Stolen Moments

cemetery medium

by Will Katerberg

Travel to conferences is a regular part of academic life. Give papers, go to panels, meet with publishers, find new titles at the book display, and enjoy debates, dinner and a drink with seldom seen colleagues. For some of us, conferences are a professional obligation to be endured, mostly, while others angle for a bigger travel budget so they can go to more.

For me it’s somewhere in between. I usually enjoy the conference, especially seeing colleagues and talking together about our research, but increasingly find traveling to and from them unpleasant. I can hardly remember when staying in a nice hotel for a few days was a perk or flying a thrill. (I still like airplanes when I can jump out of them, but that’s another story). The one thing I do like about traveling is the opportunity to photograph.

In the past couple of years I’ve started doing photographing more systematically, a minor hobby mostly indulged on vacations in distant places becoming a weekly, even daily habit. I always have a camera with me, even if only my iPhone.

I’m not an expert on the history of photography–the evolving technology, genres of photography, masters of those genres, and the like–but I am an interested student. There are some good podcast sites and YouTube playlists and many great books on this history. My own perception of this history is that while the technology has changed, what has not changed is that the “eye” of the photographer–seeing what there is to see, and her or his skill in composition–is still the most important thing in making great pictures. (Or bad ones.) Digital cameras and Photoshop make it easier to manipulate images and fix problems, but photographers have long been able to “airbrush” out elements of images (since the late 1800s) and otherwise manipulate them.

My own experience fits this judgment. I’ve gotten technically proficient at using a camera, and I’ve learned how to use Photoshop and other software. The hardest part has been learning–still slowly–to see what’s interesting in something that I’m photographing and learning how to make that work in an image. Workshops can help, as can studying the work of other photographers. But there’s no substitute for practice, trial and error, looking over your work with a critical eye, and deleting and shooting some more.

Traveling to conferences has become an opportunity for me to steal moments to photograph, and capture on camera some of the people and places I encounter. Occasionally I also find interesting sessions on photography at the history conferences that I attend. The photographs in this blog post are mostly not about history, but a few of the people, places, and things this historian saw on trips in the past two years:

  • New Orleans (American Historical Association, 2013)
  • Tucson (Western Historical Association, 2013)
  • Calgary (lecture series, 2013)
  • St. Louis (Council of Independent Colleges, 2014)
  • San Rafael, CA (International Big History Association, 2014)
  • Newport Beach, CA (Western Historical Association, 2014).

The historical exception is an image from the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. The others are taken from airplane windows (can you guess where?), a bus on the way from San Francisco to San Rafael, inside airports and hotel meeting rooms, and on side trips during breaks from the meetings.

The “side trip” images here include scenes from Newport Beach, at the beach and at the Fashion Island shopping center near my conference hotel, and Banff National Park and its famous hotel, near Calgary.

I particularly like to photograph in airports, partly because it’s fun watching and photographing people, trapped like me and at the mercy of an airline, and partly because of the architecture. The large windows in the gate areas and terminals are perfect for capturing reflections that blend and confuse inside and outside.

All of the conferences listed above were worthwhile, and mostly fun. The college got its money’s worth in the professional work I did, as did I. The images that I captured during these trips, in stolen moments here and there, made the hassles of travel much more of a pleasure. You can find more of my photographs, including many of Grand Rapids, and recent trips to Florida and Italy (visiting in-laws, not doing tourism, so no exotic “old world” looking scenes), at my Zenfolio website.

Enjoy the gallery below! (Click on an image for a slide show.)


William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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Ferguson as History

by Eric Washington.
Heavily armed police in riot gear approach an African-American man with his hands raised.

Police in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP.)

Last summer as I prepared my scheduled readings for my African-American history course, the background noise on my living room television reverberated with the tense voices of journalists and people all unnerved in the St. Louis County city of Ferguson. On August 9, 2014, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-year-old African-American man, Michael Brown. In the aftermath of this broad-daylight killing, citizens of Ferguson began to fill the street where the killing occurred. People noticed the body of Michael Brown resting lifelessly on the hot pavement under a scorching afternoon Missouri sun. Outrage became the tune of this day, and for days, weeks, and months to come. Grassroots protests by citizens of Ferguson and surrounding communities in St. Louis County attracted the attention of national and international media giving voice to African-American frustrations over what this national community perceives as continual injustice when it comes to young men dying at the hands of law enforcement and white people in general.

