So far my internship at the Vance Birthplace has been going wonderfully. I have completed around 86 hours at the Birthplace, and have to say that I have enjoyed myself greatly. Lately I have been working with a website called Library Thing and continuing work on my Roving Program. Library Thing is a useful site that allows libraries to inventory their books. It takes data on books from a variety of websites and libraries like Amazon.com and the Library of Congress, so one only needs to find the book and add their own search tags. If the book’s information cannot be found on any of those sites then it needs tt be input manually, which is not so difficult. Once we are finished putting these books online, researchers will be able to look for books on particular subjects in our small library. In doing this I learned just how many rare, unique, and even strange books a small historic site could have, and how they may be an underutilized resource for us students. My Roving Program is still going to focus upon bullet molds, but my salt gourd half of the program will also also involve the gourd ladle, depending on the preference of the individual using the program.
For any historian, from a budding undergraduate student, to a doctorate holder who has studied history most of their life, they must tackle the difficult question of whether or not a source is valid or useful. Few sources must have this question asked of them more than oral histories, for a plethora of reasons. For one, an oral history is more impromptu than most written documents, and from this a variety of problems arise. Because of the impromptu nature of an oral interview, there is greater chance that the speaker will not remember a particular event or moment in their life correctly, and thus give inaccurate information. This does not come from a desire to hide the truth, but rather it is a matter of simple human error. Another problem is that the interviewer and the person being interviewed will at times have different intentions for the interview, and will thus try to derail the overall conversation. This can make the interview a confused mess, and difficult to use. One must allow the other to guide the interview, thus allowing it to flow properly, and unless the interview is meant to be about a very particular subject, it should be the one being intinterviewed who leads the interview, as their words are the sources historians will use, and thus more important. Even if the information given is inaccurate, or jumbled, it is a useful source for the beliefs of individual people, and can thus be used as a primary source for studying historic memory or social memory. The criticisms that less professional oral history projects such as Storycorps receive are undeserved, as a proper oral history should aspire to be honest and sincere, focused more upon what individuals themselves and what they are drwn to, rather than overly specific events, which will likely be inaccurate to begin with.
So far my internship has been going very well, and three things of note have happened. First, I have been okayed to give tours to regular visitors after Kimberly had me give her a mock tour and felt that I remembered enough to be trusted with everyday visitors. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to give a tour to a regular visitor as none have wanted one while I was on duty. My second bit of news is that I will be doing what Kimberly calls a roving exhibit. Essentially I will look at two artifacts in detail and prepare a few paragraphs on each about how they would have been used in the early 1800s, and how this relates to the current day. I will be telling this information to regular visitors and try to relate it to them and their modern world. They will also be allowed to handle the artifact, or reproduction of an artifact, which further connects them to it, and through the artifact, I hope a connection with their own past and heritage is found. The overall purpose of this project will be to allow people to interact with an artifact in a way that they usually never would be allowed to. The last shard of news is that last Friday we had a school group made up of second graders, and I was deeply surprised with how well they behaved, and how much I enjoyed helping them in the candle activity they did. I further felt that they, and other school groups, are lucky as they get to not just enjoy a fun field trip, but they also get to understand further the hard work and time which went into creating some of the simplest items by preforming the candle making activity.
The ruling social class within a society usually has an interest in quieting the voices of those whom are different from itself. In the United States that has historically meant Native American tribes, African-Americans, and those who are not heterosexual having the abuses and very lives covered up by ethnically European heterosexual people. In public history, there has been and can be push-back from the controlling class against stories of people that it would rather have silenced, yet as historians we must do our utmost to offer a full encompassing and unbiased story of the past to the public. At the Vance Birthplace, there have been strides to bring the full story to the public, which includes the slaves owned by the Vance family, and the many African-Americans that Governor Vance targeted with vagrancy laws to imprison and force into labor. Just a few years back, the Vance Birthplace had little to nothing to say about the slaves who lived there and worked for the Vance family. Now that has changed, and we have the names of nearly every slave owned by the Vance family, and some detailed information on a few of them. The tour itself is being reworked to be longer and more detailed, and it shall include the slave cabin and information on a few of the slaves who would have lived there. The exhibit on Governor Vance’s life has already been changed to include the historic fact that he used vagrancy laws to incarcerate African-American men and force them into one of the most dangerous jobs possible, working upon the railroad. A great many African-American men died working to build this railroad, and many have been content to ignore their story for the sake of Governor Vance’s pride, and the pride of Asheville.
