Tag Archives: Gemma Tennyson

Reflection: How Can a Public Historian Present the “Right” History?

6 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

As public historians, many strive to present history in the best representation possible. We all attempt to not have any prejudice, but is that really possible? Maybe in a perfect world this could be true. Every interpretation of history is going to be biased in one way or another. Sometimes it is not only the preference of the creator of the exhibit, but others invested to the project. There will always be outside forces that public historians have to consider when presenting histories, including audience, their own governing authority, and co-workers’ preconceptions about the given subject. Each of these are contributing factors in any public history field.  The question is how, as public historians, do we tell the “right” history with all these outlying pressures?

Public historians need to realize who will utilize their exhibits, displays, etc. Obviously there are going to be restraints because the point is for people to come to see the exhibit. How can a public historian create an exhibit that pleases a mass audience?  I am a firm believer in presenting the truth. This is one thing that should never be compromised. An audience will take much more from a well researched truthful story than misrepresentations that have other intentions in my personal opinion. The audience is an important part, but there is only so much emphasis on them. There will be issues if you try to please the audience too much because it leads to other intentions not related to the end goal. If there is too much importance given to the audiences then you are biased by the fact you want a large audience in spite of the information they will receive.

Another important issue than many public historians have to deal with is the governing authority of the institution in which they are employed. This is also the same for working with community partners or corporations. This causes all sorts of issues for public historians. How can you make a good exhibit that is within a budget and pleases the bosses while still achieving the set goal? Can you present the best representation possible while still representing the interest of the employer? This is a question of ethics depending on the job.  This type of problem needs careful consideration not to present a biased history, but also to present a history that will be accepted by the employer.

I have asked a lot of questions above. Each of these are common issues throughout the public history field.  I would be the first to say I don’t have all the answers because all situations are going to be different. As a public historian, it is important for us to begin to think about and experience some of these problems. I think that as long as we start facing these issues sooner than later it can help us develop a better understanding to draw from as we each enter the workforce.


SIUE’s Louis Sullivan Exhibit

4 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

Some of the best things in life are always kept secret. That is how I feel about the Louis Sullivan exhibit tucked away on the second floor of the Lovejoy Library here on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. After viewing a small Sullivan exhibit in St. Louis that only included pictures, I realized that SIUE really has a hidden treasure. It houses one of the largest Sullivan ornamental architecture collections.

After being an undergraduate student for three years and using the library quite a bit I would think that I would have noticed the Sullivan exhibit, but it took a class assignment my first year in the museum studies graduate program to even know about the exhibit. This seems kind of odd that the university never had any advertising beyond a small sign on the first floor of Lovejoy Library. Why is this exhibit not advertised?

Last year the man who designed the exhibit came to a class that I was in to talk about the exhibit and answer questions. He explained all the work he put into the exhibit both researching and designing the text panels. He also told us of the expensive cost of putting up all the different ornaments as well as the text panels. All the time, effort, and money spent means little when there is no audience.

As someone wanting to be in the field of public history I find this quite troublesome. I think that the university should work on advertising for the exhibit. I know that is probably easier said than done, but it couldn’t hurt for professors to promote it during relevant classes or use it for an assignment. I also believe that there could be more public advertising off campus. The university could probably benefit from outside visitors coming to campus. Why keep such a unique collection for no one to know about?

Local Historical Preservation

4 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

Living in Edwardsville for the last four years has really made me realize the effort put in by the communities to preserve historic buildings. In the last four years in Edwardsville I have learned about the historic Benjamin Stephenson House, the historic residential area of LeClaire, and much more about the city’s history starting in the early 1800s. All of these places have been under revitalization in the last decade.

I know there is much more being done in Edwardsville than I can keep track of, but over the last ten to fifteen years there have been many changes. Eleven years ago, the city of Edwardsville was able to buy the historic Benjamin Stephenson house after it had been a fraternity house since 1982. Even before that, many others had owned and changed the historic building. They were able to historically restore it from the archival material from Madison County. The building that houses the Madison County Historical Society and Archives is a historic building that continues to be preserved for use of the space. The first trading post in Madison County still has a standing wall inside old Rusty’s Restaurant and Bar. The latest example is of the Wildey Theater re-opening for the public fully restored to former glory.  All of these places are being preserved, but some more actively than others.

I grew up in a more rural area that did not make much of an effort to preserve anything historic or really inform residents about the town’s history. Edwardsville was quite a refreshing change for me. I see much more of an effort to preserve and educate. Some communities are more diligent about keeping their history preserved as well as physical structures.

A while back I began to think what could make this area strive for preservation while other communities don’t. One of the main issues I believe is funding. Smaller communities don’t have as much money, but there is a small amount of grant money for smaller local historical preservation. I know that it can’t be easy to find funding for preservation. Many communities are trying to find money but are unable or stop trying. I think there can always be a starting point. My hometown can’t seem to find the money to help preserve their history, but they have a fundraiser to send the local cheerleaders to camp. Even a small fundraiser can give local historical societies a start.

I think many communities don’t believe that doing historical preservation is a worthy cause, or that they will have the support. Local history can not only help bring money to communities but also help bring communities together. I think that more communities urban or rural can benefit from preserving their history. There just needs to be a small group or historical society that is willing to work for it.

