The Preservation Technology Podcast


Preservation Technology Podcast

Welcome to the Preservation Technology podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation.


119. Reimagining Historic House Museums


Catherine Cooper: My name is Catherine Cooper, I am here with—

Max van Balgooy: Max van Balgooy, I am an Assistant Professor at George Washington University in the Museum Studies program and I’m the president of Engaging Places, a design and strategy firm that connects people with historic places.

Ken Turino: Hello! And I’m Ken Turino, my day job is with Historic New England. I also teach museum studies at Tufts University and currently president of the board of the House of Seven Gables Settlement Association.

Catherine Cooper: You both recently published a book: Reimagining Historic House Museums. Could you talk a bit about the impetus for writing it?

Max van Balgooy: Ken and I were invited to be on a panel at Gunston Hall, which was hosted by the Historic House Consortium of Washington D.C. Afterwards Ken and I got to talking about our sessions and noted how nicely they meshed together and approached AASLH about doing a series of one-day workshops based upon what we did, which we did for a while. I'm not quite sure though, Ken, where did the book come from?

Ken Turino: These workshops that Max mentions, done for the American Association for State and Local History, brought us around the country. And they actually still will bring us around the country. With Covid there's been a hiatus but starting next year we should be back on the road. We're very pleased about that, so stay tuned.

During those workshops that we do—day-long workshops—we met with people from a variety of different kinds of historic sites, houses, history museums, and one of the things that we always ask them is: What are the biggest challenges facing your historic house or your historic site? And Max and I would make a big list of those, and in the workshop, we try to cover as much of that as possible. And as we did more workshops, we tried to incorporate more because we saw that there was a real need to talk about these things that revolved around sustainability, that revolved around being relevant, engaging with your community and so on. And from that, Max, that's the sort of the birth of this publication.

And we also were doing some sessions, for example, on best practices on community engagement at AASLH conferences. Max did one with another group of people; we did one together. This got us thinking: What do we need to include in the book, what do people know, or need to know. That's how I think it started.

Max, anything you want to add?

Max van Balgooy: We both were part of the Kykuit conference that the National Trust and AAM and AASLH were involved in—gosh, was that 15 years ago? —where we identified some of the challenges, the sustainability issues of historic sites and house museums. At that point, I could identify the problems and challenges, but we didn't have many solutions. I think one of the reasons we put together the book was to provide some solutions for people so they could move forward.

And so this book that we put together has 36 chapters dealing with fundamentals of management operations to thinking about different approaches to familiar topics, as well as how to rethink common methods that we use for interpreting historic sites: the school tour, the regular public tour, or exhibitions. So it's an attempt at a very high level to sort of rethink how house museums operate, how they should operate to be more successful.

Ken Turino: And one of the things we kept in mind is we wanted to get people thinking very very big, but we also wanted to be very practical and give people some of the solutions.

In fact, that is the subtitle of our book, Max.

Max van Balgooy: Yeah, “New Approaches and Proven Solutions.”

Ken Turino: You know there are many of the authors in the book who I think did outstanding jobs. I think one of the best chapters on working with boards is by Donna Harris. I think she did an amazing, very very practical job of the steps, what you need to know really succinctly. I mean there are things available on websites, but I just loved how she pulled that all together. And you know we had a great chapter on community engagement by Dawn DiPrince, and it was really at a very local level, but the lessons that she learned you could apply to institutions across the country, and I just loved that about it. And there were some people who were going in different directions: what Katherine Kane was doing with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center at that time to really reinvent the tour, and at Lincoln’s Cottage where they actually allow you to sit on furniture and engage more in conversational tours rather than being just talked at. When the book came out many people still had not heard about these case studies. I think that was really good to get that out in the field along with again the workshops.

Max van Balgooy: Well, you know, one thing we discovered when we put together the index, which if any of you have ever done a book before, is one of the awfulest parts of the job. You have to read every page and look for keywords and put the page numbers in… And anyway, as Ken and I were sitting at his dining room table assembling the index on three by five cards, we noticed there were patterns across all these chapters, which are written all by different people, with different case studies, different museums. There were certain things that kept rising to the top as making a big difference and one of them was having a mission or a vision that was meaningful and relevant, and how much that is a fundamental element for making an historic site successful and to really rethink what you do.

And we have several examples in the book about that and different ways, but one of the most interesting one is from the Trustees of Reservations which looks at the spirit of place, an idea that comes from the National Trust in the U.K. but I think increasingly can be something that helps historic sites and house museums think more holistically about what they interpret and how they go about it to make it not just about the names and dates and facts, but that these places have emotional resonance to people that can be very meaningful.

Catherine Cooper: So when drawing on the workshop material and putting the book together, how did you expand on or change the material, solicit chapters, or invite submissions?

Ken Turino: A lot of the same things came up over and over again that were needed. Part of our charge was finding who's the best person to tackle these topics. And I think Max and I drew on the large network from the American Association for State and Local History, from people we heard presenting at conferences, people who we knew were doing outstanding work. Our workshop continued to evolve, too, as we heard from people at these workshops, what their needs were. We also learned of other good case studies or examples or models, so it constantly was and constantly is evolving, as new studies come out we try to incorporate that.

When Max and I published the book, the studies from AASLH and the National Park Service’s humanities indicators had not or were just coming out to talk about how the fact at historic site visitation was actually increasing. After years and years of decreasing, they were on the move up, and I like to think Kykuit, these workshops, and what other people were doing in the field were really helping people reach out to new audiences, to tell new stories, all things that we, again, were incorporating in the workshops as they progressed.

But we did try in the book, and I think that all led to the fact that we were increasing visitation and then Covid hit of course, and that changed everything for a while. And I like to think we're on the rebound from that.

Max van Balgooy: Ken and I both have very large networks in our realm of the world and it's great to bring those people together. It's like having a big dinner party in our book we bring all the smart people together and talk about these challenges facing historic sites. That's one of the reasons Ken and I love doing these books and we're working on another book again, this one on Christmas, and we're taking a very similar approach: just bringing in lots of diverse ideas, diverse people, sites that are large and small, to see if we can find commonalities and distinctiveness in the kind of work that we do in our field.

Historic sites and house museums are the largest form of museum in the United States, but they're also the most under-resourced: smallest number of staff, smallest amount of revenue annually, but they're almost in every community and they can make a tremendous impact on our thinking about history and the value of American culture in lives today.

Catherine Cooper: Is there anything that you would change or recommend after having gone through the pandemic in a new edition of the book or the workshop?

Ken Turino: We've actually thought about that. I am a firm believer that online programming is here to stay. We didn't really cover much of that in the book. I think we would definitely include more of that if we do a revised version of the book in the future. I think there'll be plenty of opportunity. I think that online programming as I said is here to stay, but I think the verdict is out yet on how effective it will be over time.

Susie Wilkening and others have done studies on this. I think there's a real place. I mean I’m here in New England, we have pretty horrible Januarys and Februarys, and if I can avoid driving out in a blizzard to go to a program, I’ll do it online. Where you are regionally will make a difference on that in the future. That's one thing I think right off.

And Max, you have some thoughts about technology?

Max van Balgooy: Now there’s a demand for doing a lot with technology thanks to Covid. If there's anything good about Covid and the pandemic that's maybe one of the good things.

When we put this book together we actually had a placeholder for a chapter on technology and virtual programming and we couldn't find an author for it. Other than people doing a website or maybe a blog; it was pretty rudimentary no one really did any programming on the internet when we were putting this together in 2018. But boy has that changed.

The smallest organizations, thanks to Zoom and good internet connections are doing great programming online now they sort of figured it out. And so, yes, as Ken mentioned if we were to do this book again we'd have a chapter, or the chapters we already have the topics will probably incorporate already an element having to do with virtual programming. That's just my guess.

However, in our book I would say that just because there's not a lot about virtual programming or activities in the book, most of the chapters are written at a very high level. It’s about rethinking what you do. So we have a chapter all about very common methods: the adult guided tour, school programs and exhibitions. The ideas in them, like if you're going to do a school program you need to be aware of the state standards for education or learning, that doesn't change whether it's in person or virtual. If you're going to do an exhibition, don't just be hands-on, be minds-on. And so that's not going to change whether it's an online exhibition or it's an in-person exhibition. So those ideas can be scaled to the different environments.

And while Ken talks about the virtual experience is here to stay, and I would agree with him, there's still a great value in the real place and the real objects. It's very difficult to understand some historic places without actually being there--that again is that spirit of place.

Ken Turino: One of the things I think that I would want to emphasize, you know that came out of the pandemic for me, was just how creative and resilient our community of museums was. And we talked about that in the book, but I think it might be worth even a chapter because people really did adjust and were very creative in how they did things.

We at Historic New England did a lot more outside as people did and invited people into our landscape. This is what you were talking about earlier, Max, looking at our sites holistically, and I think for some people that was a real change and an important change. Again, I don't think that's going away at all.

Max van Balgooy: Most historic sites as I mentioned are small and people always seem to sort of think that, oh someday they'll grow up to be a big place like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon. It's just the wrong approach to take. Small museums are just small institutions and they have certain advantages to them, and one of the biggest ones is that they can turn on a dime much faster than a large organization. And so when we moved to virtual, if someone had some experience with Zoom and could find an author or historian that's willing to talk to the group, they were able to provide that program quickly and reach more people than they would have conventionally.

Catherine Cooper: So what would you like readers to take away from your book?

Ken Turino: We would like readers to take our book!

To me, it's really about how to make your site more engaging for your community, because your community brings your volunteers, most of your money; it supports you, it comes to your programs, and I could go on and on and on. But also if you want people to engage it has to be something that relates to them. It has to be somehow relevant to them.

Max van Balgooy: When we put together the index, there’s a couple ideas that flow to the top, and I think those are the ones that are really important for people. One of them is to have a mission that's meaningful and relevant, and that mission can't be the traditional “collect, preserve, and interpret” and then just plop your name in there. That's a description of what you do, it's not what you want to achieve. Nor can it be a slogan like “a hidden treasure in your community.” That is not helpful; that's not a description of a vision of where you want to go. So you need to figure out what that is, and every place is different; every community has a different history so you need to figure out what that is. Please don't write us and ask us “Please tell us what our mission is.” You need to figure that out; it's hard work.

The second thing is, is that you have to be willing to experiment and take risks. And the history field tends to be one that's pretty conservative in its thinking. I’m not talking about conservative and liberal in terms of political sense, but we tend to be we look backwards. But we need to look more forwards in our field: so why are we doing all this stuff? Why are we collecting all this material? What do we want to preserve in our communities and what do we want to change? That's the kind of vision we need to think about and that may require experimentation and risk. And we need to be able to feel comfortable failing on our work to try something new in order to reach new audiences and to become more meaningful and relevant to our communities.

Ken Turino: I really want the readers to get models they can use. I want to give them ideas that they can adapt. I want them to see that they're not alone in some of these challenges that we're facing, and again, give them some good practical information that they can take and cater to their own communities and their own needs.

We're hoping with our next book to do the same with Christmas—interpreting Christmas at historic sites and museums. We're trying to be inclusive and look at winter holidays in this book. We're going to give people some best practices on how they might decorate their historic sites, what are some of the things to consider. So we're just following through on this first book and we are taking this into other areas.

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Max van Balgooy: Great, thanks for inviting us.

Ken Turino: Thanks for having us.

Catherine Cooper speaks with Max van Balgooy and Ken Turino about approaches and solutions to solve challenges facing historic house museums.

118. The Mystique of Florida's Key Marco Cat (Episode 118)


C. Cooper: Name is Catherine Cooper I am here with—

A. Bell: Hi I'm Austin Bell, and I'm the curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society.

C. Cooper: Thank you so much for joining us today. You just had a book come out called The Nine Lives of Florida’s Famous Key Marco Cat. Can you tell us who, or what, the Key Marco Cat is and why it's so important in Floridian and American archaeology?

A. Bell: Sure, and I love the way you worded that question—the who or what—because the Key Marco Cat really is thought to be anthropomorphic, meaning it has both animal and human characteristics. But it's called a cat because it's generally feline in appearance, especially in its facial features. And essentially, it's a six-inch tall wooden carving that was likely modeled after—in part at least—a Florida panther and it's seated in sort of a crouching position resting on its hind legs, which are folded under, while its forelimbs stretch all the way down to the front of its torso and come to rest on its upper thighs. It's very small. It weighs less than half a pound, so about as much as a half-empty soda can. It's delicate, but despite those things it still holds enormous power and mystique.

It was likely carved by the Calusa people of Southwest Florida or their indigenous neighbors or predecessors. We don't know exactly who with certainty, but we do know it was likely carved at least 500 years ago because of the lack of European goods found at the site in context with the cat and other objects, but again are unsure of its exact age. It actually could be as many as 1500 years old. And it's extraordinarily rare because very few items of this sort of ephemeral nature have survived from that time period, let alone works of art like the cat made by a native artist at a time prior to the European invasion of the continent.

It was preserved in this oxygen-free environment at a muck site on what is now Marco Island where the museum that I work at is located. It sort of reminds me of those ancient peat bogs in Europe that preserved human remains in the level and the type of preservation. They found wood, plant fiber, gourds, even paint pigments still on objects in near perfect condition until they were excavated in 1896 by a Smithsonian anthropologist named Frank Hamilton Cushing. And they’re so important really because it’s the most complete and comprehensive assemblage ever discovered in a pre-Columbian Florida archaeological deposit.

And meanwhile, in the hundred-plus years since its discovery, it's kind of become one of Florida's most famous artifacts and it's had a sort of a fascinating history even since its excavation: being on exhibit in different museums and changing hands several times and all of that [is] sort of outlined in this book. On Marco Island, here it's also become sort of this source of local identity and pride because its image and likeness is really everywhere: it's on street signs, it's in jewelry, and it’s in local businesses. So, it means a lot, especially to the people of Marco Island. Writing the Cat’s Biography

C. Cooper: You called your book an object biography. Could you explain what that is and why did you decide to write it about the Cat instead of any other object?

A. Bell: You know, all museum artifacts and all material culture really has a life cycle and from the moment it's produced by human hands to the moment of its inevitable destruction. So, an object biography is basically the story of an object's life from its very beginning, or its birth if you will, all the way sometimes through to its end or death, which of course we haven't reached with the Key Marco Cat, thankfully. And so, I don't know if object biography is an official term or not and really I don't know a whole lot of other object biographies, quite honestly. The one that immediately comes to my mind is the film The Red Violin, which traces that object's history through time.

But it's something I thought was appropriate in telling the story of the cat because when I was thinking about it, I couldn't help but imagine all of the different sets of human hands that had held it over the centuries and how different contextually many of those hands were. And it just really struck me that the cat must have lived many different lives especially depending on the people and the circumstances surrounding it, which again vary greatly. So partially, you know, honestly for the sake of humor and intrigue, I organized the book into nine different chapters each representing a different life in what is this feline object's history. But, you know, of course, the true number of lives that it’s lived is not so easily defined. I started with the cat's origins and nature, really as part of a tree, you know it's a piece of wood, and went from there.

C. Cooper: Can you talk about the various meanings that have been ascribed to the cat over its various lives? One of the words you used in the book was transformative.

