Other Families’ Photo Albums – What Am I Doing in There?

A visitor at New Windsor Cantonment photographs reenactors at the Brigade of the American Revolution’s School of Instruction, April 28, 2012. RL Fifield photo.

As living history interpreters, our role is to talk to the public about the past. We fill in the gaps in most schools’ history curriculums. Whereas they learned places, dates, and military maneuvers, I’m interested in filling in the details about social history and material culture during the eighteenth century.

Needless to say, I’m usually doing so while wearing reproductions of historic clothing – which looks cool. I tell them about the expense of textiles and the cheapness of labor. I let them touch the coarse worsted fabric of my gown, and let children rap on my torso, so they can get a sense of the stiffness of my stays (the English word for corset up until the 19th century). I show them the layers of petticoats I have on and the contents of my pockets, worn as a separate garment tied around my waist. The discussion often ends with a simple request “Can I get my daughter’s picture with you?”

RL Fifield lecturing on women’s clothing and giving a dressing demonstration at the Bergen County Historical Society, 2011.

I’ve worked as an interpreter at museums as well as participated in reenacting from the time I was thirteen, so I have been photographed with other families for over twenty years. I cannot begin to estimate how many family albums I must appear in, with people I do not know. If, while flipping through their photo albums, people remember the experience and it continues their interest in history, I think that’s great.

Crowd turnout was incredible at the Battle of Brooklyn reenactment in August of 2001. I got the swell idea to turn the table, and start photographing the photographers. “Why are you photographing us?” they asked. I didn’t put them in my photo album exactly, but I remember them too – I love history, and I loved sharing it with them.

RL Fifield photo of reenactment attendees, Brooklyn, August 2001.

New York Calling – and gets voice mail

If there’s one thing I felt after reading the excellent New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg ( eds. Marshall Berman and Brian Berger, University of Chicago Press, 2007), it was a compulsion to challenge the statement that newcomers to New York hear so often: the real New York is over. I hear from my older friends that alas, I’m too late.

I think of memoir as akin to heroin. It’s addictive, downward cycling, and everything gets fuzzy and careless around the edges, the more you let yourself go into it. Or so I imagine – like many of my generation, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. I am too young to have lived the gritty, affordable, ecstatic, and supposedly, more real New York of the 1970s. And yet to read any New York memoir book, of the true and real days, New York always seems to be “over” for the person writing. For the rest of us reading their tomes, well, we shouldn’t even aspire to know. We should just give up and move to the suburbs, and things would be better (worse?)  again.

RL Fifield, 2009.

Art scene, jazz scene, drug scene, sex scene, work scene (or various combinations thereof) were all in their purest, headiest, form prior to 1975, so don’t bother. No matter that the authors of these tomes missed out on the agricultural scene, industrial revolution scene, labor scene, skyscraper scene, and the construction of Grand Central Terminal. If you didn’t make the Civil War Draft Riots in 1863, you missed some mighty fine martial law, racially motivated murders of children, and class warfare, but you know, not everybody’s going to get the true New York experience, eh? Do I hear any enthusiasm for the New York Slave Revolt of 1712? Is Paris ever over? How about London? While I am enamored by the past and those elements that could enrich our lives today, I’d be hard pressed to say that the past had more relevance than current experience. We are points on a timeline – who rates a mention? Who does not? And what is our loss when we do not remember?

I’ll start working on my gripes about the future now, so I’ll be ready.

RL Fifield, 2010.


Wanderlust Wednesday – Barcelona

Bicing – Bicycles for rent in Barcelona. RL Fifield photo, 2008.

Make sure you slip in that “th.” Bar-thelona. Crazy architecture. Eating dinner at 9:30 pm there means you are dining with the elderly set. It didn’t matter that I had packed my luggage for  hot and sunny, and I arrived to a raw and rainy fifty degrees (or whatever the equivalent was in Celsius). It didn’t matter than I came down with the worst cold in years while I was there.

There was just too much going on to sit still.

Mercado St. Antonio. RL Fifield, 2008

But the markets were what caught my attention. Many  American markets and their buildings were shuttered, demolished, or repurposed as flea markets around the time of urban flight and the rise of the suburban grocery store. I am fascinated by European markets’ wealth of offerings and the faces behind the counters.

I went to four in different sections of the city, from the posh St. Catherine’s to La Boqueria. At the Mercat St. Antonio, I found the food market wrapped with a market of clothing and other goods – lucky me, as I had left my raincoat at home.


The market in El Born served as the fruit and vegetable wholesale market from 1878 to 1977. During plans to convert it into a library (how cool would that have been), ruins of medieval Barcelona were found below. The preserved market building roof now serves as a shelter to preserve the excavated ruins.

