"Object: Mount Taxidermy: Cinnamon Quail
Source: Unknown, Not Harmonist, Found in Collection, Exhibited at Old Economy from unknown date (c 1967?) through March 1998.
Condition: Good. Health Hazard: Preserved with arsenic. Insect damage to beak. Missing rear claw on right foot. Dirty."
"Object: Mount Taxidermy: duckling
Source: Unknown, not Harmonist
Description: Duckling, standing. Head faces to bird's right. Brown downy feathers, brown bill and webbed feet. Mounted on rectangular wooden base with tapered sides. Top of base has been treated (sanded) to resemble soil which contains glittering particles (silica?). Original paper label on bottom of base. Printed in black printing on white rectangular paper: 'R.C. Scrimgeour / TAXIDERMIST/AND NATURALIST,/92 FULTON STREET,/NEW YORK. Materials: Fur [feathers?] wood. Date of Origin: c. 1860. Provenance: On exhibit at Old Economy from unknown date (1967? through March 1998. (Reviewed for deaccession 9/23/97. Deleted from deaccession, 3/99.
Condition: Good. Health Hazard; Preserved with arsenic. Dirty. Neck appears to be broken."
"Object: Mount Taxidermy: Wood Thrush
Source: Permanent Transfer from the Wm Penn Museum in 1967. Never before accessioned.
Description: Small bird on wooden perch. Back and tail are light brown with gray feathers at base of tail. Golden brown head. White breast with brown spots. Mounted on simulated wooden branch attached to a wooden block mounted to a rectangular piece of plywood. Printed in pencil on bottom of plywood: "Wood Thrush." Materials: Feathers, Wood. Date of Origin: c. 1940-1960?Provenance: From the George Houck Collection donated to the SMOP [State Museum of Pennsylvania] by Helen.
Condition: Good. Health Hazard; preserved with arsenic."
Source: Unknowns found at Old Economy Village without catalog numbers.
Description: light brown fur with white on belly; mounted on board; standing on hind legs; tail down, head up; hole in abdomen suggesting pocket; some fur peeling on lower legs; 23" x 8" x 42"."
Source: Unknowns found at Old Economy Village without catalog numbers.
Description: black fur with white collar; incrouching [sic] position, head up, tail down; several toes falling off on all four feet; 10" x 11" x 29"."
"Object: Grey Fox
Source: Robert L. Spear, gift
Description: Taxidermy Specimen, grey fox (28 1/2" L x 10 3/4" H x 9" W) posed as if walking with head turned to the right. Mounted on a 22 1/2" x 7 3/4" x 2 1/4" pice of cork carved and stained to resemble bark. Materials: fur, cork. Date or Origin: c 1950–1970.
Condition: Good. Notch out of right ear. Some hair missing from tail."
May 26, 2017 | Dean Sylvester, Historical Horticulturalist
I spend the morning with Dean, the Old Economy Village Historical Horticulturist. Like Sandy, Dean started volunteering at OEV when he was young. 15 years old. A central setting of their childhood summers. Like Sandy, his work is dictated by weddings and events more than it used to be. Pruning and weeding, pruning and weeding. Perfecting the gardens for guests and photographs. Dean used to spend more time researching the plant varieties used by the Harmonists. This research could be difficult, because the plants have many different vernacular n ames in various languages. He doesn’t have much time for that anymore. Now he focuses on maintaining blooms from June to September. Constant flowering. “Defying nature” has become part of the job description, he jokes.
While walking across the property, Dean introduces me to Patti. She has been volunteering at OEV for about 30 years. “This place has killed any nerves I got left,” she explains semi-jokingly. Dean tells her about his weekend. He went fishing and had to help someone out of the river that nearly drowned. Dean and Patti consider time and change. Changes they have experienced at OEV and in the region. They appear somewhat nostalgic about the “old days”. More funding, more jobs. This seems to be a common sentiment in parts of Western Pennsylvania and post-industrial communities. A common conversation of the recent US election and political climate. This rhetoric of national nostalgia makes me uncomfortable. But my politics and point of view are likely different. I do not know what it’s like to experience my community lose economic viability in my lifetime.