As the protests ensued, I felt that this was an incident worthy of discussion at the end of the course. It would be a great epilogue to an already planned discussion on the Trayvon Martin killing of 2012. I decided to do something different, however. Since the Michael Brown killing came on the heels of the July 2014 Eric Garner killing by police officers in Staten Island, New York and the August 5, 2014 killing of John Crawford by a police officer at a Beavercreek, Ohio Wal-Mart, I believed that discussion of the issue of police officers killing unarmed African-American men deserved immediate attention. Rather than teach the course in a strict chronological order, I made the decision to begin with the hot button issue of race in America and the killing of unarmed African-American men by the police and others (in the case of George Zimmerman in Florida).

When it was time to discuss Ferguson, I began the class with a general discussion on race. I asked my students to write five terms that describe their understanding of race. Many students employed biological or physiognomical terms to describe race, which surprised me. I was fairly sure that upper-level undergraduates had come to an understanding that race has nothing to do with biology or physiology. This is why teaching is such a rewarding vocation. A few described race as social construct. I then followed up by giving them the evolution of how scholars have defined, and re-defined, race. I did conclude that the consensus among scholars is that race is a socially constructed term, but a term that is still very real and powerful. I even broached the topic of if race is a biblical concept, which engendered the same variety of responses with students connecting physiognomy, specifically skin color, with race. To round out that discussion, I mentioned that the biblical words in the Hebrew and Greek translated “race” in our various English translations of the Bible refer to ethnicities, or nations of people having nothing to do with skin color inherently. From this discussion about race, I knew that I would have to be clear about showing how race, and especially blackness, came to be conceptualized during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and beyond.

The readings I selected for us to discuss all had to do with race. For the sake of space, I’ll only focus on one piece we discussed that I also had students respond to in written form a week later. Greg Howard’s piece, “American is Not for Black People“, was especially provocative. Responding to Michael Brown’s killing just three days after, Howard, a writer and editor for argued very concisely and simply that “The United States of America is not for black people.” To support his case, Howard wrote of other recent slayings of unarmed African-American men such as Eric Garner and John Crawford in addition to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. He reminded his readers with this stark and painful statement: “Michael Brown is not special.” At that time, he was the latest of unarmed African-American men cut down in the country they called home. I led the class in a discussion about Howard’s basic argument and if it is reasonable. All agreed that Howard’s argument and support made sense. They could see how the militarization of police forces have shifted the relationship between police officers and citizens from protectors and the protected to destroyers and targets. This was a raw piece to swallow, but students brought lots of empathy and sensitivity to their reading and our discussion.

Large crowd with some people holding signs that spells out "Black Lives Matter"

Demonstrators held lighted signs spelling out “Black Lives Matter” during a protest in Boston.

After discussing race in contemporary America beginning with Ferguson and then backtracking to Trayvon Martin, Hurricane Katrina, and then Barack Obama, we began with the African context of African-American history and commenced the long march down the chronological pike before ending the course with a discussion on Affirmative Action and Hip-Hop Music. Did my students see the connection between the negative effects of race on African Americans in the here-and-now and the history of African-American oppression? I think they did. It became apparent when we discussed an excerpt from Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. Moody reflected on the Emmett Till lynching of 1955, and wrote: “Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black.” As I read that passage aloud in class, I knew we had come full-circle. Here were the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old African-American girl in Mississippi in 1955 giving expression to the same fear of young African Americans today. I connected this with Ferguson. My students “got it.” Ferguson was just the latest reminder that at times America has been against its African-American citizens.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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History 294 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

by Kate van Liere.
Group of students in the museum atrium next to a train car.

