The Genealogy of Privilege

I’ve been a fan of Henry Louis Gates’s programming since he launched African American Lives in 2006. In Gates’s programs, he introduces celebrities to their past through various documents and photographs. I find the most compelling work to explore lesser known aspects of the enslavement experience. For example, Don Cheadle’s family was enslaved within the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. African-Americans held in bondage there did not gain their freedom until 1866. U.S. citizenship would not be theirs until 1890.

For African-Americans whose family heritage has been obscured by slavery, identifying ancestors prior to Emancipation is difficult, if not impossible. Gates presents his guests with family trees and it is telling that white guests receive scrolls that are much larger and more detailed than those received by African-American guests. I understand how easily white guests like Bill Hader can amass 40 generations worth of ancestors. In my study of enslaved and indentured women in the late 18th century (more on it here), I’ve wrangled with newspapers, indentures, wills, inventories, account books, and personal correspondence. In most cases, a newspaper runaway advertisement is the only piece of documentary evidence that a servant woman existed.

White privilege facilitates discovery of family heritage. I know that even though many of my ancestors were financially poor, they were free and their life events of birth, marriage, and death were recorded in legal documents because of their race. Chains of my ancestors were recorded for the DAR, SAR, and other “patriotic” societies, creating a heritage to be worn as an adornment in displays of privilege. Online resources quickly reveal that my 8th great-grandmother was tried for witchcraft at Salem and my 11th great-grandfather arrived as a child on the Mayflower. For the families that emerged from the struggles of American slavery, identifying even one generation before Emancipation is a great triumph. Before 1870, the United States Census recorded those held in bondage by tick marks denoting age and sex, not by name. Documentary evidence often records enslaved persons’ heritage not as life events, but as commercial transactions.

There are current projects to restore the history of enslaved people. At the Virginia Historical Society, the Unknown No Longer project has created a database of the names of African-Americans documented in manuscripts in their collection. I performed an open search on the women in the database and the list of names is staggering. Charity, Moll, and Barbary, held by the Custis family. Phyllis, Betty, and Amey, held by the Bolling family. These are just a few of the names, a few of the lives that can now be studied through this resource. This is a good start to making this type of information in other collections available for study.

Privilege allows me to contribute personally to the work of rediscovering enslaved women and men within the historical record. Below are the names of people enslaved by my ancestors, or ages, where names were not indicated. These references come from wills, inventories, and the 1783 Maryland Assessment for the Revolutionary War. More funding to facilitate access to the information stored in wills, inventories, family papers, and other documents is needed to rebuild heritage obscured by American slavery.

Daniel Scott, d. 1724 Bengies Point, Baltimore County, Maryland (my 9th great-grandfather)

From his inventory:
To 1 Negro man Called Mingoe at                                              36.0.0
To 1 Negro man Called Sherry at                                                33.-.-
To 1 Negro wom Called Munsar? At                                           33.-.-


Gervace (Garvis) Gilbert, d. 1739, St. Georges (Old Spesutia), Baltimore County (now Harford), Maryland (my 8th great-grandfather)

From his inventory:
To 1 old Negro man at                                      15.0.0
To 1 negro woman at                                        22 [illegible]
[Illegible] line Negro                                       6.10.0


Richard Ruff d. 1733, St. Georges (Old Spesutia), Baltimore County (now Harford), Maryland (my 8th great-grandfather)

“Item my Will is that my Son Richard Ruff Shall have one Negro Boy Named Ratliffe he discounting Twenty Pounds out of his part of my Personal Estate.”


Sarah Peverell Ruff (Richard Ruff’s wife) d. 1749, St. Georges (Old Spesutia), Baltimore County (now Harford), Maryland (my 8th great-grandmother)

“Item I give and Bequeath unto my daughter Hannah Bull and unto her in forever my two Negro Slaves Jack and Pheby.”

Vestry House, Old Spesutia St. George's Episcopal Church. The Vestry House dates to 1766. The current church dates to 1850, but the congregation was the oldest in Maryland, founded in 1671. It ended worship services in 2012 due to low attendance. Photo: Maryland Historical Trust.

Vestry House, Old Spesutia St. George’s Episcopal Church. The Vestry House dates to 1766. The current church dates to 1850, but the congregation was the oldest in Maryland, founded in 1671. It ended worship services in 2012 due to low attendance. Photo: Maryland Historical Trust.

