Saturday, March 21, 2020

COVID-19 Park Closure

Effective immediately, all Morristown National Historical Park site locations and grounds are closed.

Morristown National Historical Park (NHP), in response to State of New Jersey’s Executive Order 107 issued on March 21st directing all residents to stay at home until further notice to curb the spread of COVID-19, is announcing that all park gates providing access to the grounds and trails at Jockey Hollow Area (including restroom facilities), Fort Nonsense Area, and the New Jersey Brigade/Cross Estate Area are closed until the Executive Order is lifted.

🚫Washington’s Headquarters Museum and the Ford Mansion remain closed.

🚫Jockey Hollow Visitor Center and Wick House remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to the Jockey Hollow Area and restrooms will remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to Fort Nonsense Area will remain closed.

🚫All visitor access gates to the New Jersey Brigade/Cross Estate Area will remain closed.

The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at Morristown NHP is our number one priority. The National Park Service (NPS) is working with federal, state, and local authorities to closely monitor COVID-19. The National Park Service (NPS) encourages all visitors to park lands to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees. #covid19 #nj #coronavirus #parkclosure #morristownnhpclosed #stayathomeorder #stayhomesavelives .

Please check our park website for the latest updates: and stay tuned for virtual museum features next week! .

[Image Description: This post features a closeup image of a skeleton keyhole at the historic Ford Mansion. 📸 Sarah Minegar].

Friday, March 13, 2020

Meet the Intern: Brian Csobor

Brian Csobor is a recent addition to the Culture Resources Division as an intern. He joined us in February of 2020 for his spring semester. He is junior at Rutgers University New Brunswick studying both history and political science. Brian attended Middlesex County College before transferring to Rutgers where he earned an AA in history. Here at MNHP he is researching the 1824 Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden. In doing so he hopes to gain an understanding of  legal history and what it takes to be involved with public history. To help with his project he will be using letters and books and from the Lloyd W. Smith rare book collection here at the park

Welcome Brian!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Meet the Teachers: Lauren Canonico and Mike Collins

Mike and Lauren examine documents in the research room.

Our current volunteer corps in Cultural Resources includes two teachers!

Lauren Canonico joined the Cultural Resources Division in October 2019. While she is raising two daughters and is on hiatus from the classroom she believes her volunteering is a perfect way to stay close to history and learn more about the behind the scenes workings of a museum.  Lauren was a Social Studies teacher for the North Hunterdon - Voorhees Regional High School District for five years, during which time she taught U.S. History, economics, and geography.

Lauren and Mike pull manuscripts in the stacks.
Mike Collins spent most of his professional career in the corporate world, but in 2009 retired to complete his certification as a High School Social Studies teacher. After some long term assignments in Hunterdon County, including Voorhees High School where Mike and Lauren were colleagues. Mike came to Livingston High School in 2013 and retired after 5 years in June 2018. During that time he joined his U.S. History colleagues who brought students to MNHP. As he began his Chapter 3, becoming a volunteer with us in September 2018 was a great fit. In his first year here Mike was very active in expanding the number of teachers and supervisors who utilize our Museum and Library.

Working together, Lauren and Mike have identified a number of initiatives where they can work independently but also draw upon each other’s educational perspectives. Currently they are leveraging their relationships with Hunterdon County Schools to expand our on-site and remote use of Museum and Library assets, especially with the Lloyd W Smith Collection of artifacts and documents. Lauren is also taking the lead with creating a more streamlined teacher portal on the MNHP Website. Mike is looking to expand featured manuscripts accessible for middle school and high school teachers on our blogpost. He is currently researching a complete set of documents related to Shays Rebellion and its impact on the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  They are also developing curatorial skills – Lauren with the scrapbook series of the Lloyd W Smith Collection and Mike with the extensive Cobb Family Collection.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Save the Date: What Freedom Looks Like: Anchoring African American Identities in Morris County from 1600 to 2020


What Freedom Looks Like: Anchoring African American Identities in Morris County from 1600 to 2020

Join us for a poignant discussion inspired by the traveling exhibit on view next at the Morris Museum: The Ties That Bind: How Race Relations Shaped Morris County, 1600-2018.

