Return to In the Round
Stories from the Front Lines
Sarah Beetham, Lecturer in the Department of Art History, University of Delaware and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Sarah Anne Carter, Curator and Director of Research, The Chipstone Foundation
Jessica L. Horton, Assistant Professor of Modern, Contemporary, and Native North American Art, University of Delaware
Jason D. LaFountain, Lecturer in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Kevin R. Muller, Historian of American Art and Visual Culture, College of Marin
Teaching American Art to American Artists: Object-Based Learning at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
For more than two hundred years, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) has been one of the leading art institutions in the United States, and the museum collection reflects that history. I first became involved with PAFA as an instructor in Spring 2015, when I was asked to teach American Art to 1945, the school’s wide-ranging American survey course. I had taught a variation of this course before, but this experience was different. First of all, I had the PAFA collection as an accessible resource. Furthermore, my students for the course were in the bachelor of fine arts program, bringing a slightly different set of skills than students in a typical undergraduate class. In designing my course, I wanted to make the collection an integral aspect of class instruction and respond to the unique student needs and so I developed the gallery talk, a short oral presentation that would allow students to engage their classmates in discussion surrounding works in the PAFA collection. By engaging in object-based learning through the gallery talk, I hoped that my art students would build strong visual analysis and public speaking skills in a community of their peers.
In teaching the American art survey at PAFA, I place the role of the school as a leading center for art production in the United States at the forefront of my syllabus. Founded in 1805 by Charles Willson Peale, William Rush, and a collection of leading artists and businessmen of Philadelphia, the school has educated generations of American artists over more than two hundred years. During this time, the school has maintained a collection of works by major American artists, along with works by alumni and faculty of the school. Today, the PAFA galleries boast a collection of American art that covers the breadth of major movements discussed in a typical survey—a valuable teaching resource. Among the many collection highlights are early American masterworks such as Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum, 1822, and Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse, 1817; a large gallery covering the breadth of nineteenth-century American art, hung salon style to reference nineteenth-century exhibitions at PAFA; and the Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women, donated by the artist and including works from the early twentieth to the twenty-first century. With resources like these at my fingertips, it was clear that object-based learning would be a vital part of my curriculum.
In addition to the rich material resources of the museum, I considered the unique student body in developing my version of the American art survey. My course is an elective open to students in the bachelor of fine arts program, who take a total of fifteen credits in art history and criticism as part of their degree requirements. Like most undergraduate students, they display a wide range of skill levels in writing and critical thinking. But with their background in studio art and strong affinity for visual learning, these students are highly engaged in classroom discussions that involve formal analysis of artwork or conversations about technique. Often, their technical knowledge of art processes surpasses mine. This creates a dynamic learning environment in which the students and I learn from one another, bringing our varied experiences to bear in interpreting works of art. To take advantage of the students’ demonstrated aptitude for visual analysis and the strong PAFA art collection, I developed the gallery talk, a public speaking assignment to promote direct engagement with works of art.
On seven out of the fourteen weeks in the semester, the class met in the PAFA galleries rather than our usual classroom. Each week, I assigned works of art from the collection to two to three students, based on the class theme for the week. For their gallery talks, I asked students to prepare a short presentation introducing the work to their classmates, and then to lead their classmates in a discussion of the formal qualities, subject matter, and relevance of the work within the narrative of American art. First, the student provided background on the life and career of the artist, including elements of biography, style, and oeuvre. Next, the student invited his or her classmates to discuss the medium, composition, mood, and subject matter of the work. Finally, the student summed up the presentation by relating the individual artwork to the theme and assigned reading for that week.
The gallery talk proved valuable in several key ways. First, it gave students the opportunity to conduct discussions in formal analysis in front of works from the PAFA collection. This had the added benefit of breaking up our long class sessions: at PAFA, all classes are scheduled in three-hour blocks to accommodate studio instruction. Second, students had a chance to practice public speaking in a museum setting, a skill that will be important in their future careers as professional artists. Lastly, the gallery talk fostered a sense of camaraderie among the students: because each student took a turn in leading discussion, they were highly motivated to participate in discussion during their classmates’ talks. Assigning the students to become the instructors also gave them insight into my role in fostering discussion each week, and class participation improved overall. This sense of belonging extended to include the school itself, as students made connections between their experiences today and to the training of American artists that is the legacy of PAFA.
