Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh is a consortium of local museums, galleries and archives working together to share information and expertise, and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement.

Here, at the HAA Constellations blog, you can read about some of the outcomes of these partnerships. Learn more about Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh at


Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Working on the Graphotype dog tag machine.


    Connecting the Past and Present at Soldiers and Sailors

    Museum Studies Intern at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum - Fall 2017

    At Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum almost everything is connected, which giving tours showed. Many days for me would start on the World War II Era Graphotype dog machine creating dog tags for different occasions like those tours or to honor veterans. The tours are the key piece that connects everything together with each one beginning with giving the students their custom dog tag that I made along with a certain role such as Squad Commander or Scout. After they have their roles and supplies they go out and have to find specific displays and describe them to get a feel for the museum right before they are taken on their tour. The tours also give us the opportunity to help the students connect with the stories of the past and hopefully gain more interest from them.

    The tour is broken down into three different sections and the part I gave was in the hallway that contains mostly World War II displays with the end being display cases for the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts. I focused on World War II since that was the subject the students were learning. After going through the hallway, I ended the tour in the museum’s Hall of Valor that honors veterans from Pennsylvania who received the highest honors possible like the Medal of Honor. I treated the tour as more of a conversation with the students and asked questions rather than just lecturing them hoping they would ask me questions as well. Some kids did ask questions which some connected with the topic, but not about the displays themselves that allowed me to connect the tour to other inventory that is not on display and the work I did with PastPerfect.

    The PastPerfect software allows the institution to keep an inventory of all the different artifacts and pictures they have and much of my time was spent with it. When new objects come in they are put in a storage box and then more closely examined. I would then write descriptions for something like a Japanese grenade from World War II, and take its picture and add it into the system. This allows us to search for certain objects, like a decorated soldiers jacket, to have it ready to go on display or a traveling display like the one just put on during a Penguins game at PPG Paints Arena. The descriptions made me do research for some objects which gave me the ability to answer some questions from students during the tours.

    After finishing one of my tours, one student came to me to ask me more about the United Service Organization (USO) and soldiers' downtime. I had previously organized pictures and different travel pamphlets from two different soldiers while looking at new inventory and entering it into the computer. With the knowledge I gained from those I was able to tell the student about other types of entertainment and activities soldiers did during their free time on top of what the USO provided.

    A final part of the student's day at the museum is reading and writing letters like they are soldiers away at war. During this I had one of the younger students ask me how often soldiers would write letters. Since I also transcribed a journal from a WWI soldier I was able to answer his question based on the soldier’s writings. The tours I gave had a focus on telling the stories of the different wars and conflicts through personal stories behind the objects on display. At Soldiers and Sailors just about everything I did connected to something else I did, just as their goal of telling stories keeps visitors connected to the past each time they walk the halls.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene

    This is the facade that greets visitors at the start of the newest exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene


    We ARE Nature

    Museum Studies Intern at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    Not to sound dramatic, but this semester I was a part of history being made here in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History was the host of the 2017 ICOM NATHIST Conference, facilitated by a partnership of the museum and the International Council of Museums and Collections of Natural History and focused on the newest addition to the winding exhibition halls.

    The exhibit is on the Anthropocene, a new geological age now being discussed in the scientific community, marking the impact humans (and human activity) have had on the earth. We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene is the first exhibit of its kind in all of North America. Described as “unflinching”, it is an incredible, in-depth reflection of how we have impacted the environment in a myriad of ways.

    While the museum bustled with regular programming and preparation for the conference, I was aiding the marketing department to keep the usual public engagement accounts running, like Instagram, Facebook and the Tumblr blog. Across accounts, it was my job to generate content that was, to borrow a word, symbiotic with the events and related programming to not only the conference, but the centerpiece itself, We Are Nature. From planting vertical gardens to beginning a backyard compost, the readers of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog are armed with information to retrace their steps back to nature and continue to make Pittsburgh a greener city.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    • The Sick Child
    • Program for Death, Love and the Maiden
    The Sick Child

    1925 painting by Edvard Munch


    Death, Love, and the Maiden (and Me)

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Fall 2017

    I first read the title on an overcrowded spreadsheet, interesting, but no more so than Soup Tureens from the Campbell Museum, or America Underfoot: A History of Floor Coverings from Colonial Times to the Present. To me, it was just ‘EXH197502’, (no poster), one of 156 exhibits from 1969 till 2010. It only really caught my interest when I saw the program from an old file case in the Frick Fine Arts Reading Room. It was blue, crumpled, and featured a skeletal figure, cupid with a bow and arrow, and a sleeping woman. The program read, Death, Love and the Maiden with a conspicuous lack of an oxford comma. Grammar aside, it appealed to me.

