Two Historians Walk Into a Bar

Trudging through an early December snow storm in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, after a chilly ten-minute walk, Tyler and I finally spotted our destination:  the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. After visiting friends and colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg, we stopped in D.C. specifically to see the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, organized by curator Nora Atkinson.

Screenshot of Renwick Gallery Exhibition Info Page
Screenshot of Renwick Gallery Exhibition Info Page, accessed Dec. 17, 2017

What’s the story?

In the 1940s and 50s, Lee (1878-1962), considered one of the founders of forensic investigation, created these didactic dioramas (with a partner who did a lot of the carpentry) based on real crimes for the purposes of training budding police and crime investigators in Harvard’s now defunct department of Legal Medicine. In 1966, Harvard transferred the nutshells to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where they are still in use today for training purposes. These studies are, as Lee put it and as Atkinson explains in this video, about “finding truth in a nutshell.” This is not the first time these dioramas have been on display. See, for example, this 2008 exhibition at the National Library of Medicine, Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body.

Screen shot of nutshell study details from, accessed Dec. 17, 2017
Screen shot of nutshell study details from, accessed Dec. 17, 2017

I like dioramas, I study medical history, and I learned about how New Castle County, DE, police get trained to investigate crime scenes when I participated in their citizen’s police academy a few years ago. I wanted to know more about the history of all this.  But upon feeling the warm air on our faces as we walked up the stairs and edged toward the gallery at left, I stopped. All I could hear was the din of what I presumed to be a group that had rented the galleries for a private event.  Museums make a lot of money from space rentals and I do not begrudge them this income stream. Still, a disappointment. Would we be unable to see the nutshell studies after all?

As my eyes adjusted to the dim gallery lighting, I quickly realized that we did not catch the Renwick at a bad time. We caught the Renwick at a good time. The noise, which sounded like the soundtrack of a popular bar, was, in fact, emanating from the exhibition visitors. Tyler and I observed in awe as one group of strangers exchanged theories and practiced a whole lot of close looking at the supposedly best known nutshell study that depicts an entire home and multiple “unexplained” deaths. The crowd did not clear while we were there, and so we never got to look at this particular nutshell (see below).

A group of strangers at the Renwick Gallery puzzling out one of Lee's forensic "nutshell" studies, Dec. 9, 2017
A group of strangers at the Renwick Gallery puzzling out one of Lee’s forensic “nutshell” studies, Dec. 9, 2017

“This is what museums and public history should be about,” I murmured to Tyler, also a museum person. “But how often do you actually see this happening? Discussion, laughter, awe, wonder, questioning.” Tyler nodded and took a few surreptitious photos and a short video (for teaching purposes!).

This experience increased my expectations for public historians. We need to create similarly thought-provoking  exhibitions and programming, even when we are not beginning with what we might argue to be inherently extraordinary material culture (you know, mummies, diamonds, airplanes, miniature recreations of murder scenes, and the like). Not sometimes. Every time.

This experience also got me to rethink how I talk to my students about museum etiquette. If you had asked me how to behave in a museum prior to going to this exhibition, I would have noted that talking is OK but that it should be kept to a minimum. Indeed, I have instructed my students to behave this way in my “history behind the scenes” course when they are in traditional gallery-style museums. That’s what I learned growing up frequenting museums and historic sites, and I think that is still a widely held expectation among visitors.

But does it always need to be that way?

Of course not, but it took this visit to the Renwick for me to come to that realization. Many of us in the field are rethinking the way we engage with the public in history settings. I could cite a lot of folks here, but I’ll only note Vagnone’s and Ryan’s Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016) even though they use house museums as opposed to traditional galleries as a case study. In short, they argue, we need to make historic house museums “more relatable” (pg 39).

What is our role in facilitating this?

