Unrepentant history nerd and karaoke diva.

I currently serve as the digital media coordinator & program assistant for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, where I wrangle bloggers and tackle our social media platforms; and as a museum assistant at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Philadelphia. I'm the proud holder of a masters degree in public history.

Some projects I've worked on: an oral history database using StoriesMatter for the Salem County Historical Society, a collection of data on school group attendance for the education department at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the digitization of the Balch Institute Ethnic Images in Advertising Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I also volunteer at the Alice Paul Institute in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.

I travel when possible and attend Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concerts when possible. Plays and musicals are good fun.

In my spare time I am often silly and irreverent.


Uncle Jimmy

A warning:  This is not about a museum or public history, but it is about memory.

I know as we age, we have to say goodbye to people in our lives.  Sometimes too soon, sometimes after years and years and years.  It is never enough time.  image

My mother’s brothers are all so different from each other.  You know in some families how the sons or daughters are almost indistinguishable from one another, either in looks or personality (or both)?  That just isn’t the case with these guys.  Uncle Mike (center above) is the one who’d grumble and say things like, “You ate yesterday didn’t you?  What do you think, we gotta feed you again today?”  He isn’t always reachable; the veneer of grouch often put him outside of easy conversation for me in my youth.  Uncle Bob (on the right) is the grinner, the good-time guy, the joker.  You can share a couple laughs with Bobby, and he may or may not shove you in the closest lake.  One time I know I deserved it.  What else can you expect when he asks, “Who’s your favorite uncle?” and you quip, “Out of all my uncles here, you are definitely my favorite.”  And yes, he was the only one there.  

I speak of these men with affection, I assure you.  There is a strength in all of my uncles that cannot be denied, and a love for family that is relentless, if not quiet and sometimes snarky.

Uncle Jimmy, the youngest of my mother’s brothers was the musician and oft-time philosopher.  When I was a young girl, he was shrouded in a bit of mystery for me.  He’d breeze into a family reunion with his guitar and crazy long hair and the world would shift.    Things just wouldn’t be the same once Uncle Jim hit my hometown.  The easy smile, the good-natured jests, the mumbling (always the mumbling!) and music, music, music.


As a girl, I’d sing around the bonfire with my family as my Uncle Jimmy picked out songs on his guitar.  When my cousin Todd was married, we performed together.  That was rad because he was a real musician.  When you love it, you feel it, and help other people feel it too.  He did, so we did.

As I grew older, my Uncle Jimmy and I had a few heated political discussions. I hope those conversations were taken in stride.  I have those drag-out arguments with people I care about, with the people who matter.  We’d disagree and tell one another we were wrong.  He questioned my devotion to history, because history has “an agenda.”  I always agreed only to counter that we all have an agenda.  

He tried you see.  He grew as a person, he learned new things and tried to keep an open mind and heart to the world and people around him.  This is no small or easy task.  Heck, just a few weeks ago we discussed the pros and cons of a Couch to 5K app.  He stuck with the stationary bike I believe. 


My world shifted again today, went sidewise.  My Uncle Jimmy is gone. 

 I’m finding that we all have our own memories of Jim Simmons.  The husband, the father, the brother and grandfather.  The uncle who played music, the uncle who went fishing, the uncle who rocked a Hawaiian shirt like nobody’s business.  The uncle who said life was short, eat more desserts.  The uncle who had faith that everything would work out for the best.  


The uncle who left an uncle-shaped hole in my life this morning.  But I’ll tell you something, that hole—as raw and as angry and as sad as it is that there is no longer an Uncle Jimmy to fill it—is not empty.  It is filled with quirky smiles, mumbling encouragement to always be myself, a guitar and music, music music.


National Music Instrument Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.  

If you find yourself in Vermillion, South Dakota, do yourself a favor and head to the National Music Instrument Museum.  Housed in a converted Carnegie Library, the museum galleries contain some of the most amazing pieces ever.  Challenge yourself to find every Gibson-crafted instrument on display, and you could be there a while. 