As a companion dialogue to the exhibit, this discussion will represent what is hoped would be the start of future dialogues around the inspiration generated by the exhibit. Curated by the Reverend Dr. Sidney S. Williams of the Bethel Church of Morristown, this dialogue will bring together some of the scholars that worked with Pastor Williams to develop this long neglected overview of Morristown and Morris County history.

Like any community, Morristown has multiple layers of unique, yet intersected, conduits of history. Not always pleasant, this history is nonetheless who we are today; but it does not have to define who we are tomorrow. While Morristown has almost exclusively been lodged in the community memory as a Revolutionary War camp, it goes without saying it was, and is, far more than just one story.

Real people, real lives, real stories. Please join us as we begin what we hope will be a journey of resilience and reconciliation to remember, eulogize, and even resurrect these people of the past who so eloquently helped shape, as a community, the Morristown we call home.

🔔When: Sunday, February, 9, 2020 -- 2:00 PM

🔔Where: Bickford Theater

                 Morris Museum 
                 6 Normandy Heights Rd
                 Morristown, NJ 07960

Sponsoring Organizations:
Bethel AME Church of Morristown
Morris Museum
Morristown National Historical Park 
New Jersey Council for The Humanities
New Jersey Historical Commission

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Treasures From the Vault: Phillis Wheatley

Features the title pages, the left, an engraving
of Wheatley at her writing desk. Poems on
Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
 MORR 9321

Last year, the park recovered a special document from its archival collection – a rare, first-edition copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). This edition is particularly special because it bears the signature of the author, famed poet, Phillis Wheatley. In October, the curatorial staff presented this special document in collaboration with Maestro Robert Butts of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, who arranged music inspired by the collection. It is our goal to continue to work with this historic document and develop programming around it. To do so, we must imagine ways that the park can engage this piece in an ethical way that is in-keeping with contemporary scholarship on race, slavery, and Wheatley herself.

Some readers may know Wheatley from their middle school history textbook, some may have read her in a college literature course, others – perhaps many – may not have heard of her at all. Unfortunately, we are taught too little of Phillis Wheatley, only given short biographical sketches. These biographies are usually told in four parts: She came to America as a slave, was far more educated than her African peers, became a published poet, and was “kindly” emancipated by her masters. We are taught that she was the first published African American poet, that she was uncommonly brilliant, that she proved her brilliance to a jury of Boston’s greatest minds, and that she met George Washington. Of those, we can only be sure of two things: that she was undoubtedly incredibly well-educated and intelligent, and that she was the first published African America writer. Although we celebrate Washington a great deal here in Morristown, their meeting is actually unverified. Upon reflection, however, it is clear that this story is not very reflective of her life, or of the dynamic, three-dimensional person that she certainly was. Phillis Wheatley’s life and works are by far richer and more complicated than we are ever taught.

Wheatley's signature close up.

So, then, how are we supposed to know Wheatley? How do we listen to the silences of her story and reimagine the depth of her character? This is a question that is of vital importance to historians, particularly in regard to the lives of the millions of enslaved Africans whose voices and stories are irretrievably lost. In Wheatley’s case, we are fortunate that she left behind her poetry and an assortment of letters, which document many of her thoughts, although these are scattered and hard to come by. However, having documentation of her life does not mean that she was an exception to the mass erasure of black voices. We are left with only pieces to a puzzle that we must reassemble and reimagine what belongs in the empty spaces.[1]  

We should start with one troubling fact: we do not know her name. We know her as Phillis Wheatley, of course, but this was not the name that she was born with. Her entire identity was supplied to her by slavery: she was named after the ship that brought her – the Phillis – and the family that enslaved her – the Wheatleys. Neither do we know where she was born and raised, how she came in the hands of European traders, what became of her family, or what her experience was during the Middle Passage.[2] The person that she had been, as with the majority of enslaved people, was completely erased. With the erasure of her past so too came the erasure of the person she could have been, had she remained in her homeland.