    Most of my work this year, as an intern for the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery, has been useful if occasionally unglamorous. After I spent a month transferring the online exhibit Configuring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia from the Constellations website to the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery website, I spent most of my time digitizing old posters and programs. It was a lot of unrolling posters, rerolling them into tubes, and balancing them on the shuttle on the way to the University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center. Once there, I would unroll the posters, scan them one by one, and transfer the files onto a flash drive. Then I would reroll them into the tubes, balance them on the shuttle back to Hillman Library, where I would then crop and edit the files using Adobe Photoshop. After that I would crosscheck my spreadsheets, give them the proper file names, and upload them to the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery website.

    The work could become robotic, systematic, which was relaxing in some ways. It was an easy pattern I could fall into. The actual weight of what I was doing came in waves; I was holding something that might have been unseen for 40 years. These posters and programs are not just objects to be mindlessly catalogued. They are paper and cardboard objects yes, but they are also  primary sources, works of art unto themselves, and they are sometimes the last remaining artefacts of an exhibition.

    That wave of recognition came to me as I held the program for Death, Love and the Maiden in my hands. Outside of the usual research I did for my internship, I decided to investigate this particular show further. In my search, I came across a Pittsburgh Post Gazette article about the exhibition from May 21, 1975, entitled “Pitt Art Exhibit Views Women.”  The article describes the exhibition as “a modest multimedia exhibit” that is “not only inherently interesting, but does what scholarship should do: present information that deepens awareness of life and art.” The article identifies the Sick Child, a 1925 painting by Edvard Munch, as the centerpiece of the exhibit. It was the only painting exhibited and was lent to the University along with two prints of the same subject by the Munch Museum of Oslo.

    A little more research let me to an image of the painting itself. The painting is haunting; its use of bright colors stands in direct juxtaposition to its dark subject matter; an older woman sobbing next to a child’s sickbed. Clearly the image haunted Munch himself, who painted six different versions of the painting over the course of 40 years. Critics speculate that the girl in the paintings is Munch’s sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at 15.

    Confronted with this image, I am reminded of the closing words of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s article about Death, Love and the Maiden; “the exhibit will not be forgotten by those who study it carefully.” Forty-two years later, the statement still rings true. While working with historic objects, it is easy to become desensitized, to see them only as objects devoid of history. But every once in awhile, I come across something with a story, something that sticks to my bones, and I think of all the other people the object is still stuck with, the memories it helped create, and the effort that went into making it. Then I find myself in awe of the passage of time and the persistence of memory.

    See Madeline's work at the UAG here

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    Assorted jugs and juglets from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary sites being cataloged and organized for the use of visiting scholars.


    Small Museum, No Small Feat

    Museum Studies Intern at The Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology - Fall 2017

    The Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology is nestled in a corner of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s basement, boasting treasures from the Herodian palace in Jericho, remnants of the long dead cities of Bab-Ed-Drah and Tel Beit Mirsim, and countless everyday relics of lives once lived in what is presently considered Jordan. The Kelso is kept open and alive by curator emeritus Dr. Nancy Lapp, part-time head curator Jennifer Hipple, and a handful of diligent but tirelessly busy work-study students and volunteers. I never expected an easy internship, but the challenges a small, understaffed, underfunded museum grapples with on a regular basis left me at a loss, particularly after my hands-off experience interning with the Smithsonian last summer.

    My mission this semester has been to aid the new curator in two tasks: updating any and all texts in the museum, and rethinking the way visitors interact with the museum. Some seven drafts and three months later, the final wordings of the item labels are still facing final revisions, a testament both to the complexity of properly portraying the museum’s intended voice as well as to the detriment a lack of full-time staff imposes. Originally printed (and still displayed) on computer paper held in place by hat pins, almost 300 labels need reprinting and reformatting on a durable but thin material called polystyrene in order to better impress the archeological and scholarly authority of the museum upon the public. Though Jennifer is given only a couple thousand dollars a year to update and upkeep the Kelso, a significant portion of this year's budget has been allocated to professionalizing the wall texts and labels. Because such a variety of printing materials and inks are considered acidic and ‘gassing’ (or emitting gasses that can harm or alter artifacts), the large part of the budget is necessary to ensure the safety of the ancient and oftentimes priceless artifacts of which we are stewards. Smaller museums like the Kelso constantly find themselves forced into this type of compromise, unable to update educational materials for the sake of preservation, and sometimes even vice versa.

