For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.
“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.
I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history insitu: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.
Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.
I love September: the cooler days and nights, the colors of late-summer flowers, the light, which can be both hazy and very, very clear. And then there’s that back-to-school feeling which I have experienced every year of my life with the exception of a few years ago, when I took a fall sabbatical. It’s a bit different this year, of course, with all of my classes online, but I still got that anxious/excited feeling on the first day of classes this week. Online teaching cannot compete with face-to-face instruction in my opinion, but it can “personal”, in the sense that you are staring right into the close faces (and homes) of your students; pre-packaged presentations can be more thematic and thoughtful than those which are delivered in person, especially with my conversational style. I put a lot of effort into structuring my online courses this summer to compensate for the slapdash efforts of last semester when we had to make rather quick transitions, so I think that my students will be getting a good mix of lecture, discussion, and writing. Still, with all of that said, I miss going back to school in person. But our home is a lot calmer now with the big kitchen renovation completed (big reveal next week: it’s still a bit of a mess), and it’s a good place to teach and write: I am very fortunate. I worked pretty steadily all summer, so I treated myself to a FOUR-day Labor Day Weekend, and the weather was GLORIOUS, as you can really see (I think) in these photos of New Hampshire, Maine, and Salem.
My long Labor Day Weekend: at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth on Saturday; York’s McIntire Garrison (+my Dad) and Jefferds Tavern and some Cape Neddick and Ogunquit Houses on Sunday, on the When and If, the 1939 yacht of General Patton, on Tuesday night: it sails out of Salem in the summer and Key West in the winter.
I have forgotten what I was searching for on the Internet Archive last week, but somehow I ended up looking at yearbooks of the turn-of-the-century graduating classes of the Salem Normal School, the founding institution of the university where I now teach, Salem State University. The cover of the 1904 yearbook, entitled The New Mosaic, first caught my attention, then the fanciful illustrations inside, and lastly, the writing. I moved on to the 1905 and 1906 yearbooks, titled The New Mosaic and The Mosaic respectively, which were equally charming, and all the way up to 1914, when the yearbook was published with the rather odd title of Normalities (I get it–Normal School/Normalities, but still). It seems that for a brief time, generally the first decade of the twentieth century, the Salem Normal School seniors published really interesting accounts of their educational experiences—focused on what they learned and what was going on in their world rather than simply who they were. After 1915 or so, the yearbooks became Year Books, with the standard “facebook” format still used today: registries of students rather than their own reflections.
These yearbooks are fascinating and rather poignant—they made me miss my own students! The seniors pay tribute to their teachers, to each other, and to the class behind them. We read all about their activities and clubs and how long it took them to walk down Lafayette Street from the train station. There are lots of whimsical drawings—which will be replaced by more straightforward photographs later. I’m including this post under my #salemsuffragesaturday banner as nearly all the students at the Salem Normal School were women in these days, and the editorial staff of these successive yearbooks were exclusively women. Men were admitted to the school from 1898, but their numbers were extremely low during this first decade of the twentieth century: this makes for some rather amusing class pictures, as we can see from the photograph of the 1906 graduating class below. The same ratio for the 1904 class, as the New Mosaic of that year registers excitement for the upcoming graduation of “We girls and one boy”.
The 1906 graduating class of the Salem Normal School
I kept reading because I wanted to see what the students were saying about all the events of the later teens: war, pandemic, suffrage. The yearbooks became less creative, but they started to include editorials: a popular Geography professor who served in World War I died of pneumonia (brought on by influenza?) right after the Armistice and now there were more male students, so the war was very much on the minds of successive editors. Nothing is said about suffrage, which really surprised me: instead there is an overwhelming focus on reforms, developments, and opportunities in the teaching profession. But everything is much more serious than a decade or more before: when the girls, and one or two boys, lived and learned in a much smaller, less-threatening Salem world.
Salem Normal School yearbooks before and after World War I: so many Salem witches in the yearbooks from 1904-8; things get much more serious a decade later: the Liberty Club was dedicated to selling liberty bonds in 1918. The Boston Public Library has a vast collection of yearbooks from nearly every Massachusetts town, most of which have been digitized.
So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).
1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”.DigitalNewberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.
Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.
2. The HeilbrunnTimeline ofArt History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.
Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.
3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody EssexMuseum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.
It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).
4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.
5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.
6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering theReformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After500 Years: theProtestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.
7. DigitalBodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.
8. The BritishLibrary, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!
9. HarvardDigitalCollections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!
10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studiolo. I love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.
The incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.