The Harmonists had a greenhouse and a large formal garden that included an orchard, vegetable garden, small vineyard, and a medicinal herb garden within a large expanse near the house of the Harmonists’ founder, leader, and self proclaimed prophet, George Rapp. The formal, manicured garden was a display of wealth and piety. Its symbolic design elements referenced monastic gardens of medieval Europe and the regional gardens of George Rapp’s upbringing in Württemberg, Germany. The garden radiated outward from a central pond which surrounded and framed a statue of a woman beneath a stone gazebo. She stands in a slight contrapposto holding a lyre. She is harmony incarnate, apparently. I wonder if this garden was available for everyone in the community to use. A type of commons? Or restricted to the founder, his inner circle, and those who planted and harvested?
The current garden is somewhat of a speculative recreation of the past. Staff is not completely certain which flower and plant varieties would have been there. Historians believe that the Old Economy garden represented an earthy paradise, a “Garden of Eden”. Harmonists waited in a heaven-on-earth for their eventual place in the heaven-above-earth. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people. More manifest destiny fuel for American mythology. The OEV garden is a descendent of the Western European garden tradition–which in turn is a descendant ancient and non-western gardens. The gardens at OEV inherited a tradition that, in part, celebrated an imposition of order and ideological symbolism onto nature. Ordering and forming a type of sublime. Obscuring imperfection, chaos, and decay while naturalizing human imposition and particular points of view. “Defying nature.” Just like Dean’s new job description.
Dean maintains the gardens and greenhouse with the help of a few regular volunteers. He will never finish his to do list. Impossible for a one person team, and the nature of gardening he says.
I slow down the pace of his routine, but he welcomes the company and conversation. I help with pruning and weeding. We transfer seedlings into new containers in the greenhouse. I realize I miss doing this kind of work, helping my parents in their garden. Labor that feels comfortable and familiar. Muscle memory.
Dean and I discuss “weeds” and naming. We pick and taste cherries that aren’t quite ripe. Cindy, a volunteer and certified master gardener, shows us images of 17-year cicadas that recently emerged in her yard. Dean points out the heirloom roses on site. Harison’s and Moss roses. They are the most fragrant roses I have ever smelled.
Despite his years of work at Old Economy Village, Dean is somewhat skeptical of the Harmonists. “They were basically a cult,” he says. He does not use the term “cult” fondly. I appreciate his honesty and skepticism. I wonder when this attitude towards the Harmonists began. What did he think of them when he volunteered throughout high school?
Dean discusses some strained politics between veteran volunteers and staff. The organization’s decreasing budget and increasing dependence on volunteers. Tensions between maintenance and administration. Labor and value. Folks reluctant to change. He speculates about the future of Old Economy. Not sure how long it will be around. The site has lost a lot of funding and staff throughout his time at OEV. Perpetual budget cuts in Harrisburg. He tells me that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has a lot more money than the PA Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). Preservation and maintenance of history is required by the state constitution, he explains. I’m immediately curious about the politics of this mandate for preservation. The Pennsylvania History Code, it’s called. The state is giving us less and less to work with, Dean laments.
I take a few photographs of the garden and the pond. Dean points to a cluster of flowering water lilies. “That’s the picture I’d take,” he says.
May 26, 2017 | Sandy Carrol, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator
Trying to write about May 26 on July 3. Some things are hazy now, and I'm trying to decipher my notes.
Sandy and I spend part of the morning chatting about her trip to Germany. Her first time out of the country. I learn about her sons, her ex-husband, and her Italian Catholic heritage. Sandy is the volunteer coordinator at Old Economy Village. A thankless position she tells me. It’s nonstop and difficult to find folks that are interested and committed. I understand. I have worked as a volunteer coordinator for nonprofits. Sandy volunteered at OEV beginning when she was twelve. A central setting of her childhood summers. Now most available volunteers are over 60. An aging neighborhood and regional economic changes since the 1980s?