Henry Ruff, Ruffs Chance (Thomas Run, Harford County) (my 7th great-grandfather)

1783 Maryland Assessment (for funding the Revolutionary War)
1 Child under 8 $6
1 Child 8-14 $25
1 Male 14-45 $70
1 Female 16 to 36 $60

Thomas Run Church. Harford County, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Run Church. Harford County, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

John Botts, Part Eightrip, Susquehanna Hundred (Harford County) (my 5th great grandfather)

1783 Maryland Assessment (for funding the Revolutionary War)
2 Children under 8 $3
1 Child 8-14 $25


Michael Gilbert (Harford County) (my 7th great grandfather)
1783 Maryland Assessment (for funding the Revolutionary War)
2 Children under 8 $35
2 Children 8-14
2 Male 14-45 $140
2 Female 16 to 36 $120

Micah Gilbert (Harford County) (my 8th great grandfather)

1783 Maryland Assessment (for funding the Revolutionary War)
3 Children under age 8 $35
2 Children 8-14


Mansion Maniac! Access to NYPL Architectural Resource Made Fun

Hauntedhouse_atariI’m getting Atari flashbacks playing with the New York Public Library’s new tool/game Mansion Maniac. It uses a little Haunted House/Pac-Man figure to explore the rooms within apartment house floor plans, each room revealing itself as you navigate through. The rooms pile on in unexpected and chaotic ways as you navigate. The resource was developed from the Apartment Houses of the Metropolis collection.

I keep waiting for the ghost to appear with a strike of lightning!!!

Enjoy another great resource from the NYPL folks here.

Playing Mansion Maniac!

Playing Mansion Maniac! The control is very old school.

Get Ready! Snow in the Mid-Atlantic

Stay safe, stay warm, and make sure you’ve updated your emergency plan, whether at home, at work, or protecting our cultural heritage.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Bloc[K]Aded Cars On 23rd St., New York." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 21, 2016.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Bloc[K]Aded Cars On 23rd St., New York.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 21, 2016.

Crafting an Elevator Pitch for Preservation

Originally published at

If you’ve ever taken a management or marketing course, you’ve probably heard of the elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short, 30-second statement about you, your business and goals, and what you can do for your potential client or employer. Recommendations for crafting such a statement include “make it about the audience” and “don’t use jargon or acronyms.”

We can also make elevator pitches for the preservation work we do.

I've even heard collection management called a "red herring". Preservation supports the organization - full stop.

I’ve even heard collection management called a “red herring”. Preservation makes the mission possible – full stop.

Preservation professionals (that’s collection managers, conservators, registrars and others who oversee or heavily contribute to care of collections) can despair that colleagues don’t get the need for managed preservation systems in cultural heritage institutions. “But exhibitions/programming/keeping the doors open/day-to-day…” can be the reply to our suggestions for a better system for managing all the risk mitigation strategies we use to keep the Agents of Deterioration at bay. Our work can be described as “make-work.” I’ve even heard collection management called “a red herring.”

Could one of the problems be that we try to overwhelm our audiences with the bulk of work we do, rather than a concentrated pitch about preservation’s importance?

Agents of Deterioration

Agents of Deterioration (Michalski, Waller), clockwise around the object from the top: pests, light and radiation, fire, water, pollutants, criminals, incorrect temp and humidity, physical forces.

When a colleague or member of the public asks you to explain your profession (see my post The Crazy Things We Do for Cultural Heritage), do you start listing things? “Well I work with Facilities, Security, Conservation, I manage exhibition installation, I oversee maintenance of the galleries, construction projects impacting collections, integrated pest management, I manage documentation of the collection, I prepare objects for outgoing loans…” While this slew of activities may sound interesting and/or overwhelming to your audience, are you winning them over to the importance of collection care? Are you asking them to support or buy-in to systematic preservation management?

Probably not.

Why is it difficult, even for preservation practitioners, to distill the importance of their work? I have a few ideas:

  • Preservation takes place over a long time. While the average museum project has a 1-10 year life span (say, short-term object rotation to a long-term construction project), preservation’s time horizon is 200-500 years. Humans have difficulty grasping results and goals that are beyond their lifetimes. It’s difficult for us to show the consequence of skipping environmental monitoring this month, even if repeated temporary excursions may cause more rapid deterioration and impact future access.
  • When preservation is suitably managed, we don’t have anything to show for it. Great collection care maintains high levels of access to collections.
  • Collection care tasks are seemingly simple. When removing dust from a sculpture, how many times have you heard “Can you come do that for me at home?” What is not apparent within each single preservation task is how the application of the network of risk mitigation strategies counters a specific risk profile for that collection. Preservation doesn’t happen on a “here and there” basis.

