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10/14/2010

History is Personal.

One of the components to the interdisciplinary behemoth that is the First Person Museum is the in-depth historical research provided by the Public History students in Professor Seth Bruggeman’s class at Temple. Their research of the societal and historical implications of each object in the exhibit complements the personal stories shared by each object’s owner.

As a part of their graduate seminar in material culture, the students were paired up with museum participants who have contributed an object to the museum. Each student keeps a blog page documenting their research findings. Their work is comprised of tracing the objects’ historical and cultural context along with their developing understanding of the personal relationship between the object and its owner. Below is a review of some of their blogs and the work they have produced so far. Their findings will accompany the items when the First Person Museum exhibit opens on November 5th.

Amy’s Birth certificate (Sara B.)
During her exploration of one woman’s birth certificate, Sara makes some important points about the changing role of this document and how it has, as a result of the battle to discredit and defend one man’s legitimacy, “earned a place in pop culture and political history.” The birth certificate has taken on additional meaning in recent years, in part thanks to our country’s growing susceptibility to the viral dissemination of crack-pot political theories. In the 2008 election cycle, Barack Obama’s citizenship came under constant assault from groups known as ‘Birthers’ for their mistrust of his status as a legal U.S. citizen. While this historical context is intriguing on its own, one of the most interesting things about the intersection between Amy’s certificate and President Obama’s is the issue of race, how both Amy and Obama are children of mixed-race parents and the different ways this is represented on their birth certificates. The way we use or fail to use language to define a person’s race is an important and powerful factor in everyone’s life. The historical research on these objects teaches us about how our country and other countries have chosen to use or not use race as an identifying marker at birth. And in this way we can use the more ‘ordinary’ birth certificate of a woman and possibly learn something about how we authorize and legitimize race and citizenship in our country.

Beth’s sock (Jenna)
Then there is the sock exhibit. A seemingly simple object, this story deserves the gentle attention it is receiving. Not only does this student provide some fascinating information about the history of socks as objects of function and fashion (even delving into the research on the recently discovered ancient footwear owned by a cave man named Otzi) but the story behind this specific sock centers on two women and a friendship that was cut tragically short, interrupting the completion of Beth’s sock. To read more you can visit Jenna’s blog page here.

Bill’s pen (Emily)
Emily does a great job conjuring up some of the associations we have with pens in our culture and how this may or may not relate to the specific personal story behind Bill’s pen. Particularly interesting are the gendered connotations that come with an expensive pen used for business or given in a business relationship. Throwing in a dash of psychology as well as gender deconstruction we are left to think about how something as small as a pen can say so much about a person’s job, education, gender and influence.


Catalina’s pan (Gail)
Gail writes about a pan native to the Dominican Republic called a cardero, which is commonly used to make sancocho, “a savory stew of multiple meats and root vegetables sometimes considered the national dish of the Dominican Republic.” What is interesting here is how an object like this, one that originates from a different culture than the one in which the research and project are conducted, is that it is difficult getting any ‘academic’ sources to detail its origins.  What would it feel like to choose a most precious item to display in your country and have that country fail to provide any significant familiarity with its existence? Luckily, the sancocho  does have some compelling historical information available- particularly the speculation that this dish was formed out of the only available food to slaves- their owner’s scraps. Gail does an excellent job exploring the social context of the stew and its role in Dominican culture as a social magnet of sorts, unifying families and communities around a meal as diverse and flavorful as their country.

To read the blogs mentioned above and to browse the entire collection, visit the Studies in American Culture blog at http://studiesinamericanmaterialculture.blogspot.com/.

– Morgan Berman

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  • StorySlam: On the Edge at L’Etage (Member Tix onsale Aug. 15)
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  • Time: 8 PM
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