When I return to Barcelona, it’s going to be for at least two weeks. I’m going to let an apartment in one of those Art Nouveau apartment buildings with their little concierge booth at the front. I will stock the kitchen with ingredients from the market, and craft meals for my friends.

For some Barcelona cooking inspiration, visit the website of Origens restaurant. They offer several recipes of the regional cuisine they offer in their restaurant. For US travelers going to Barcelona, this restaurant is a distinctly non-touristy restaurant open at a touristy dinner hour – I was able to get and incredible dinner here at 7:30pm – and you can take the menu/magazine home with you.

Argand Lamp – A moment of pause for Barbara Carson

Barbara Carson was one of my professors in The George Washington University’s M.A. program in Museum Studies. I took her American Decorative Arts and Time and Light in the Decorative Arts courses, and was sorry I didn’t get to take her dining class – she hadn’t developed it by the time I graduated in 1999.

She passed away this year, and today they are holding a memorial concert in her honor in Williamsburg. Barbara lived there with her husband Cary Carson, another noted scholar of American material culture and former vice president of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Barbara allowed me to study costume as a decorative art. While other professors  scoffed, she understood that women and their dress often formed part of the accepted fashion within the public rooms of Well-to-do houses. They were mobile extensions of ornament. Where others were skeptical, Barbara was encouraging.

Whenever I see an Argand Lamp, the oil lamp invented by Aime Argand in 1780 that improved combustion and therefore lessened the need for snuffing the wick, I think of Barbara. Thank you.

Digging Up My Ancestors – Inbred

This post is a continuation of a series chronicling the relocation of my family cemetery, including my 4th Great Grandparents James Cole and Elizabeth Gilbert, in Aberdeen, Maryland in 2010. Click here to read Part I and Part II.

Charles Darwin and his son, William.

Today, many consider being inbred as more of a joke than a reality. It implies you grew up in the country, perhaps in often maligned West Virginia. But when families stay generation after generation in one area out of which few people move to new territories, inbreeding happens. Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma Wedgewood, are probably the most famous inbred couple. Darwin himself was among the first to scientifically investigate inbreeding, and acknowledged that marrying his first cousin could be responsible for the frequent illness and the deaths of three of their children. This is examined in this article from Bioscience by Berra, Alvarez, and Ceballos.

Addie Louise Cole, granddaughter of James and Elizabeth Gilbert Cole. This portrait was probably taken around the time of her marriage in 1886.

After the exhumation, the Cole family remains traveled to Gibb Archaelogical Consulting’s laboratory for cleaning. During this time, I researched the Coles and thought about the identities of the additional remains. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that James Cole and Elizabeth Gilbert were related. Unfortunately, they shared the DNA of not two, but three siblings. James Cole’s father and Elizabeth’s paternal grandfather and maternal grandfather shared the same parents. Undoubtedly, this isn’t the only case within our family, which has stuck close to Harford County for nearly 400 years.

Martenet Map of Harford County, MD, 1878. Library of Congress. Note the Cole family properties just to the west of Aberdeen. The Gilberts are visible just below the large  “LLS X RO” that spells out the Halls Cross Roads area, toward the top of the image.

When you look at a mid-nineteenth century map, you can see that the families’ farms were close to each other. James Cole’s grandfather Thomas purchased the land on Paradise Road in 1757. Gilbert Road, where the Gilbert family farms were located, is not two miles away. As our project to relocate the Coles continued, I found I was related to not only to both genealogists, but also the funeral director. We don’t know anything about the health of James and Elizabeth’s children. We do know that the additional burials held a young woman, an infant, a six year old girl, and an eleven year old. Did inbreeding result in a higher rate of disease and mortality? One British paper notes the link between consanguinity and higher infection rates of tuberculosis in modern Gambia. TB was certainly a health issue in 19th century America, but was not as common in rural areas as it was in cities. This article also suggests that many effects from inbreeding are masked by modern medicine.

Dr. V and I applied for a marriage license in Harford County in December 2011. You may still marry your first cousin in the state of Maryland.

Click here to read the final installment of Digging Up My Ancestors – including a trip to visit Doug Owsley at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

I Spy…Rural Commerce in the Nineteeth Century

I was using this Martenet Map of Harford County from 1878, viewable on the Library of Congress website, to do some family research. I was as intrigued by the business enterprises going on in the Halls Cross Roads area. This area was mostly farms and vegetable packing houses, but the small city of Havre de Grace was nearby, full of stores, mills, warehouses, and wharves. Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia were all short train rides from Aberdeen or Oakington stations on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad (over which Amtrak runs today). Today you’ll find I-95 cutting through this area and much of the coast home to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In this one corner of the county, I spy…

Three grist mills, a saw mill, a combination grist and saw mill, Old Mill Store and post office (as well as other post offices and stores), a tanning shop, a distillery, two blacksmith shops, two combination blacksmith and “Wh.W” shops (wheelwright?) Thompson Store, Wesleyan Chapel, three schools (including the one my great grandmother taught at forty years later), Odd Fellows Hall (still there today), and Grove Presbyterian Church.