    The secondary task of improving visitor experience continues to come to fruition in simpler ways like making exhibits more visually accessible and cohesive, improving general accessibility for those with increased needs, or making explicit what visitors may and may not touch through (yet unprinted) signage. It was in these smaller, more obvious tasks that it became apparent how much more there was to learn in a small museum. Unlike a larger and better funded institution, the Kelso inadvertently offered me the opportunity to get my hands dirty in every type of job, mostly just because someone needed to do it but there are never enough hands nor enough time in the day to do half the things that need doing, particularly while still giving both public tours and private, more specialized talks.

    Though I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the Kelso and the family that comes with it come December, I’ll be sure to take my sweet time panting and wiping my brow between now and my next attempt at being a museum-variety jack of all trades.

    Learn more about the free-admission Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology in East Liberty here

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    Waiting for people to come and take the survey.


    Egypt on the Nile: The New Life of The Carnegie Boat

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    Finally, working in Walton Hall in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, my childhood dream has come true! I would be administering audience evaluations during my curatorial internship.  As I asked people to participate in my survey about the funerary boat I heard many interesting stories. Explaining the new ideas being proposed to show the boat in a different light really excited the people I was talking with, which in turn excited me even more about the exhibit. Talking about the boat’s 'lives' for the new exhibit is already bringing a new life into this forgotten treasure. 

    Walton Hall is on the third floor of the museum. Across the hall is the Alcoa Hall of American Indians. Walton Hall is a hidden gem, hiding on the 3rd floor. When you walk in you are immersed into the ancient world. Immediately to your right is the Carnegie Boat. Making your way through the exhibit you see objects from the reign of Senwosret III to the mysterious reign of Akhenaten, and further on. Of course, we have examples one of the most popular type of objects of any Egyptian exhibit, mummies! There are cat mummies, mummies that were sold under false pretenses, an actual ancient burial and of course some beautiful sarcophagi finish out the mummy area. A number of people told me about how much they loved the diorama of the temple craftsmen. I have to admit, I love them too. It is great to see a recreation of life in action.

    Dr. Erin Peters and her team are planning a digital interpretation of the boat that will showcase its various lives. The lives of the boat would start from the cedars of Lebanon spanning until present times. The idea is to show the importance of the boat and what it meant to the ancient Egyptians that were building it and the use for it in their afterlife. The first five of these lives are proposed to be a more visual aspect of the boat, the last five are proposed to be auditory. Showing the lumber being cut and shipped, the building process, the idea of the use for it the real world, the use in the spiritual world and finally the rediscovery of the boat. I asked visitors how they would enjoy seeing these lives in a visual way, what lives they liked the best out of those five and which if any they felt like might not need to be there. I also asked participants which ways they learned the best (by watching, listening, or physically interacting.) Watching and interacting have been the top responses. Overall my goal was to see how people would react to the idea of a new exhibit that includes digital technology and hands-on interaction. I am pleased to say that people have found this concept very pleasing. They are excited to see the exhibit updated, they are excited to learn more about Ancient Egypt as a topic as whole, and they are excited to be able to get a better grasp of the boat even if it is still behind the glass.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Charles Dickens book


    Repairing, rehousing and rebuilding archives

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Library System (University of Pittsburgh Archive Service Center) - Fall 2017

    This semester I was able to intern at the University of Pittsburgh Archive Service Center on Thomas Blvd. I worked in the preservations department at the center. The main job for the interns in the preservations department is to repair and rehouse books and documents that are sent to us from the different libraries and collections that are housed in Pitt facilities. One of the first jobs I and other interns learned was how to disbound books. To disbound a book means to remove the pages from the bound volume, we would then clean the pages and remove leftover glue and string and recut the pages so they can be rebound at a later date.     