A. Bell: Well, I call it transformative for a couple of reasons and the first is, you know, going back to that idea that we talked about that it's anthropomorphic. It may actually represent a figure in transition from a human form to a feline deity form or vice versa. We don't really know. The interpretations of its true meaning really sort of range from the mundane like a piece of furniture to the mystical like a living deity but we can look to ethnohistoric and ethnographic records for some ideas. And of course, the Calusa and their ancestors didn’t keep written records, so really the only first-hand accounts we have are from Europeans, who were clearly prejudiced in a lot of their descriptions. But they're still the best-known eyewitness accounts of the Calusa – from the Spanish in particular - when it comes to observations you can't make from the archaeological record. And so, the most frequently cited account comes from the translations of a Spanish missionary named Juan Rogel in 1567 and he interacted with the Calusa at their capital Calos, which is now known as Mound Key, and he describes “A temple of idols there, which were some very ugly masks, which some Indians donned delegated by it and they went out into the village with them and the wretches performed their worship and adored them with the women singing certain canticles.” Obviously, this language is very biased and prejudiced but it gives us important clues. It talks about these idols that they worshipped and the cat really may very well have been one of these idols, making it an object of possible religious or spiritual importance.

Also, you know, aside from these ethnohistoric accounts, archaeologists can look to the ethnographic record for observations from living cultures for clues to the importance of the panther in modern Native American society. And I have a lot of those possibilities laid out in my book. But going back to the idea of it as transformative I also called it that because it's really been transformative in an entirely different way as sort of a modern cultural icon if you think about it. Because this little carving that was carved hundreds of years ago by an artist and was probably admired communally at least for its spiritual connotations above all else is now this symbol of native American history and culture in Florida. And it's traveled almost 12,000 miles since it was excavated, all around the country on different exhibits. It’s moved millions of dollars. It’s used as an educational and promotional tool for various museums and it’s produced jobs. You know, our whole museum actually was built in 2010 around the idea of one-day housing this cat on loan. And so now we have it here on loan through 2026, which is just a really big deal locally. So, in a sense we kind of worship the cat in a new and different way that is, of course far, far different than was originally intended. And to me is just something that's really interesting to think about.

C. Cooper: So you mentioned that the cat has been on display more than 60% of the time. It is currently at your museum. What are the plans for the cat once it returns to the Smithsonian? Has there been any discussion?

A. Bell: I really don't know. There hasn't been much discussion beyond our use for it, which is incorporated into a larger exhibit right now, but that's something that will be up to the Smithsonian. I assume at first at least it will get some sort of well-deserved cat nap because it's been on exhibit for so long. And of course, one of the roles of museums is to extend the lifetimes of objects in their collections as long as possible so that future generations can benefit from them. So, you know, each museum is different I can't speak for the Smithsonian but I'll give you an example. The Penn Museum, for which I'm a consulting scholar, as an example they loaned some artifacts to us as well from the Key Marco site – equally as fragile and delicate – and their policy is for every one year that they're on display they need to rest for an additional 10 years. So, they're that fragile because they're sensitive to fluctuations in light levels, relative humidity, temperature, things like pests, and even vibrations from construction projects going on nearby are a threat to these fragile objects. And so, they're just trying to help preserve them as long as possible while educating people and making them accessible to people along the way. So, it's a balance but for the cat specifically I don't think it's going to be back in storage for long just knowing how in demand it is. You know, I imagine it'll probably be incorporated into other exciting new exhibits over the years, just as it has been for the past century. And you know, as the fields of anthropology and museum studies kind of evolve, which I talk about in Chapter 8 of the book, so too will the standards and practices for exhibiting this sort of material culture. And I just would be excited to see what those new exhibits look like and how they reflect those changes in these evolving disciplines.

C. Cooper: What would you like readers to take away from your book and will you continue to follow the cat’s progress?

A. Bell: I feel very connected to the cat and invested in its interest. I first learned about the Key Marco Cat when I was in school at the University of Florida studying anthropology and I worked at the Florida Museum of Natural History, where they have part of the collection of the Key Marco artifacts. Of course, the Key Marco Cat is at the Smithsonian Institution and then a large portion of the collection is there as well and also the University of Pennsylvania Museum has a big portion of this collection has been split up over the years. But actually, one of the things I worked on as a student assistant at the museum was to inventory and move all of the Key Marco materials. They were undergoing some renovations at the time in their collections and so I got all into the Key Marco stuff. Meanwhile, they’re building the museum here on Marco Island unbeknownst to me and then years later after the museum first opened they decided that they needed a curator to talk about the Key Marco artifacts. And I was just getting out of school. My advisor, you know, recommended me for the job, and so it all just sort of came together and I got to keep working on Key Marco and build exhibits around them and pursue loans of the original artifacts. And so, the cat’s been a part of my life now for about, I don’t know, 15 years or so, and so I hope it continues to be, even from a distance.

I think the thing about this that I would like most people to take away from it is just the fact that Southwest Florida, and really all of North America, was home for thousands of years to indigenous peoples that were complex and sophisticated and producing beautiful artwork that rivaled that of more well-known cultures, say in Central America, or Asia, or the Middle East, all around the world, right here in North America. And the difference in this case is that the cat, of course was made out of wood, a material that decays at a relatively fast rate comparatively so you don’t see it usually in archaeological sites. It makes you just wonder about all of the work that they did create across what we now know as Florida that didn’t survive in this miraculous archaeological context, because really it was. Key Marco, the site was sort of an anomaly to people. Archaeologists have been hoping for sites like that in the past hundred years with very limited success and it's really representative of just a tiny sample of the whole, vast expanse of material culture used every day by the Calusa and their ancestors. So, it's really one of the most important sites in the history of Florida archaeology, if not North America. You know, [it] just demonstrates that artistic complexity that I was talking about and so that's what I would like people to take away from this book.

The Marco Island Historical Museum is located on Marco Island, Florida and it's open from nine to four, Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free, even ’to see the Key Marco Cat and the other artifacts. We’re actually undergoing a major museum lobby renovation this week so even if you’ve been here and seen it already come again because there’s now new stuff to see. We’ll have the cat on loan through April of 2026 and we’ve also got artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania through 2024 and are rotating in the almost-as-famous deer figurehead is coming next April. Right now, we have the pelican figurehead which is incredible because it’s got paint still visible on it. The deer does as well so that’ll come next April to join up with the group [and] be reunited in a way here on Marco Island, where they came from the earth originally more than 100 years ago. So, we're very excited about that.

C. Cooper: Thank you so much.

A. Bell: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

Catherine Cooper speaks with Austin Bell about the Key Marco Cat, an artifact from Marco Island Florida with a long and storied history.

117. Sharing the Birthplace of Kermit the Frog (Episode 117)


Catherine Cooper: My name's Catherine Cooper. I'm here with...

Stephanie Park: Stephanie Park.

Catherine Cooper: And we are at Jim Henson Boyhood Exhibit.

Stephanie Park: Birthplace of the Frog.

Catherine Cooper: In Leland, Mississippi. Can you tell me a bit about this museum? And why it's in Leland, Mississippi.

Stephanie Park: Jim Henson was not born in Leland, he was born in Greenville; I don't think Leland had a hospital at the time. But his father was a research scientist at Stoneville, which is an affiliation with Mississippi State University. He had a PhD in agronomy and he worked out there from the time Jim was born until he was 12. They had moved here from the University of Iowa. After he finished his research project here, they moved to the University of Maryland and that's where Jim Henson actually went to college, but he spent the first 12 years of his life in Leland.

He went through the fourth grade here and then moved up to Maryland. And it is here because they wanted to do something to honor the native son, so to speak. And this started out as the Chamber of Commerce building. I don't know exactly the order, how this came about, but I think they got the frog first, the big frog back there. And then people started bringing in their, for lack of a better word, stuff that had to do with Kermit and Sesame Street Muppets and the regular Muppets. And we got the family involved, or the family became involved. And that's how we got these two display cases, those were donated by the family as were a lot of these pictures. And it just sort of grew into this. The Chamber eventually had to move, because we got to the point that we needed all the space. And here we are.

Catherine Cooper: Jim Henson created The Muppets and the Kermit in this display, is special. Correct?

Stephanie Park: He's special because he was built specifically for us. It's a replica of the opening scene from the original Muppet movie. And it was built by the people who built the set for the original Muppet movie. So he's a one of the kind. And the animals behind you were also from the family. They are prototypes for a movie that came out in 1989 called, Song of the Cloud Forest. It was a cartoon aimed at three to six year olds on ecology. And I've tried to watch it. I can't really get interested in it, I guess, because it was aimed at three to six year olds and I'm in my seventies, different viewpoint altogether.

But the workmanship that went into those with the smocking and the detail work, I think is absolutely terrific. If anybody's ever done smocking, you have two basic kinds of smocking. The pulled smocking and then the English smocking, where they put it through a pleating machine. This is the pulled smocking. This is the hard kind to do. And he did it with one of his daughters. So they were handmade by Jim Henson and one of his daughters. To my knowledge, that's the only thing we've got here that he actually touched.

Catherine Cooper: How did Jim Henson get involved in making Muppets?

Stephanie Park: He made Kermit out one of his mother's old coats and he liked puppets. His grandmother had given him a love of creating things and he created Kermit. And he did it so that he could make different expressions, you know marionettes are all strings but the expression stays the same. In fact, on most puppets, expression stays the same. But on Muppets with your hand in it, you could actually make smiles or frowns and they had facial expressions. And if anybody looks at it and compares a Muppet to another type of puppet, if it's pointed out to them, they'll realize the difference once they start looking hard.

Catherine Cooper: Did he get permission from his mother to use her coat?

Stephanie Park: I would guess not at that age. I don't know. I don't think I've read that one way or the other, but I know when my son was pretty young, he didn't ask for permission to do anything. He might have been a very good child though and asked for permission, who knows.

Catherine Cooper: We always have this idea in our heads that it's Kermit green.

Stephanie Park: Right.

Catherine Cooper: So I'm assuming that coat was Kermit green.

Stephanie Park: All right. If you look back there, the picture of the two Kermit's, the one on the right was the original. He lives in the Smithsonian now. And I think he's a little bit lighter than the other one. And I don't know what the reason for the color change was. Maybe the one on the left was as close as they could get to that. But if you're from anywhere in the south, we have those green tree frogs and I personally think that's what he's based on. I might be dead wrong on that, but he looks like a green tree frog. Same color, green tree frog.

Catherine Cooper: Jim Henson lived in or nearby Leland until he was 12.

Stephanie Park: Right. His dad worked at the experiment station out at Stoneville and at that point in time the campus out there was small enough that they had bungalows. And if you look at these pictures, you can see the little houses that were out there with the experiment station actually in the back. So he lived on the Creek basically in Stoneville. Just about everything out there is affiliated somehow with Mississippi State University.

Catherine Cooper: How did he turn his love of puppets into a career?

Stephanie Park: He didn't think he could. He thought that would not be a way to support a family. And he made a trip to Europe and saw the puppeteering going on over there. And when he came back, apparently decided let's give it a shot. And he and his future wife did Kermit and this little hardheaded puppet named Sam. And when he was still in college, I think this is correct, he had a five minute show before the Steve Allen show, which was the predecessor to Johnny Carson, just in the Washington DC viewing area. And it was so popular by the end of his college career, he had made enough money to buy a Rolls Royce to drive to graduation. A used one, but still a Rolls Royce. He found that he probably could make a living doing that and pursued it. And of course everybody's thankful for that.

Catherine Cooper: Out of curiosity, how did he get involved with Sesame Street? Was that his brainchild or did he get invited in?

Stephanie Park: He got invited in. There was a girl named Jane, she had seen Kermit and she asked him to develop some puppets for Sesame Street that would interest the kids. And Sesame Street, they created it thinking that this would be a preschool alternative to inner-city children that didn't have access to preschool. And so they concentrated on the alphabet and counting and shapes and colors like you get in preschool. And then it just evolved from there. His first Sesame Street puppet was actually Ernie. And Ernie was followed by Burt and then it just grew from there. And I think he developed... And in fact, I know until his death, he developed all of them that were on Sesame Street. Now Julia's come about since then and a couple others.

Catherine Cooper: Did he train other puppet makers and puppeteers?

Stephanie Park: He worked with a man named Frank Oz who is still in puppetry and according to his biography, yes he did.

Catherine Cooper: Why do you think The Muppets have had so much staying power? Cause they still are part of our cultural consciousness.

Stephanie Park: Absolutely. I think, my opinion on that, is that they catch the kids' attention. And parents know that it's good television, that they don't have to worry about the kids watching and it's educational. It's come out in movie form and television. Originally The Muppet Show at night was produced in London because nobody in the United States wanted to do a puppet show for adults. They didn't think it would go over, but it did very well. Actually Europe got The Muppet Show a little before we did.

Catherine Cooper: And Jim Henson continued to work with the European market.

Stephanie Park: Right. He had an office in London and he had one in New York and I'm going to say he had one in Los Angeles and Florida.

Catherine Cooper: That's a lot of work.

Stephanie Park: All over. You know, everybody loves The Muppets.

Catherine Cooper: How long have you been working at this museum?

Stephanie Park: I want to say since 2014.

Catherine Cooper: What made you start?

Stephanie Park: They needed somebody and I had just retired and I had figured out that I didn't like keeping house. They contacted me after I'd been retired about three months and I thought “That would be fun.” A whole lot better than wrestling with third and fourth graders or eighth graders or whatever I happened to be teaching at the time. I started coming over here part-time and I've been here ever since and meet absolutely fascinating people.

Catherine Cooper: Do you mind telling us a couple stories of fun or favorite interactions you've had since working here?

Stephanie Park: We haven't had as many since COVID hit because of the ban on tours basically, but I've met some really interesting people from overseas. Last week, we had a couple from Switzerland. And we've had school groups, usually the teachers end up enjoying it more than the kids, but the kids like it too. And we've got the little playroom for the kids and the older kids can sit down and read. Catherine Cooper: So people come here from all over the world?

Stephanie Park: Literally. I thought it was very unusual the first month I worked here. And then after that first month, when a third of the people made... Because it was during the summertime when I started, at least one third of the people were from overseas somewhere. I was just, "wow." I had no idea that it was that far reaching until then. I knew that he was known worldwide, but I had no idea that they watched The Muppet Show and they watched Sesame Street and everything like our kids do. So that was enlightening. And then like I said, nowadays, most of the parents like this probably more than the kids do because they grew up with The Muppets and Sesame Street.

And anybody, I guess from 40 to about maybe 55, before they had just a huge choice like Nickelodeon and all that. That's what they watched, mama and daddy made sure that or mama did. That's what they watched in the afternoon. We'd like to have more tourists now that people can travel again. And it's not that far off the beaten path. I mean we're right on the main highway coming to Mississippi and this is one of the three main bridges from Memphis down. And so we get a lot of people coming through here just to get to Arkansas or Louisiana or whatnot. And we are just right here.

Catherine Cooper: What hours are you open?

Stephanie Park: From Labor Day until Memorial day during the winter, we are open from 10 to 4. During the summer hours, during school vacation, we are open from 10 to 5. We take donations in the form of Sesame Street memorabilia, any kind of Muppet memorabilia at all. And we will keep it for the donor on display so people can see it.