So, what does an elevator pitch for preservation management sound like? What components should be included?

  • Consider audience for your pitch. Is your audience the president? Your registrar? Your curator? Your educator? A member of the public and potential supporter that sees you checking a datalogger in the gallery? What are your shared goals? What words and phrases help your pitch make that preservation “sell” to specific audiences? Organizational sustainability? Public outreach? Accountability? Reputation?
  • Think big picture and think about your organization’s mission. Don’t talk about laundry list of preservation activities, talk about the ongoing goal. “Preservation protects access to collections.” “Our preservation work prevents damage, lessens the need for conservation treatment, and makes collections more readily available for exhibitions, loans, and projects.” Or make it about what access to collections can mean. “A better preservation management system allows our collections to more readily inspire and educate our audience by lessening the need for expensive and time-consuming conservation treatment.”
  • Add a dimension that demonstrates the importance of differing segments of staff working together for a common good. “We strive to make practical preservation systems in partnership with our colleagues from across the museum. An inter-museum committee would help us make those connections more readily.”
  • Paint a picture if you can. Bring to mind an incident that will help your pitch’s audience visualize how your idea is better than the status quo. For example, “Remember the fire? An emergency response plan would help us recover and re-open more quickly.”

Do we have too much for an elevator pitch for better preservation systems? Let’s bring it together:

“A new preservation management system would help us mitigate the greatest risks to collections, facilitate exhibition preparation, and clearly prioritize preservation investment spending so we can achieve the greatest benefit for our audiences. This approach can support our sustainability initiatives and save money in conservation treatment for damage that could have been avoided. Existing preservation working relationships could work more effectively through a new preservation committee.”

Phew! This still needs streamlining. Then practice, practice, practice. Re-work it. Pitch it in the lunch room. Re-work it. The hallway. Re-work it. The staff meeting. You get the idea.

I’d love to hear your preservation elevator pitch!

The Crazy Things We Do for Cultural Heritage

I was at a children’s playgroup in Beacon, New York yesterday with my son. Yet again, I was trying to pull together in a coherent thread that thing I do. This challenge can be difficult among my cultural heritage peers, let alone a more generalist audience. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to have one of those jobs where I could say “I’m a dentist!” and everyone would understand what I mean?

Preserving and celebrating cultural heritage is my dream job, but I realize that the vagaries in our job descriptions and the variety of tasks we manage can be mind-boggling. I’m currently working on a research project to explore how job descriptions within cultural heritage institutions support the development of our preservation staff and their preservation goals, or not. What are the requirements institutions ask of their collection management staff? What responsibilities are common? What are outliers? How has the rise of the title “collection manager” impacted other positions within the museum, library, or archive, especially curator and registrar?

I’ve collected 50 job descriptions. I’d love to get 50 more. If you perform collections management or care OR if you have “collections” in your title, I’d appreciate it if you’d share your job description with me by 1 February 2016. Please send to

I’d love to hear in the replies about the excellent and eccentric and mind-numbing tasks you’ve done in caring for collections and the organizations that house them. A few of mine are:

  • Positioned 600 pairs of black stockings and socks for photography
  • Gotten confused for the wax mannequin standing to my left
  • Vacuumed, vacuumed, vacuumed
  • Flew into JFK in the cockpit of an Air France freighter!
  • Wore corsetry of various time periods since I was 16
  • Shoveled snow
  • Served as a member of the NYC Office of Emergency Management Emergency Support Function committee
  • Stood for countless photos with visitors’ children while wearing historic dress (how many family photo albums have I appeared in?)
  • Visited almost 350 museums
  • Learned how to operate an aerial work platform (scissor lift) and got complimented by the construction workers on our site for my skill!
  • “There’s no crying in cargo!” [it was the other courier, not me!]
  • Built storage mounts for 100 hats, 25 corsets, dressed 150 mannequins and performed rapid condition surveys for over 10,000 textile and costume objects
  • Climbed onto the roof of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in NYC during a museum facility administrators meeting
  • Ate a Big Mac by the side of the highway in Belgium (thank you truckers, and I have to say, they taste a little bit better over there. Then again, I was jet lagged)