Students in the 2015 Interim class History 294 tour the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

This past January, the students in my History 294 class collaborated with the Grand Rapids Public Museum in its ongoing efforts to digitize its museum collection. It was a rewarding project for the Museum, for the students, and for me as a teacher. The GRPM’s digitization project reflects a worldwide trend that in the last decade has transformed the way museums educate the public. It was great fun to learn more about that transformation while helping students to make their own small contribution to it.

Museums began to digitize their collections in the 1990s. Larger museums pioneered these efforts, and still lead the way. Virtually every world-class museum now has a world-class website that allows visitors to browse, search, view, and read about its collections online. Most major museums now seem to profess the goal of complete and unrestricted electronic access to their collections. But providing that kind of access is a huge undertaking involving years of work, much of it still unfinished.

North America’s largest museum, the Smithsonian Institution (actually a museum network, with over 137 million objects in nineteen separate museums) has its own Digitization Program Office, whose full-time staff digitize thousands of items per day, using high-tech cameras that resemble airport scanners. Just last month, the Freer and Sackler Galleries became the first branches of the Smithsonian, and the first Asian art museums in the world, to offer their entire collections free to the public in digital form. But this represents only a small fraction of the Smithsonian’s entire holdings. The British Museum’s online collection now boasts about 3.5 million objects, somewhat less than half the 8 million in its London collection.

Cuneiform tablet with text introducing the CDLI.

Screenshot from the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative collection at Princeton.

Digitization projects often combine the traditional roles of museums and archives by making textual artifacts fully viewable, readable, and searchable online. They run the gamut from ancient to modern history, and often span the globe. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (launched in 1998 from Oxford, Los Angeles, and Berlin) will eventually include some half a million clay tablets, including the 30,000 from Neo-Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s library. In 2014 Britain’s National Archives and the Imperial War Museum jointly launched Operation War Diary to transcribe and publish millions of pages of soldiers’ reports from the western front of the Great War (1914-18). These projects, even with large teams of professional scholars and technical experts, will take years to complete.

Many museums have harnessed the power of volunteers in these large-scale digitization projects. Last summer the Smithsonian turned to crowdsourcing, launching a new Digital Transcription Center to seek help in transcribing thousands of newly scanned documents. Operation War Diary also solicits online volunteers to help tag and catalogue its war diaries. (If you are a history buff with time on your hands and an eye for details, take note: both projects still have plenty of work available.) Volunteers simply complete their transcription or tagging on the website anonymously, much like Wikipedia contributors. Multiple transcriptions of the same document help to minimize errors.

Umm el-Jimal Project graphic advertising virtual tour.

The Umm el-Jimal Project website offers a virtual museum of the site. Click the picture to explore.

Digital access brings different benefits to different institutions. A website can help a small museum or historical site in a remote location to reach audiences worldwide, like Prof. Bert De Vries’s superb Umm El-Jimal Project. Or it can provide greater visibility to objects in major museum collections that sit hidden in storage; a museum like the GRPM only has space to display about 10% of its collection at a time. Curators can also use websites to provide viewers with much richer contextual information for objects than what is normally displayed in a physical exhibit—not only details about an object’s origins and original use, but information about its cultural and historical significance.

The GRPM’s Collections database, created in 2007 and presently undergoing a major overhaul, aims to bring all three kinds of benefits to the museum: to expand its reputation beyond West Michigan; to showcase objects that cannot be displayed in the downtown museum; and to provide information about these objects that will be valuable to both amateur viewers and scholars. Our class’s work helped mainly to advance the third goal—to provide more historical context for the objects featured on the website, and give visitors a deeper appreciation for their historical and cultural significance.

The GRPM has the second-largest museum collection in Michigan, with roughly 200,000 objects. (Michigan’s largest museum, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, boasts 26 million objects.) As Michigan’s oldest museum, the GRPM also has a remarkably diverse collection. While it has many artifacts that illustrate city and regional history, it is not a civic history museum like those in Chicago and New York. Founded in 1854 as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, it began, like the Smithsonian and most early museums, with a scientific focus. Its collection reflects both these roots and the eclectic interests of the many benefactors who have added to its holdings over 150 years. It now encompasses bones, fossils, art, textiles, furniture, technology, ethnography, and much more. (Its A-Z list of “Collections” has over 100 entries, from “Advertising” to “Zoology” via—inter alia—“Edged Weapons”, “Mining”, “Underwear”, “Unclassifiable”, “Timekeeping”, and “Sponges”.)