In developing the gallery talk assignment at PAFA, I assessed the resources available to me and the needs of my particular group of students. At PAFA, I benefit from the presence of a strong museum collection and a student body that is highly motivated to analyze works of art. But this assignment model could be adapted to a wide range of museum and university collections and student populations. By considering available resources and weighing the individual strengths and needs of the students, it is possible to place object-based learning and student-led discussion at the center of any survey of American art.
Sarah Anne Carter
Object Study as Interdisciplinary Exploration for the Twenty-First Century
I consider an object-based lesson to be successful when my students are empowered to make their own observations and to develop the confidence to move from perceptions to conceptions, from what they perceive to the development of broader questions, problems or theories about the subject of their examination. Typically, my primary pedagogical goal is not to convey (or discover) set information about a specific object or historical context. Instead, it is to model or teach a way of reasoning, from object to idea, from the specific to the abstract. In these ways the study of material things is necessarily an interdisciplinary endeavor, with the skills developed broadly applicable beyond the narrow world of art history or even academia.
For historians of American art (and material culture), the work of Jules Prown, particularly his methodological innovations as outlined in his 1982 essay, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” offers a key intellectual foundation for this approach. His framework provides a pathway for scholars to move from individual sensory perceptions of an object to a way of connecting material evidence to a range of sources and contexts to deduce and speculate about the ideas an object may reflect about the people who created it. In his groundbreaking writing and teaching, Prown pushed his students beyond employing material things as illustrations of accepted concepts and to use them as evidence. Today, the continued power in this approach does not simply rest in that intellectual end but also in the realization that the thinking, the connections, and the questions that the process demands are as meaningful to students as any insightful conclusions developed through its application.
My views about the potential for the close study of material things to break down disciplinary barriers and to teach critical thinking skills come through my research into the history of Object Lessons, which is the topic of my forthcoming book, through the multi-part, collaborative Tangible Things project (with Laurel Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara Schechner and Samantha Van Gerbig), which has been a series of courses, an exhibition, a popular EdX MOOC, a book, and a wide range of object-based projects at the Chipstone Foundation over the past few years. The specific pedagogical contexts on which I am reflecting here are diverse: the lecture hall at Harvard, the online classroom, and the students we teach in various Object Labs at Chipstone. Again and again, material things demand an interdisciplinary approach. The process of close looking inspires critical thinking, the ability to make and defend non-obvious connections.
Object Lessons are an historical classroom practice based on the notion that students can learn to think through a regimented engagement with material things. Beginning in the nineteenth century, students were instructed to study material things through a five-step process and to move from description and an understanding of the qualities and parts of an object, to its associative qualities, to ways it may be classified or arranged, and finally to synthesis and composition. In many ways, this early object-based pedagogy mirrors the Prownian method (though he joked that he “wasn’t that old” when I first talked with him about the possible parallels). Unlike the Prownian method, however, Object Lessons were primarily intended to impact the students engaging in the practice instead of mainly developing new ideas about the materials studied (though that was also possible). In 2014, Chipstone based its principal Object Lab, created for nine undergraduates from across the United States, around this theme. We presented students with the historic classroom methodology and three objects from the collections, a cabinet, a chair, and table and asked them to create videos applying the method to the selected objects. With faculty mentors, the students worked through the five steps of the Object Lesson to develop a series of conclusions about the objects—some playful others serious. Yet, the most important part of the experience was in the way it allowed students to approach unfamiliar objects as documents of the past. The videos served as models for this process for both Harvard students and online students enrolled in the HarvardX course. Just as in the Prownian method, these experiences present object study as both scalable and broadly applicable to other cultural sources.