Sandy was planning on giving two site tours for potential wedding rentals, but they rescheduled. Historical research, maintenance, and preservation funded by the wedding industry. A third of Sandy’s time is spent with rentals. I help her update a wedding brochure. She wants it to look more professional and is working on securing partnerships with local vendors. I wonder how much the wedding parties and guests know or care about the history of the venue. A picturesque garden wedding atop a site of communal, celibate, German Protestant separatists diligently working and waiting for the second coming. They all died, and the community disintegrated waiting. Charmed, beguiled, and rallied by a charismatic leader. Commitments dissolved and broken down by perpetual anticipation and unfulfilled promises and prophecies. Recurring historical plot points. I think about wedding celebrations at a site of settlement and complicated politics whose history has been melded and molded into the American mythos. Freedom of religion, Protestant work ethic, evidence of the eventual and rightful success of capitalism over experiments in collectivity. Of course the site’s history and community defy simple classifications. It is probably easier for wedding guests not to think about it. Easier for most not to think about the history of the spaces we inhabit.
I attend a volunteer “cafe”. A social gathering Sandy organized to build community and thank the volunteers. Some business is discussed. A representative from a local nonprofit visits to discuss mileage reimbursement for retired and senior volunteers. The conversation jumps quickly and sporadically from volunteer related business, to upcoming events, to personal conversation, to the history of the site. One woman brings up a television program about Albert Einstein. “Wasn’t he a son of a gun?” she asks. “I feel sorry for his first wife,” another chimes in. “She was brilliant and stuck as a housewife.” Others nod in agreement. I wonder if that is true or common knowledge or if it has been fact checked. "Son of a gun" spurs the conversation to transition to the meanings and supposed origins of popular English sayings. Cost you and arm and a leg. “Language is living, there’s no doubt about it,” one woman concludes. What about “Wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole?” another asks. The visitor from the nonprofit and I are noticeably confused and enamored by the dizzying pace and tangential content of the conversation. Sandy shifts the discussion to upcoming volunteer field trip logistics.
Volunteers will be assisting at the forthcoming event titled “An American Celebration”. Many are thankful that the event will only one day. A fire truck is coming. And antique bicycles. Hamburgers and hot dogs will be available for volunteers to eat. Someone mentions that Dippin’ Dots will be a vendor, but they need to confirm. “Ice Cream of the Future” as promoted by the company’s slogan. Speculative, space-age, novelty ice cream at shopping malls, carnivals, baseball stadiums, and water parks. Fitting for an event titled “An American Celebration”. I search online for Dippin Dots. “White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waged a five-year Twitter feud against Dippin’ Dots” reads a top link.
“Is Syd bringing pizza? We had too many pretzels last year.”
The volunteer that gave me my first tour of Old Economy begins listing the lineage of non-Harmonist individuals and families living in a particular house on site. Katherine (or Catherine? Or Kathryn?) Nicholas, a poet, lived there in 1832. I do a quick Google search for Katherine or Catherine or Kathryn the poet. It leads me to a website called billiongraves.com. “Discover and Honor YOUR ANCESTORS” proclaims the splash page. Little information is available without paying for a subscription.
“The house was moved in 1965. It was still standing before the restoration...1916, isn’t that when the state acquired the property? The mechanics building and the store were turned into apartments.”