    One of the most important tasks I learned to do was build corrugated clamshells for books. A clamshell is a housing device built from cardboard like paper to be used as a shelter for books that have become fragile and need extra care. This task is something every intern learns and uses very often. In the preservations department, there is a whole wall filled with books that need rehousing and can be found at all levels of damage. The process of building a clamshell is the same for every book, the only unique part is the dimension needed for the clamshell. This can be tricky at times but once you do a few dozen of them, it becomes second nature. We house many different types of books in the preservation department, but one of the amazing parts of this internship is the chance to see something rare and unique. During the past month, I have been housing some very special books that are equally as beautiful in appearance as in words. The preservations department got a cart full of Charles Dickens novels. These books are from the 1840’s and in some cases are believed to be first editions! The outside covers of these books are gorgeous and ornate as well as having equally beautiful illustrations inside the books. Having the chance to see such unique books at the archives is a real treat and being able to work with people that have the same mindset as me when it comes to unique finds like this made this internship so much fun.     

    Lastly, the final project that I am working on at the archives has to do with something a little louder and cumbersome. In my final month working in the department, I was assigned solely to work on housing for musical instruments that need to be preserved. In the deep recesses of the department, there is a shelf that has three different instruments on it, a guitar, a drum and a horn. Each instrument with its own unique shape must have its own custom case made by hand. Each instrument will be encased in a foam box then that foam case will be put into a custom fit corrugated clamshell that will be used for extra protection. Each foam case has to be cut out from a large foam sheet, which is no easy task. What makes this task even more interesting is that these instruments are from a famous local jazz band from Pittsburgh’s history! 

    Working at the Archives has been an amazing experience for me. Having the opportunity to work so closely with artifacts and books have helped me further decide on my future profession which will most certainly have to do with curating and similar work.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Political Interests of the Former Steel Industry

    Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area - Fall 2017

    My experience working with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area (RoS) has shown me new ways in which an organization focused on exhibitions and preservation connects with the history of the area it represents. Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh, I’ve enjoyed seeing its history up close and presented in unique ways.

    The project that I have been working on and will likely finish even after this semester is the creation of a new exhibition for the travelling ‘Steel Case’. The ‘Steel Case’ is currently exhibited at the ‘Indiana University of Pennsylvania’ and focuses on how the steel industry was presented in popular culture. My task was to design a new theme, pick a location for it to be presented, and create promotional material.

    The first portion of my time there, which ended up being a majority of my time, was going through the archives and learning what objects and exhibition materials RoS had with the goal of developing a focus for the ‘Steel Case’. This was definitely the hardest portion of the internship, but also the most fun. I went in with a rough theme already in mind, which was to look at some of the science that influenced the industry and how this was presented to industry heads and workers. Yet, as I spent more and more time within the archives I kept straying away from this idea while going off into tangents about labor strikes, propaganda, and many other parts of the 20th century steel industry. I eventually decided on a focus that highlighted the development of political ideals during the steel industry, specifically the rise of socialism and the associated propaganda that sought to weaken either capitalism or socialism. Some items included are articles about labor strikes, socialist newspapers and publications, memos to managers warning of the dangers of socialism to the labor environment, photos of leaders, awards from companies to its employees, illustrations of figureheads, and many more.

    Currently I am in the process of pulling these objects from the RoS archives and filling out the proper paperwork while creating some promotional material for the exhibition. I will likely continue the work into next year even after my graduation, as the process has taken much longer than expected and I would like to see the project come to completion. The subject matter is very unique and interesting, and I hope that the way in which I present the information to the public is succinct and eye-pleasing, yet capable of teaching the public about the 20th century politics that influenced the steel industry and America as a whole.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Shopping for furniture at Construction Junction for the Human Diorama in the new exhibition: We are Nature


    A Whale of a Tale: Archiving and Exhibition Design at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    Author: Eliza Wick

    Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Summer 2017

    I came into my fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with certain preconceptions. But I was eager to see how a natural history museum differed from the art museums that I was more predisposed towards. I also expected that I would be making decisions each day that would be effecting changes in the museum in a more direct way as well as contributing to the formation of future exhibits, however, I quickly learned that that was a bit of a naïve and idealistic view of how a museum works. My work as an intern, while important, was more of an archival project coordinating the documentation and organization of historical material and how that information related to current halls and future exhibitions. One thing that I quickly became aware of is how almost every museum has to operate from a perspective that is often overlooked: the museum as a financial entity. Despite being a non-profit, a museum still has to raise enough funds to maintain permanent displays, create temporary exhibits, borrow traveling exhibits, pay employees, and much more. Due to the fact that revenue is only generated really from grants, admission, and generous donations, creation and innovation must be altered to fit the limited funds that most non-profits must face.