In addition to empowering students to start with their own observations of material things, in “Mind in Matter”, Prown argues for the application of the tools of many disciplines to enhance the study of art objects. The interdisciplinary potential of object study similarly is at the center of the Tangible Things project. To model the potential of an interdisciplinary approach, Chipstone invited four Harvard graduate students to Milwaukee for a special Object Lab to train them to serve as teaching fellows in the Tangible Things course. The result was the video, “This is not a chair.” It includes six different ways to understand chairs—through lenses borrowed from natural science, economics, art history, anthropology, history, and the history of science and medicine. Paired with assignments applying this mode to other material things, this became the starting point for assignments that challenged students—both at Harvard and online—to apply these interdisciplinary approaches to other objects.
At the end of “Mind in Matter,” Prown reminds us that certain material things may offer an “affective link” between past and present. He suggests that the identification of this link and the related “concretions of the realities of belief” held by people in the past represent the true promise of material culture. However, for many of us who teach with objects, there is more to the promise of the Prownian method and the many forms of object study it inspired than the insight it offers us into the past: these approaches have the radical potential to transform our students into more dynamic and nimble thinkers.
The presence of Native North American art in university classrooms is relatively recent and precarious. A few art historians began to teach indigenous materials originating north of the United States Mexico border in the 1960s.1 Determined to pursue a PhD in 2007, I counted my potential mentors on one hand. As I write, members of that group, including my former advisor, Janet Catherine Berlo, are beginning to retire, leaving gaps in graduate training for this already tiny field. Furthermore, if droves of qualified applicants are not clamoring to write about Kiowa graphic arts, miniature Haida crest poles, or Pomo basket weaving at world’s fairs, we must look closely at the role of undergraduate education in inspiring intellectual dreams and shaping professional paths. As I complete my first year of teaching in a tenure-track position in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware, a PhD-granting program with strengths in American art and material culture studies, I am optimistic that Native North American art history can grow in higher education despite a shortage of dedicated platforms. Here I merge a few stories with strategies for securing the entanglement of indigenous materials in allied fields, informed by the current reality of fierce competition for the imagination—of hiring committees and students alike.
Scholars have used the term entanglement to describe the complex cultural scenarios that arise under conditions of colonization and globalization, which in turn spur research across fields, such as American, Native American, and contemporary.2 Equally, the concept suggests a pedagogical survival strategy. During the three years that I watched the academic job market, no position exclusively devoted to Native North American art was advertised.3In the fall of 2014, I applied to the University of Delaware for an assistant professorship “in the history of art from 1945 to the present with specialization in American art…within a global context.” During the interview process, I was asked how I felt about teaching the work of Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, and Andy Warhol. It crossed my mind that it might be efficacious to declare my enthusiasm for these subjects without referencing indigenous themes. Instead, I spoke about the relationship Judd had to colonial landscapes at Marfa, and Newman’s exhibition, Northwest Coast Indian Art, held at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City in 1946. I mentioned Warhol’s screenprints of American Indian Movement activists, collections of Southwest silver jewelry, and influence on the Indian pop politics of Fritz Scholder.4 This was the version of art history that energized my own thinking, filled with the mutually transformative mingling of Abstract Expressionist mystics and Navajo pragmatists, white cubes and Red Power, Campbell’s soup and frybread.
One year later, I strained to translate interview claims into surveys of contemporary art and Native North American art. The former was effortlessly popular. “There are seats available in my other class!” I typed repeatedly in response to emails pleading admittance. Maybe it was the mysterious heading of the latter in the course catalogue, “EXPERIMENTAL: No Reservations: Native N. Am.,” that failed to inspire confidence. Perhaps young residents of the First State, where Lenape people were colonized early and are not federally recognized, struggled to see the relevance of indigenous topics to their lives. Certainly my evening time slot competed with sports games and happy hours. Thanks to the advocacy of my department chair and the dedication of eleven wonderful students, my survey stuttered forward as a seminar. Our intimate scale allowed for close study of neglected Northwest Coast masks, Inuit drawings, and Pueblo pottery in the University Museums, animated discussion before the photogravures of Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian in Morris Library Special Collections, and glimpses into the extraordinary storerooms of the Penn Museum. While I am committed to a dedicated spot for Native North American art in the curriculum at the University of Delaware, the experience deepened my conviction that the subject suffers in isolation. The long-term survival of a standalone course rests on simultaneously integrating indigenous arts into adjacent, agenda-setting American and contemporary surveys, while making a compelling case that such materials transform whatever they touch.
