Meghan Sylvester is a second year graduate student in the Public History program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The program typically focuses on community history, museum studies, historic preservation, and digital history tools. It also requires a summer internship course in which students are eligible for funding.
I spent my summer escaping Louisiana’s heat by interning for the National Park Service in Rhode Island. The Black Stone River Valley National Corridor is known for being the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. It was along the Black Stone River that Samuel Slater built his first textile mill in 1793. The river runs from Worcester, MA to Providence, RI and has fueled hundreds of mills with hydroelectric power.
History Along the Blackstone:
Upon arriving in Rhode Island, the first thing I did was tour the corridor. The goal was to grasp a basic understanding of the industrial landscape. The mill industry in Rhode Island and Massachusetts had a unique aspect to it—Mill Villages. Slater was the first to develop these villages that gave people a place to live as well as work. Each village contained a mill, a number of multifamily homes, a church, mill store—where the employees could purchase basic essentials—and a baseball field or some type of recreational activity. The recreation aspect was very crucial to the system. Whole families would work within the mill. Their hours were long and work was tedious, therefore having some form of recreational activity was essential to keeping up morale. However, it served another purpose as well. American immigrants flocked to these mill villages, and the recreational sports allowed the different cultures to mesh into one community, which resulted into good teamwork within the workplace.
Time To Get To Work:
I split my time between two museums in Rhode Island: The Museum of Work and Culture (MOWC) and Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum.
MOWC is located in Woonsocket, RI and focuses on the French Canadian immigrants that worked in the mills of Woonsocket. Similar to Lafayette, LA, Woonsocket has a rich French speaking heritage that has slowly diminished over the years. MOWC works to preserve that heritage. Currently, the museum is in the process of developing a new exhibit that features an interactive digital table, which would allow visitors to view a map of the city and search specific mills that operated there, and they are organizing a community project to create a digital memorial/memory bank for the town and its mill workers by asking members of the community to register their relatives, friends, or neighbors that worked for a Woonsocket mill.
Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket, RI
MOWC's new exhibit
My work for the museum consisted of doing preliminary research for the exhibit and memorial. Before either can be created, they needed to know a brief history of each Woonsocket mill—between the late 1890s to the mid-20th century there were over 90 mills in Woonsocket alone. But, I also had the opportunity to sit in on meetings and discuss the future of this exhibit/memorial.
The biggest question that always arose was: Who is the audience? This is a common question for the public historian. Understanding your audience is essential for telling your story. When creating a new exhibit, you wouldn’t want to create content for a mature audience if the primary viewers will be children. The field of museum studies has moved steadily into a direction that is no longer focused on the objects but how the audience receives the objects.
The MOWC has a lot of foreign visitors, often coming from French Canada. However, the museum itself has a very local dynamic. Woonsocket is not a big city, and the local community is extremely proud of their museum, but many are not frequent visitors. Therefore, it is easy to see where their audience dilemma comes from. Between the local and international aspect, where should the public historian fit? Sara Carr, the head of education at the museum, feels that their primary audience should remain local. The museum worked with the state in setting up a system in which every sixth grader in Rhode Island visits the museum during the school year. Carr was once one of those six graders, and she remembers her trip to MOCW vividly. The story that the museum tells is a big one, but it’s also a local one, and if they lost that aspect, they would lose their story. The new exhibit will need to feature aspects that keep the local audience returning. In many ways, public history acts as the facilitator between the community and its history. Therefore, the best way to have a recurring local audience is to get them involved.
Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum is located in Warwick, RI. It is ran by Anne Holst, a direct descendant of John Slater—the brother of Samuel Slater. Holst lived in the house all of her life. It was built in the 1870’s as a summer home for the Slater family as it resides on Greenwich Bay. Over the years, the house passed through the women of the family, which ultimately helped preserve the home, and it is often debated to be the most “complete” Victorian home in America as it has most of its original furniture and wall furnishings.
I worked on collection management for Clouds Hill. I had just completed a course on developing collections management skills with three hands-on projects before leaving for my internship, and I’m so thankful because the course prepared me for the hours I spent accessioning and processing their collection.
The museum is still in the process of restoring the house—this takes a while because it takes a lot of money—but one of the things the museum would like to do is establish an archive for researches to have easy access to, which is essential to the public historian as she serves as the median between the public and the past. Before I arrived, the museum kept finding boxes on boxes of old documents, photographs, maps—all the archival goodies.
Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum
These are a few of the Collection Management skills I needed for the task:
• Planning and Acquisition
• Accessioning and Arranging
• Treatment and Conservation
• Preservation and Digitization
Working within a historic house museum was probably the most intriguing part of the summer. The backbone of a house museum is different from a general history museum because the museum becomes more than its collection. The entire space is the exhibit. From the gardens to the clock on the mantle to the smell of the place—the visitor experiences it all probably without even realizing.
Because the owners of the museum still live in the house, there are often times when one person could be giving a tour while someone else is cooking lunch in the kitchen. The visitors getting to experience the smells coming from the kitchen always insist the food smells compliment the experience as it helps the home feel “lived in” versus something that is on display. This is one of the many ways practicing public history creates a space in which the past feels alive.
What Did My Internship Teach Me?
I learned a lot this summer about Public History and the skills it takes to be a public historian. Being a public historian is all about working within a community—involving them and listening to them. You become a civil servant, in a sense. Therefore, I feel like the most important skill for the public historian is being about to facilitate a dialogue.
This internship gave me a lot of real world experience, which I feel is the ultimate goal of our Public History internship program. I was able to master a lot of skills that I probably wouldn’t have had the time to do in a classroom alone, but I also got to develop connections with people from across the nation and truly step into the working world.