I have now interned at the Vance Birthplace for 29 hours for 3 weeks, and I can safely say that it is an enjoyable experience. The first few days I read threw the tour outline and Vance family information, and familiarized myself with the grounds, which includes the pioneer’s mansion, a tool shed, loom house, smoke house, corn crib, slave cabin, and spring house. I have also been greeting visitors, which has steadily become far less awkward. In the beginning I could barely manage to tell them the services that we offer, as speaking to and in front of humans is very, very, very frightening. Yet now I can smile with an easy manner and rattle off the services while barely getting tongue tied. Doing this I am becoming more and more aware of how important bringing in visitors is for the site, as their very livelihood relies upon visitation. This week I was also able to do inventory on the different books that were at the Birthplace, and decide whether or not each one belonged. Most had good reason to be there, while a few should never have entered the building. It was quite enjoyable, and I learned that most museums and historic sites have an inventory going on at all time, as the collections change with time and new pieces and information come about. I also got the distinct pleasure of handling artifacts in the main building, some chairs which belonged in the kitchen but were being moved and the small chest used for papers and the like owned by the Vance family, and seeing the attic, which was rather gross. The most important thing that I learned, is that artifacts must be held like babies with paper skin and peppermint bones, that is to say very carefully.
In this weeks readings we have been shown how many museums in the United States have begun, and further how these museums have changed to be what they are today. Many of the museums in the United States were began by those with one: enough money to purchase original pieces of property and artifacts, and two: the classical education that enabled them to know the past and see why it must be preserved. That is to say these early patrons of public history were coming from a position of power. These early museums became a place where those with the power could further control the narrative of the past, and then present it to the public. During my internship I have learned that the Vance Birthplace was begun in a similar fashion, as a testament to the “greatness” of Governor Vance and his family, brought about by those that loved and respected him and his story. The site was a veritable shine to him and his family, and it had little interest is giving a full depiction of his life or life in the late 1700s to early 1800s. That is beginning to change at the Vance Birthplace, as most of the historians there are more interested in life at the time, rather than the history of Vance and his family. I believe in some ways this is related to the much larger change from great man history in U.S. education, as it focuses less on individuals of “importance” and more upon the culture of the past, and how normal people lived their lives.
I interned at the Vance Birthplace Thursday from 10:00 to 2:00 and Saturday from 11:00 to 4:00. The environment is a relaxed one, and my primary job so far has been to familiarize myself with the site, read some information on giving tours and interpretation, and man the front desk to greet visitors. While this may seem strange for one who has lived most of their life in Madison County, I knew little of Zeb Vance. So I did not get to experience, as many people have, the distinct sorrow and anger of learning he was no moral hero of the age, but simply another corrupt politician willing to send hundreds of African-Americans to their deaths, albeit a talented one. That is one of the reasons I have been able to enjoy learning the ins and outs of Vance’s time as governor and early life, I had very few preconceptions. Preconceptions, I find, are one of the scholar’s greatest foes, regardless of discipline, as they can lead one to ruin while they believe themselves on the path to enlightenment. The information that I have been reading focuses a great deal upon the interaction between the scholars at a historic site, and its visitors. There is of course a practical purpose to it, as it prepares an employee or intern to deal with the public, but there is also a metaphysical side to it that makes one think about the different ways in which we as humans interact with one another on a subconscious level, and how that subconscious interaction affects the information that they share. Thinking so much about how the historic interpreter must accommodate visitors, maked me nostalgic for a time when visitors were of secondary importance at museums, which makes me much like the rest of the world, looking backward to a time I never experienced. As a historian, such feelings should make me feel ashamed. Greetings are terrifying, plain and simple, but I am already getting accustomed to them. Earlier today, I greeted a man and wife, who were both excited to be at the Vance Birthplace. The man claimed descent from Vance, and has been in the process of trying to prove or disprove this descent from Governor Vance. He seemed quite proud of his lineage, and the couple was ready to do the guided tour of the main building once they had looked through the exhibit and out buildings in the self-guided tour. After looking through the exhibit the “descendent” seemed rather unhappy, and left rasping “Jesus Christ!” under his breath. The couple did not stay for the guided tour of the main house. I believe that he had bought the heroic tales of Governor Vance, Champion of the Union and North Carolina, destroyer of slavery and racial injustice, and forgot that Vance was another human, drowning in the darkness of his own soul as most humans do. Kimberly Floyd, the site manager and my mentor, is a phenomenal individual. She is able to make the internship experience into one that is far less frightening than it would be for someone of my demeanor, and has enough experience in the field to offer good advice for my concerns. She has a Bachelor’s in History, and a Master degree in Public History and Museum Studies, and has worked at the Mordecai Historic Park, Stagville Historic Site, and a few others.