Catherine Cooper: Have people just walked in the door with donations and said, "Here."

Stephanie Park: Absolutely. In fact, we had somebody last week. And I came in one day and if you look back on that display case with the black hair, Ms. Piggy, I came in and there she was. I've never seen one like that before. But we have people coming in several times a year and we welcome them and we will take care of the stuff and display it for them.

And if they absolutely want it back, we give it back to them. We encourage anybody because some of the things are just absolutely fascinating. And since they started producing it, which I would guess would be since maybe 1965 ish. There's no telling how much has been produced on Sesame Street and on The Muppets.

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for talking with me today.

Catherine Cooper speaks with Stephanie, a volunteer at the Jim Henson Boyhood Exhibit, Birthplace of the Frog.

116. Uncovering the gardens at Amache (Episode 116)


Dr. Catherine Cooper: My name's Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am here with...

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Dr. Bonnie Clark of the University of Denver. I lead the DU Amache Project, and I am a Professor and Curator of Archeology at the University of Denver.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Happy to do it.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Could you tell us a bit about how you started working at Amache, and why are you focusing on the gardens?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: I will say that the gardens are one of the reasons that I started to work at Amache because I've always been interested in the way that people live out their identity on a day-to-day basis and especially when that identity is under siege. I think that the way that people make places is one of the ways that you can really see that. So I had read through a report that was done by a cultural resources firm here in Colorado for a grant-funded project that was actually co-sponsored by a group of former Amache incarcerees.

I saw that there were a number of remains of gardens that were there. So I think about the fact that here are these people who were being incarcerated in large part because they don't seem quite American enough. So then they're building a number of different gardens, including some that are very traditional Japanese style gardens. I just was fascinated by what we might be able to learn about these gardens and the stories that they might tell to a larger public.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: So you've worked at Amache for a number of seasons. Can you talk about why you decided to write the book at this point, and are you continuing the study?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: I wanted to get the book out because, for those of you who read it, it's called Finding Solace in the Soil. I worked with a number of Amache survivors on the book, whether it was because they shared with me their stories, they shared with me family photographs, their own remembrances. So I really wanted to get it out while those folks could see it and appreciate it, and also give me some feedback on it, so to be my ethical peer reviewers.

I had six field seasons worth of data at that time, which is a lot of data. I knew if I waited until the project was all the way over, it was too long. So I was excited to be able to pull together the information that I had from the over a dozen gardens that we've excavated and the hundreds of gardens that we've surveyed. So I felt like we had enough data. But I will tell you that there will have to be a second edition because of the new information that's coming out, both through our survey, through some of the digitization of our digital imagery, and also through this just blockbuster excavation that I just got back from.

I will say we have worked on lots of different kinds of gardens, lots of the entryway gardens that people built for themselves as you're coming into your barrack. We've also looked at some of the public space vegetable gardens as well as public space sort of center-of-block gardens. What we hadn't looked at before this field season in terms of excavations were mess hall gardens, which are really important because people stand in line at mess halls. They spend a lot of time there, and gardens really relieve some of that…sort of the boredom of standing in line. They also in the High Plains importantly provide shade, which is particularly important during the summertime.

So this summer, we identified a mess hall garden that wrapped all the way around a mess hall that used lots and lots of pieces of concrete that are left over from the process of building the camp because all of the buildings are on concrete foundations. So they're taking some of these, and in some places, they're just using them to make the walls that are just set onto the ground. But in other instance, we had this amazing feature that takes these and then put them all together with fresh cement into what we first looked at and thought was a pond. As we investigated it more, we've decided that at least on some occasions it was a waterfall.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: In certain parts of the book, you've mentioned the concept of giri How does that relate to the archeological practice you've set up at the site?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, so giri is really interesting. It's a set of relationships that people find themselves in. They have overtones of both gift and obligation. I kind of learned this in just being at many community events where I showed up. There were always like gifts to be given away, and then the expectation that you will send a thank you. Then these relations kind of continue on. I started to think about the remains that we found at the site as giri. So that they are a gift from the past, but they're also an obligation to the future. So we exist in relationship with them.

Then if we think about them in this way, by teaching my students this concept of giri, I think it helps them understand that it's more than just data, right? It's more that working with these things obligates us to both them and to the people who made them and to the people who care about them.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: From what you said about why you wrote the book, when you wrote the book, the book is giri too. What will people see of the gardens if they've visit Amache today, as opposed to what the survivors would've experienced when they built the gardens?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: You're going to have to have some imagination. Because the vast majority of the plants and the vast majority of what we would call more hardscaping, so limestone walls and things like those, are evidenced by relatively subtle... You might have some decaying limestone that suggests that underneath there, there would be a limestone wall.

The thing that is the most striking and that people will see are trees. There are thousands of trees at Amache. Every single one of them either was planted by an Amachean or is the descendant of one of those trees. Because it's up on the High Plains on a sort of terrace up above in like these sort of stabilized sand dunes, so no trees belong there. So each of those trees that are in the original location, and many of them are still alive. Now, some of them are dead, and they're standing. Some of them are dead and fallen. But the ones that still survive, I like to think of them as witness trees. So they were there at the time. And now we can be there and have a relationship with them.

We have a few other things. There are some roses that still survive 80 years later out at Amache. A few other plants that were transplanted that are survived, especially the cactus. So there's some Cholla, which is a type of cactus that doesn't really grow right there in that part of Colorado that has been transplanted. Those have survived. So it's the very hardy plants that have survived. But you're not going to see some of the other stuff that I get through pollen. You're not going to see the lilies. You're not going to see the cattails. You're not going to see the dogwood or the plum trees.

So those, again, you have to kind of use your imagination to know that when you see these trees, they were also accompanied with all sorts of other rich plantings. There were wooden fences. There were pergolas. There were benches. There were bird houses, just a lot. There's definitely hints of it. You can see little concrete ponds, like the one that I was talking about, it's very visible. It's right there at the mess hall. But others again, are going to take a little more imagination.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Amache has recently become part of the National Park Service. How does that affect your work going forward?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, it means that it's going to be even more collaborative than it is already, which is kind of amazing given that I work with such a broad variety of stakeholders from high schoolers to Amache survivors. So now we'll roll in another partner in terms of thinking about our planning, and how we're going to curate the collections that come out of it. So we've got a lot of conversations that have happened. But every National Park is, as you know, and all parcels of land that are managed by the federal government, are supposed to have a full archeological survey. And most of them don't.

So the fact that we are systematically slowly going block by block through Amache to do this means that we are helping the Park meet an unfunded mandate. I actually was just on a Zoom call with the Park Service staff today. So they are really hoping that we can continue this really robust collaborative research program and kind of roll them into the planning of it and the management of it.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: What do you hope that readers will take away from the book or do with what they've learned, even if they can't visit the site in person?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, first off, I think that reading through the book and just looking at the photographs and spending a little time even going to the Amache website, is to think about how when you're singled out, that you don't have to respond to inhumanity with inhumanity. Like you can do something beautiful and humane in response. Like you can build a garden in your prison.

In fact, you probably ought to build a garden in your prison because it's going to make you feel a whole lot better. It's going to keep you in tune with some of those natural cycles that being out of control like kind of spins us into unhealthy patterns. That gardening in particular can kind of help us be literally grounded in a way that's much more healthy for us. So that's kind of one of the, I think, the takeaways.

I also have a sort of recipe for an Amache-inspired garden. This is just based on the hundreds of gardens we've surveyed and the over a dozen gardens that we've test excavated. You need to find something that’s value has been overlooked. So maybe it's a pot that is already cracked. You're going to still use it to plant something in. Or maybe it's a corner of your yard that has been underappreciated. Or maybe it's some other castoff that still might have some beauty within it, if set in the right way.

Then you want to include something that relates to your heritage, so maybe it's a heritage plant. Maybe it's a stone from a home place or an important location. Maybe it's even an object that has some of that kind of connection for you. Then you want to do something that's local to where you are, to where the garden is. So maybe that's a native plant. Maybe again, it's a stone that you've gathered from nearby. Then you incorporate all of those into some kind of a little design.

So I actually have a little Amache-inspired garden in my backyard that I sort of took that template and made. It's in a broken pot. That then I take where the broken part is, and that's where I trail out the trailing part of the plant so that it flows over and kind of looks like it belongs in there. Then my local thing is I have a stone that I actually picked up at the Arkansas River, which is what flows nearby Amache and also is in the southern part of our state. I also planted a native plant in there. Then I have a piece of stone that I actually picked up from a favorite family fishing hole in Utah, which is where I'm from.

So something that I want people to hope, to sort of embrace, from the Amache story is about how the Asian American heritage and Asian American history is American history. In terms of the vast impact that, in this instance, that Japanese had or on farming practices throughout the United States. The way that as they were dispersed across the country during World War II, that they made all of these different connections. I am out there at the site or even telling the story, and people come up and they talk to me about like, "I know someone who was at Minidoka, and they are a family friend." Which is the National Park Service site and former incarceration camp in Idaho. Or, "I grow this particular type of vegetable that I found out recently was developed by a Japanese farmer." Which is so true of so many of our really important varieties of both sort of vegetable crops as well as flowers.

So that's kind of one of the things that I think these gardens help us see is the way that there's this deep history of horticulture and connection to nature that sort of flourished in Japan, was brought to the United States, and then flourished here in this very interesting and complicated way and in a complicated time.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today.

Dr. Catherine Cooper speaks with Dr. Bonnie Clark about excavations of the gardens at the Amache WWII Incarceration Camp

115. Book Publishing in Cultural Heritage (Episode 115)


Dr. Catherine Cooper: I'm Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am here with

Mary Puckett: Mary Puckett. I'm an associate acquisitions editor at the University Press of Florida.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in publishing?

Mary Puckett: I have probably a similar career trajectory of a lot of people in scholarly publishing, which is I started working at the Press while I was in graduate school just as a part-time job. And I just really liked working at the Press, that career appealed to me more than an academic career path.

I really liked that I got to work with scholars and scholarly ideas, but I also got to do fun things. I got to go to conferences and talk to other people about their ideas a lot. In academia, a lot of times it feels like you're limited to thinking about whatever you're working on specifically, but publishing is a great opportunity to be able to talk to other people about what they're thinking and doing and working on. That's what really appealed to me about the publishing process and working in book publishing.

So, I just stayed at the press. I graduated so that was great, I was proud of myself for finishing, but I just stayed at the press and I was lucky enough to have job opportunities open up to me here. Your career in scholarly publishing is an apprenticeship model where you start out as an assistant to an editor and you learn the basic things you need to know about making a book and all of that and then you start to gain knowledge about different parts of the process and for me, that's the acquisition side of publishing.

So, I started to learn more about how to acquire book projects and how to talk to prospective authors and how to deal with situations that can come up that are kind of tricky and how to negotiate those things. So you just learn gradually on how to do it and then a job opened up for me here at the Press and so I just stayed; and I really like working at UPF specifically

Dr. Catherine Cooper: When you select manuscripts or proposals, what are the things you're looking for? Is there anything in particular?

Mary Puckett: The books in my subject area are archeology books. Part of that is the cultural heritage studies list and we have a series in that list too. So, I work on heritage studies projects and the archeology list in general. The first thing that I look for is how well a book project will fit in with our existing catalog of books and that has to do with some things like our ability to market books. We know what our audience is for our archeology books and so we want books that are similar to the books that we already have so that we can sell the books appropriately and so that we can reach the right readers.

So, that's the biggest part of it is just that fit within books that we already have published, but I also try to find ways to branch out into new topics. And so I'll try to figure out if it's a book on another part of the world that we haven't published on, maybe it fits in with a theme from a book that we've already published that's about a place in North America or something. So, I try to find those connections and that can help us to branch out a little bit.

I don't really have requirements. You don't have to be a tenured professor to submit a book proposal. It can be anyone, I'm happy to talk to even graduate students if they're thinking about publishing a book in the future. The publishing process can be such a mystery and so I've tried to make myself available to junior scholars and graduate students who are just wondering about what publishing a book is like and I'm open to reading proposals from all career levels, all backgrounds. And I've even read proposals that I don't think would be a good fit for the press, but because I have a knowledge of what other scholarly presses publish on, I can recommend the press that would be a better fit for that project. So, I'm happy to provide advice on that too.

So at UPF, and I think this is the same for a lot of scholarly publishers, we do not accept unrevised dissertations. So, an unrevised dissertation just means your dissertation as you wrote it, you didn't do anything to change it, it still reads like a dissertation, you've got your literature review and the whole formula. Dissertation revisions are just fine to propose for book ideas and I think it can be a good idea to talk to an acquisitions editor if you're thinking about revising your dissertation to get their feedback on parts of the dissertation that you would maybe want to leave out, maybe things that should be added to.

I always give prospective authors who are revising dissertations some book recommendations for them to read for strategies on revising their dissertation, things they should leave out, things they should keep in. I don't discriminate against revised dissertations, I think they can be really great books, but they do take a lot of work to revise and to make actual books. But if an author is willing to put in that work, I'm happy to work with them on that.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Do people come to you with a proposal? Do they come to you with a manuscript? Do you approach them?

Mary Puckett: Yeah. It's a mix of all three. Usually, it's a proposal or an idea and I can help authors put together a proposal. I can tell authors what kind of materials we need to consider their proposal for a contract and to put that together. Sometimes authors send full manuscripts. That's not as common because usually authors want some, and understandably so, they want some kind of commitment from a press before they put all the effort into writing a manuscript. And also the feedback that you can get just from a proposal can be really helpful for writing the full manuscript. So, it's usually a proposal, I often reach out to scholars I think would be good authors for our press, authors who are working on some kind of research that fits in with our list or that sounds really interesting or fascinating and so I've reached out to authors to ask if they want to publish a book before.

And so there are three main parts of the publication process. So, the first part is the acquisitions part. So, that's the proposal part and I'll review the proposal and talk with the author about it. We'll decide if we want to do an advanced contract and that means that it's a publishing contract that's signed before the peer review process. The other route is called a standard contract, and that's where the contract is signed after the review process. At UPF, our advanced contract process is pretty straightforward. So, we tend to do a lot of advanced contracts. We'll talk about those details with the author and then we'll sign the advanced contract and the author and I will decide on a due date for the manuscript.

And then once the manuscript is in, the next main part of the acquisitions process is the peer review process and that's what really distinguishes university presses from trade presses is that peer review process. That's the bulk of my job is shepherding manuscripts through the peer review process. I work with authors on that. I choose the reviewers and communicate the reviews back to the author and talk with them about how to move forward with their revisions or anything else that can improve the manuscript. At UPF, we require two peer reviewers to recommend publication in order to move on to the next step.

So, once the peer reviewers approve the manuscript for publication, we then send the project to our faculty editorial board for final publication approval. And the faculty editorial board reviews the review process, which sounds very confusing, but they'll just make sure that the review process has been rigorous and that the author has responded to the peer reviews appropriately. And so it's usually a pretty straightforward process of the board approval so long as I've done my job appropriately.

The next main big part is preparing the manuscript for our editorial design and production department. So, that's when the final manuscript is ready to go. It goes to our editorial design and production, or EDP department, and that's where the manuscript really becomes a book. It’s typeset and placed, copy edited and all of that.