    With this in mind, many ideas have to be struck down to fit the reality of budget and time more so than I had naively expected. I thought that ideas could be implemented quickly and without limits; however, I learned that museums by nature take time to implement new projects, ideas, halls, etc. Work must be reviewed by many people and departments because museum work stresses collaborative and group effort. I remember someone describing the design and implementation of exhibitions as being for the long haul. Essentially you are hoping your ideas and efforts will come later in five years or so, resonating with a museum-goer deeply concerned for our natural world. Through particular implementation and design that you curated hopefully helps visitors become more interested in science or better understand a concept. Additionally, something I had not considered all the way through is how much a natural history museum differs from a more traditional art museum. A natural history museum requires much more preparation and planning of exhibitions in most cases than an art museum. There are factors like specimen acquisition, preservation, and preparation as well as thought mapping of how you want to educate the scientific topic in space. Natural history museums also make the majority of their own props, stands, cases, and anything else that will be going into the physical space. All of these considerations as well as the protection of specimens and of the visitors means that much more time and energy must be put into the final product than an art museum where the pieces stand alone. In a way, the exhibitions department in a natural history museum is like an artist and educator because they get to design and create the majority of the pieces in the exhibit. 

    I treasured my fellowship, most of all, because it satisfied my personal fascination for archival research. I also cherished the fact that I personally got to make choices that affected the organization and logic of their exhibition department archival system. While archival research and organization may not seem like an urgent issue, this information is actually essential for knowledge about past exhibitions and renovations, current halls, and for the production and planning of future exhibitions. For example, there was a traveling exhibition in the mid-2000s about a whale. The exhibition required that a life-size whale be installed from the ceiling. This required some significant changes to the room's walls, ceilings, and general layout. It may not seem like a major issue at the moment, but it means that any blueprint of the area that was dated prior to this alteration would be significantly off in its measurements. And, because it is a traveling show, the whale was only temporary, but the alterations were permanent. Therefore, an updated blueprint needed to be made to avoid confusion in the future. This became especially significant after the dissolution of the exhibitions department and the later revival of it because there were many old blueprints that had dimensions that did not match the current features of the space. Being off by even an inch in one’s measurement of a room can be tragic for the installation of a future show because items might not fit. This serves as a tangible example as to why archival maintenance and research are so important.

    What can be done to help expose the importance of archival work such as this? I believe that keeping the relationship open between our History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh and the exhibitions department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History would be the best way to help further develop and explore these archives as well as be mutually beneficial to both institutions. It would be valuable work if a future intern would use my archives and/or guides to conduct research on the institution or exhibits, further develop the archives, or document the current halls and exhibits on display now as a proactive project for the future of the archives. I would love to stay in touch with any future students that might encounter these archives or the wonderful group of staff that make up the exhibitions department.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Cyd and Kendall standing outside of the original storefront of the 'The Store', which is now occupied by 'Otto’s Shoe Store'


    The Untold Stories of 'The Store,' Verona, PA

    Author: Kendall Dunn

    Museum Studies Intern at Contemporary Craft - Fall 2017

    Through my fall internship at Contemporary Craft, I have been conducting research on the life of Betty Raphael, the woman who brought modern art and craft to Pittsburgh. Before Betty Raphael’s work led to the creation of what is now Contemporary Craft, located in the Strip District of Pittsburgh, she opened the city’s first modern art gallery called 'Outlines Gallery.' She collected and displayed artworks by renowned modern artists Alexander Calder and Paul Klee, among others. After this stage in her life, she found a crafts store in Verona, PA, titled 'The Store for Arts, Crafts, and People-Made Things,' and reopened it under her management.

    To learn more about the physical landmark of the Store and Raphael’s legacy in the Verona community, a group of student interns and staff from the History of Art department ventured to Verona, PA, about thirty minutes from Pittsburgh. We drove up on the main street, Allegheny River Blvd, where the small town began. Our purpose was to find the original location of the ‘The Store’ and investigate its history as art historians. With the town being so incredibly small, we were able to track down the original location of 737 Allegheny River Boulevard in 1971, which is now occupied by the shoe store, 'Otto’s Shoes.' (In 1973, the Store would relocate to a bigger space, a few blocks down the street, at 719 Allegheny River Boulevard, now occupied by the fitness center 'No limits. Sport performance').