SRO – The Acronym for Hotel Living

51tUMZOugdL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Single room occupancy. For country kids like myself, this form of spare urban housing lives under the radar. SROs refer to permanent residency in hotels. Technically, this refers to everything from high style at The Plaza to sleeping on the floor of a police station basement on the Bowery. In Living Downtown, Paul Groth outlines urban housing for those who did not choose, or could not afford, a single family home. SROs exist today primarily in large cities like New York and San Francisco, but many smaller cities and towns have been home to them too.

Preserved SRO rooms at the South Street Seaport Museum. RL Fifield photo, 2012.


The South Street Seaport Museum recently reopened under the auspices of the Museum of the City of New York after closing under financial duress last year. While many of their spaces have been filled with art installations and temporary exhibits, remnants of the buildings’ original purposes are still visible. One of the early nineteenth century commercial buildings that make up the complex once served as a hotel. Within the building, the museum has preserved a warren of cubicles that seaport workers used to call home. The windowless bunkers were ventilated only by transom windows which opened on an airless hallway.

SRO housing has long been seen as the habitat of the disreputable fringe. Some SRO residents seek a spare lifestyle, independence, or freedom from the maintenance of property. Residents of SROs can be elderly, recovering from substance abuse, or mentally ill, and may be priced out of the apartment market, but can afford a small room. Early 20th century social reformers drove many SROs out of business, thinking their residents would choose acceptable housing choices, such as single family homes. The closure of SROs often led to homelessness among the working classes. Today, some organizations such as SRO Housing Corporation in Los Angeles are bringing SROs back, reinstating this level of housing combined with social services.

Fight homelessness.

Wanderlust Wednesday – Stockholm

Stockholm: scary sandwiches, incredible museums, and the beautiful islands which serve as the city’s perch.

Stockholm. RL Fifield photo 2011.

I visited Stockholm in September of 2011. Approximately fourteen islands make up Stockholm and the reflections off the water filled the autumn air with light. The two days I spent there were golden and warm – a passing Swede noted that this weather is called “Brit Summer” – this obviously can have nothing to do with the weather experienced during summer months in the UK.

Damn ferry.


Often, the most direct route from point A to point B in Stockholm is across the water. The Hotel Skeppsholmen was much nicer than my usual business trip lodgings. The massive hulk of a building was a converted 17th century military barracks, located on a small island populated mostly with museums and park grounds. The front desk staff talked me into using the ferry at the end of the street to cross over to Djurgarden island. While I purchased my ticket from a machine on the dock, I completely failed at recognizing that the ferry would not pick me up unless I called it by signaling to it. This required pressing one of two buttons, which would flash lights at the top of the pole to inbound and outbound ferries. It didn’t help that when the ferry arrived, it was not marked, nor did the crew say where they were going. After a few quizzical looks from the ferry crews, I was on my way to Djurgarden, another island of museums and good times.

The Vasa Museet. The museum was purpose built to house the ship and conservation functions, including ceiling mounted cranes to move heavy objects, such as cannon. RL Fifield photo, 2011.

I wanted to visit the Vasa Museum… and SKANSEN. My museum career began as a living history interpreter, so visiting Skansen is sort of a pilgrimage related to my craft. The Vasa Museet is built around the Vasa, a warship built in 1628 that sank in Stockholm harbor on her maiden voyage. She was raised  in 1961 with her contents intact and conservators have been working on her ever since. Waterlogged materials quickly deteriorate after exposure to air: they crack as they dry and are good environments for microbes to thrive. The ship has since been permeated with polyethylene glycol to counteract deterioration – indeed, the project has probably been a boon for the PEG industry. The artifacts recovered from the Vasa are amazing, including pristine boots, clothing, and personal artifacts – the material culture of the lesser sort that would otherwise be lost.


Apothecary shop mistress, Skansen. RL Fifield photo 2011.

Skansen, established in 1891 by Artur Hazelius,  is the first living history museum in the world.  Its history is part of every museum studies curriculum. Historic buildings from all over Sweden were moved to the property in order to represent regional traditions. The historic entrance to the park, with ticket booths and turnstiles, makes you believe you are entering an amusement park from the 1920s, but from there, it’s interpretation and historic preservation that are the main attractions, mixed in with a zoo of native species.

1920s gas station, Skansen. RL Fifield photo 2011.




Tunnbrodsrulle – fear it.