And then the final step is the marketing phase and that's where the book gets sent to conferences or to bookshops, where it's physically published, it's ready to go to buyers. We have a great marketing department, and we have a pretty good idea of how to sell our archeology books for example, and our other disciplines too, I'm just not acknowledgeable about those. But we really appreciate author engagement with the marketing side of things. It can really improve sales.

If the author is good about promoting their book on social media or if they do book talks. Any opportunity that the author has to incorporate their book into their work just to advertise for it in some way is really appreciated by us. And there can also be those little niche conferences that we may not be aware of that we could advertise the book at. We ask authors for those kinds of events or places that we may not know of that we could use to sell the book and raise the book's profile. So, we really like it when authors are participatory in that process, it's helpful for us and we learn from it.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: How similar or different would you say it is, and how, to publish a book as opposed to a scholarly article?

Mary Puckett: The review process actually can maybe sometimes take about the same amount of time, which is interesting. Everyone’s so busy and there are all kinds of timelines with COVID delays and things like that these days. So I think the review process could be comparable, but I think it’s definitely more work to write a book than an article. It’s a really sustained argument. Some of the same steps are involved as far as you have to get permissions to publish images and books the same way you do for a journal and images need to be a certain size and resolution and I think that journals have those same or similar requirements, but definitely the book project it’s a long game. I don’t know if I have any specific guidance on how to determine if something is an article or a book. I think if you can think of three or four solid chapter ideas, it could probably be a book.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: What would you recommend for people interested in publishing a book? What should they consider?

Mary Puckett: The first step would be determining if you have a book project and then the second step would be thinking about where you would want to publish your book and maybe reaching out to the acquisitions editor at that press. We're always happy to hear from prospective authors and to talk about book proposals that's the fun part of our job and it's almost never a bad thing. Like I said, if it's not a good fit for whatever press you have in mind, that editor may be able to tell you what publisher would be a better fit for your book and so that could be a helpful next step. Think about what you have in mind. It can be just a letter of interest to an acquisitions editor telling them “This is something I've been thinking about, I don't really have a timeline, I don't have a manuscript, but I wanted to get your feedback on it.”

Even questions like that are perfectly fine to send to an acquisitions editor and it can be really fun to talk about the projects at that stage because it's so early, it's really exciting. At UPF, we don't really have timelines in mind and so even if your idea is several years out, it still doesn't hurt to talk to a prospective editor about what you're thinking.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: How would you recommend a prospective author go about choosing an acquisitions editor to approach?

Mary Puckett: I would say that if it's a scholarly book especially, to look at what publishers have published the books that you turn to the most and that you like the most in your field. That's probably going to be the first indication of the press that publishes books like the one that you're going to write. If it's a book on archeology, hopefully, you'll see that UPF has published a lot of those books! Because we have published a lot of archeology books. And so that's one way to figure out where your book fits in with the grand scheme of scholarly publishing. So, that's where I would start. Maybe if you have a book that's a model, that's something that I advise, see who published it and then just go to that publisher's website and you can usually find the list of acquisitions editors for the different subject areas and then find an email address for them. And as easy as that.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Great. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Mary Puckett: Thank you. This is great.

Catherine Cooper speaks with Mary Puckett, associate acquisitions editor at the University Press of Florida

114. Conserving a Building and Continuing a Mission at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Episode 114)


Catherine Cooper: My name is Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am here today with ...

Gordon Umbarger: Gordon Umbarger. I'm the Director of Operations for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Sandra Vicchio: And I'm Sandra Vicchio. I'm the Design Architect and project lead on the renovations of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gordon Umbarger: The National Museum of Women in the Arts was established in 1987, which just happens to be one year after H.W. Jansen's History of Art, that's a popular art history textbook since 1962, one year after they had mentioned women artists in that textbook for the first time. We have a social media campaign that's grown in recent years that I think encapsulates our mission and reason for existence pretty well. It's called #5WomenArtists, and if you go out and you ask people, "Can you name five women artists?" It turns out many people can't and if they can, it probably takes longer for them to think of five women artists than it does for them to think of five male artists, for example.

The bottom line is that women have never been treated equally in the art world. And even today, they remain dramatically underrepresented and undervalued on museum walls, in galleries, at auction houses. And of course, this is an imbalance that goes well beyond the art world, but art plays a vital role in our society in exploring issues of gender. So that's why our mission is so important. We are the first museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts. And we exhibit a wide range of works from established artists, as well as emerging artists, in all types of media, painting, photography, sculpture, video.

Sandra Vicchio: The building was designed in the early 20th century by Waddy Butler Wood. He was a well-known Washington D.C. architect. It's a classical revival building. Within that strength, there's some very beautiful and even delicate details like the terracotta cornices and the stamped zinc metal cladding that creates the facade of the sixth floor.

Inside is the beautiful Great Hall, which is beloved by everyone. And then there's its location, which is unparalleled for an institution like this, and would certainly be hard to replicate in today's world.

Gordon Umbarger: One of the things that has interested me the most about the building is the history of it and the fact that it's had so many different uses throughout its life. It was purpose built as a Masonic temple. The Freemasons, of course, being an organization that did not admit women.

So now we have a museum of women in the arts, a 180 there. So many other uses in between and concurrently. The ground floor of the building was one of the premier movie theaters in Washington for many decades. There were offices upstairs for all types of different uses, including the George Washington University's law school. And then the site next door, which is the site of our 1997 addition to the building for a while was a theater of movies of not such prominence, let's say.

Sandra Vicchio: The building is undergoing a full renovation. We are addressing all of the envelope and building enclosure issues. We're looking at the roof, the facade, the windows. We are replacing all of the building systems including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, AV, IT, telecom, security, fire protection. In addition to that, in order to support the museum's mission, we are creating some more gallery space. In order to do that, we had to condense some of the offices for staff and fit them into small functional offices.

Catherine Cooper: What is your background and how did you get involved with the museum and the restoration project?

Gordon Umbarger: So I joined the museum 10 years ago. I have a background in facilities management and also information technology in a number of different things. My job sort of is a big tent role. My desk has a lot of different things on it.

In 2014, as far as how we got the restoration initiative going, NMWA was awarded a grant from the IMLS funded conservation assessment program. The program has two components, there's a collections assessment, which for the museum was headed up by Wendy Jessup & Associates, and then there's also a building assessment, headed up by Watson & Henry Associates.

And so of course, those two go hand in hand in a place like a museum, the collections and the building, especially when you think about the impact that the condition of the building envelope, the function of the mechanical systems, have on the conservation environment for the works that are building houses.

So they delivered their report in early 2015, and it was sort of a broad-brush framework, forgive me for using an art metaphor, the organization's priorities, moving forward, the things that we needed to focus on in terms of staff time and in terms of investment. At that point, we were coming up on 30 years since the building's last major renovations, so many of those recommendations in the report were interrelated and overlapping, literally and figuratively, systems that are stacked on and interrelated to each other. The bottom-line recommendation from that report was that the organization be strategic about it and assemble a team of professionals to move forward with what they call a facilities preservation plan study. And one of the firms recommended to lead that effort was Sandra Vicchio & Associates.

Sandra Vicchio: A project of this complexity does not happen without a whole lot of people. It certainly would never happen without the support of the board of trustees and the donors. I think it's really important to recognize the role that philanthropy plays in institutions like this. I went to NMWA with Tracy Marcotte, the lead from CVM, who's our envelope and structural engineer, and we met with Gordon and he said, "Well, okay, let's get going."

Gordon Umbarger: There might have been a little more to it than that, but ...

Sandra Vicchio: It was a little more complicated than that.

Tracy is a PhD in material science engineering and she thinks at a level that exceeds the way that many people I've worked with in my career think, because her training just takes her to a whole other level. That's been incredibly helpful on this project. As for me, I studied architecture at the University of Virginia where I received my bachelor's and master's degrees. I've always had an interest in public buildings, museums, and libraries. Before I started my own firm, 10 years ago, I worked on projects at Monticello, Mount Vernon, Winterthur, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and a whole series of various library projects, including the Pratt Library in Baltimore. I love the idea of lifelong learning and I love the idea of preservation of both the buildings, which I always look at as the largest object in a museum or a library's collection. It's got to be the largest and probably the most expensive object. I love the idea of taking care of those things and of shoring up the world moving forward.

I assembled this team and NMWA was very open about who I brought in. I brought in a team of really excellent design professionals with whom I had a lot of experience. We kicked off the project on a Friday in January. That was our first meeting all together on the project in the building. We'd all had a building tour and we sat down and talked about what we were going to do. And that weekend, this freak snowstorm comes through and it comes up from the south, which is very unusual in Washington, D.C. It loads a lot of snow on the south facing roof of NMWA and then rips down about a hundred feet, linear feet, of the historic gutter above the sixth floor. Gordon called me and said, "Well, we've got this situation." And I said, "Let me call my team.” I said, "We'll get some people to the site right away." I left voicemail messages for my team and before I actually connected with them, they were either on site or on the train getting down there. They responded very, very quickly. So within three days, then we had two projects. We had the gutter restoration project, which CVM picked up as lead for that effort. And then the facilities preservation plan was under way, for which I was the lead. And as Tracy liked to put it, we had the world's largest mock up during our preservation plan study because all of a sudden we had access to things we never would've seen otherwise. A difficult situation turned into an advantage. I don't know how you explain to a group of people more than to have something like that happen, that the building really does need some attention.

Being NMWA, they rallied and on we went, so we're doing work. Obviously when you want to shore up a building, you start with the roof, that's the first line of defense and then the vertical walls, which includes the gutters. All of that envelope preservation is critical, as Gordon said earlier, to preserving not just the building, but also helping to conserve the art. And that's obviously very important. Those are being approached using normal building traditions, but also with CVM and the way that they think about envelope preservation and conservation, they use thermographic imaging during the study to demonstrate what the issues were and where we had particular problems with the envelope. And then Tracy ran a whole series of very complex calculations, looking at moisture migration through the envelope and how to mitigate humidity migration and balance those things. Because the goal is to protect the building, the art, and to manage energy consumption.

That's how we're approaching it with science and preservation conservation techniques, which I think is the right strategy for this building. And within the building we're really working to preserve and restore the beloved spaces like the Great Hall. It functions as a rental space. It's a gathering space. It's where you would probably say to your friends, "I'll meet you in the Great Hall", if you were meeting there. And it would be a lovely place to wait for your friends. You wouldn't mind being there at all. What's really interesting to me is even though the building was originally designed for the Masons and they didn't let women in most places, the Great Hall was a place where women were allowed. So it's functioning as it was originally intended, as a public space and a very beautiful venue so we're excited about that.

Gordon Umbarger: I mean the bottom line for us obviously is that we need a building that works for the organization and our mission and our visitors. And it'll serve all those things well for decades to come, we don't know what the future holds, but we need to be, especially after the past couple years, we've learned that, but we need to be as ready as we can. We really appreciate the approach that the design team has taken in terms of balancing listening to the organization and what it is that we're trying to achieve and then making that work within our building. The overall size of that building is not changing during this renovation. We have the building we have, and we're very proud of it and proud to have this opportunity to preserve it and keep it in its prominent place in Washington for many years.

One of the things that came to mind when Sandra was talking, we mentioned that historic gutter and cornice earlier, because I was just looking at the submittal that came back for the batten seam roofing that interfaces with that gutter. That's a common product in building these days, but the one that we need is not one that you can buy off the shelf. Because if you look at the original drawings for that cornice, the architect, Waddy Wood, was very careful to line the battens up with the stamped details in that metal cornice. So we want to make sure that those details are preserved when people see the building.

Sandra Vicchio: I was in an awful lot of meetings where we were looking at cost and the systems cost far exceeds the architecture cost. But in this case, that's the appropriate course of action. We're not changing a lot of the architecture in the building. Although we did, in order to meet the museum's mission and need for more space, we're creating a new gallery on the fourth floor of about 3,000 square feet. We were able to do that by condensing staff space. So along with this new gallery on the fourth floor, we've redesigned the library and we've created an education studio. This creates new learning center, which I think is really fabulous. It allows someone to come and see art, learn about art, and then even do some art, all on one floor. Which, if you think about engaging the public, whether they're young, middle aged or older, what an incredible experience that is.

Gordon Umbarger: I just think it's a great project with a really worthy cause. The organization's mission is important and we carry it out in this unique building that's in such a prominent place, it’s on a very prominent corner, two blocks from the White House. It's been an honor to be part of the team charged with ensuring that that legacy and that mission is carried forward. And it's been really fulfilling to see the genuine excitement and engagement from consultants and contractors and other partners who are excited to partner with us for reasons beyond their bottom line. Everybody wants to win the contract, but folks are excited to work on behalf of this project and this organization and that's been really gratifying to see.

Sandra Vicchio: For me, it's hard to pick one thing, so I'm going to pick three if you'll indulge me. First, it's pretty exciting to work on a team, and on behalf of a team, with so many women. And these are women who are A-team women, these are not just any women. There's the owner's rep who works for Gordon, and there are three women who are core on the construction manager’s project team who are deeply in the project every day. That's been really exciting to me. I'm going to say, of course, we have some pretty terrific men on the team as well, but the demographics of this team are different and that's really great to see. I think the second thing is the opportunity to breathe new life into this heroic structure. And then the third thing is, when you think about this institution, that one woman had a vision to create a museum that was, let's all admit, centuries overdue in the world, and then made it happen. That gives me chills.

Gordon Umbarger: We are closed and we closed in August so that we could undertake a single-phase renovation, not only for financial reasons, but just the layout of our building did not at all lend itself to being able to say, "Let's renovate this half while we occupy this and then flip." That's not possible in the footprint that we have. It's about a two-year renovation, and we're looking forward to reopening in the fall of 2023.

The majority of our membership base has never visited the museum. They're from all over the country, all over the world, and they follow us on Twitter and Instagram. And we’re constantly pushing out information about the programs that we're doing and we've got a whole series of them, art chats, studio tours with artists, all kinds of engaging programs that we're working on. And there are also a couple of public art projects down at the building itself, starting with a work by an artist who goes by the name MISS CHELOVE. It’s a scrim on the 13th street side of the building, extending all the way from about the top of the scaffold and then all the way the entire length of that facade.

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for telling us about this project and for joining us.

Gordon Umbarger: Thank you so much for this opportunity.

Sandra Vicchio: Thank you, Catherine.

Catherine Cooper: The next public art installation at the NMWA will be by Katharina Cibulka and will be unveiled this fall. She solicited input from the NMWA community to choose a feminist phrase; you can see what she made starting in October.

Dr. Catherine Cooper speaks with Gordon Umbarger and Sandra Vicchio about the ongoing building renovations at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

113. Stories of Women in Archaeology (Episode 113)


Dr. Catherine Cooper: My name's Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am a research scientist at NCPTT. I am here with...

Suzy Eskenazi: Suzy Eskenazi. I'm a principal investigator and archeologist at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Salt Lake City.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: I'm Dr. Nicole Herzog. I'm an assistant professor at the University of Denver.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Today we're going to be speaking about your recent book, With Grit and Determination: A Century of Change for Women in Great Basin and American Archeology. I would love to know what the impetus for putting this book together was, and how did you approach this project?