My favorites are:

-the string instrument that started its life as a bass before being cut down into a ‘cello.  See the painting on the back?  If you look closely you’ll notice that Justice doesn’t have a waist or left arm.  The scales are floating in space.

-the Stradivari mandolin, because I had no idea that he made anything other than violins, violas, and cellos.

- a barrel cello made by a South Dakotan in the 1950s.  Because barrel. cello.

- and, this tiny but hefty chest organ.  You needed two people to make this instrument work, one to work the bellows (handles on top), and one to play the keys (on the reverse side).  The little white straps are the stops.  

The first image is from the least “museum-y” gallery.  In this space they resorted to the “put it all on the walls and number it” school of exhibition design that seems to plague a lot of ethnic music exhibits.  

Make sure you get the audio guide, it was top notch with images, video, sound samples and solid interpretation.  It is included in the admission price. 

$10 for adults.  More info here: http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/location.html

NPS Launches LGBT Sites Initiative | M A R C H


Look, the compartmentalization of history is a drag (stick with me).  Women’s history, Latino-American history, children’s history, so on and so forth, it gets old and really depressing to have to highlight different parts of American history.  I mean, can’t we just tell the whole history?  Why do we have women’s history?  Because women were marginalized in the larger narrative.  Why do we have African-American (or black, if you prefer) history?  Because African-Americans and black Americans were and are regularly whitewashed out of American history.  And so on and so forth.

The National Park Service isn’t telling Americans, “Hey guys!  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people suddenly exist!”  It is telling Americans that these people have been around forever and have lasting importance to the national narrative.  We’ve been squeamish and childish and ignored them for far too long.

Do your due diligence NPS.  Thousands of us are waiting.

Call for bloggers: Join the MARCH Team! | M A R C H

You can get paid (modestly) to blog about public humanities in the Mid-Atlantic Region (DC, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York).  Deadline for submitting your proposal is April 30th.  

Call for bloggers: Join the MARCH Team! | M A R C H

These are (modestly) paid positions! 

Highly desired are blogs on the following themes: Mid-Atlantic books; training and staff development; digital humanities; graduate student/young professional perspective; and meeting the needs of changing audiences for public humanities.  Other topics will be considered.  Ideal candidates have demonstrable expertise in their proposed topics and  commit to posting at least once per month (12), for a modest honorarium.  The scope of coverage for all blogs will be the region encompassing New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. 


The politics of history

Today the Public History Commons published a piece by Angela Sirna, a PhD candidate at Middle Tennessee State University and the Public Historian in Residence at Catoctin Mountain Park, called The “new normal”: Is there one?  In it, Sirna talks about a subject that weighs heavily on the mind of every young (and not so young) public historian: EMPLOYMENT.  

Sirna sat on a panel at the recent National Council for Public History conference at Monterey, California, that focused on the recent sequestration and budget woes in the public history world. 

My first thought was, “This resonates with me on a personal level!”  I’m a recent public history grad, and though I hold down two satisfying part-time positions, I’d really like something a bit more secure.

My second thought was to just share that story on “the Twitter.”  I know a fair number of similarly employed and semi-employed and unemployed public historians/humanists and it seemed a good way to open up a discussion about what it means to be in the field.  Have a sample from about halfway through: 

The participants noted a new, somewhat defensive ethos among their colleagues. A Navy historian said his team is committed to working harder to show that they are not overpaid government workers, which is challenging since their work is not visible to the public. Others agreed that the shut down affected morale, with some employees being deemed “essential” workers while others were “nonessential.” The term “public servant” itself seems to be under attack. One participant noted a recent National Archives program that let children have a “Sleepover with the Constitution,” but the agency received pushback from people angry about this use of their tax dollars. This was just another reminder that doing history within and for these agencies is highly political. 

An archivist/historian friend also Tweeted the link with the comment: Public history and peeps, why is doing so political?  

My response: historical narrative/s is/are always political. Who is “in charge” of history? Who wants to be? For what purpose?