    As we scanned the outside of the building we saw the store owner looking at us curiously from inside.  We met the owner, Larry, and learned from him that he knew little about Betty Raphael, taking over this storefront around ten years ago. Before he moved into the building, his friend, Gloria, housed her store there, and before that, the whole entire building was used as a theatre. Larry also disclosed information regarding his father’s involvement in the art world when he was younger. His father owned Geisler Brothers Art Dealer on 5627 Penn Avenue in East Liberty. His father was mainly in charge of making safety and instructional posters for the steel factories in Western Pennsylvania. Later on, he offered Larry the family business but Larry decided to pursue shoe sales.

    As another possible lead for information about Betty Raphael, Larry then directed us to Gloria, the owner of 'Gloria’s Fixations.' Gloria, too, did not know much history of the storefront and did not have any knowledge regarding Betty Raphael. But, she did direct us to our next destination: The Verona Municipal Building which houses a special history room of Verona.

    The History Room contained information about the railroads, the community, various pictures, objects, newspapers, and other documents. We learned that the Social Women’s Club was a huge part of Verona’s community. Additionally, there were many scrapbooks that recorded the crafts and arts that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s.

    While we did not discover any specific mentions of Betty Raphael, we did enjoy learning more about the history of Verona. Now, when I resume my work at Contemporary Craft, looking through the personal scrapbooks of Betty Raphael, the visit has made me curious even more curious about the owner of 'The Store.'

    Explore Kendall’s SCALAR storybook project here

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    The Stephen Foster sculpture in front of Carnegie Museum in Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo by Aaron Henderson.


    Remembering or Erasing The Past? The HAA Department Responds to Stephen Foster Memorial

    Author: Ben Ogrodnik

    2017-2018 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education

    During a volatile political climate, where public attention has scrutinized the meaning and origins of Confederate public sculptures across the country, students and faculty at University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art department have weighed in on a local monument, the Stephen Foster Memorial, which contains a controversial depiction of Foster above a black slave.

    A group of faculty and students from HAA recently attended community meetings, held on October 4 and 25, debating the fate of the Memorial, organized by Pittsburgh’s art commission. Since the Race-ing the Museum workshop, the history and future of this Oakland sculpture has been a lighting rod of discussion in the Pitt academic community.

    The recent hearings on the monument have generated thoughtful dialogue on race relations in Pittsburgh, and on ways of remembering the US history of slavery in ways that do not silence or white-wash the exploitation of African Americans.

    Kate Joranson, Head, Frick Fine Arts Library, attended the public hearings, and remarked: 'While listening to the public comments, I found myself wanting to participate despite not having prepared comments in advance. I ended up sharing that in addition to the choice as to whether to remove the statue, the art commission has a companion choice to make: Who’s voices will they choose to amplify?.'

    History of Art graduate student, Sarah Connell, also attended the events and reflected that, 'I was particularly struck by the misunderstanding of the statue as an objective record of a real event or a portrait of a specific African American, rather than a fabricated character or stereotype.' However, Connell observed, on a more hopeful note, 'I was encouraged by the large number of people who attended the public hearing and by how overwhelming the comments called for the relocation of the work.'

    As a result of the department’s participation in this event, Professors Kirk Savage and Shirin Fozi led the drafting of a letter that was sent to the Art Commission of Pittsburgh, advocating the removal of the Stephen Foster statue. On Wednesday, October 25, 2017, the commission unanimously voted to take down the statue.

    Despite the arguments for keeping the 117-year-old bronze statue, which ultimately lost out, Katie Lynn Loney astutely noted that the removal of the sculpture does not equate to the erasure of history or loss of Pittsburgh pride in local artwork or historical figures. To the contrary, the conversations around the memorial have renewed an interest in the meaning of historical representation and how memorials can lose purchase or significance with the passage of time.

    As Loney stated, 'Those advocating for the statue’s removal, showed that they were well aware of the statue’s power to degrade African Americans and to support white supremacy. While people [at the hearings] showed that they were ashamed (and a couple proud) of the memorial and the historical moment of its production, I was particularly struck by everyone’s awareness of the memorial's contemporary presence and what it says about our community to celebrate the statue in public space.'