Suzy Eskenazi: Really, it started at the 2016 Great Basin Anthropological Conference in Reno. Nicole and I were in the book room. I was waiting in line to get my book signed by Dr. Kay Fowler at the University of Utah press table. And I was speaking with her husband and some other people around me in line, and I just started wondering why, in those meetings they're always giving out awards to men, often the same men over and over. And we were surrounded by accomplished women in that book room, and I thought, why don't we hear more about these women and their stories? And the time was right, and I saw Nicole, and ran over to her, said, “We need to do this!” And she agreed.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Yep. Good retelling. Yes. It was like an aha moment. Yes. Maybe we could create a platform so that that could happen. And so Suzy proposed that we organize a symposium for the coming conference. And so, we really got to work, just brainstorming about who we could invite. And we were dreaming big. All the most amazing people we could think of, and we're like, do you think they'd do it? And then, because Suzy is so well connected and she is a fabulous communicator, she reached out to all these people, and they all of course agreed, which was really shocking to us.

Suzy Eskenazi: And I have to say that I have always been interested in the story behind the story. So, we know so much of their research, and their academic, and CRM experience, but how did they get to be where they are and why? And what are all those roadblocks, and major accomplishments they've had? And so we were just so delighted that a lot of these women that we asked, they were all just very modest and couldn't believe that whatever they would have to share would really be of interest to anyone. That really shocked me, as well.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Yeah. We knew that the paths to professionalism for women were different than for men, but we didn't feel like that was articulated anywhere. And we just wanted to hear people's personal stories. And when we contacted people, they were like, well, do you want me to talk about my research? Or do you want me to talk about my life? Or what do you want me to do? And we did ask them if they would be willing to talk about their personal narratives or their paths, and of course, that incorporates their research. And then it was a packed room, and it was very much of interest.

Suzy Eskenazi: I know that symposium in 2018 was the most well attended symposium of the conference. So we did a good thing.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: And then you had that symposium session turned into a book.

Suzy Eskenazi: Yeah, it was almost immediately afterwards. One of our participants, Reba Rauch, she was the acquisitions editor at The Press. And so of course, she was immediately on board and said, yes. And so we just went from there almost immediately after the symposium ended. We did have a few, at least two that I can think of, that were in the symposium that did not contribute to the book, but we had another woman who contributed to the book who wasn't in the symposium.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: What are some of your most memorable interactions around the book, since it's come out?

Suzy Eskenazi: We had a pretty great virtual book signing. It came out during COVID, which was unfortunate. I thought that went really well. And then, we also were at the last Great Basin Conference in Las Vegas this past fall. And so, we were able to do a virtual book signing, which had a very long-

Dr. Nicole Herzog: No, in-person book signing.

Suzy Eskenazi: Yeah, that's what I meant. In-person. Sorry.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: With real people.

Suzy Eskenazi: It was just so fantastic. People brought their books that they'd already bought, and then we sold out at the event.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: And it’s fun just having random people approach and say, "Oh wow. I read that book, and it really meant a lot to me."

hat has also been a very cool experience, just hearing from people that you don't know, but who are reaching out to you to say, "I was at that symposium and it was just amazing," or, "I read the book and it was just amazing." And so, that part has also been super rewarding, just to have strangers reach out to you and say, "This thing you did was meaningful to me."

Suzy Eskenazi: Like you.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Yeah. I think that was one of the biggest surprises for me is, to just hear how circuitous peoples' paths were.

The places where people started from and the pit stops they made along the way, and the way that they got engaged in one thing and that took them in one direction, and then they circled back around. It's very affirming to know that there is not one straight path, that all these really successful people took all of these really interesting paths to get where they are. And that was another outcome of the book that was really special, because people did elaborate on their talks in the books, so a lot of the chapters were extended versions. And so we did get greater amount of detail in the written works that was also pretty revealing and a little window into the lives of all of these awesome women.

Vulnerability and sharing difficult experiences. Charlotte Beck's chapter in the book was for me, just one of the most powerful things I've read about persevering through harassment, through mental health issues, through all of these things that impact our lives, but that impact our careers and that people from the outside can't see. When you meet Charlotte, God, she is just the most cheerful, kind, sweet, amazing, charming, wonderful person, and you might not know that she had been through such harrowing experiences that were very hard to overcome. And so I think it's so special that she was brave enough to share that story, because I want people to read those kind of stories too, and to know that these things can happen to you and you can make it through, you can have the support that you need, and that again, you're not alone. That was just so moving to read her chapter, and I'm just so grateful to her for being willing to put her experiences into writing and be so vulnerable.

Suzy Eskenazi: Yeah. I would agree, that was a very intense chapter to write, I'm sure. And I really appreciated how vulnerable all of the women were in their chapters too. I think it took a lot for some of these women to just be able to write about themselves and not just what they do for a living. I really feel honored, that they said yes to share all of their vulnerability, and their experiences with us in a very public way. We are all better for it.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: What would you want readers or people who were at that symposium to take away from this book, from those talks, and what do you want them to do with what they've learned?

Suzy Eskenazi: I think one of the main points that I really took home was the importance of mentorship and support. And maybe that's because that's one of my personal interests, but I don't feel like anybody could have gotten to where they are without somebody pushing them to be who they could be, and recognize their talents. Even when that meant that some women had to be married to a man, to be able to go in the field, at least in all of these cases, their husbands were very supportive and provided that path for them. I would just love for this book to touch people in that way, and move them into that supportive mentoring place, so that we can help raise each other up and continue with the future generations.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: I agree. I think the mentorship for both of us was the biggest theme that stood out in all of the writings that are in the book. When Suzy and I were asking people to join us, we tried to ask people from all different sectors of work. We thought it was important to have people who worked doing private consulting, people who worked at agencies, people who did research archeology, people who worked in museums, a whole range of people doing all kinds of different work. So I think one of the really cool things that emerges from the book is to see how many ways you can be successful in this job, and how many opportunities are really out there for you. So I hope that anybody who has this idea, that feels like it's maybe out of reach or in left field or something, sees themselves somewhere in that book.

And there's just a lot of different ways to be successful, and to be happy, and to be supported. I hope that people see in the book that they can do any of those things and that also they could come from someplace that didn't feel like the right fit, especially I'm thinking of Charlotte Beck. Boy, I started out doing this thing and it was just the wrong thing. I was just on the wrong path, and I just found it within myself to change gears and to do what I was actually passionate about. And then to be wildly successful at doing that. It's very affirming to follow your gut and to pursue things that are important to you, and that maybe don't fit the mold, or the trajectory of what everybody else is doing, and that's okay.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: What would you recommend to people who are looking for mentorships, and also what would you recommend to people who are new to mentoring?

Suzy Eskenazi: I think it's really important to just ask. We often don't know that someone is looking to us as a mentor until they ask us. I know that's been true. My mentors have never been the same kind of person. It's always there's a personality trait that I see in them that really, oh, I want to know more about that. I want to know how to be a better leader. I want to be a better support to those around me. I want to be a better person for the people around me, and I'm really interested in engagement. And so how can I find those people that also have those common interests? I think throughout my whole career, I've always just tried to find the underling to just bring along with me. I think it's important that we all do that just to be better people and better anthropologists.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Yeah. I think you've got to find yourself as Suzy, who's well connected and who likes to connect other people together. Reach out to somebody who knows a lot of people in the field and say, hey, I'm interested in this. Is there somebody who might be willing to talk to me about it? A lot of people are shy. I'm not a very good reacher-outer, but if somebody comes to me, that's really exciting. And I'm really excited to talk with people and to think about ideas together, and share whatever knowledge I might have about things, which maybe isn't much. But again, find somebody that is a node, who's in the center of things and look to them to see who might they connect you with. But like Suzy said, the most important thing is reaching out . Suzy and I learned this lesson doing this project, where we were afraid to reach out to these women because we were like, no, they're too busy. They're too big for us. We can't reach out to them. And we were afraid to do that. And then we got these responses back. They were so modest and they were excited, and they were encouraging. And it was like, oh wow, that really wasn't as scary as I thought it would be at all. Nobody was like, oh, absolutely not. I'm not interested in that. That was just not the case. I think it would be very rare to reach out to anybody and have them say that. But we have this fear about reaching out to people and being vulnerable to people. And I don't know if I have any advice for how to get better at that, but maybe just know that it will probably not be terrible. It will probably end up in something really, really special.

Suzy Eskenazi: Yeah. I think what you're speaking to was true for Lorann Pendleton, who wrote the foreword to our book. We didn't know her at all. And then we found out about her and just asked. She was modest like everybody else. But then she wrote this incredible foreword that fit perfectly with the theme of the book. And when we met her in Vegas at the last conference, I was absolutely starstruck. I just looked over and she was standing next to me. And I said, oh my gosh, you wrote the foreword to our book. That's you. And it was just such a delight. Like Nicole says, you just have to expect that people will say yes. What is the worst that could happen? Nobody's ever going to, hopefully, just absolutely say no.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Will you be following up on the book in any way?

Suzy Eskenazi: We both would love to.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Yeah. It's been really fun. Kay Fowler's husband, Don, has been a really big supporter of this project. And so after the book came out, he's like, oh by the way, you guys should do this person, and oh, you should talk about this person. And he's sending us all these snippets, and tidbits, and stories. It's endless. Of course, we talk about it regularly like, okay, what are we going to do next? When are we going to get started on the next thing? And there's so much to do. It would be fun to bring more people into the fold too, because when we did this, we were sort of narrow minded. We were thinking about, let's talk to Great Basin archeologists, because that was the conference that we were at, and we both work in the Great Basin.

When we sent everything to the Press, we were talking about the vision for this project. People were like, why is this about Great Basin archeology? What are you doing here? This is a story about what it is to be an aspiring professional in America. A, it's maybe not even about archeology, but B, probably we don't need to limit ourselves to the Great Basin. And so that's kind of how it broadened in scale, because it was obvious that these are universal stories that aren't necessarily about working in a particular region. Of course, there are historical particularities about the Great Basin that make those stories different. But the theme is really, it runs throughout. The folks at the Press and the people that reviewed the book were all, this is about American archeology. This is not about Great Basin archeology. Yeah, that's true. And so now, do we need to do this bigger project?

Suzy Eskenazi: I really would like to continue on this path. It's so important.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: These are autobiographical. They're not reflections on someone's career. They're somebody telling it from their own perspective, from their own eyes. And there's something different about hearing a story that way, than about a retelling of someone's career. And I think it's kind of special because you really get a sense for who these women are when you read the stories, right? Their personalities really shine through.

It was pretty great meeting our superheroes. It was a little bit of feeling starstruck like, oh my God, I can't believe so-and-so is actually communicating with me or with us. And I can't believe they are joining us in this thing, and that they also think it's valuable. So, I think meeting all those women and just having them validate that this was a cool project, that was the biggest thing, the most exciting thing. And then of course, we developed this really amazing relationship. And after the symposium, we all went out and got drinks together, and we just talked about life, and archeology and it was this amazing experience. We're this group of friends now, and that was pretty incredible.

Suzy Eskenazi: For me, I also was starstruck for sure, but I also appreciated that my very first archeology boss was in the symposium, and she's in the book. And she's somebody who has shaped me as a professional. And there are other women in there that I've known for a long time, that are just in the trenches, they're just doing their work. And so it was just really nice to be able to shine a light on the everyday woman working in the field. And I would second what Nicole said, that we went out to have a glass of wine after the symposium, and it really was one of the highlights of my life probably. It was very, very special.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Thank you both so much for talking with me.

Suzy Eskenazi: Thank you so much.

Dr. Nicole Herzog: Well, thank you for reaching out to us. It's been wonderful talking with you.

Dr. Catherine Cooper speaks with Suzy Eskenazi and Dr. Nicole Herzog about their book "With Grit and Determination: A Century of Change for Women in Great Basin and American Archaeology"

112. Sharing Experiences with the Louisiana Trans Oral History Project (Episode 112)


C. Cooper: My name is Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am here with…

S. Ziegler: …Sophie Ziegler, an oral historian with Louisiana Trans Oral History Project, pronouns are they, them. So excited to be here, thank you for having me.

C. Cooper: Thank you so much for joining us. So, can you tell us a bit about the Louisiana Trans Oral History Project and how it started?

S. Ziegler: So, we started in May of 2020. The pandemic was already going. So, it was two motivations; one was to fill a perceived gap in the documentation of Louisiana centered trans and gender non-conforming communities and the other motivation was the crippling isolation of the pandemic. Some of us just got really lonely. I started looking around for some sort of project to join and help out with. I assumed something like this would exist. I couldn’t find that it did, so I reached out to just a couple of friends and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. If I do, like would you want to interview, would you want to be part of this” and I got several immediate yeses right. Had people been skeptical, I wouldn’t have done it.

Simultaneously, I reached out to the T. Harry Williams Oral History Center here at LSU because they do a lot of community work. And so that’s my colleague at LSU, Jen Cramer. I told her about what I was thinking about doing and she does what that center does, a lot of sort of helped me get up to speed on what oral histories are, like best practices for that. That center shares their forms right, interviewee and interviewer permission forms. We talked about what informed consent would look like and all of those things and then I just sort of ran off and started.

So, since March of 2020, we’ve had about 40 interviews, I think. That’s always going to be an inexact number because during the process, there’s always people who fall out or ask to be removed. But so, we’ve been going since then. We had an LEH, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, grant for 2020 and which we were able to do a lot of events, pay trans folks in Louisiana to do transcripts for us, pay people to do events.

So, really what we’re interested in doing is bringing in money and redistributing it to our communities. And then I got another, whatever year this is now, we got another LEH grant which we’ll start working on in January of ’22. And that’s going to allow us to do some really great things, including building a participatory map in which we can rethink the geography of Louisiana through the lens of trans joy. So, we’ll be redistributing funds to our community members around the state, asking them to record a short oral history about some place that elicited trans joy and then just take a video of that, upload it to the map and this will just be an ongoing project, which we are very excited about.

And then, we’re going to be holding a Joy-fest in probably June-ish, in which we get everyone together and we talk about trans joy, which is a reaction to just how terrible everything is all the time. We’re just going to make our own joy.

My day job is dealing with paper archives primarily and then running a team that digitizes that and then managing digital repositories. I have a sense of the infrastructure that’s needed for that and what I wanted was wanting to get around the dearth of materials that would be related to the types of people that I wanted to talk to. Also, I wanted a project that could be more or less independent and stay more or less independent.

So, we work with the T. Harry Williams Oral History Center, and they’re sort of our community partner but we’re completely independent from them and everyone else and the institutions such as Louisiana State University. So, oral histories kind of allow us to do that. We’ve been doing everything over zoom, which is not oral history best practice. It definitely wasn’t when we started. I think they’re kind of coming around because you know, what else are you going to do.

One, I just love oral histories because you get so much more unmitigated access to people. It’s such a beautiful format. It is inexhaustible too, right, because you can always go back to the same person, ask the exact same questions on a different day and always get a different perspective.

