally see what a collections space can be when properly funded. I also got introduced to the Neumann collection of weapons that I will be working with for my exhibit.
To finish my day, I took the park's audio tour to get familiar with the scope of the park and experience the park the way most visitors do. I found that the tour did a very good job helping visitors visualize what was on the landscape in 1777-78. However it would have been better if I wasn't also busy driving at the time. I also took training to learn proper care for historic objects. I did 8 hours this day.
On day 2, I helped set up a vault tour, which involved moving collections objects from storage onto a table for a makeshift display. This helped me practice correct moving and care of fragile objects. We also went out to Varnum's quarters and Washington's headquarters to clean, which is done weekly. Even though the majority of the objects in those houses are replicas, we still treat them as originals for good practice and to help preserve them. After this, I took a tour of Valley Forge's library, and looked for books that might help with my exhibit. The library is a multiple use building: the NPS allows a wedding company to use the rest of the building for weddings in exchange for restoring the building to NPS specifications. It raises the ever-present public history questions of: what uses are appropriate for a historic site? Are commercial uses ok if they result in improving the resource?
The final task of the day was to place objects into the officer's hut at Muhlenberg's division. The officer and soldier's huts have been furnished according to items listed in letters, expense reports, etc. from officers and soldiers at Valley Forge. However, those aren't the only considerations we had to make when placing objects. The huts have glass walls to keep visitors from stealing the replica objects, but they don't go all the way to the ceiling. Which means we have to be careful not to put objects too close to the glass and within visitor reach. I did 8 hours this day.
One of our class assignments for these internships was to write a short paper comparing our internships to each other. I had not started mine yet, but comparing my classmate's internships can show the similarities and differences inherent in various types of public history work.
One major similarity for all of the internships is also shared across the entire history discipline—performing historical research, in one form or another. However, the type of research varies from internship to internship. Derek, Ted, and Cynthia are all doing some traditional archives-based research. Ted is busy researching the accounts of Elizabeth Willing Powel and organizing Chamounix’s archives. While he is looking at many records, Cynthia is focused entirely on one object, a “Post Office Account Book.” She will get a deep understanding of that while Ted will have a broader understanding of at least the archive he’s organizing. Unlike Ted and Cynthia, who have pre-defined records to work with, Derek needs to find research material to support his nominations of historic buildings. He will probably face more difficulty in finding relevant material and may get stuck in going down rabbit holes and into dead ends (I know I would). Also, he will also have to do site research by physically visiting the buildings he might nominate.
Charlie will undoubtedly do research too, and it will probably be the most varied of the group, as it could take any form that supports the tasks the AAMP gives him. Meanwhile, John’s research will include oral histories, which are quite different with their own set problems. While I have not yet started my internship, I know I will have to do research to create an exhibit for Valley Forge. This will probably involve in-depth research on specific firearms in the Neumann collection.
Some of my peers have encountered communication and logistical problems. However, they stem from slightly different sources. Ted simply has been busy with work and life, impeding his ability to communicate effectively. Derek initially had problems getting responses from the NPS, and now will have to navigate communicating with various stakeholders from the NPS to other government offices and to various members of the community. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia airport is a massive organization, so John is already experiencing the communication headaches that brings. He has to coordinate with different departments at the airport (such as the IT department). However, Cynthia and Charlie have reported no issues with communicating, which is not very surprising at this stage since they are both working within smaller institutions where they can probably communicate face-to-face most of the time, and so far have not needed to communicate much beyond their institution.
Of my peers, Derek seems to have the most direct contact with the public so far. He discussed his involvement with the William Way community center, going to public meetings, and reaching out to various other organizations and individuals. John will of course have substantial contact with the public once he begins his oral histories, and indeed has already coordinated with members of the public to convince them to be interviewed. In the end, all my peers will complete projects that are directly accessible to the public, whether that’s a database or an exhibit or a preserved building or an interpretive plan.
My peers fit into their host institution in different ways. Cynthia’s situation seems the simplest to describe: she has a clear task, with a fairly straightforward and obvious approach to doing it, and probably needs very little supervision. Charlie seems to have many different tasks ahead of him. Ted has different tasks to complete simultaneously. Derek has many many subtasks to complete all on different timetables that all support each other and his end goal. It will take a lot of project management and prioritization skills for him to complete them and hit his goal. John is in a similar, but perhaps less complex situation.
Finally, some of my peers are in familiar territory while others are not. Charlie has experience in museums, but does not specialize in African American history. Cynthia likewise has experience with conservation, digitization, and archives, but is not a specialist in Franklin or colonial America. John is very familiar with digital tools and online exhibits, but not with 1900s art. Conversely, Derek is very keen on LGBTQ+ history, and has been studying it alongside preservation for some time now. He wrote about it for last semester. Meanwhile, Ted has studied and written about Chamounix already, but is also engaged in a new area with Powel and her Citron cake. Even with such a small sample, it’s clear that public history work can vary quite a lot and require the public historian to be adaptable and have varied skills.
For my summer internship, I will be working for Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge is where the Continental Army camped in the winter of 1777-78. Today the site is run by the National Park Service, which operates a visitor center and museum there, as well as maintaining and interpreting the rest of the encampment grounds. I will start as an intern on July 13, and my responsibilities will include working with the collections (especially the Neumann collection of firearms), experiencing how the park operates, learning collections management, conservation, and preservation practices, and finally creating a physical or online exhibit for the park. This will be my third museum internship, and will help continue to challenge and develop me as a professional historian. I will be posting weekly work logs here. I'm ready to go and looking forward to getting started!