The results look much like a scrappy sculpture I love to teach: Jimmie Durham’s (b. 1940) Not Joseph Beuys’ Coyote (1990), a grinning, brightly painted coyote skull mounted on a stick, with shells for ears and waving arms made of animal horn and a rear view mirror (fig. 1). I introduce classes to this work by screening a documentary clip of the performance cited by Durham, Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974).5 The German artist traveled from John F. Kennedy airport to the René Block Gallery in New York City on a stretcher in a screaming ambulance and spent three days reckoning with a live coyote. Captivated by the antics of the canine, students are drawn into debates about the nature of the emergency, the ethics of human-animal and United States-European relations, and the uneasy parallels between gallery and cage. They are then invited to sort through the material evidence of homage and refusal, linking Cherokee and German artists on American ground. Relating the works of art prompts students to see the coyote as a culturally contested figure—urban killer of housecats, symbol of “the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man,” or teasing trickster—caught up with competing claims to territory and identity.6 The exercise belongs equally in American, Native American, and contemporary art classrooms. To facilitate students’ emotional and intellectual engagement in indigenous art, I am challenged to fold foreign materials inside familiar frameworks, where they can begin to unsettle notions of home and nation. Ideally, teaching interconnected histories will prompt new ones to unfold, as students become agents of their own entangled educational paths.
- I refer to Douglas Fraser at Columbia University, Bill Holmes at University of Washington, and J. J. Brody at University of New Mexico. On the development of the field, see Janet Catherine Berlo, ed., The Early Years of Native American Art History: The Politics of Scholarship and Collecting (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1992); W. Jackson Rushing III, Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories (New York: Routledge, 1999). An American art textbook that stands out for integrating indigenous objects and histories is Angela Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (New York: Pearson, 2007). ↵
- See, for example, Nikos Papastergaidis, ed., Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation, and Cultural Difference (London: River Orams Press, 2004); Wendy Bellion and Mónica Domínguez Torres, “Teaching Across the Borders of North American Art History,” in A Companion to American Art, ed. John Davis, et al. (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 193–210. ↵
- Colorado State University, Fort Collins and the University of Colorado, Boulder, hired Native Americanists in hybrid positions advertised as American/Native American in 2014 and 2015, respectively. ↵
- See Ralph T. Coe, “American Indian Art” in John W. Smith, ed., Possession Obsession: Andy Warhol and Collecting (Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum, 2002), 112–125; Kristine Ronan, “Fritz Scholder’s Indian Kitsch: Indian Pop Politics, Clement Greenberg, and the FBI,” In Dialogue: Fritz Scholder and the Art World, Denver Art Museum, January 7, 2016. ↵
- See Katrien Jacobs, Healing the Western Mind Part I: Joseph Beuys in America, 1996. VHS, 16:46: https://vimeo.com/3541170. ↵
- Excerpted in Caren Kuoni, ed. Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), 141. ↵
Jason D. LaFountain
Some pedagogical values are perhaps timeless—for example, helping students to improve their writing. Jules Prown also mentions generous mentoring, alluding to the “signals of encouragement” he received from professors with whom he studied in graduate school. There were moments in my training in which this kind of approval was critical to my decision to stick with art history, and I always look out for times and places to encourage my students. Prown’s idea that student needs should come first is notable, as well. It reminds me of a remark I once encountered by religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith. Smith provocatively commented that syllabus writing is the most important writing academics do. In graduate school at Harvard, I arranged a directed study with Gwendolyn Shaw in which I devised a syllabus for a seminar in early African American art (from the beginning of the Portuguese slave trade in 1502 to 1861). It was one of the most useful projects I undertook during my graduate coursework and has evolved into a class I now offer. Ever since, I have expended a lot of time and thought in the construction of syllabi (too much according to some colleagues); I see this as a form of putting students first.