So, their life shines through them in a lens that’s always changing, it’s just so nice. It’s also just a wonderful way to connect to people and it makes a lot more sense for people who are not in the history game, who don’t really think a lot about records and leaving this type of legacy. It makes a lot more sense to say, hey, we’re just going to sit down and talk because you’re really interesting and you do really important things versus whatever it would look like to try to collect the manuscript materials related to them, right? Because most of us are just leaving behind Google Docs. And there are some really smart people figuring out how to do that, God bless them. But I didn’t want that for me. That’s really, I guess the focus from here.

C. Cooper: So, you see that it complements the archival record or the historical record by these personal stories.

S. Ziegler: Yeah, I mean complements for sure, but there’s not a lot to actually complement. So, there’s been a push recently here in Louisiana, elsewhere in the south, all over the country--it gets more attention in the south, because the people don’t expect it from us. But there’s been sort of a push for LBTQ+ collecting in archives and libraries. But I mean what that really looks like on the ground is mostly cis white gay men, cis white lesbians, mostly of a specific class during a couple of decades, right? Then you get these wonderful lesbian action pamphlets, which are just wonderful collections, but I mean those holes are just so big you can drive an archive through them.

And so, it’s just like kind of hard to think about what we could do that would work better. And I also want to say the goal of our oral history project is to, first and foremost, tell our stories to ourselves. So, we are most interested in creating the types of examples that many of us wish we had when we were younger, right. Some of us die from lack of examples. Like this is really, really important. Secondarily, we’re telling our stories for other people.

So, the process with oral histories or people doing interviews with us, we go through the whole transcription process, we get them to see the transcripts and okay everything, de-identify, etcetera anything that seems to come off wrong or people just get carried away talking shit or something like that.

And then if they’re interested after that, they can sign the paperwork and donate it to the Harry Williams Oral History Center but those are two different things.

So, they can just work with us, have their interview up on our website, maybe do a podcast with us but not everybody wants it in an official archive. That’s really important because we’re not necessarily telling it for posterity. It’s not necessarily history work.

C. Cooper: It’s for the community and preserving the community.

S. Ziegler: Yeah, yeah.

C. Cooper: And strengthening it.

S. Ziegler: I mean maybe not even preserving it, because not everybody wants it for that long. So, like this is just communicating right now. Like things have been hard, right. So like the last legislative session saw four anti-trans bills come through.

Just basically picking fights with the trans youth because they’re still one of the groups you can do that with as a politician and really rally your base without getting attacked for it.

So, it’s just a really tough time, which is why we’re focusing on trans joy. So, the number one reason for doing it is like survival, right. It’s very much like a here and now thing. With, hey wouldn’t it be nice if these stuck around forever. Cause again, like some people are just like, I don’t want to do that part.

C. Cooper: So, is there residence time of the interviews on your website for people who might not want it around forever but just for the now?

S. Ziegler: Do you mean like a sunset?

C. Cooper: Yeah.

S. Ziegler: Oh, ah, no. We have at least two people who said “I will probably contact you soon to take it down.” So, there’s not like anything set. I get the sense if they have life plans such that there’ll be a time when they really don’t want that up.

C. Cooper: Okay.

S. Ziegler: That has all sorts of practical ramifications for how we deal with this. So, it’s on the website, it’s totally accessible right now, but that means we have to have conversations with them about the Wayback Machine capturing that. People reach out like the Transgender Digital Archive; the big online Transgender Digital Archive would like to repurpose the oral histories and like also have them as part of their materials, you can search and find them on their site, which I love, but we can’t just do it as a blank slate. We have to deal with each individual oral history separately because the intentions are different.

C. Cooper: Could you walk us through some of the important terms that folks may not be as aware of, and how they’re used--or vary in use--in the trans and queer communities?

S. Ziegler: Yeah, you know, I’ve done all the interviews so far. I’ve been trying to go out of my way to define as many terms as possible. Most of what people are likely to find right now I think, are pretty understandable. So maybe some people trip over the word cis, which is just meaning somebody who’s not trans. There are various sex acts, which we’ll just leave it for people’s imagination at this point.

But for the most part there’s not a whole lot. There’s a lot of identities that are shifting, and our vocabularies for them are shifting, right. So, like gender queer, obviously the non-binary and the binary woman, a lot of that type of thing.

And so, one of the decisions we have to make is whether or not to have a glossary on the website and we opted to not. One because a glossary for a group of words that change so often--it’s sort of a big undertaking. But also secondly, because we had to make the decision that we’re not doing Trans 101. There are plenty of resources out there and because again, if you think about who our community is, that’s just not energy that that makes no sense to expend on that. But I think the identity is, because we do ask people how they identify currently during the day that we’re targeting.

C. Cooper: Right.

S. Ziegler: We just have a lot of wonderful things. Most of the pronouns are what you’d expect to hear, he/she, they/them but you know pronouns shift also.

I guess if anything it wouldn’t be specific vocabularies. It might be... I wonder if one of the challenges, so some people use any pronouns respectfully, so, you can have a single story about one individual, and they have multiple pronouns throughout, which I think is lovely personally, but I could where that might be a little hard to follow if you’re not used to it, but we do bracket notes and stuff like that, we try to make it easy.

C. Cooper: And each individual may define the terms for themselves differently.

S. Ziegler: Oh, yes.

C. Cooper: Do you get into that a bit when you talk to people?

S. Ziegler: It really depends. So, it’s tricky, right. So, this is an identity-based project. But we’re always concerned if you’ve got a trans person who’s also another thing they’re like, “hey, that trans librarian” so, it’s always a sort of tension. It depends on whether or not they want to talk about it. Some people… like we do “coming out” stories sometimes, we do like “gender journey” stories sometimes, but some people just aren’t that into talking about that. They’re much more interested in talking about their community work that they do for instance. Which totally makes sense, so really it just depends.

C. Cooper: So, can you share a bit about what the interview process is like and how you develop the questions and how the conversations may go.

S. Ziegler: We have a standard form on the website, so that’s step one where we get the names and the pronouns that they want to use for this project. And then we ask them a question on that form: “What does being trans Louisiana mean to you?” And it’s really the answer to that question that leads to a lot of the conversation that we have. Especially on the earlier interviews, I would just read their answers back to them and then just ask questions about it. Like, oh you know you said this and of course by then they don’t remember.

I do light research on folks, especially people who are like very active. You know I would just build sort-of not specific questions but like broad ideas that we could talk about. So, like for instance if they’re very active in an organization like reproductive justice for instance, or prison abolition, we might be to talk about that and just ask them about that and ask them about how they’re relationship to power influences their choice of work and how it is that they work.

Most of the interviews we’ve done so far is sort of full-life interviews, so we do actually start off with where they were born. What it was like growing up there if they want to talk about that. The requirement to participate is that you lived in Louisiana at some point. So, it’s geographically constrained, temporarily rather open and I did that on purpose. I’ve interviewed people in Virginia and in other states. And I did that on purpose because we’re very interested in like what their perspective of differences are too right? So what it looks like in Virginia versus what you did in Louisiana. Because we’re just trying to paint a large picture of how their life is, what turns their life has taken, given their existence in Louisiana.

But you know, based on their answers, you know the questions or topics are always changing. I leave it open. Generally, I end with a question about “If you were to donate this and then it becomes like part of the “official history” of Louisiana and that is like in the archives, somebody runs across it in like 30 or 40 years, what would you like that person to know about what is like living your life here, now.” And so, we generally end on a question like that in which people get like a final opportunity for people to say anything that hadn’t come up.

C. Cooper: So, what has been the most rewarding part of this project for you?

S. Ziegler: So, I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of really wonderful people that I don’t think I would have met before or at least not as quickly. So many phenomenal people, so that’s really rewarding. This is my first oral history project. I feel like having spent time doing oral histories, I now spend a lot of time listening to other oral history projects, podcasts for that, books based on those. I feel like I’ve become a much better listener, I’ve be come a lot more empathetic. It’s just a lot easier to get outside of yourself, especially when you’re re-listening for these, for transcript purposes and you know, you have the headphones on and it’s just you and that person. It’s rather intimate. So all of that’s very rewarding.

And then, I’m particularly proud of the fact that we are able to bring in funds through the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities who has funded us twice so far, through a Patreon account, through just donors; and we take all this money, we’re not an entity, we’re not an LLC or non-profit, but we just take all this money, and we just give it back out to all the communities here. So, either to have them do panels, like we can pay everybody for that. With our podcast, we just finished the first season, it was very short but I’m not good at podcasts. It was grueling. Every episode featured a trans artists from here in Louisiana, so we were able to pay them. There’s this upcoming project we’re going to be paying the participants for the maps.

So yeah, it’s really good. So that’s really rewarding because it’s just an immediate, actual, tangible good.

C. Cooper: So, you mentioned that this project was kind of born out of the pandemic…

S. Ziegler: …Yes.

C. Cooper: Where do you see it going forward?

S. Ziegler: I don’t know how long it’s going to go and that’s because of the way that it’s been formulated so far is it’s me in my living room with a Zoom account. We’ve done a lot of amazing things and with again with wonderful people. But I’m white, I’m fortyish and you know with luck, middle class-ish right, so most of the people that I have contact with are more or less the same. So, most of the people I’ve interviewed are white, a lot of trans femes.

So, I’ve been making a lot of effort to work with other projects that focus specifically on Black and Brown communities. So, this most recent project I’ve got funding for from LEH is a joint project with Last Call NOLA, which is a long going oral history project built originally on the fading dike bars scene in New Orleans and so they were really focusing on that and they are very multi racial, like intentionally multi racial, intentionally storytelling focused.

So, we’re working very closely with my colleague Nathalie Nia Foulk from that project. So, I think what I would really prefer, oh, and I’ve talked to a lot of other people who want to do interviews when we can do them in person. But I would like to de-center myself in the sense that like we just sort of dissolve the center of LaTOHP, which is currently again, me in my living room. Build capacity so that people can go around like this, like what you’re doing now and interview the elders that are important to them and then we can centralize in whatever makes sense, the interviews for access.

So, this was the model that the New York Trans project did for a while. I think they might be re-thinking it now but the types of interviews you get would be very different; the questions asked are very different for both good and challenging as that might be. Well, I don’t know how much longer we’ll be doing these sort of full life interviews.

We’re doing another series currently based on trans resistance to the anti-trans bills from last season so, we’re talking with a bunch of folks that we know who are really active in building resistance to that and building community around coming out for the protests and calling lawmakers and organizing around that.

That’s one direction we’re going and again, we’re working with a lot of different people so it’s not just the LaTOHP project. We’ll see what happens. I’m not that interested in making sure LaTOHP survives. I’m much more interested in taking advantage of the connections that that enabled to be able to do something potentially more impactful in the future.

In the way that a lot of my interviewees--and this is always so beautiful--so many people I’ve spoken with, at the end of our interview, will say something along the lines of, “interviews like this often make it seem really bleak. And we know that there’s a cultural narrative around transness that’s tragic. But the amount of joy and resilience among the community is just really empowering.”

And so, for everybody who is donating these for long term preservation, these interviews for LaTOHP, that’s really something that I want to shine through, right. So again, we’re doing this for those of us alive right now in Louisiana and those of us who are about, you know, currently coming and out and having a really hard time here in the deep south. Secondarily, we’re doing it for the future. To have a source of non-tragic narrative I think is a really beautiful thing and I’ll leave it with that.

C. Cooper: So if anyone is interested in reaching out to you…

S. Ziegler: … Yes, absolutely you can find us at is our website. We’re on Facebook and Twitter…and Instagram, yes, yes, we are. And we’ll have lot to advertise during 2022 and I hope people participate and reach out with questions.

C. Cooper: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

S. Ziegler: Thank you for this, this is great.

Dr. Catherine Cooper speaks with Sophie Ziegler about the Louisiana Trans Oral History Project

111. Stories from the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum (Episode 111)


Catherine Cooper: I'm Catherine Cooper. I am here with...

Gilory Chow: Gilroy Chow. I'm currently The President of The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, retired Engineer.

Frieda Quon: I'm Frieda Quon. I'm The Vice President of The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum. And I'm retired Librarian.

Carolyn Chan: I'm Carolyn Chan. I was born in raised in Greenville, Mississippi. I'm an elder among the group now and I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have been a Classroom teacher.

Randy Kwan: I'm Randy Kwan and I teach at Hines community college in Pearl, Mississippi, and I teach Film and TV Production.

Emily Jones: I'm Emily Jones, I'm the Archivist and Curator for The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.

Gilory Chow: There are many stories to be told, and there are many ways to tell it, to do it with an oral history, with a video, with pictures, written. Just so many different ways to archive and capture the information and to share it.

Carolyn Chan: And I think that's what we need more and more of today, is for people to come to a museum such as The Chinese Heritage Museum in Mississippi. See that history and understand that we all have had to go through struggles. We've had to overcome a lot of discrimination, and that we have to understand how each of us have a history that certainly deserves respect, but we also need to respect everybody else's history and work together to make this a better country.

Randy Kwan: What’s really actually helped that blossom has been COVID, because people have been at home, looking for things to do, and they've actually discovered more, I would say there's a greater awareness of the various cultures and the struggles that all the cultures have had to go through. And I really think that's actually kind of helped. I've seen that with my students a little bit, much more sensitivity towards various cultures now.

Emily Jones: One that really has stuck with me since it happened, was when we were up there. I think it was November, when Madeline and your son and his family came.

Frieda Quon: Shannon from Tokyo.

Emily Jones: And they were on the third floor. And you were standing in front of the picture of your dad as a young one. And you were telling Shannon and his two children, the story of how your dad had come as a paper son and how one day your name was this, and then it was a different thing. And what that meant for your dad to admit that and record it officially and all that. And just to watch Shannon realize how close he was to what the 1882 exclusion laws had done.

Frieda Quon: Right.

Emily Jones: As a national thing, it had an effect on him. And just watching you tell your son that.

Frieda Quon: Okay. All right, because I have grown up sons and... one is 50 something. And so this son is like 40 something. He wanted to bring his children, Madeline, who is 20, and Jackson who's 15, I guess. It was the first time. He wanted to bring them to Mississippi. We don't tell our children... So I grew up with... Because my dad was a paper son. So I'm a paper daughter. So half my life, I was Frieda Pang. And then it was not until...

Emily Jones: You were in school, right?

Frieda Quon: Oh yeah. And so then we can change our name and

Gilory Chow: He took their real name,

Frieda Quon: Real name back. And so...

Gilory Chow: Rather the paper name-

Frieda Quon: Some people did it, and then others were scared. I mean, to this day they think they're going to get deported.

Gilory Chow: Because it happens.

Emily Jones: Under today's laws, looking at what paper son created, you would say that there are illegal aliens, but that's the way the system worked in order to come to America. Because the law had created a system that was the natural reaction

Gilory Chow: Because of the end of the transcontinental railroad, you had all these Chinese on the west coast and the west coast said, we need to stop these because they're taking our jobs away. And so the 1882 exclusion act said that, 'oh, they can come, we'll allow 105 families." The only time an ethnic race was...

Frieda Quon: Limited.

Emily Jones: Excluded.

Gilory Chow: Excluded from immigrating to the United States. You had unlimited Irish, unlimited Germans, unlimited Europeans, unlimited Asians, as long as they weren't Chinese,

Emily Jones: Right.