Just by reading schoolbook biographies, we know little of her life as a child in the Wheatley household, like why the Wheatleys supplied her with such an extensive education and what their bonds of affection were. Even after decades of study, no historian can truly answer why the Wheatleys were so protective and affectionate to Phillis or why they even brought her home to begin with. Their objective, after all, was to obtain a servant and a small sickly child like Phillis was not a usual candidate.[3] The closest thing we have to an answer to this question is speculation that the child they first encountered may have reminded them of their youngest daughter, recently deceased, who was about the same age. Still, despite their undoubtable affection for Phillis, they did exploit her talents as she grew older.[4]

Boston was different than the slave society of the South, and enslaved people were allowed to be baptized, marry, and become literate – but only at the discretion of their “masters.” Slaves in New England lived in much closer proximity to their masters, which might have afforded a marginally higher level of material comfort but came with the expense of constant surveillance and increased vulnerability to abuse. The Wheatley’s owned a significant amount of property, including other slaves. They were unique in this regard as only 3% of Bostonians held all of the slaves in the city. Phillis was not permitted to interact with other black servants, and certainly not any others that may have been in the area.[5] In fact, a man of African descent also enslaved by the Wheatleys, was punished for merely sitting next to her. Yet, Phillis was not equal to the Wheatleys’ white high society peers and though she socialized with them, she was known to sit at separate tables. Aside from her close relationship with the Wheatleys, Phillis had a secluded adolescence.[6]

Within four years of her arrival in Boston, by the age of eleven, Phillis was literate in the English language and began her first attempts at writing verse. She was educated by Susannah and perhaps went to school with Mary, her daughter. Her proximity to a vibrant religious community also exposed her to literacy. In New England Congregationalism, literacy was encouraged as a path to religious conversion and salvation. The Wheatleys were enthusiastically religious and their wealth and social status brought them in close contact with high-ranking religious leaders. As a child and young adult, Phillis attended sermons by a great number of preachers, many of whom she later established correspondence with. Phillis’s keen intellect and elite education was a novelty to the Boston literati and the Wheatleys took advantage of this novelty, using Phillis to demonstrate their piety, charity, and successful effort to convert a slave in in their household – further reinforcing their choice to sponsor her education. She was published for the first time by age 13, and internationally known by the age of 17.[7]

It is clear, though, that Phillis’ religious beliefs were earnest and sincere. Religion was, naturally, the core subject matter of her poetry and defined most of her intellectual relationships and literary career. Phillis’s poems were not merely the musings of a religious woman and reading her poetry solely in this context only skims the surface of her true skill. Rather, her poems were rebellious, subversive, and cleverly coded to avoid reprisal. Indeed, she wrote poems directed to those of a higher station than she and presumed to teach them about life and religion. And she did – as her poetry enjoyed increased popularity she was sought after for commissions. More important, perhaps, is Wheatley’s use of religious rhetoric to address the subjects of race, slavery, and freedom – which were controversial topics for even white writers to address, much less the enslaved themselves. She used her poetry to remind her almost entirely white audience that enslaved Africans were just as able and worthy of redemption as themselves. Biblical struggles for freedom, the importance of endurance for victory, faith as armor, and the heroism of marginalized characters are all devices she used that highlight a preoccupation with the oppressive nature of slavery and a desire to engage with it. She also employed the language of the Revolution to address the increasingly challenged place of slavery in the fight for political independence and she hoped to convince the political powers of the day that preserving a slave state contradicted their desire for freedom from Britain. Poetry was an important act of resistance for Wheatley that delivered a direct challenge to an oppressive system. [8] [9] [10] [11]

When Boston publishers refused to publish her first collection, she traveled with John’s son Nathaniel to London to make an appeal to British publishers. There, Phillis was a celebrity, hosted by English aristocracy, diplomats, and famous abolitionists. England, by this point, had also passed a landmark judicial decision against slaveholders – while slavery was still technically legal in Britain, slaveholders did not have the right to coercively transport them in England or to the colonies. This meant that enslaved people could legally emancipate themselves by leaving their master on British soil. Phillis certainly knew this, as she was personally acquainted with the architect of the ruling, yet she chose to return to Boston as an enslaved woman. She was manumitted shortly after her publication, and it is possible that she leveraged her powerful connections to guarantee her freedom upon return to Boston.[12] [13]