Prown’s reflections remind me that much has changed in the field during the past half century. Whereas his reminiscences are filled with allusions to men, his mentors and colleagues, throughout he mentions few women by name and only in passing—besides his wife Shirley, just Louisa Dresser, Barbara Novak, and Wanda Corn. Of course Prown contributed to the diversification of the field by training many women. My graduate adviser, Jennifer Roberts, was one such student.1 Even before working with Roberts, though, my main advisers were all women. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I worked with Martha Ward and Rachael DeLue; DeLue was a visiting scholar during my senior year (2000–2001). Nowadays women are publishing much of the very best work. It seems this will only be more the case as time goes on. I have far more young women than men in my courses, and almost all of my graduate students and teaching assistants have been women.
In the American art history of today, diversification of the artists and subjects one teaches is an imperative. The figures populating Prown’s reflections are not just men; they are, more specifically, white men. And the artists who were Prown’s scholarly focus are Anglo-American white men.2 To be sure, though, Prown’s advisees have generated scholarship on a much wider range of subjects. And while his own material culture studies did not really bring a greater diversity of creators into the fold in terms of gender and race, the engagement of those methods by his students and his students’ students certainly has.
I think of art history as a creative practice and am preoccupied with instigating my students’ creative and historical imaginations. To help them develop their imaginative capacities, I have begun to move away from using the single object five-page formal analysis assignment that is a fixture of introductory art history courses. The assignment seems tired, and Martin Berger (a former Prown student) has compellingly argued that close looking is a more problematic tool than art historians suspect.3 I give students an open-ended creative writing exercise instead, developed in conversation with me, and with no prescription to focus on a single object. This assignment, due early in the term, is designed to help students think more expansively about their research papers.
Inspired by some of Roberts’ thoughts about the creative uses of contemporary art in American art pedagogy, and furthered through my own teaching of contemporary art, I talk about historically-oriented contemporary art in order to enhance my teaching of earlier American art. I have found this to be particularly helpful when I teach colonial and early national art, which are often in need of dusting off. Contemporary art can be used for comparative purposes or in place of reading, when a contemporary artist’s project is, in a sense, the most substantial work of art history available on a given topic. (Roberts has suggested, for instance, Elaine Reichek’s (b. 1943) contemporary sampler embroideries, which deal with the historical meanings of the craft in relation to the history of art and culture.) Attention to contemporary material can also help to better determine which historical topics are most relevant to today’s students.
Having worked at schools as different as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, it is clear to me that there is no teaching as such; pedagogy is always inflected by one’s students and the institution at which one teaches. SAIC students tend to be more present-minded, and I find I play historian in a less presentist way here. I insist on the closeness of the past—it is only receding from us if we think about history as a straight line. I try to persuade students that our experience of time is more complex and anachronic than that; the past is at hand, if they want it.
I tend to agree that focusing on less (e.g. one work or document) for more time, cultivating care and patience through protracted study, is something art history continues to offer today’s students. Distractedness is a cultural epidemic. Other times, though, I have resisted this “less is more” approach, experimenting instead with a view articulated by contemporary Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn (b. 1957) that “more is more,” bombarding students with reading, slides, videos, ideas, information, and associations, and taking them on whirlwind visits to see artworks in museums or the city. Breadth and intensity of exposure are as important as the nurturing of patience. This more is more strategy is not meant to pander to young people with short attention spans and hungry for action, but is a deliberate deployment of surplus energy, of pedagogical passion intended to arouse students emotionally and intellectually. Note that both less is more and more is more are excessive approaches.4
The Digital Revolution may foment distraction, but it has enhanced teaching opportunities, too. I like online discussion platforms and often use them in my courses. Such platforms enable instructors to hold students accountable for completing readings on time and to get a head start on discussion before in-class discussion (usually enriching the total discussion had). The Digital Revolution has also made my students more curious about history. One upper-level course I teach, and which has proven useful at SAIC, is called “Telegraph to Television: American Art and New Media.” Most of the students in the class work with newer new media in their studio practices, and they are excited to learn more about historical interrelations of analog technologies and art making.
