By: Lindsay Smith, Melissa Young, and Rachel K. Deale, History PhD students, and Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow
On April 13, 2015, two exhibitions dedicated to Confederate imprints will open at the University of Alabama. Lindsay Smith and Melissa Farah Young curated Making Confederates: Building Nationalism through Print in the Williams Collection on the third floor of Gorgas Library. Rachel K. Deale curated When this Cruel War is Over: Sheet Music of the Confederacy, located in the lobby of the W.S. Hoole Library on the second floor of Mary Harmon Bryant Hall.
For those interested in engaging with these shows online, you can tweet about them by using the hashtags #makingconfederates or #thiscruelwar, cite special collections at the University of Alabama with @coolathoole, or write directly to Melissa at @mfarahyoung or Rachel @kdeale.
To share more about the curators, Rachel, Lindsay, and Melissa are all PhD students in History at the University of Alabama. Lindsay has just taken her doctoral exams and is preparing to write her dissertation, Melissa has completed her first year in the program, and Rachel is writing her dissertation, “Creating War: The Southern Seizure of Federal Property from November 1860 to April 1860.”
Conducting this interview is Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in the Division of Special Collections. Amy, who is in charge of exhibitions, instruction, and social media for UA’s Special Collections, initiated the development of these shows and mentored the students as they developed their projects into Making Confederates and When this Cruel War is Over. The students also worked with rare book cataloger Jennifer Cabanero and Nancy Dupree, curator of the Williams Collection, who both shared their extensive subject expertise with Rachel, Lindsay, and Melissa.
This interview will be conducted as a series of questions posed to Rachel, Lindsay, and Melissa. All three curators will have the chance to respond to each question. The interview will be published serially due to length. Check back each day this week to read all five installments.
Amy: Thank you for speaking with me today. I’m looking forward to discussing how the process of curating your two shows went and what you learned from the experience. Let’s begin.
What background did you have working with special collections before you started this project?
Rachel: During my first year of graduate school, I worked as an archival assistant at the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection. I began working at the Collection before it was open to the public. While there I helped unpack, organize, and shelve the collection. I also assisted with accessioning the materials and helped create several exhibits to advertise the collection. When the Williams Collection opened on November 9, 2010, I worked the front desk and assisted patrons with their research. I have also done extensive research at numerous archives and special collections such as the Library of Congress, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the Texas State Archives, and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Lindsay: I’ve only experienced special collections as a researcher. It’s quite a different way of interacting with the material. As a researcher, I tend to come to the archives with a particular idea of what I am looking for and my time is so limited that I’ve never really gotten to appreciate the depth and breadth what special collections can contain.
Melissa: As a master’s student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I became very interested in public history. Through one of my professors, I obtained an internship at the Cullman County Museum during the summer of 2012. Although the museum does not contain a special collection per se, it does stock numerous artifacts and photographs that document Cullman’s history. Because I was assigned to record and photograph many of the things that had been stored in the museum’s basement for years, I examined and catalogued several items dating from the late nineteenth century to the present. The experience definitely left a distinct mark upon me. Personal letters, family Bibles, old newspapers, pictures of fraternal organizations—everything had a story! From that point on, I knew I wanted to investigate the history associated with similar types of objects.
When I began this project in December of 2014, I had only been at UA in Tuscaloosa for about five months. Since the initial coursework for my PhD was demanding, I had not had the chance to examine any items in the Hoole or Williams Collections. Since part of what drew me to the University of Alabama was its archives, I was thrilled at the opportunity to work with material contained in them!
How did the topic of your exhibition supplement the research you are conducting as a doctoral student in the history department?
Rachel: My exhibition topic is very different from my dissertation, which analyzes the southern seizure of federal forts, customs houses, arsenals, post offices, and courthouses before the firing on Fort Sumter and the implications it had for the origins of the Civil War. Because my dissertation focuses on November 1860 to April 1861 most of the music included in my exhibit has very little to do with my current research. Nevertheless, examining the Confederate sheet music has strengthened my understanding of how southerners coped with the horrors of war. My research also allowed me to find music written about the secession movement that is very useful for my dissertation.
Lindsay: I find nationalism, particularly Confederate nationalism, absolutely fascinating and have done several projects on it. In fact, I worked with some of this materials a few years ago as I was working on a paper which examined themes of nationalism within the Confederate medical literature. Hopefully we will see that paper turned into a published article in the near future.
Melissa: My work deconstructs the language of Union soldiers stationed in the South. It demonstrates how words were used to produce and perform nineteenth-century gender constructions that allowed northern men to maintain power in occupied cities. Breaking down the language used to formulate and support nationalism in the Confederacy was not so different. Because of my concentration in the U.S. South during my master’s degree, I was familiar with the various texts used to generate southern nationalism, especially textbooks, literature, journals, and novels. Since I have a master’s degree in both English and History, I am particularly interested in how metaphors, word choice, and tone can shape messages and inform identity. My partner Lindsay and I were both drawn to items that told stories. Southern people were essentially trying to form their new nation through a particular type of language. Whether or not they succeeded is the subject of other investigations.