Phillis’s adult life, lived as a free woman, is another poignant silence in her biography – very little is known about the time following her release from the Wheatley household. We know that, despite her international fame, she was unable to publish a second volume of her poetry. The Revolutionary War and the economic depression that followed significantly disrupted her network of readers and supporters. Yet, she continued to write poetry, publish in broadsides, and maintain her correspondences with notable people of the day. We also know that she married a man named John Peters. Peters was an unusually educated black entrepreneur with many inconsistently successful business ventures. Money was tight for the couple for many years and Peters did not obtain his fortune until years after Phillis’s death. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 with no living children. Unfortunately, many of her personal papers have been lost to time, including a number of her poems.[14]

Listening to the silences of her later life is an ongoing task. A scarcity of documents compounds the difficulty of getting to know the adult Phillis. This is a job for contemporary and future historians, but also for all of us here today. Phillis Wheatley was a woman of tremendous depth, whose story is rarely done justice. We should also use this as an opportunity to consider the silenced historical voices of the millions of other enslaved African Americans who are not the subjects of scrutinized biography. It is my hope, however, that our ongoing project will be a small – but improved – step in the right direction.

[1] Robert Kendrick, “Phillis Wheatley and the Ethics of Interpretation,” Cultural Critique 38 (1997), 39-64.
[2] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 43.3 (2015), 65 – 66.
[3] Eleanor Smith, “Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective,” The Journal of Negro Education 43.3 (1974), 401 – 402.
[4] Vincent Caretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 
[5] Eleanor Smith, “Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective,” 403.
[6] Vincent Caretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, 11 -27.
[7] Ibid., 28 – 42.
[8] Ibid., 68 – 93.
[9] Antonio T. Bly, “‘On Death’s Domain Intent I Fix My Eyes’: Text, Context, and Subtext in the Elegies of Phillis Wheatley,” Early American Literature 53.2 (2018), 317 – 341.
[10] James Edward Ford III, “The Difficult Miracle: Reading Phillis Wheatley against the Master’s Discourse,” The Centennial Review 18.3 (2018), 181 – 223.
[11] David Waldstreicher, “Ancients, Moderns, and Africans: Phillis Wheatley and the Politics of Empire and Slavery in the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic (2017), 701 – 733.
[12] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” 66 -68.
[13] Henry Louis Gates, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Civitas Books), 17.
[14] Vincent Caretta, “Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,” 69 – 72.

This blog post by Amy Hester, Drew University. 

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Jefferson Davis & the Birth of the "Lost Cause"

In the years following the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), seminal figures of the former Confederate states developed a series of arguments which were designed and promoted as the reasons why the South felt justified to break away from the Union. Many of these narratives still linger to this day in the popular perception of the Civil War, especially as it related to the issue of slavery. They have become known to the popular imagination as the "Lost Cause". One of the critical figures who promoted and created this movement was former Confederate president and former US Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis. In the later years of his life, when his family had lost everything due to the war, Davis wrote a 1,500 page two volume work titled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Davis’ choice of a title was evocative of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; as though the South was somehow reminiscent of the lost grandeur of ancient Rome). Davis, through his book, ignited the "Lost Cause" fire which was growing stronger as the end of the war receded further into the past.

MORR 9746
            Davis’ work has three distinctive goals: 1. To prove the legality of the South's secession through a constitutional argument. 2. To prove President Lincoln and Congress overstepped their boundaries, which were set by the Constitution. 3. To prove the South had been mistreated in the aftermath of the conflict through the repression of their rights. In addition to these goals, the book tells the story of how the North and South became so different from one another. Through his time in the nation's capital, Davis experienced firsthand the growing divide between the increasingly industrial North and the agricultural South. Davis himself owned a large farming plantation with many slaves in his home state of Mississippi in the years leading up to the war. When the South was defeated, like most landed families, Davis lost not only his wealth, but his slaves and property.