As our experience at the Renwick shows and as Steven Lubar noted in his new book Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present (Harvard, 2017), “Museums are more than just places with things: they are places with things and people, that is, social spaces” (pg. 157). We need to keep this in mind when we curate exhibitions, design public programming, advocate for our field’s relevancy, and instruct our students in museum etiquette. You will know we have been successful if the next time you go to an exhibition or public history event, you, too, think that you have walked into a bar.

For more on the exhibition see, for example this article published by Harvard Medical School.

You can also learn more from this Smithsonian podcast with the curator.

Do you like documentaries? Check out this 2011 film, Of Dolls and Murder, which is about the Nutshells.

If you want to learn more about some contemporaneous dioramas, see the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For those of you interested in the history of forensic science, see the online version of the 2008 U.S. National Library of Medicine Exhibition Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body.

And finally, if you want to know more about the history of “hobbies,” Steven M. Gelber’s 1999 book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, is a good place to start.

Teaching Paleography and the Canton Trade System

When I decided to include a one-day workshop (1.5 hours) on paleography (the fancy word for the study of handwriting) in my World History II survey last summer, I thought my students might never make it through the session (not for lack of smarts but lack of interest – this was, after all, a survey course many students take to fulfill general education requirements). The handwriting is impossible to read, they would say. Why are we doing this, they would ask, explaining that they had never learned how to write in cursive in the first place. (To my surprise, it turned out that most had learned cursive in school, making me wonder to what extent it might be a myth that students don’t learn how to write in cursive anymore). With another group of students, this very well could have happened. But in this instance, it seemed to work. Here’s how.

Kip Sperry's Early American Handwriting (1998)
Kip Sperry’s Early American Handwriting (1998)

I wanted my students to get some experience reading historic handwriting. I also wanted them to learn some content associated with the course. Before holding the workshop during one of our regularly scheduled classes, I asked the students to take a look at three examples of historic handwriting in Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (1998).

I chose one from the late nineteenth century, the early nineteenth century, and the mid-eighteenth century. Each sample comes with a transcription, and I tasked the students with simply giving it a try. (This was one of just a few optional reading assignments for the semester). Those who completed it genuinely seemed to get something out of it. One student noted it took them one go to get the words and a second to get the content. They quickly learned the tricks seasoned historians use when they encounter a new hand: matching known letters to similar unknown letters, reading and rereading to get accustomed to comprehending the hand and the syntax, and reading aloud to get the meaning. Armed with this experience, I thought they’d be primed for the workshop.

Silk samples associated with a bill of lading signed by John Latimer, 60x27, Col. 235, Downs Collections of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
Silk samples associated with a bill of lading signed by John Latimer, 60×27, Col. 235, Downs Collections of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

When they arrived the day of the workshop, I gave them a brief lecture on the so-called Canton Trade System, or the vibrant and sometimes contentious trade between China and the West  from about 1750-1840.

Detail of the letter my students transcribed from John Latimer, Sept. 1819, 60x1.9, Col. 235, Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
Detail of the letter my students transcribed from John Latimer, Sept. 1819, 60×1.9, Col. 235, Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

We talked about the exchange of silk and spices, silver and lacquered furniture, opium (which ultimately led to the end of the Canton trade, a subject we broached in a later class), and tea. I even brought in some nineteenth-century Canton porcelain from my own collection to make this all a little more concrete.

Then, I gave them ample time to transcribe a letter (in groups) written by Delaware merchant John Latimer (1793-1865) (always helps to make local connections) to a business associate about trading specific commodities in Canton. I had the students take a look at a scanned version of the letter on large-sized computer screens with zoom capability in a lab on campus.

What better way to learn about the Canton Trade System than to transcribe an early 19th-century document about shipping opium, cochineal, porcelain, and quicksilver? That's what these students did in my World History II course.

The letter, which I had identified after spending a glorious day trolling the Downs collection at the Winterthur Library and which had been scanned by a Winterthur librarian, was a hit. The students made it through nearly every word, struggling almost exclusively with the most arcane words (such as supercargo, or the person who served as the the ship’s owner’s representative) and syntax. They really gained an appreciation for the intricacies of what trade involved in the early nineteenth century–from how merchants communicated (lots of hand-written letters, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate) to what merchants had to know about preferences for certain commodities to deciding whether to trade with cash or goods.