Drama in the Campbell House

1 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

The Campbell House is a great house museum in St. Louis. It was built in the 1850s and occupied until 1938. During this long period of occupation there was little changed in interior decoration. They were able to restore much of the inside decoration to make it look as it did in the 1880s. The Campbell House museum was able to keep most of the original furnishings from the home.

The museum also found photographs of many of the rooms in the house from the 1880s in the archival material left by the Campbell family. This allowed them to set up the house in a historically accurate way. They also have hand-held photo boards for visitors to compare the present to the 1880s pictures. The house is set up as historically correct as the archival material has allowed. There are only a few upgrades for the museum to function.

This historic house also provides a new type of historical reenactment. The museum offers historical theatrical productions. The museum works with a local theater company, Senior Theatre Company, to produce a historical themed script from the archival material from the Campbell family. The script tells the story of different issues through the Campbell family, especially stories involving conflict in St. Louis surrounding the Civil War. The actors also do fashion research so the costumes are accurate with the time they are portraying. The actors use the house museum’s artifacts and living spaces as a stage while spectators stand in the viewing area.

We have talked a lot about reenactment in the class. This is a little different from the typical reenactment. I haven’t seen this show yet but I think of it like a historical drama. How can this be a help to public history? I think that it can draw in a different type of visitor to the museum. I also believe that by doing all the research to make the show accurate that it provides a good glimpse into the past for many visitors. Could this be the new theme in house museums?

Click here for information about the next show.

St. Louis’s Old Courthouse

19 Apr

by Gemma Tennyson-

St. Louis provides residents and visitors alike many different museums and places of interest. I am slowly trying to make my way to as many of them as possible. My latest stop was at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. This building is historic itself, but it also houses a museum. Visitors can tour the museum exhibits as well as two reconstructed courtrooms from the 1800s for free.

The museum is divided between three different parts of the building. The first exhibit visitors experience is the Dred Scott case. This exhibit shows court documents from the case, but also provides insight into the life of slaves during that time. This exhibit starts in the hallway right inside the western entrance then finishes in a room just off the hallway. This exhibit is really fascinating, especially for its local ties to the city and the primary documents that are used. This exhibit flows easily from the fight of Dred Scott to prominent freed slaves of St. Louis. It also provides visitors with information on other freedom suits. This exhibit was wonderful, but provided visitors with the only court history in the whole museum. The other two exhibits presented St. Louis history. This was a letdown to me personally as I would have liked to learn more about the history of the building and cases that occurred there.

The rest of the museum does a good job of presenting St. Louis history. One side presents the colonial era history of the city whereas the other presents early 20th century information. I personally enjoyed the small displays about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. I also enjoyed other parts of the 20th century branch of the museum. In this branch, many pictures were used in which visitors familiar with St. Louis could recognize different parts of the city. It was fun for me to see how different areas have changed over the years. On the second floor there are two restored courtrooms on the east and west sides of the floor. Each of these were original rooms, but the furniture was not completely original. The one negative aspect to me is neither courtroom provided any historical text or explanation. Visitors could just walk in about five feet and look around.

The old courthouse building is extremely beautiful inside and out. The courthouse is also a prominent building on the St. Louis skyline that many see in pictures, postcards, and paintings. Soon everything is going to change. There is going to be a huge transformation of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial which also will include some changes inside the Old Courthouse. An employee reported while I was there that they will be doing some conservation of the building and redoing all the museum exhibits. This will be a welcomed change for the Old Courthouse.

The Importance of Archives

12 Apr

by Gemma Tennyson-

This semester I have had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Missouri State Archives. I have been learning so much about the preservation of history, especially of primary source documents. The St. Louis branch of the archives has most of the St. Louis circuit court documents from 1800 to around 1875. The archives house a large collection of court indexes and case files. One important job that is being done at the St. Louis branch is document preservation of cleaning and humidifying documents.

Court documents are usually folded up and shoved into small filing cabinets. It is important to preserve these documents and be able to read them. Many of the files have coal dust and dirt deposited on them. At the archives we spend a lot of time cleaning, unfolding, and taking apart these documents. They are often fastened together by grommets, ribbon, or glue. After they are cleaned and separated, we are able to humidify the documents.The humidification process takes the most folded wrinkly paper and makes it flat without harming the documents. It uses water vapors to smooth out the paper. They are then dried with specific materials that prevent harm. This is an important step because it makes the documents easier to digitize. There is a large push to make archival material available online through the Missouri State Archive website.

Why is it important for these documents to be preserved?  Interning there as made me realize how important the preservation is for a variety of reasons. Court documents are some of the best primary sources. The Missouri State Archives in St. Louis have daily calls and emails from researchers across the United States. There have been many books that have used St. Louis court documents for sources. One important case that the archive processed was the Dred and Harriett Scott freedom case. Now many of the documents that were found are being used in the Dred Scott exhibit in the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Some of the documents have helped to present current events, including the issues of control with the St. Louis City Police Department. The archive was able to find the documents that gave the State of Missouri control. In the last few months this has been a big issue for the City of St. Louis to take control back from the State. It was important for the government and city officials to see why the state took over to begin with. All of these are important impacts of the preservation of the court documents.

Many historic sites, museums, states, and even large corporations have their own achieves. What are your thoughts on keeping historical documents even after digitization? How can we benefit as researchers from seeing both digitized and real documents?