            When someone supports a theory like the "Lost Cause," they often already have certain views which are perpetuated by the theory. For example, Davis believed the South had every right to secede from the Union because the South had voluntarily joined the Union. There was no clause, he argued, in the Constitution that prohibited seceding. In a separate article that was published a year after his death, Davis put forth the idea that the Founding Fathers should or would have put a clause which legalized secession had they thought the concept through.[1] His preconceptions allowed him to justify the "Lost Cause" theory.

            The legality of the South's secession, based on a literal interpretation of the Constitution, has become one of the main pillars of the "Lost Cause" theory. A literal interpretation is one of many interpretations someone could have of the Constitution. It means that a person takes the Constitution verbatim. Davis, like many southerners at the time, saw the Constitution as an agreement between the federal government and the states. As an example, Davis cited an 1805 event where South Carolina voluntarily gave up control over forts in Charleston Harbor and on the Beaufort River. Davis also notes, in 1821, Virginia voluntarily gave up control over Fort Monroe and the Rip Raps.[2] Davis then fast forwards to when these states seceded from the Union. He claims the states had every right to take back these strategic locations because they were voluntarily given to the federal government in the first place. For him, this justifies his preconception that the Constitution was a voluntary agreement between the states and the federal government.

            Davis also uses the Constitution to justify his preconception that the federal government had to defend slavery rather than trying to abolish it. He points to the Three-Fifths Clause (Article I, section II), the Importation Clause (Article I, section IX) and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, section II) as clear reasons for his preconception.[3] After the southern states seceded from the Union, Davis again used the Constitution to justify their actions. He emphasizes the act of secession was used as a last resort because the Constitution had failed to protect the South from "Northern aggression". He uses Article IV, section IV to protest the Union's reaction to southern secession. He also falsifies the Union's claim of "preserving the union" because the reality was to subjugate the South to the Union's anti-slavery views. These various pieces of the Constitution, through Davis' literal interpretation, help complete the legal justifications for the South's secession.

            The mistreatment of southern civilians as the Union pushed its way further south is another pillar of the "Lost Cause" theory. Throughout the book, Davis makes it clear that the innocent civilians of the South had their freedoms purposely trampled on just because they had supported their state rather than the federal government. He also makes clear the governments set up by the Union in occupied territory were illegal because they were not "by and for the people". This meant these governments could not pass laws, hold election nor approve amendments to the Constitution. These governments held elections in which only those who had pro Union opinions could run. No Confederates were involved which upset those in power in the South immediately after the Civil War. To men like Davis, this was a clear example of the federal government forcing people to choose loyalty to the federal government rather than loyalty to their state.

Davis' signature, top.
            One of the most interesting pillars of the "Lost Cause" is the supposed violation of the Constitution by President Lincoln and Congress. Davis uses the capture of Nashville, Tennessee as a clear example of this over stepping. When the city was captured in February 1862, the Union forced all local officials and clergymen to take an oath of allegiance and those who did not were imprisoned until they did.[4] This was repeated across Union captured territory. Davis likened this oath of allegiance as "[invoking] the Constitution was like Satan quoting Scripture".[5]

            In addition to mistreatment of civilians, Davis also points out the Union illegally established governments in captured territory. This included creating a Union friendly court system and installing Union generals as military governors. Davis refers back to his literal interpretation of the Constitution to defend his reaction. He uses Article IV, section IV to explain the Union did not guarantee the South a republican form of government by forcing a turnover of captured states' governments.[6] He again points to Article IV, section IV when justifying Virginia's right to protect herself from the Union's invasion. Another violation of Article IV, under section III, was the forming of West Virginia from Virginia. The people of Virginia did not consent to the creation of West Virginia because the federal government did not have the power to interfere with Virginia's laws because Virginia was a separate power from the federal government.[7] This also plays off Davis' opinion that the states are a sovereign body independent of the federal government.