Her response: Well may be written by victor but it’s not cool to discard the public’s history for current political gain no?

My response: That’s my point. History is politicized by all parties. Government, the public, institutions etc. Who’s narrative? Why?


Check out the exhibit by in Philly for an example of bringing multiple narratives together.  

[As an aside, you really should check out the Philadelphia Public History Truck.]

Her response: Talk politicized gov’t and institutions might record in but public acknowledgment is now the ultimate goal

It was at this point that I realized there was no way we could have this discussion on Twitter.  NO WAY.  Both of us simply have too many words inside of us for the limitations of Twitter, and besides, the ideas we are talking about and around are complex enough to warrant a few more characters.  

What do I mean when i say that all history is political?  I don’t just mean that politicians and other people in power use history to serve their ultimate goals.  I mean that, 1. other groups use history to subvert the politicized monolithic history to create space for themselves in the larger narrative; 2. groups use their understanding of history to advocate for political change or services; 3. no group is monolithic and there will always be contests over voice and narrative/winners and losers in the telling of the group’s history.  

This causes head scratching for some folks (not my friend, she gets it, I just couldn’t get it across over Twitter).  How can each of these groups and sometimes even individuals all proclaim to have the right history? 

This leads us down a slippery slope.  What is history?  Is it a recitation of dates, names, locations and events or is it the act of teasing out an understanding of the dates, names, locations and events within a larger context of other dates, names, locations and events (not to mention cultures, genders, religions, ages, social standing etc etc)? 

I really hope you chose the second option. 

So history is about understanding what happened, why it happened, how different people understood what happened (and why), and one could argue, how this understanding can help inform the present and future. 

Then the notion of a “right” history is a lot harder to come by.  I mean, if you go to a bunch of archives populated with the records of leaders you’re going to get a different story than if you solicit oral histories from the people outside of leadership positions.  Who’s understanding do we value?  Who’d recollections are more real?  More valid?  

Public history is not apolitical.  It demands that the public (a tricky notion too) can and should contribute to our understanding of history.  It values academic history, true, but it doesn’t stop there.  It can’t stop there.  

But every negotiation of history, every deposit into an archive, every exhibition and public program is a choice.  What do we save?  What do we put on display and what will the text panel say?  What group will we serve with this program?  

What don’t we save?  What stays in storage (or is tossed)? What text is cut? What group will be served by the next program?

Every choice is political.  It isn’t just about US building a history that the PUBLIC acknowledges and accepts.  It is about welcoming them into the discussion and realizing it is messy and painful and decidedly un-monolithic.  

A Virtual Tour of the Now-Closed Liberace Museum in Las Vegas – Flavorwire

The Liberace Museum needs to reopen so I can ogle those costumes and instruments.  The sequins!  The feathers!  

Beware Social Nostalgia (NYT OpEd)

"There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognizing and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain."  

—Stephanie Coontz

Long story short?  Be a historian.  

PubComm13, or How I Learned to Love Camden

On April 26, 2013, graduate students and professionals in the public humanities participated in the third annual Public History Community Forum—PubComm13.  This year’s event was held at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey in the Cooper Street Library in Johnson Park.  Participants toured historic Cooper Street before the lunchtime keynote address.  A series of roundtable discussions and a large group Q&A closed the day.

More public history please

Hail to the Humanities

"Why are the humanities deemed useless? I have taken courses in English, art history and women’s and gender studies, and I found that these demanded more of me than my other, more “practical” classes. Humanities develops the skill sets necessary for success beyond Dartmouth. I learned to observe, analyze, think critically and write. Each of these skills allows one to develop into an effective and productive worker and prepares one for real-world tasks.

In fact, humanities prepare students for an additional requirement of the work force: creativity. Success in any field requires ingenuity and originality of thought. Humanities courses prepare students to assess existing arguments and push theirs one step further. Students develop the natural curiosity necessary to ask the right questions as well as the analytical and creative skills required to solve them.”

This piece was written by Katie Mc Kay, a first-year student at Dartmouth.