There is a semi-heated conversation about the availability and cost of sugar at OEV when it was in operation. Once again, I’m wondering how historically accurate this is; or where people are getting their information. The conversation shifts to accessibility and access to particular buildings on site. Some volunteers do not know the best routes for visitors that use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
Accessibility transitions into a conversation about the PBS program called “Victorian Slum House”. The program focuses on London tenements after the Industrial Revolution. Before many health and safety regulations and inspections. Systemic poverty, terrible conditions and a disregard for marginalized communities. In the television program “modern-day families, couples and individuals recreate life in London’s East End as their forebears once lived between 1860-1900”. Modern families do not need to recreate this era to experience and understand economic and political systems of oppression. It has contemporized. Recurring historical plot points. I am reviewing my notes and writing this shortly after a horrific, preventable fire at a public housing tower in London. The management company ignored complaints and evidence of serious hazards in favor of cutting costs. Business, industry, and profit first. Not any different than “Slum House”. Investigators believe that the metal facade of the building helped fuel the fire. Using this material for exteriors of buildings is forbidden in the United States and many European countries. This did not prevent companies from supplying the British market. “Survivors have charged that the facade was installed to beautify their housing project for the benefit of wealthy neighbors,” explains a New York Times article. Low cost “upgrades” to increase property values. The material was provided by the American manufacturer Arconic. “Innovation, Engineered” as promoted by the company’s slogan. Arconic split off from Alcoa, a giant aluminum manufacturing corporation founded in Pittsburgh in 1888. “Alcoa: The Element of Possibility™”. The library at my university was donated and named after the founder’s son, Roy A. Hunt. Philanthropy to ease an industrialist’s conscience. Roy’s portrait hangs in the library’s entry way. Bespectacled. Looming. Calmly, securely, and knowingly looking at visitors. There is a window with a rendering of the Pittsburgh landscape in the background. A happy marriage between nature and human construction. The river tamed by an iconic Pittsburgh bridge. Promises of innovation, progress, and technology. No different from the rhetoric of my university. I am reminded of the legacy of the Harmonists: an idealistic, unwavering commitment to progress. A coming utopia. Embracing the Industrial Revolution while trying to balance a dedication to collectivity. Capitalism won out. They died waiting.
One volunteer adds that she learned the origin of the phrase “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” by watching “Victorian Slum House”. Lived experiences transformed and reduced into figures of speech. I realize that multiple circles have come full circle. Spheres and webs. A simultaneous flattening and expanding. The past revealing itself. Reminding us of its presence though we thought it was gone or irrelevant. Just less visible. A reminder that both a lot and little has changed. Recurring historical plot points.
Above, left to right: 1 | Jonathan Borofsky, "Walking to the Sky", sculpture on Carnegie Mellon's campus, 2 | MetroNaps EnergyPod created by CMU alumni Arshad Chowdhury. Formerly in the Roy A. Hunt Library, pods range from $8,995 to $12,985 plus shipping and installation
Above: Carnegie Mellon promotional rhetoric at the construction site of the Tepper Quad on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh. The student center and expansion of the Tepper School of business is slated to be completed in fall 2018.
May 25, 2017 | Sarah Buffington, Curator + Coralee, Volunteer
We empty 15 humidifiers around the site. None of the buildings are air conditioned. Coralee and I are both surprised by the amount of water. 24.5 gallons / day. Even more if Sarah had enough time to empty them more often. We empty one in a cellar and Sarah shows us a vault where the Harmonists hid gold. Coralee is fearless. Headfirst to take a photo. She told me that she volunteered to crawl through a similar space in the past. We stop by the “cabinet shop” and the volunteer points out discrepancies in the cabinet making exhibit. “The one piece that doesn’t belong,” he says. Sarah checks in with the researchers working in the archive. She discusses fees and use agreements. One researcher has a blog about Ambridge and asks Sarah about the use fees for various types of publications. The second researcher asks Sarah if her job is paid and what exactly her job is. Sarah chuckles politely before listing her growing number of seemingly endless tasks. The researchers are looking for information about Harmonist buildings outside of the Old Economy Village site. Sarah is not sure where to direct them, because their interests are incredibly broad and somewhat unfocused. The researchers discuss Tom Marti, a local man that is also interested in Ambridge history. They discuss his family history: he was adopted and is now searching for more information about his family history. Sarah gives them Tom’s contact information. The researchers are chatting and bullshitting much more than researching. Wasting Sarah’s time. I can’t tell if Sarah doesn’t mind or if she is just incredibly patient.
Her job probably requires coming to terms with lost time.
Sarah considers what to focus on. She decides to help Coralee organize mail correspondence written by Tom Knoedler, the caretaker of OEV (from 1905 to 1916) and caretaker of local history. Love letters and business letters. Coralee sorts the letters. Hot pink post-it notes stuck to paper from 1889. She is having trouble deciphering her handwriting from the a previous day. Layers of decoding. Sarah finds pins left next to the scanner. They should be holding letters together. She doesn’t know where they belong. Someone will have to search through the love letters looking for small pin holes. Sarah moves to the computer. She is working on changing the naming system for site buildings and is transitioning to different archival software. “This computer is extremely slow.” The loading icon spins and spins and spins. The current naming system is largely based on individual and collective memory of staff. No formal, agreed upon terms. So what happens when all the staff is gone? Researchers are still talking in the background. Something about stained glass in a local church. One says that there was a rumor that John Duss, the last living trustee of the society, was laundering money.