Although university teaching remains a primary vehicle for spreading knowledge and appreciation of American art, there are many others. For example, I serve as a study leader twice a year on trips organized by the not-for-profit travel branch of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Journeys. The travelers are typically retired, lifelong learners, and eager to know more about American art. This past semester I also started teaching in the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP), a program that offers art, humanities, and social science courses to inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison outside Chicago.5 The course I taught, The Artistic Imagination, addressed theories and practices of the imagination from antiquity to the present, including selected topics in American art. Needless to say, art history education has an existential urgency in the prison environment that it does not have at a university. This class led me to develop new exercises in the practice of imagination that I hope to use, in revised form, in other courses.
Teaching in prison has been, among other things, an effort to bring art history to people who have little experience of it. As when I started studying art history, nearly twenty years ago, I still worry about the discipline’s relationship to social privilege. (Like for Prown, art was not part of my upbringing.) I thought of this regularly, when, during my first year of teaching, as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, I was driving from my small and rather shoddy apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago through streets of Evanston mansions, to work in a department known for a commitment to the social history of art. I wondered what my teaching was doing. Was I providing students with critical analytical skills, or contributing to existing systemic problems?
At pessimistic moments, I fear the bonds tying art history to privilege cannot be broken. Art history is part of a liberal arts education, itself a form of privilege masquerading as an instrument of freedom. It may seem an innocent diversion for those who have the money, luck, or leisure to indulge in it, but it is also a tool of class stratification. Carol Duncan’s polemic, “Teaching the Rich,” is in many ways as relevant in 2016 as when she first published it in 1973. She writes that higher education, including art history, is “resistant to democratization”—that “no amount of art education” will change things “so long as other aspects of existence remain untouched.”6 At other times, I am optimistic that education in art history can help my students to make the challenges and lessons of art a more integral part of their lives. At their best, imaginative art and art history rehearse, even enact, new worlds and better social realities.
- Jennifer Roberts did comment, though, on gender bias in Prown’s teaching and scholarship in a talk she gave at the College Art Association meeting in 2010. ↵
- In American art history, the ‘Anglo-American’ framework has long served as a placeholder for a more thoroughgoing engagement with American multiculturalism and interculturalism. ↵
- See Martin A. Berger, “The Problem with Close Looking,” in John Davis, Jennifer A. Greenhill, and Jason D. LaFountain, eds., A Companion to American Art (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 113–27. ↵
- For thoughts on the continuing relevance of single-object-based immersion and deceleration as pedagogical strategies, see Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience,” Harvard Magazine 116, no. 2 (November/December 2013): 40–43. Roberts explicitly calls this strategy “excessive,” 40. Thomas Hirschhorn perspicaciously engages global capitalism, mass consumption, commodity spectacle, and intellectual fandom. Critiquing the modernist dictum of Mies van der Rohe, “less is more,” he argues “less is always less” and “more is always more.” He asserts, “Energy yes, quality no.” See Hal Foster, “Towards a Grammar of Emergency,” New Left Review 68 (March/April 2011): 114. ↵
- For historical background on PNAP and related programs, see Erica R. Meiners and Sarah Ross, “‘And What Happens to You Concerns Us Here’: Imaginings for a (New) Prison Arts Movement,” in Rebecca Zorach, ed., Art Against the Law (Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago; distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2014), 17–30. The PNAP website can be found at: http://p-nap.org/what.html. ↵
- Carol Duncan, “Teaching the Rich,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., New Ideas in Art Education: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1973), 130, and 138–39. I thank Alan Wallach for introducing me to this essay. ↵
Kevin R. Muller
Saloons and Saloonkeepers in the Digital Age
Teaching the history and material culture of saloons poses a challenge, because unlike a painting or sculpture in a museum, saloons no longer exist in their original form. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, the saloons closed and their buildings and furnishings repurposed. In theory, they could have been reborn following the repeal of Prohibition, but their reputation was so tainted that proprietors preferred to open bars or taverns. Later, in the postwar period, the saloon of historical reality was replaced by the mythic saloon of Hollywood and western American tourism. How then can we know the historical saloon?
