Graduate Class Explores Role of Cultural Heritage Institutions

Graduate students taking History and Theory of Cultural Heritage Institutions at Catholic University got a crash course in D.C. history as reflected in manuscript, object and photograph collections at the Historical Society.

Graduate students taking History and Theory of Cultural Heritage Institutions at Catholic University got a crash course in D.C. history as reflected in manuscript, object and photograph collections at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Unlike many of the student visits to the Historical Society, the activities designed and collections pulled for a recent visit by graduate students in Catholic University’s “History and Theory of Cultural Heritage Institutions” were not chosen for their subject content, as the students weren’t researching a particular topic, neighborhood or time period.

Rather, the orientation was designed with a three goals in mind. One, to demonstrate the breadth of the collection, through archaeological artifacts, newspaper illustrations, commissioned artworks, and personal manuscripts. Two, to address the myriad challenges facing custodians of special collections, such as fulfilling ambitious grant obligations, and the tension between the dual primacy of access and preservation. And last but not least,  to demonstrate an array of interpretive exercises that can bring historic resources to life, such as scavenger hunts and transcription puzzles.

Well, actually, one collection pulled for the class was indeed chosen for its subject matter. The professor, Sally Sims Stokes, happened to have requested the Lillian Rogers Parks papers, 1939-1997 (MS 575); as co-curator of “The Working White House,” an exhibit of the White House Historical Association and the Smithsonian, the research notes, manuscripts, interviews and press releases relating to Parks’s “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House” and “Backstairs at the White House” was of personal interest. Little had we realized that the week the class was set to come to the Historical Society, the press would go wild over a behind-the-scenes book penned by a White House employee. (Soon after the class met, Stokes brought attention to the collection via a letter to the editor.)

So as it turns out, there was indeed a fourth albeit unintended message delivered to the class: Cultural heritage collections may be complicated to preserve; they may be seemingly impossible to fundraise for;  and they may throw constant challenges at the feet of processors, catalogers, custodians and researchers  – but they never stop being timely.