Gilory Chow: Chinese were excluded the only time. And it wasn't until 1942, into the war.

Emily Jones: 43 finally.

Gilory Chow: That the Magnuson act corrected that wrong, to not exclude. But not only men in 1882, but a couple of years later, the women were excluded. And so the only group that was excluded. So therefore the only way you could come in was if you were a paper son or a merchant. And so my birth certificate says, my dad was a merchant and I said, "what is a merchant in 1940?" But it was a class that could immigrate legally. And so even though he was a teenager, he was a merchant. Also in 1906 in the earthquake. If you were here by birth—“so what year were you born?” “1906.” “Where's your birth certificate?” "Oh the earthquake got it."

Emily Jones: Yep.

Gilory Chow: So I don't care how old you were. You were born in 1906.

Emily Jones: Yeah.

Gilory Chow: Would be a way of getting in. And so we could look at it now as they were being clever, but that's how bad things were in China with war, famine, economic hardship. There was no place for them at home to...

Emily Jones: To survive yeah.

Gilory Chow: To actually survive.

Emily Jones: And so paper sons, and paper daughters was a thing that happened, but it wasn't just a thing that once happened, it created Frieda.

Frieda Quon: I mean it affected many families.

Emily Jones: And if your dad hadn't done what he did at the time that he did it, you could still be a paper child, if he didn't go the agent up in Memphis and do the things that you had to do to prove that you were worthy of being a citizen, even though you had fought in war. And could you please, sir, have your ancestral name back. He did that. So you married as Frieda Su and not Freida Pang to and...

Gilory Chow: And then she's able to share it with her children.

Emily Jones: Yeah.

Carolyn Chan: The Gong Lums, their daughters, Martha and Berda, they were in the schools in Rochdale, Mississippi at the white school, and they were told after they'd been going to school there that they would have to leave because they were not white.

Randy Kwan: This was in the '30s correct?

Carolyn Chan: No 1924, 1924 is when they filed it. And it went through the Mississippi courts, local courts or the county court. Then the people there, they said, well, no, they're neither white nor black. So they cannot go to school here. They already were enrolled, but they dismissed them for that day. But then Gong Lum decided to hire lawyer and file a case. And the case was decided that they were not white, so they could not go to that school. And there really was no place for them to go. They did not want to go to the black school, and of course some people say, well, they didn't really make a step toward integration. But the way I look at it is they wanted to have the best education for their children. This case went all the way to the Supreme court.

Randy Kwan: Yeah. And of course this was before Brown versus Board of Education-

Carolyn Chan: It's actually recognized as a civil rights case. This is really interesting because when I was teaching in Old Town Elementary school in Albuquerque, one of my coworkers was Rudy Sanchez and he's Hispanic. And he was taking courses on Education for his master's degree. And he actually asked me, he says, “You're from Mississippi originally, do you know anything about the Gong Lum case?” And I said, well, that's my uncle and my aunt, and he said, “Well, you don't realize how important that case is. It's a landmark case.” And I said, oh, okay. That also helped motivate me to become involved politically and advocate.

Carolyn Chan: In our neighborhood, we did have a really multiracial and multi-ethnic neighborhood. We had Jewish people, Lebanese people, African Americans that were our customers, Native Americans and Mexican customers in our particular neighborhood because our store was close to the levy. And we had during the time that I was a young person in the store, I grew up there from the time I was born.

Carolyn Chan: I was actually born in the living quarters of the store; I’m the first of the six children that are living in our family. And we got along with everybody, and we did have to go to the one room segregated at school at the time that I was going, until 1947, after World War II was over, and Chinese Americans had served in World War II. We were viewed as being patriotic, and we were then allowed to go to school with white children. Unfortunately, the time that I was growing up… well, actually when I graduated from college, then we were not able to teach in the white schools in Mississippi. So that was one of the reasons I left. Not only that, but I fell in love with my husband. We moved to New Mexico so...

Gilory Chow: I was born on a farm at Cleveland crossing and we had a store and I've heard stories of the gristmill where people would bring their corn and you'd always grind, but you'd never clean up real well until after they left, because you'd get to keep the leftovers. And that was part of it, people were happy to get their corn grounded into meal in a country store.

Gilory Chow: That's a picture. So Freida's husband is professor at Delta State Accounting, his parents had a grocery store. My parents had a grocery store, I've got a degree, my wife's got a degree. Our children have multiple degrees. And so that story's repeated time and time and time again of the hard work that they put in. And again, the values, the work ethic has carried over, and they were role models for us. They didn't realize it. We were role models for our children. We didn't realize it. But now we're being told that you were role models. We just lived life. And we did what our parents did just in a different way.

Emily Jones: Your grandparents and your parents left everything in China.

Gilory Chow: Yes.

Emily Jones: And gave all of that up. And sometimes even your ancestral identity because of the 1882 exclusion law. That's what was given up, and willingly, to come over here, to do what was most available, which was become merchants and do that. And so what I see from the outside looking in, is that's the spirit they pass on is not that I expect you to be the most brilliant person in the room, but you do what you have to do, in order to be able to make the next step up possible for the next generation, whatever it is.

Gilory Chow: Yes That's a wonderful analogy because things were hard in China. We didn't ask the question of why, and they might have been able to say why, because why did Dad come over into New Orleans as a young teenager? Because things were so hard at home. I can't imagine sending my son to a far and distant land. He probably didn't even have a suitcase.

Frieda Quon: They came as teenagers. My dad came as a teenager.

Gilory Chow: And to go by themselves and then to spend a year in New Orleans. When we were down at the Amistad Center at Tulane, Sally and I found records of my dad, Joe TM, as a student. And I tell the story, he must have been a good student because he was P: present every day, for a year. And that's the extent of his education: that year, he spent at the Presbyterian church school in New Orleans.

Emily Jones: Baldwin and his brother, Edwin, had never been outside of California. They were born there. And they thought because of Charles, their dad, coming to America, when he was a teenager, that they must be the first American born Chinese in their line. But their dad, he had a picture of the headstone of his dad and his granddad. And it was in English. And so Baldwin just asked him one day, he was like, "so if it's in English, where is it?" And Charles said, “well, it's in Mississippi.” And that's all they had to go on. Edwin called the city hall and asked, “Does anybody know anything about a Chinese grocery store that was in the Delta, somewhere around Cleveland? We don't know the name of the store, but my dad's dad and his granddad died there and they're buried there, and we want to know more about that.”

Emily Jones: We don't actually archive things under people who die and leave stores. So I thought, good luck, but come on, and sent emails out to people. I remember the board, that's the greatest part about the board is they're this living, breathing institutional memory of relatives who were connected and how and why and all this kind of thing. So when I got a question like that, I sent it out to everybody I could think of. And you know, we got a couple of leads, some thoughts and stuff, but they decided to come to Cleveland, just hoping that somebody might know something. Somehow we knew a lot more than we thought we did.

Frieda Quon: So we have this Baldwin, the grandson. And so he brings his father and they don't know what they're going to find. The father didn't have any memory, he was one, so he really didn't have any memory at all of his real father, just knew that he had come to Mississippi. And so the whole family came to visit the Museum. They realized the family store was in Pace, which is just a little bitty town down the road. And so they come in and they're seeing the exhibits and everything. And so Charles who's, the father said something about his father's name is KC Lou. And he kept saying, my father's name is KC Lou. And Emily over here, in her mind, "she said, KC Lou." And she said just a minute, and she goes into her little store room and she pulls out this Bible and it was KC Lou's Bible that he had gotten for graduation. How did you remember that?

Emily Jones: I don't know. I mean, literally I think everything had to be standing right there for it to click finally. But yeah, it was one of those days where I was just really glad to have come to work. But when the Bible came out, the collection that it had come from was a totally different family, and that's how we realized. “Okay. Well, if that, if KC lose Bible is in the Dunn family collection, you need to talk to the Dunn family. And that's when the floodgate broke open-

Gilory Chow: The interesting thing about the Bible, Charles Lou is a Christian. When he realized that his father had a Bible, he thought in his mind that his father is a Christian. And so as a Christian, he knew that he had a heavenly father and he knew that his father knew the heavenly father, because he had a Bible. And he knew that he would meet his father in heaven someday because of that Bible and that tie. But then the Dunn family had acquired the Bible because it was in the store when the grandfather passed away. And so the Bible was in the possession of Dunn family. And then the Dunn family made the connection. The Dunn family had acquired their store in Pace from Baldwin and Edwin's grandfather. So there's the connection. Kevin Bacon talks about six degrees of removals from everybody. In Mississippi it's about two or three, that you will know somebody that knows somebody.

Emily Jones: Charles learned of his dad from all the people who knew him. It's a little outside of yourself feeling, to watch a man learn about his own father from everybody else who knew him best. You just think in your family pod, you are going to know your family better. But because of the situation, because of 1882, and because rules forbade people from coming and going, and the freedom, Charles never knew his father. But all these other people have opened up every memory bank they can think of and have told him and let him know his father now. And like Gilroy said, that's why he cries when he holds the Bible. He knows...

Frieda Quon: Because thought he was just abandoned orphan.

Gilory Chow: But he found out why. One of the things Baldwin found was a letter. It's in the Dunn family, and it was from...

Emily Jones: KC wrote it to Mr. Dunn.

Frieda Quon: Okay.

Gilory Chow: And he must have dictated because it was typed; talks about how much he missed his family. And so Charles was able to hear, see with his own eyes, in his father's hand that how much he loved and missed his family.

Catherine Cooper: Thank You so much for talking to us.

Carolyn Chan: Nice to talk with you too, Catherine.

Randy Kwan: Same here.

Gilory Chow: Thanks for coming.

Catherine Cooper speaks with leaders of the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum about the stories shared and made there.

110. Creating the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum (Episode 110)


This is the Preservation Technology Podcast, bringing innovation to preservation. The Preservation Technology Podcast is a production of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service.

Catherine Cooper: I'm Catherine Cooper. I am here with…

Gilroy Chao: Gilroy Chow. I'm currently the president of The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, retired engineer.

Frieda Quon: I'm Frieda Quon. I'm the vice president of The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, and I'm a retired librarian.

Carolyn Chan: I'm Carolyn Chan. I was born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi. I'm an elder among the group now, and I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have been a classroom teacher.

Randy Kwan: I'm Randy Kwan and I teach at Hinds Community College in Pearl, Mississippi, and I teach film and TV production.

Emily Jones: I'm Emily Jones. I'm the archivist and the curator for the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.

Gilroy Chao: As a museum, Delta State University, and the City of Cleveland, we're able to make available things that reflect the heritage that the Mississippi Delta Chinese have shared for, we think over 150 years, their presence has been here in the Mississippi Delta. Sometimes, with the larger population, and currently saying that there are probably about 500 Mississippi Delta Chinese now, that are remaining or have come in since. But, we're really trying to highlight the history and the culture of the Mississippi Delta Chinese.

Randy Kwan: There's not much known outside of Mississippi on our heritage in the area. So, we basically wanted to preserve our lifestyle and make people more aware of it.

Carolyn Chan: The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum is a place to gather the history, and the artifacts that tell the story of the Chinese migration to the state of Mississippi, how they were accepted, maybe in a certain way, a limited way, as they fulfilled the need of providing a place for African Americans to come and shop for their groceries, during the reconstruction period. A place that they felt comfortable with. And, of course, we were restricted as to where we could operate and even immigrate, to the United States. And, only as merchants could we come, the early settlers. And, that was a way that they were able to come to Mississippi.

Gilroy Chao: There was a time when there were Chinese grocery stores across the entire Mississippi Delta. When we say the Mississippi Delta, we're talking about from Memphis to Vicksburg, from the Mississippi river over to the hills of Mississippi. We have actual documented history of grocery stores in each of the Delta towns. And, we talk about Clarksdale having over 25 stores, Greenville having over 50 stores, Cleveland 30 plus stores, and in small towns like Ruleville and Marks, Yazoo City, Chinese grocery stores existing. Some of them side by side, sometimes across the street from one another. And so, we are trying to capture and preserve that heritage of the families, of what they did and how they persevered and worked, overcame obstacles, personal, financial, even within the community, sometimes. That they not only existed, but they thrived.

Emily Jones: Well, I think if we're talking about origin story, just a little bit deeper into that, my perception of it was, first of all, as a grad student. I had gone to Frieda's husband, John Paul Quon, and he had told me then, back what, like in 1999, that he had this idea to create a Chinese heritage museum or a Mississippi Delta Chinese Museum, but it was supposed to be in Greenville. And then, when I came back to work here at Delta State, Frieda and I got to be really good friends. Thanks, Frieda.

Frieda Quon: That's how it started.

Emily Jones: And then, when John Paul Quon passed, it was time.

Frieda Quon: We were so busy, I guess, just living our lives. You know, our parents were here, but we regretfully didn't ask them all the questions that we wish we had. And so, it finally came to a time, and my husband was still alive then, and he realized it. And, he got a grant with Dr. Thornell, who was—

Emily Jones: Provost

Frieda Quon: John got this humanities grant and went about the Delta and interviewed. I mean, this was the nucleus of the interviews that we have that kind of started the museum. And, it was true that initially, everybody thought, oh, we need to put this museum in Greenville, because that's like the metropolis back then. So, that was the thought for a long time.

Frieda Quon: So, anyway, they gathered those interviews. John passed away in 2006, and then I think it was around 2009 or 10, that those of us who remained in the Delta realized, if we're going to do a museum, we need to get together and do this. We met actually up here in the archives. Emily and-

Gilroy Chao: And, everybody shared the vision at the same time. We're actually second generation, because we consider our parents first generation, or grandparents first generation. But, realizing that unless somebody went out and captured this information now, that it would be another layer of information lost. And so, it came together at the right time and had the right skill sets of law, art, architecture. We had the right people in place and we're happy to see them. You got to see that a little bit this morning, as they interact and play that, you know, that's what it takes. It takes a large number of people with different skills and different personalities, to come together and enjoy doing the things that we're doing.

Emily Jones: Yep.

Frieda Quon: And then, as far as setting up the museum, I can remember Emily was calling for things. She would have brochures. Okay. If you have this, this, this, you know, and people, like I said, are thinking of, we need to bring museum quality things. So, we learned from Emily that it can be whatever that's in your daily living. So, we ended up bringing our kitchen table or those apple crates, that my dad, these were boxes that fruit came in and those became my chairs and-

Gilroy Chao: Or Jerome's sculptures.

Frieda Quon: Oh, the art.

Gilroy Chao: The art. That is so unique. It's laminated apple crate ends.

Emily Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gilroy Chao: And, then he turned them into art figures. How did you learn that? Well, he actually shaped the sausage.

Frieda Quon: Right. He started out shaping pork sausage, and made that into a pig.

Emily Jones: Okay. And see, I thought everybody always had that at their grocery stores. Because, I grew up in Greenville.

Gilroy Chao: And, saw that.

Emily Jones: And, saw that at everybody's deli counter. I thought everybody did that.

Gilroy Chao: You wrap meat.