And while they learned from the letter itself about trade and globalization (a major course theme), the letter also spurred additional questions–many more than did the average lecture-discussion. How did English-speaking Americans communicate with the Chinese, they wondered. Why was insurance such a concern? And what remains the same today about trade with China and other countries around the world? Learning through doing definitely seemed to inspire deeper thinking.

I didn’t know whether this workshop would work in the end, but I’m glad I took the risk. Despite their initial trepidation, I think the students enjoyed it too. And the next time they encounter old-fashioned manuscript writing (whether it’s that of their bosses or that of a historic diary), hopefully they’ll recall some of the skills they learned that day…and why an insect called cochineal was so valuable.


The Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library has several collections related to the Canton System. I’d like to extend special thanks to Jeanne Solensky for assisting me with identification of these collections and for scanning  a handful of documents for the class. In addition to the Latimer Family Collection, see also Fol 153, an 1804 sea journal that provides insight into how to deal with specific Chinese merchants. For other examples, search “China trade” in WinterCat.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) partnered to make an excellent online learning module called the Rise & Fall of the Canton Trade System. If I hadn’t done a paleography workshop addressing the CTS, I would have assigned parts of this website for reading homework.

I used a lot of images from online museum collections for my entire course. For this particular class, I found collections at the Peabody Essex Museum and London’s National Maritime Museum to be most helpful.

A New Blog

Krimmel, Woman pressing and folding laundry, Downs Collection
John Lewis Krimmel, “Woman pressing and folding laundry,” 1819-1820, Winterthur Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, 59×5.5

I have been blogging about antiques and material culture since 2010, about a year after I graduated from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. I’ve found that blogging is a fun way to reflect on my adventures at flea markets and antique malls while providing readers–most of whom seem to come from the general public, though I have been cited in a published book about Italian interiors(!)–with an accessible scholarly perspective on what I observe and buy. My readers seem to dig it too. I’ve received emails from collectors asking me for my expertise on Berlin work, and I’ve received notes from people researching their ancestors who owned some of the objects I have acquired.

In addition to writing about antiquing, I have also written guest blog posts for the History of American Civilization Blog (my Ph.D. program’s blog), the University of Delaware Museum Studies blog, and the Disability and Industrial Society Blog on a variety of subjects raining from giving mini “TED” talks to cataloguing the contents of a “period room” decoy shop to how collecting disability history artifacts has advanced my research. Through these pieces, I have connected with the disability history field in Great Britain, for instance, a group of scholars from whom I have learned a lot.

I want to continue to pursue this line of blogging. So this new blog, housed on my academic website or e-portfolio, is meant to provide me with a more regular outlet for publishing my thoughts on the field (history) and what I do (teach, research, write, present, and visit museums and other culture heritage sites). I’ll still maintain the antiquing blog, of course. I simply didn’t want to clutter it with topics too far afield from Revolutionary War battle relics and why I didn’t buy a giant papier-mâché boar. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that antiquing is tangental to my scholarly work. In fact, it’s a fundamental part of how I learn about the material world I study.

So all that aside, I’d like to introduce myself to you via a John Lewis Krimmel sketch of a woman attending to her laundry around 1820. Kathleen Brown included it in her recent book Foul Bodies. There, she discusses the concept of “body work” as a central theme in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American culture. I agree that the image, focusing on the labor involved in cleaning textiles the body used, very much reflects this idea. It also reminds me a bit of my own workflow – something going on in every corner, all the time. I look forward to sharing some of that with you.

Further Reading

John Lewis Krimmel’s sketches and drawings at Winterthur are digitized here.

You can also read more about his work in Anneliese Harding’s John Lewis Krimmel: Genre Artist of the Early Republic (1994).

If you are interested in the history of the body, cleanliness, and illness in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, check out Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (2009).