            In addition to violating the Constitution, the federal government, as Davis interpreted matters, passed several confiscations acts which allowed the Union to confiscate anything that could aid the Southern cause. This included slaves, property, weapons and raw materials. Davis and other high ranking Confederate government officials saw this as an excuse by the Union to plunder the South and kill innocent civilians and to crush their rights as citizens of the Union.[8]

            In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Union set about readmitting the Southern states. There were many rules the former Confederacy had to follow. One of the biggest was every public servant had to take an oath of allegiance. According to Davis, the oath had two major problems with it. The first was that the person taking it was treated as though they were not a citizen of the United States. Davis believed that everyone involved in the war was always and had been citizens of the United States. The second was the clause which demanded southerners recognize slaves were now free. This sends Davis into a tirade about how the slaves could not be freed because they were Southerners' "unalienable right of property" and the federal government was supposed to protect, not abolish, slavery.[9] Another obligation the South had to take on was to accept the laws of the Union, which included the Thirteenth Amendment. Davis cited this as a violation of the South's rights as independent people. Davis had another issue with the process the Reconstruction governments the Union had set up. They were run by a general of the Union army. Military law replaced civilian law. Several years into the Reconstruction, the decision was made to allow the South to once again have a republican form of government. There was a catch: freed slaves had to be allowed to vote in the elections and only those with Union sympathies could run for office. Davis decried this as a government that was not created by "the free and unconstrained action of the whole people of a State."[10] Again, from the separate article, he believes "the only people known to the system were the people of a State or commonwealth."[11] Davis saw this as yet another example of the Union forcing their laws down the throats of innocent Southerners and purposely crushing their freedoms. Davis suggested an alternative method to readmission: the former Confederate states could "reconsider their ordinances of secession" and once again recognized the "Constitution as the supreme law of the land". This could have allowed the creation of what had existed prior to the war: a "Union of consent."[12]

            The birth of the "Lost Cause" theory came as the country was trying to move past its bloodiest moment, the Civil War. Some of those who had led the former Confederate states, on the battlefield and in politics, created a powerful mythology that is still being felt today. Jefferson Davis gave the theory the biggest shot in the arm with his book, but because it was incredibly detailed and repetitive, very few chose to actually read it. The ideas it suggests, however, gave the "Lost Cause" a true shape. A shape which has little changed for over one hundred and fifty years. Many turn to these ideas though when they defend their pro-southern opinion. These opinions are supported up by preconceptions which have faded over time, but some still linger to this day. The strongest of these is the undying support of states' rights. This has become a part of the modern day federalism argument which calls for a smaller federal government and giving states more power. Although the racial part of the "Lost Cause" theory has died out, most of the rest of the opinions have continued to live on in various iterations.  

[1] Davis, Jefferson. "The Doctrine of State Rights." The North American Review Vol. 150, No. 399 (Feb. 1890): 205-219 - via Wikisource.
[2] Vol. 1, Part III, Chap. II in Jefferson Davis Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Urbana, Illinois, Project Gutenberg, 2013), 197-198.
[3] Vol. 1, Part I, Chap. X in Davis, 82.
[4] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXII in Davis, 228.
[5] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXII in Davis, 229.
[6] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXIII in Davis, 239-240.
[7] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXIII in Davis, 242.
[8] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LV in Davis, 530.
[9] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 540.
[10] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 541.
[11] Davis, "The Doctrine of State Rights", 205-219 - via Wikisource.
[12] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 539.

This blogpost by Rose Spady, Mullenberg College.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Meet the Intern: Amy Hester


Amy Hester joined the Cultural Resources Division as an intern in September 2019. She is a third-year Drew University graduate student pursuing a PhD in History & Culture. Amy’s academic background includes a BA in History from the University of Montevallo (AL) and MA in International Slavery Studies from the University of Liverpool (United Kingdom). Amy’s research interests include historical memory and the ways in which history is incorporated into our cultural discourses. She comes to Morristown in order to observe museological practice in action and to gain hands-on experience in the field of public history in a national park with historical significance and contemporary values. Her project at MNHP, still in development, will involve critically evaluating historiographical practice at the park and working with park staff to present materials related to the park’s Phillis Wheatley book.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Learn How to Become a Document Doctor!

Who would have thought that removing 17th century manuscripts, glued down to acidic paper, would actually feel like an operation?! 

My experience as an intern at Washington’s Memorial Headquarters was nothing short of inspiring and intriguing. My job as an intern was to process and rehouse scrapbooks from Lloyd W. Smith. There are about 30 scrapbooks in his collection and all of them are glued down onto ridiculously acidic paper that is burning the manuscripts from the inside-out. Handling 17th century manuscripts that have not been touched in 50+ years was one for the books. I knew I had a daunting task ahead of me.