Storage cabinets with numerous antique carpet sweepers.

Carpet sweepers in storage at the GRPM, c. 2002 (Photo by Alex Forist)

At least 50,000 of the museum’s artifacts (a very rough estimate) have never been catalogued, either electronically or manually. Curator Alex Forist, who met my students in the first week of Interim and introduced them to the museum and its storage facility on State Street, explained that it is still hard to define the exact size of the collection: “We know for sure that we have 169,000 things, and probably more like 250,000 if we ever get everything cataloged.”

As of February 10, 2015, the online database contains 169,142 digital records, each with a brief description of the object and some basic information, such as the donor and place of origin, if known. But most of these catalogued objects have not yet been photographed. Thus only 38,000 of the digital records are yet accompanied by digital images, and less than half of these have complete records explaining fully what the objects are or offering historical or other contextual information.

Since only four full-time staff members are available to research, photograph, and catalog the collection, and they also have other responsibilities, the work progresses slowly. The help of unpaid interns and other volunteers is crucial. Many past Calvin students have joined in these efforts by serving as museum Collections Interns.

Kate van Liere

Kate van Liere (right) with her Interim 2015 HIST 294 students.

The three-week Interim term did not allow time for the kind of hands-on work that interns do, so our 294 students worked exclusively through the website. On the second day of Interim, we toured the storage archive on State Street, to get an inside view of the scope and diversity of the collection, and on the third morning we visited the museum itself on Pearl Street, to see how portions of the collection are now being displayed. We discussed how to use tangible artifacts to tell stories and ask questions. Then students embarked on two museum-related projects. (Since History 294 is not a museum course per se, but the required course in “history research methods”, students also had to complete more traditional academic assignments, such as a research prospectus and annotated bibliography. But these were all related to the subject matter of the museum project.)

For the first assignment, five teams of students each produced a proposal for a historical museum exhibit that would include at least eight objects from the GRPM’s collection. We returned to the museum to present these proposals to GRPM’s staff on the final day of the course. The students came up with five terrific concepts: elephants and their interaction with human beings around the world; changes in timekeeping technology; how southwestern Native American cultures used turquoise and horses; propaganda in the First World War; and Grand Rapids’s Ramona Park and twentieth-century public entertainment.

Student presenting in front of a screen showing artefact.

A student from the course presents his research to museum staff.

Both the quality of the students’ proposals and the museum’s enthusiastic reception were gratifying. While we don’t expect the museum to mount any of these exhibits per se, our audience of curators, vice presidents, and the museum’s CEO was clearly inspired by the creative ways that Calvin students found to use artifacts to ask big questions, connect the past with the present, and construct meaningful historical contexts.

The second assignment produced more tangible benefits for the museum. Each student chose two objects on the website that had been catalogued and photographed, but not yet substantially researched. They did their own research on these objects and wrote historical narratives that would help visitors appreciate their historical significance more fully. I submitted these to the museum at the end of Interim, and our students’ research has already been incorporated into these entries in GRPM’s online collection:

Elephants and their interaction with humans around the world

Timekeeping technology

  • Water clock, dated 1696.
  • Time candle, replica based on device used by English King Alfred the Great
  • Pocket watch featuring President Harrison and his cabinet
  • Banjo clock, a highly praised alternative to the grandfather clock
  • Clock radio that belonged to a Sudanese refugee when he came to Grand Rapids
  • Wrist watch featuring Dick Tracy, c. 1940

Uses of turquoise and horses in southwestern Native American cultures

Propaganda in the First World War

Grand Rapids’s Ramona Park & 20th-century public entertainment


Interested in working hands on at the GRPM or other local institutions? Talk to Professor Kate van Liere about the history department’s internship course.

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and co-directs Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

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