March 2010


Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an internet-wide recognition and celebration of women in technology. (Here’s my post about women telegraphers from last year.)  

One common narrative early women in technical professions had constructed for themselves was that of downplaying the challenges (or any role at all) of gender in their careers. Nora Stanton Blatch, a fiery women’s rights activist and civil engineer, broke this mold in the early 20th century. She was a rare technical woman working to connect her profession and her suffrage activism. Trained at Cornell as part of the first classes of women accepted to its Sibley School of Engineering, she once said that she had chosen civil engineering as her major because it was the most male-dominated field she could find. Her feminism was no accident: the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter of Harriet Stanton Blatch, she was raised in a milieu of struggle. Ruth Oldenziel suggests that her “rich feminist heritage enabled her to envision a narrative device in which to frame her life story.”

For a short period of time, Nora was married to the electronics engineer and radio and TV inventor Lee de Forest. As an engineering partnership, they pioneered radio broadcasting and, as a first transmission of their wireless phone in 1909, Harriet Blatch gave a speech declaring “Travel by stagecoach is out of date. Kings are out of date: communication by canalboat is out of date; an aristocracy is out of date, none more so than a male aristocracy.” But after their first child was born, Lee began to rail publicly against Nora’s insistence on continuing to work as an engineer at New York City public works departments and as a suffrage activist. They divorced soon after: Nora was now an engineer and a single mother, continuing to value both her work and family.

Nora’s feminist activism in engineering included professional societies. She was accepted into the American Society of Civil Engineers as a “junior member” in the early stages of her career, but once she turned 32, their age limit, she was booted out, despite her experience at bridge and hydraulic firms and in government, including supervising draftsmen. The ASCE was trying to stake out the rapidly professionalizing field of engineering as a high-status, high-class profession, and one way they did that was by strictly limiting membership, excluding surveyors, for instance, and certainly excluding women. Nora sued the ASCE for membership in 1916, but lost her suit; no women joined the society until 1927.  Nora died in 1971 after a long life of activism.

Further reading:

Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine

Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America

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I had a lovely time last week at NCPH, when some of my favorite public historians (and environmental historians too) gathered in Portland to talk about history and walk around in the rain.  What follows is a transcription of some of my notes on interesting sessions.  (I will discuss our future of public history session in another post.)  This is quite long, so I’ll put it after the jump. (more…)

This weekend the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a long article about the Western Reserve Historical Society’s systematic selling of collections to pay off debt.  Please go read the article right now.

While the current recession has hit museums, nonprofits and others especially hard and has them scrambling to survive, the society has long used its collection as a means to raise cash, something others find astounding.

The Western Reserve is not an accredited member of the American Association of Museums, unlike Ohio’s two other major history organizations, the Ohio Historical Society and the Cincinnati History Museum. Western Reserve had been a member for 20 plus years, but the membership lapsed in 1998.

Davis said the association is more appropriate for art and science museums and said they were members of a living history association.

But the AAM, established in 1906, represents 3,000 institutions that include, art, history, science, military and youth museums and others. It sets standards and best practices for museums, including for sales of museum collections, called de-accessions.

While many history museums routinely sell off collections that are duplicates or don’t meet their missions, accredited museums set aside the proceeds to buy new artifacts or care for the ones they have.

“It seems counterintuitive, whether art, history or science museum . . . that you’re going broke and you can’t sell,” said Ford Bell, American Association of Museums president. “The reason that policy exists is once they start to fund operations [by selling artifacts] the collections become assets and not collections.”

Bell said this standard has created and kept safe some of the greatest museums in the world, even though tough “awful economies of the past.”

At Western Reserve, the sale of many items such as guns, Indian artifacts and furniture have been kept private and quiet. The society refuses to say what is being sold or even how much the sales earn.

On the society’s tax forms that nonprofits must fill out, it reported $1.18 million in artifacts sold from October 2007 through June 2008. From October 2006 through September 2007, it reported asset sales of $2.1 million.

In the last several years, there have been a number of scandals in the art museum world about museums (the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, for instance) selling or proposing to sell off collections to address financial crises.  Critics wondered why museum people were so up in arms about the ethics of deaccessioning for profit.

The WRHS shows us some consequences of treating museum collections as assets, rather than, as is our mission and responsibility, objects held in trust for the public.  Lack of trust among donors, the public, and the profession.  Lack of accreditation.  The secrecy about their deaccessioning process, what items are chosen and how, what money was made from each item, only exacerbates the problem.  As a counterexample, see the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s deaccession database, which notes where each piece was sold and for what amount:  that’s radical transparency.

The museum community upholds ethics rules around collections deaccessioning not to be punitive or prudish, but to protect our collective cultural heritage and to keep museums as a third place, one that facilitates social encounters with historical objects and stories and is insulated from the market.  Our visitors and our donors deserve institutions that serve them.  This is a tough economy for everyone, but without our ethics we cease to be museums.