Sarah has a regular, committed volunteer that helps exclusively with digitizing. But she is elderly and has trouble with her memory. Her forgetfulness and confusion live within and shape the digital archives, manifesting in duplicate records, misinformation, and incorrect labels and placement. 90,365 incomplete records in the entire Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission's digital archive. What makes something “incomplete”?
Sarah tells me about her to-do list. Never ending. It’s a practice in humility and a performance in futility. “Check archeology? What was that?” she asks aloud. “File papers” needed to happen since January. It’s the end of May. She admits that there are some things on site that have not been filed since the 90s.
Sarah trains me on cleaning objects in the collection. We clean baskets made of willow, covered in accumulated dirt and dust. Objects like the baskets used to be stored in the historic buildings. No temperature, light, humidity or insect control. Dark particulate pollution from the neighboring steel mill and related industry used to settle and accumulate on local Ambridge buildings. The American Bridge Company closed in the 80s. It fabricated steel for the Empire State Building and the gates for the Panama Canal. Before Old Economy Village's current storage was built in 2003, objects would be affected by this industrial matter. “Black sugar” locals call it. Sarah talks about the merits of wearing different types of gloves while cleaning. None are perfect or without certain problems. We clean from top to bottom. Dirt falls down. Gravity. Time. Sarah leaves certain particles and small objects embedded in the basket. Potential clues regarding what the baskets were used for. A lot of my projects and goals are in limbo Sarah says. She wants to sort and reorganize different objects in storage. But there is no point until after the capital campaign and the leaking humidity and rust problems in storage are taken care of.
Gloves after cleaning two baskets. And "Sarah is..."
I am spending the summer as an artist in residence at Old Economy Village (OEV), a historic site and museum located in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission OEV "preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society, a highly successful and entrepreneurial 19th century religious community." The separatist community fled persecution in Germany and settled in Old Economy in 1824 after earlier stints in Pennsylvania Indiana. The community was communist and communal in its inward structure while simultaneously capitalist in its outward economic relationships – embracing and investing in the Industrial Revolution and other entrepreneurial tactics to sustain the society and future goals. The Harmonists' experience speaks to the complexities and history of American settlement, industrialization, and Westward expansion. The Harmonists were fairly radical and non-hierarchical compared to many of their European-American contemporaries. However, the Harmonists (and how they are portrayed) embody and bolster ideas of independence, freedom (economic and religious) and capitalism that have long been embedded and naturalized in American (self)consciousness – ideas which are often mobilized in service of nationalism, political ideology, colonialism, and the entrenchment of power hierarchies. I am writing this section of the post (6/1, though post stamped 5/24/17) in the wake of Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and other "America First" policies and nationalistic rhetoric. It's important to consider what American heritage sites (in general) emphasize and what they ignore, what they deem worth remembering.
As I'm writing this, I think to myself: what are the intersections between ideological, historic maintenance and physical, practical and literal historic maintenance?
OEV administers six acres including original buildings and recreated gardens. The collection is home to roughly 16,000 objects ranging from original furniture and paintings to store ledgers, mail correspondence and the coded traces of practicing alchemists.
While I find the history on site engaging, I am drawn to examining historicity more generally: how histories and historic sites are archived, interpreted, recreated, and represented to the public. During my first two weeks at OEV, I will shadow as many staff members and volunteers as possible in a type of Living History of Historic Maintenance. Over this time, I hope to get to know staff and the site better. These two weeks will be an introduction to OEV as I consider what composes and is required for historic maintenance before I fully jump into the residency in July and August.
This blog will be maintained as a component of the residency. It is a space to explore share found imagery, ideas and archival content as well as document and consider everyday happenings on site.