“Omelettes – Plain or with Rum”


Where in culinary history did I miss the inclusion of rum in an omelet? New York Public Library announced recently the availability of thousands of their images in the public domain available for free and open use. A long-time fan of their What’s on the Menu? crowd-sourced transcription project, I found this Pullman Dining Car breakfast menu from the train carrying William McKinley’s body to rest after his assassination. Breakfast was so much more hearty in the 19th century. Pass on the wan cereal – I’ll have the mackerel or steak with mushrooms. As for the NYPL, their online digital records also have an “item timeline” which indicates when the object was generated, acquired, digitized, and accessed by the user. It’s kind of a fun, accessible way to indicate to the library’s audience how the collection is being used through time.

As for the rum omelette, it not only included rum, but was brought to the table flaming. Read this Gothamist article on rum omelettes. Seems a bit festive for a funeral train.

New York Public Library. 1901-2380.

New York Public Library. 1901-2380.

Apple of My Eye: Lead Pesticide Use in 1920s Orchards

Journal Kept by Hugh Ross Stephens of Havre de Grace, MD. The CEB on the cover are the initials of his employer, Charles Bryan, the owner of Mt. Pleasant Orchards in the early 20th century. Founded in 1755, the orchard was turned into a housing development around 2003.

Journal Kept by Hugh Ross Stephens of Havre de Grace, MD. The CEB on the cover are the initials of his employer, Charles Bryan, the owner of Mt. Pleasant Orchards in the early 20th century. Founded in 1755, the orchard was turned into a housing development around 2003.

Over the Christmas holiday, I unearthed a small journal with a heavily damaged tooled vegetable-tanned leather cover. Within were pre-printed dated pages with intermittent journal entries by my great-grandfather Hugh Ross Stephens, the Orchardist (according to the 1940 census) at Mt. Pleasant Orchards, near Havre de Grace. An architectural survey by the Maryland Historical Trust prior to the development of the property discusses the original 1755 house (rebuilt in 1907) and its 18th century terraced landscape, the tenant houses and buildings (in which my grandmother Gurnice was born) can be read here. The orchard was still in operation during my childhood. This document provides documentation of what was destroyed (with the exception of the 1907 house) when the property was developed into nondescript luxury residences in the early 2000s.

Stephens wasn’t a great diarist. Scattered over the pages are sporadic annotations recording pruning, visits to Baltimore, snowstorms, and bad weather. The entries begin in 1917 and sputter out in the 1960s.

For example, the page with the printed heading of January 8 was inscribed:

“1931 Sawing wood. Pruning in no 2-4 [ill.] rain
1932 At Jasper Berry funeral pruning 4 rows below road No. 1
Margaret 1948
HRS & Wife in York bought Wife’s Coat”

What caught my eye was his repeated entries akin to these:

March 29:
April 3:
“1929 Started prepink [sic] on Apples  3 B 40
10 Gal L[ime] Sulphur Siguiel
6 lb Lead 2 lb Kays”

On April 5:
“1930 finished delayed dormant with Sunoco.”

On April 6:
Finished East side of
back Orchard peaches
and Apples with
Kleanup 12 gal
Lime Sulphur 9 gal
Kleanup in tank”

The composition of the Sunoco (perhaps the “oil emulsion” HRS mentions occasionally), Kleanup, and the “pink spray” used on peaches and apples was cloaked by their proprietary names.

Lead Arsenate was used to deter cydia pomonella moths from damaging the apple crop from 1890 until 1950 (read an article from Virginia Tech on its use here). It’s replacement? DDT.

Orchard workers at Mt. Pleasant Orchard, near Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Orchard workers at Mt. Pleasant Orchard, near Havre de Grace, Maryland, c. 1915.

Railroad Dreams: Danbury Railway Museum

If you me

If you mourn the destruction of the late, great Pennsylvania Station in NYC, you’ll find this glass heralding the coming of the new Madison Square Garden as chilling and cheap. This glass is displayed with a nice collection of railway china and silver at the Danbury Railway Museum.