Such was the question my twelve students and I set out to answer in the spring of 2015. The context was an upper level seminar in the American Studies program at UC Berkeley. Throughout the term we pursued a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating methods employed by art historians, archeologists, folklorists, historians, and others. As the semester progressed, however, I sensed that the students’ conception of saloons and saloonkeepers remained mostly stereotypical, untethered to historical reality. Despite my efforts to underscore material aspects, students did not acknowledge that saloonkeepers were unique individuals who worked at a saloon that once existed. I wanted them to dig down to a strata of historical specificity in a way that would teach them to how to locate real people in the social and material landscape of an actual town.
Accordingly, I created an in-class exercise called The Digital Archeology of Late Nineteenth-Century Saloonkeepers in California. The assignment was designed not only to address the above issue, but also to develop specific skills in the students. Today’s students are thoroughly digital creatures, but most do not know how to use— much less know of—the many excellent subscription-based online resources offered by the university. I wanted my students to learn how to use these resources so that their research papers offered specificity with respect to time, place, and people. The multistep exercise had students work in groups of three or four, each student with his or her own laptop. By working together in real time, I hoped their research would proceed in a non-linear fashion, would be more varied, and produce collaborative results based on collectively gathered and assessed evidence. Moreover, working digitally meant students could keep multiple tabs open, and thus toggle between archival resources in ways that would have never been possible in an earlier era. Finally, I structured the exercise more like real research instead of a class assignment in which students are guided to a specific conclusion. I had no clear idea what they would find.
Each group began searching the 1880 Census (accessible through the university subscription to ancestry.com) for saloonkeepers living in California. Each suitable hit was evaluated on the basis of whether or not that individual conformed to the general profile of a saloonkeeper as explained by scholars whose work we had read. Uncharacteristic saloonkeepers were given preference. Then the candidates were ranked, and the group decided which saloonkeeper would be the subject of their advanced research.
Next, students were directed to find the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map that corresponded to the town or city were the saloonkeeper lived. These maps were published starting in the nineteenth century to aid in the estimation of fire risk and are now available online. Although digitization comes with certain downsides, in its favor is accessibility and the opportunity to move quickly between text-based and visual resources. Indeed, by shifting gears from census to maps, students were required to situate a specific individual, known only by name and profession, into the three-dimensional context of a townscape. Incidentally, not all communities were mapped in 1880, so the map closest in date to the census was chosen.
With map (or maps) in hand, each group returned to the original census entry and wrote a profile on their saloonkeeper. First, they attended to the personal, including age, sex, marital status, place of birth, parents’ birthplace, and all individuals residing at the same address. They then examined similar census data for neighbors of the saloonkeeper. This information enabled groups to sketch out a biography of the saloonkeeper and position him or her within the context of the social makeup of his or her neighborhood. In so doing, students were able to understand this individual within larger networks of family, kin, ethnicity, class, and the geography and demographics of a particular neighborhood.
Each group then focused on the saloons where this individual might have worked. Turning to the Sanborn map, students evaluated the distribution of the saloons in town, noting where they were clustered and also noting surrounding businesses. To develop an understanding of saloon life in that community, they read primary historical articles about saloons from regional historical newspapers archived in the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Finally, each group wrote a summary account of their saloonkeeper, the communities in which he or she circulated, the saloons in which he or she might have worked, and local saloon culture. This was a heady experience for students, a true fleshing out of history based on evidence. And it was all the more exciting that the results of their inquiries could not have been foretold. They not only found but came to embrace specific individuals who did not conform to the generic Hollywood images of saloonkeepers, and they were engaged in the examination of known information about actual people and real towns of which they either heard or knew firsthand.
Perhaps befitting the tension between the material and the digital, the success of this exercise ultimately rested on a paradox: in the absence of the whole historical object—in this case the architecture and environment of the saloon—it was our experience that digital resources helped to allow such spaces to be reimagined more tangibly by connecting these establishments that were long gone to the actual people who operated them and the real neighborhoods they served.