And while I enjoyed fried squid tenticles elongated into elegant tendrils at Mathias Dalgren’s Matbaren and the traditional pork knuckle and mashed swedes at Pelikan, I did not try the streetfood. Tunnbrodrulles are full of things that should not go together: sausage, lettuce, mashed potatoes, shrimp salad, relish, onion, tomato, ketchup, mustard, roast pork, and I feel like I’m forgetting something. I still feel a bit conflicted about skipping that experience.

Transit Tuesday – In Praise of PATH

Who cares about the PATH? That’s Port Authority Trans Hudson trains to those of you not from the area. And I do.

RL Fifield photo, 2012.

Dr. V and I got acquainted with the PATH route from 33rd St. to Hoboken thanks to our friends, Hoboken dwellers Mr. & Mrs. R, and the engaging and charming Baby R. I’ll admit, I’m not a PATH commuter. Within Manhattan I tend to use MTA subways ($2.25), but on the PATH $2 takes you as far as Newark – from there, you can hop an Amtrak train to anywhere.

Formerly known as the Hudson Tubes, PATH opened in 1908. Not only did PATH’s two lines shuttle New Jersey residents into the World Trade Center downtown, it also delivered them to shopping in Herald Square. But the Manhattan side of Hudson Tube operations  were hardly unique after the creation of the subways. What gave the Hudson Tubes their edge was their rail links to railroad terminals of the Pennsylvania, Erie, and Lackawanna Railroads. Some might say: Railroads are an idea gone by! They only work in the Northeast! But most of America used to have railroads, interurbans, and streetcars connecting towns and neighborhoods and even rural communities. Did you know that it used to be possible to hop local trolley systems from New York to Boston? Rail vs. auto: it depends how you want to spend your time – releasing and reapplying your brake, or directing your energies to reading, napping, conversation, or plain getting along with your neighbors.

To The Trains! The last of the great PATH rail links, Lackawanna Terminal, Hoboken. RL Fifield, 2011.

Railroads have always been shaky business; many railroads boast cyclical histories of bankruptcy, reorganization, and retitling. After operating the Hudson Tubes for fifty-three years, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad ceased operations. The Port Authority took up the torch and wrought a number of mind-numbing 1970s renovations. Early 20th century ornament was replaced with beige brick and stainless steel. While the commuter wants an efficient ride, perhaps we would value it more by not approaching every public works project with economical sterility. On the other hand, let’s work with what we still have. When things wear out, let’s recreate, rather than strip away to a bare minimum. Preserve the past, and we’ll enjoy the future more.

Check out more history of the Hudson Tubes here.

Museum Monday – What is a Collections Manager?

Evaluating light levels falling on a textile on display.

Nope, I’m not a curator; I’m a collections manager. Many visitors who stop me in the galleries try to demonstrate their museum savvy by asking “Are you the curator?” I take a moment to educate them about the various roles required in a large museum.



A collections manager oversees long-term preservation for collections. We can get caught up in the laundry list of activities  we perform on a daily basis: environmental monitoring,  writing abandoned property summaries, emergency preparedness, shopping for archival supplies, performing collections care assessments, training volunteers, evaluating our documentation standards, preparing objects for loan and exhibition, travelling with objects we are lending to other museums – the list goes on. But when I lecture to students, I tell them to look at the big picture. What does a collections manager really do, in one sentence? We manage activities that promote preservation of physical and intellectual aspects of collections.

Preservation is pointless if we don’t let people see, learn, and develop their own appreciation of objects. Likewise, if we don’t balance that access to collections with preservation policy and activities, we lose the collection, preventing future access to it. And in order for a collection manager to do their job well, the institution must devote itself to a comprehensive and integrated collection care strategy.

A concise primer in collections-related museum positions:

  • Curators collect relevant works for the collection and interpret those works through exhibition, publication, and other means.
  • Conservators perform scientific research to develop appropriate treatment methods that are non-destructive and support the preservation of the object. Often, in smaller musuems, they also perform preventive conservation methods, such as a collections manager would do in larger museums.
  • Collections managers are responsible for the planning and implementation of activities that ensures the long-term preservation outlook of the collection.

Are collections managers luxury items that only large museums can afford? They shouldn’t be. While many museums are more likely to create a conservator position before a collections manager position, a preventive approach to preservation of museum objects is critical: it is vital that we prevent damage, rather than fix damage. Conservation labs can often get more funding as the science and technology are intriguing to donors. However, if that vase they are trying to mend was broken when sent on loan, better packing and handling methods could have prevented that damage. If conservators are trying to fill in insect damage in order to stabilize an object, perhaps a program of Integrated Pest Management could have prevented that damage in the first place. As in medicine, prevention is always cheaper than treatment. And as it has been said in preventive conservation circles, no conservation treatment can repair authenticity.