Yesterday found Dr. V, Mr. J, and I at the Danbury Railway Museum. I had used the Metro North Danbury station before but never made it inside the doors of Danbury’s 1903 New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Station. I had ridden up to Danbury to visit with Ms. M, a Danbury resident, thrillingly pulled into the station by an old F-unit right before their retirement in 2009. Our perception of Danbury station today is as an outlier, a stub end of the Metro-North network. The other side of the station is bordered by the double-track Housatonic Railroad, primed for re-ignition through the Bring Back the Trains initiative to restore rail service between the Berkshires and NYC.





A Maine Central caboose and a Canadian National "van" sit in the yard at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield 2015.

A Maine Central caboose and a Canadian National “van” sit in the yard at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield 2015.

The museum is like many rail museums; a collection of equipment that ended up at the old Danbury Yard and model railroading layouts sustained by that curious breed: the volunteer rail fan. I’m a museum insider, but I’m part of the audience at rail museums. While I am drawn to rail social history, I don’t know anything about maintaining rail cars or operating excursions.  The museum understands its audience, both rail fans interested in the past and encouraging their future generation. Among the old wrenches and railway china are Thomas layouts that appeal to the kids and prime them for going outside and seeing the real thing. We climbed aboard old Budd RDCs (my first), a Railway Post Office, and several cabooses, of which Dr. V and Mr. J are fans. (Yes, my 22-month-old can point to and say “caboose”).

New Haven's Solari Board sits silent on the floor at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield, 2015.

New Haven’s Solari Board sits silent on the floor at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield, 2015.

I sadly came upon New Haven station’s Solari Board, sitting blank and silent within the station. Plans are to install the Solari Board within the Danbury station to announce their excursion trains. I haven’t been through New Haven recently enough to know it had been gone. I’ll miss it’s click; I wonder when Philadelphia’s board will meet the same fate.

The museum is certainly celebrating the past, but I would have liked to see more about future potential. If the Housatonic Railroad is able to renew passenger service, I’d actually love to use the station as a passenger. I think about how private concerns have preserved many a local train station, abandoned by the rail companies that created them as passenger service atrophied and collapsed. These stations are poised to revitalize city centers in the way new suburban stations never could.  Rail is renewing: what partnerships might we create to provide economic opportunities for our cities, its residents, and our country by facilitating transportation? The highways aren’t doing it. If you haven’t tried a train, do it. Bring some work. Bring some knitting. Bring a blank book and a pen. Bring a camera. Just bring your ability to stare out the window. And experience something beyond the steering wheel. Experience a conversation with someone you don’t know. A view you haven’t seen. Experience the interior of your mind, uncluttered.

What was New Haven is now old - New Haven F Unit and Budd RDC car being used for part for the operating RDC at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield 2015.

What was New Haven is now old – New Haven F Unit and Budd RDC car being used for part for the operating RDC at Danbury Railway Museum. RL Fifield 2015.

Snapshots from New Orleans

Aiji is a taxi driver. He is also the founder of the first burrito bar in Rwanda and a vegan chef. For right now, it’s the taxi while he’s between ventures. Aiji also seems to be the only taxi driver in New Orleans, as he randomly picked up me and my colleagues again at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

IMG_6186I grabbed a beer in a bar near the opening reception at Republic. A husband and wife (she, the bartender, him, a regular off shift from a top-tier restaurant) talked living blue in a red state (this just before Bobby Jindle was ousted). Throw the freakin’ guidebooks away and put down your phone and make part of your travels about shutting up and listening to local voices.

Band at Frizzell's.

Band at Frizzell’s.



I stayed in an Air BnB in the Marigny. The apartment was at the back of a shotgun house on Mandeville Street and was completely passable, if a bit worn. A balcony slumped from my windows onto a neighbor’s garden below. A train blew its whistle on the river without consistency, blaring into our sleep. I completely support AirBnB, but this place could have been better for the price. I stayed in lovely apartments in Paris and have had largely good experiences. That being said, I think the sheets on the bed were at least 40 years old, easy. So, I think I will do as eighteenth century travelers did in the future, and take my own sheets.

Some particularly good bijoux included:

  • Meauxbar’s salad of lentil, faro,eggplant, fried chickpea, ricotta, preserved lemon and their french onion soup sandwich with braised beef.
  • Shrimp and Grits and braised beef short ribs at Donald Link’s private dining space Calcasieu.
  • Sitting next to the band at Frizzell’s.
Decoys at night in the windows of the Historic New Orleans Collection. RL Fifield 2015.

Decoys at night in the entry of the Historic New Orleans Collection. RL Fifield 2015.