To me, research is an ambiguous word. Some people think about reading pages upon pages of books and letters to educate themselves on a specific topic they are studying. That is what I thought research was until it came time to dissemble these scrapbooks. My research consisted of dissecting each manuscript. I tried to figure out who the letter was from/to, the date, the language, the context behind it, and why Smith specifically placed it in the order that he did. Was each document connected to the one following it? Were they completely random and did he place them there because he thought they were unique? Some of these questions I was able to answer and some of them I was not. If there is a word to describe someone who is more than a perfectionist, I would be the definition of that word! I am curious and constantly searching for answers. It was challenging and frustrating to retrace the steps of someone as mysterious as Smith because I did not always discover the answers I was looking for. It was also challenging because the first scrapbooks I tackled were titled the “Thirty Years War”. After 3 months of reading Dutch, Swedish, Latin, and German, I can officially confirm that I am not fluent in any of these. How could I possibly do research, successfully, in different languages? Luckily this type of research did not consist of as much reading as I initially thought. I was able to identify context clues to help me. I think my generation was one of the last one to be taught cursive in elementary school but was not forced to continue with it after that. As sad as this is to say, I am thankful that I actually remember the entire alphabet. I thought knowing basic cursive would be beneficial for me when reading 17th century paleography. Well, I was gravely mistaken. Languages and handwriting have evolved so much in the past 400 years that the “1”, “7”, “S”, “R”, and “T” looked way different back then than they do now.

This manuscript gives you a glimpse of the paleography I was handling. As elegant as it appears, do not be deceived by its undecipherable letters.

I thought that archival processing was difficult until it came to archival preservation. One of the most frustrating parts about removing these ancient documents was that the collector casually glued these precious and priceless artifacts to acidic paper. For someone who appreciates and loves history as much as I do, this was tragic to look at, let alone dissemble. As shown in the photo, I used a scalpel and a scissor to remove most of the manuscripts and engravings. The majority of the documents were glued down in all four corners. Some of the manuscripts already had the first layer peeled off but others were still completely glued down.

To my dismay, some of the manuscripts were not removable which led to a couple of different options. If the manuscript was glued down to the acidic paper in certain spots, I would try cut around the glued section and remove as much as the acidic paper as possible.

If the manuscript was completely glued down, painfully, I would have to sacrifice it to the acidic paper furnace and just make a copy onto non-acidic paper and place it into the appropriate folder. The hardest removal I had was removing two primary documents completely glued down on the same corners. They were the same exact size as well. Although I did not feel completely comfortable removing them, I also did not feel comfortable leaving them to decompose. I designed a couple of contraptions out of paper and foam in order to create a barrier between all three surfaces. After about 15 minutes of careful cutting, I successfully removed both with minimal acidic paper left behind. I uncovered that sometimes the best practices are the most abnormal or unusual ones. Archival preservation will always have its complications, but it is important to be versatile and think outside of the box.

The final step to my internship was to create a finding aid. A finding aid is a tool used to facilitate research for others. It is that excel spreadsheet or document that you come across while trying to discover what is actually in a museum or library without physically being present there. In my experience of doing research, I was always too focused on my project and never realized how much effort goes into creating an accessible research platform for others. Being the woman behind the scenes for creating the finding aids was stressful but so fruitful. Whenever classmates are out of class for a day and ask for my notes, I always tell them to ask someone else. Simply because I have the messiest and most disorganized notes you probably have ever seen. My brain processes research and lectures in a very scattered and disorganized way. When I review my notes, it makes sense to me, but not to everyone else. Creating the finding aid challenged me to think like the person on the other side of the screen who thinks completely different than me. Where would they look for a date or a specific detail about the manuscript or the type of manuscript it is? I learned how important it is to be effective and organized in your work. 

It is mind-blowing to me that hundreds of people will be viewing this finding aid and my work might have an impact on their research or the way they perceive history.

This blog post by Madeline Narduzzi, University of Dallas.