Emily Jones: Yeah, you make the meat into a face. Now, it sounds weird. But,

Gilroy Chao: But, it worked. The apple crate in the museum, is the apple crate you see, Frieda as a young girl, sitting on, because that was the furniture of the day. And, she didn't think anything of it. I mean, that's where she sat. And now, if you go to Frieda's home, you'll see some fine furniture.

Frieda Quon: We actually bought those chairs. I mean, we grew up poor, but we didn't know it. You know, I mean we had shelter. We had love. We went to church. Went to school, and we worked alongside our parents. Obviously, maybe didn't have a fine car or anything. But, we had all our basic needs and, I don't know, I mean, we never felt deprived.

Carolyn Chan: We need to talk about the history of people and how they get along with each other. And, that's the reason why I got involved at the museum in Mississippi, and with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. It's a national organization. So, I've been involved with people who were involved with the Chinese American Museum, in Los Angeles, and also, going to the Smithsonian and some of the museums, because of the advocacy trips that we were involved in, in DC. I was exposed to a lot of Chinese culture and felt that our history is very unique in Mississippi, among the Chinese Americans. So, that I came before we actually got our charter for the Mississippi CACA, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, chartered in Mississippi.

Carolyn Chan: We brought an exhibit of what we were doing in Albuquerque. And, it was just sort of a little cardboard exhibit about the history of the Chinese in New Mexico, and in Albuquerque. And so, we come to the meetings to try to help the Mississippi organization get started. And, we actually encouraged them to start talking about having a museum in Mississippi. I think we really wanted it in Greenville, but it turned out it was not the best place to have it. And, I agree now that the best place is in Cleveland, because it is affiliated with the University.

Randy Kwan: For me, I was actually involved with the CACA in Los Angeles. Of course, originally from Mississippi, moved out there in ‘93 or ‘92, and got involved with the CACA out there. And, in 2003, I moved back here. And, through involvement with the CACA out there, Aunt Carolyn and my mom, we basically had created a CACA organization here, or charter here. And then, that eventually led to the involvement with the museum.

Catherine Cooper: What are your hopes for the museum going forward?

Emily Jones: First of all, can I just frame this with, we do not have an official five, ten or fifteen year strategic plan.

Gilroy Chao: Yet.

Emily Jones: We've been talking about making one happen since the board put together. And, I will say, a plan is always good, but being open and flexible to whatever comes through the door, has really worked for us.

Randy Kwan: Hopefully, that the museum will flourish. Through various events that have been on TV and documentaries that have been covering the Mississippi Chinese, I think there's a greater awareness of it. And, it seems to be a greater interest in our lifestyle and our history, which is always great to see. I just hope it keeps growing.

Carolyn Chan: I agree with you. And then, the things that I've seen that's been happening is that, people are now taking their own children and their grandchildren back so they can see, how did my grandma and my grandpa go through all of this? What did they do? What did they contribute? And, they have a respect for what their grandparents and their forebears went through. And, I think that also, people who are not Asian American come, and they cannot believe how we survived this. What did you do to, we had to go through this and we have a respect for you for what you've gone through.

Gilroy Chao: We love the idea that we partnered with Delta State, and with the City. So, that sustainability is always a question mark. We have struggled raising funds. We're pretty good right now. We are always looking to improve and add to the archives and the exhibits. But, sustainable is a goal. Improvement is a goal. There's nothing wrong with what we have, but you can always add to the story. And, the current generation, probably need to talk about that. Some of the descendants and our children and grandchildren.

Emily Jones: I would say, as a board, we are reactionary and try to do our best to field the requests for access to the information. If we were proactive, we would probably give people stuff that they don't want to know, yet. Yeah.

Gilroy Chao: Yeah, yeah. That's a good word, that we are reactive, but enough requests come in that it keeps us very busy.

Emily Jones: I'm very proud of the board. I don't really know how to run a board, but they're very good.

Frieda Quon: And, they're everywhere. They're in Hawaii. They're in New Mexico. Both coasts.

Emily Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gilroy Chao: Texas, Gary in Virginia.

Emily Jones: And, the local people who can put their feet on the ground here, do.

Gilroy Chao: Susan, Harry,-

Emily Jones: Not often do you see a board that will put the sweat equity in. What I do know of boards is that boards raise money and they advocate on behalf of whatever they represent. This board actually does the work, the heavy lifting, going out and talking to each other and promoting the museum. An effort, a homecoming, a reunion. We don't have a publicity campaign, or a communications program or anything like that. It's word of mouth. It gets things out.

Gilroy Chao: It works. It's working.

Emily Jones: Yeah. I'm very proud of what we have achieved. And, as long as we all keep working together, I think we've got a good feature.

Catherine Cooper: Yeah.

Gilroy Chao: Yeah. The long term plan is, don't let anybody move.

Frieda Quon: If you do, you have to go find us a replacement, huh?

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for talking to us.

Carolyn Chan: Nice to talk with you too, Catherine.

Randy Kwan: Same here.

Gilroy Chao: Thanks for coming.

This was a presentation of the Preservation Technology Podcast, produced by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. For more podcasts like this one, please visit our website.

Dr. Catherine Cooper speaks with board members of the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi about the creation, purpose and growth of the museum.

109. Expanding the Louisiana Digital Library Collections with the Y’ALL Award (Episode 109)


This is the Preservation Technology Podcast, bringing innovation to preservation. The Preservation Technology Podcast is a production of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: My name’s Dr. Catherine Cooper, I am here with…

Sophie Ziegler: Sophie Ziegler, Head of Visual Programs and Services at LSU libraries.

Leah Duncan: And I’m Leah Duncan, I’m the Digital Collections Librarian at LSU Libraries.

Sophie Ziegler: So, what we want to talk about today is the Y’ALL Award is what we call it and this is an opportunity for LSU Libraries to help smaller cultural heritage institutions around the state have their materials digitized and uploaded to the Louisiana Digital Library.

For a bit of background, the Louisiana Digital library is our state’s front door to our digital cultural heritage. We are the technical home here at LSU, but it’s a collaborative effort between LSU libraries and right now, about 30 other institutions throughout the state.

So, we have archives, and museums and libraries, government repositories, religious collections, etcetera. We work on joint projects, and we have a really good time, and what we’re trying to do with the Y’ALL Award is to make sure it’s as geographically and content diverse as possible within the LDL.

The Y’ALL Award is an acronym for the You Are Louisiana’s Legacy.

Leah Duncan: That is correct…

Sophie Ziegler: …that is correct, we are proud of that. Thank you for asking.

Leah Duncan: There was a lot of worse acronyms that came up as ideas for this Y’ALL Award name. I think I remember the CRAW--the Crawfish Award, which was going to be Creating something…archival materials, I don’t remember but Y’ALL is better.

Sophie Ziegler: So, we got the Y’ALL Award. It’s an opportunity for cultural heritage institutions around the state of Louisiana to apply to have one of two options: the first being the Mobile Digitization Lab in which folks here from LSU Libraries, we will pack up our digitization equipment, including flatbed scanners and overhead cameras and lighting apparatus and drive over to a host institution and digitize a selection of materials that is identified by the host institution.

The second option is what we call the Open Digitization Lab, where we invite members of other institutions to come and use our digitization space here at LSU libraries.

And the idea with both of these is that LSU has the staff and the equipment to do digitization that we know most other places don’t that we want to deal with, so we are looking for opportunities to share it.

Leah Duncan: Theoretically what I like especially about the Y’ALL Award is that it’s usually larger and more well-funded institutions that have the expertise and technology to be able to create these digital collections, but there are a lot of valuable historic materials held by these smaller cultural heritage institutions, and of course they should keep holding them. Right. So, being able to have a way to present these materials and provide them a way to preserve them digitally is something I’m really proud of.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: When did the Y’ALL project start and what is the duration or how do you see it progressing from here?

Sophie Ziegler: It started right before the pandemic…

Leah Duncan: …oh yeah.

Sophie Ziegler: …yes, as a lot of these things do, it took a while to get the paperwork in order, it took a while to get all the stakeholders on board. We were relying on our neighbors and colleagues from across the country to help us. We spent a lot of time talking with people from the Mississippi Digital Library, who do very similar things with some key differences. And they were very kind enough to show us how they set their project up and all the paperwork that they have etcetera. We talked to people at Georgia Homeplace who does a variation of this, so we were able to rely on them a lot.

And then we did our first pilot of the Mobile Digitization Lab in November of 2019. We got their stuff up online where you can see it now. It was from the Jeanerette Museum in beautiful Jeanerette, Louisiana. It’s up in the Louisiana Digital Library now and then of course, Covid hit so we haven’t done anything since then.

The application remains open. We do have our next project lined up with the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. We’re trying to be very slow to make sure everybody is comfortable with the level of personal interaction that this type of thing takes.

To the future, I feel like all that’s left now is to really smooth out the edges. So, the pilot project allowed us to understand what it takes to get material to a host institution, what it looks like to have our staff in hotels etcetera, local enough that they can get back to the site institution every day at a reasonable time. And we get a lot of those logistics done, it’s going to be tweaked as needed with every new opportunity. But moving forward, we just hope to make it routine.

So, moving forward what we want to do is think about how to de-center LSU from being the center. Right now, this is an LSU project. It is all LSU people going out. It’s mostly LSU people evaluating applications, but the LDL just has again, almost 30 members, so what we really would like to do is think about dividing up the state geographically so that LSU doesn’t necessarily have to drive. For instance, in Natchitoches, we could rely on a member institution closer.

And that’s really what we’re hoping to do. We don’t know what that will look like, whether or not that will look like us investing, us being the LDL community, investing in digitization shops scattered around, whether or not this would like one central digitization lab set up that we can drive around. But that’s our hope is to really bring in more people, to make it more collaborative.

Leah Duncan: And sort of thinking about the future of this project and the afterlife of these collections, we think a lot in the LDL about collections as data. And we are recently part of a grant project that focused on collections as data and thinking about how to make your collections available as data and to create workloads and use cases around that.

So, a big part of my job is basically trying to get people to do cool things with our collections, whether that’s digital humanities projects or teaching or various types of, again, like data analysis around our collections.

One thing I think a lot about is no one can do anything with a collection, especially computationally, that’s not there yet. So, the content of what’s available in your digital library really does affect the scholarship and the teaching of the future as we move forward. And we saw that a lot during the pandemic. We had to do a lot of adjustments when our institutions closed down, to facilitate courses and instructors who were relying on our archival materials to help them pivot towards using digital archival materials. So, the more sort of diverse content that’s available, the more diverse and representative teaching and research that can be done in the future, and I get excited about that.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Are there particular areas you would like to see the LDL expand toward?

Sophie Ziegler: Yeah, so there are a couple different ways to think about this. One of the ways that we tend to phrase it is, if we think about the Louisiana Digital Library as a representation of Louisiana, Louisiana would look a lot whiter than it is, it would look a lot older than it is.

Leah Duncan: More urban than it is.

Sophie Ziegler: We know from working in institutions what people are likely to scan and put into a digital library. So, you’ve got a lot of photographs of people shaking each other’s hands on the steps of a capitol, like we do. We have a lot of politicians, we have a lot of well-to-do families, but what we don’t have is a lot of everyone else who lives here and has always lived here.

So, we’re thinking about African American centric collections in which they’re actually centered, right, and not represented as enslaved individuals. We’re thinking about all the other groups that are here and have been here for generations and just don’t tend to make it into the local repository.

So again, if you think about something like the Louisiana Digital Library, it’s always going to be a selection of a selection. We’re always working with what’s already been collected by somebody and then on top of that, what repositories consider important enough to put the resources in to scan.

So, what we’re hoping to do is, if we can take on the burden of the digitization and leave the selection to the host institution. Then what we’re hoping to do is put people in the position where they don’t have to be making this cost benefit analysis. Rather they can just say, “This is what we’d really love to have up, this is what’s really important to our community.” And then those of us coming in from LSU can be the ones who actually take on the burden of doing the work itself.

This is to make the LDL a better representation of Louisiana and this is to make the collections within the LDL fuller so that you can do more things with it as Leah was saying. But this is also just an existential issue in the sense that we’re losing ground and we’re more likely to be hit by a hurricane every single year.

We’re in a race to hold onto our cultural heritage and almost all of our institutions, for one reason or another, whether it be funding or hurricanes and flooding. I think it remains to be seen in the deep future as to whether or not digitization is actually the way, a long-term solution in any way to this, but I think in the short term, it gives us a certain focus and a certain urgency to this type of work.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Have there been other applications that have come in, are you looking for more people to apply?

Sophie Ziegler: Yeah, we’re definitely looking for more people to apply. We weren’t pushing it during most of the last year for Covid reasons. We started pushing it just a couple of months ago with conference presentations and other outreach forms, specifically to the archives and museum communities here in Louisiana.

So, we’re definitely taking applications. We’re trying to keep the application as minimal as possible. We do ask that applicants think about the material that’s either completely owned by them or that they have rights to post the materials online.

We prioritize collections that represent geographies not currently represented in the LDL or communities not currently represented and we are willing to help think out how much can be digitized over the course of a week. Which again, is one of the harder things.

So, one of the big things we want to say is that we’re always happy to talk to applicants at any point during it. Our contact information is available on the application. If anybody starts and has questions, we do hope that they’ll reach out to us. If anybody is thinking about applying, we’re always happy to talk about projects and try to do the best that we can to make it a successful application.

It’s set up as an award right now for a number of reasons. That’s not because we don’t want to give it out. We have it set up as an award in the hopes that there will be a lot of internal reflection on anybody that applies. So, we want the partner institution to tell us what’s important about their collection that should be digitized. So, we ask them to think about their community that they serve and to think about what they would be really, really upset about, what would be the most detrimental to their community should there be a fire or a flood at their shop.

So, it was setup as an award so we can have that type of structure where they can answer those types of questions for us in advance. And also because we think, and we’ve been told by Mississippi Digital Library and other people we talked to, the award is sort of a nice way for the partner institution to sort of brag. We’re thinking about maybe having plaques and again just to make sure that everybody is really feeling good about the project.

I think a good place to leave this, at least from my point of view, would be to reiterate that the Louisiana Digital Library is a joint effort. A lot of the work going on in it is community building work. It wouldn’t be any good for those of us at LSU, which is just one member of the Louisiana Digital Library, to decide that this is important work. Instead, what we’ve been doing is spending a lot of time building capacity among all the members of the LDL and hearing about what everybody has in their collections, what everybody would like to see the LDL become and all to move in the same direction. Because nothing we’re saying here is novel. I mean Mississippi has had a digitization project like this for exactly the same reason for years and so many other states also.

It’s not that it’s novel, I think what’s so exciting is that it’s actually happening and it’s happening in a very intentional way where we’re naming what we’re trying to overcome. We want a digital library that is more inclusive because we have such a beautifully diverse state and I think we’re doing everyone a disservice if we’re not able to represent that.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for talking about this project and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

Sophie Ziegler: Thank you so much for having us. This was a lot of fun.

Leah Duncan: Yeah, that was fun.

This was a presentation of the Preservation Technology Podcast, produced by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. For more podcasts like this one, please visit our website.

Catherine Cooper speaks with Sophie Ziegler and Leah Duncan at the Louisiana State University Library about their work on the Y'ALL initiative to increase the diversity of the Louisiana Digital Library holdings.

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