    Here is the letter by Savage and Fozi, co-signed by 40 members of the HAA department:

    October 9, 2017

    The Art Commission

    City of Pittsburgh

    Dear commissioners:

    We are writing as faculty and graduate students of the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh. We encounter the Stephen Foster statue on a daily basis. Over the years several of us have brought classes, colleagues, and other groups there to learn and to spark discussion. We have had numerous discussions about the statue in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. After considerable thought we have concluded that the statue must be removed from its place of honor in Schenley Plaza.

    While we bring a certain specialized knowledge to this debate, we write with due humility, knowing that our voice is one among many legitimate voices in our public sphere. Many of us attended the public meeting on October 4 and listened carefully to the voices in that room. This letter also responds to that public dialogue.

    The key problem with the Stephen Foster statue is not the man himself (though his music isn’t without controversy), but the imagery on the monument. It is the inverse of the Confederate monument problem. There the controversy is almost never about the mode of representation; Confederate statues take the same poses and styles as Union statues do. The Confederate problem arises instead from the men being represented – what they stood and fought for. In Foster’s monument, the problem is almost entirely about the representation itself and its racial storyline. In the public discussion, these two issues – the man and the monument – often become confused with one another, yet they need to be pulled apart in order to move the conversation forward.

    If we survey the whole array of public monuments in the U.S., the Foster statue stands as one of the most outrageous racial representations ever erected in public space in this nation. There is truly nothing quite like it anywhere.

    Why? Because of the black banjo player and his juxtaposition with the white genius Stephen Foster in a conspicuous narrative of inspiration/appropriation. The barefoot, ragged black banjo player was a common stereotype in minstrel shows and print culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 'Uncle Ned' does not refer to a real individual, but to a caricatured figure that Foster invented for a song published in 1848. The song, like so many other works of art, music, and literature of its time, depicts Ned as a faithful servant whose 'hard work' earns the affection of those who have enslaved him, painting a sentimental and harmonious picture of a horrific historical reality. Yet it is here in Pittsburgh, for the first and only time, that this delusional stereotype entered the high-art realm of public sculpture.

    The only reason for putting Uncle Ned into bronze was to magnify the elevated genius of Stephen Foster. In the composition he appears as the intellectual in the act of composing, his eyes lost in thought, as he perches upright on a rock in gentlemen’s attire protected from the ground by a cloth underneath him. Uncle Ned, seated below him, is his opposite: a natural entertainer, in direct contact with the ground, his mouth open in song revealing the gaps in his teeth, his bare foot slung over his knee in a pose that slouches informally. All these oppositions are consistent, and are immediately and unthinkingly absorbed as racial difference. And difference here is not horizontal but vertical and hierarchical. White/black, up/down, culture/nature, thinker/entertainer, gentleman/pauper, master/slave: all these binaries combine to communicate a clear racial storyline that confirms the superiority and power of white culture.

    The monument is not really about Stephen Foster, but about the need of white elites in the Gilded Age to transform Foster into a culture hero, to rebrand him and the city of Pittsburgh in the process. And the most effective way they knew to make that transformation was to insert the good plantation 'darky' and the racial hierarchy he evoked.      

    During the public meeting, we heard this refrain in favor of the sculpture: Stephen Foster was a good man because he valued black music and because he recognized that enslaved people had feelings just like regular people do. We don’t agree that white people deserve congratulations for realizing that enslaved people are in fact people. But quite apart from that, we want to return the issue to the representation itself. The sculpture does not in fact focus on their shared humanity, but on the unbridgeable divide between their two worlds. Even if 'Uncle Ned' is Foster’s muse – again a point of controversy because Ned could just as easily be seen as Foster’s own creation, not inspiration – the muse serves only to spark the great man who represents a higher order of civilization. There is no level playing field here between black music and white music. It is one-way road from the primitive to the civilized, through the territory of appropriation.

    This is a racial storyline that falsifies history and hurts everyone by perpetuating the very racial thinking that has always justified slavery and segregation. It does not take special training to recognize its basic storyline: the racial hierarchy is out there for all to see.

    We do not advocate for destruction or even 'censorship' of this insidious narrative. We simply want to withdraw it from its place of honor in public space. Ideally the sculpture would be relocated to a museum space where it could be recontextualized and reinterpreted in relation to the difficult issues of racial slavery and segregation that the monument both raises and obscures.


    Kirk Savage, William S. Dietrich II Professor

    Shirin Fozi, Assistant Professor

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