Even for those who may have never considered the history of a building where they have lived or worked, the installation that’s on display at the Rutgers University–Camden Alumni House may make them think otherwise. What started as a Department of History graduate class assignment last spring semester has now become part of an ongoing research project, based at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers–Camden, to raise awareness of the Cooper Street District.
Originally students who signed up for the Spring 2018 graduate class “Material Culture in America” were given the task of choosing an artifact of interest from a prior archaeological dig from the 330 Cooper Street dorm construction to research, analyze, and write a paper about. “We already had a case in the Alumni House with artifacts from the dig from when the new dorm was created, but they weren’t labeled yet,” explained Dr. Charlene Mires, Professor of History and professor for the class. The students began their research by closely examining the artifacts with guidance from Nancy Maguire, Associate Director for Exhibitions at the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts. Among these recovered objects were mostly household items such as bowls, childhood toys, and medical items; for example, one was a bottle of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.”
This particular object was researched by Lucy Davis, one of the students from Dr. Mires’ class, who uncovered that it was a morphine-based bottle of medicine that mothers during the late nineteenth century would give to their babies to calm them down. The other graduate students that made discoveries that were included in this project are Ernest Ariens, McKenna Britton, Amanda Cross, William Krakower, Timothy Potero, Anila Ramsarran, and Ashley Angelucci. Another conclusion that was made came from Angelucci, who revealed that the inventor of the Mason jar, a very commonly used food storage container, was from Vineland, New Jersey.
“From just eight selected artifacts, you get this amazing feel for what everyday life was like for people who lived on Cooper Street from the 1880s to the 1990s,” explained Dr. Mires. “You have this object, and you don’t even know what it is to start. And then it’s a window into this whole huge history.”
At the end of the semester, the students presented their work in a program for the Honors College. Dr. Mires and the students also concluded that they wanted to “leave something behind for the public,” considering this is the focus of studying public humanities. In addition to a text panel and labels brochure, both designed by class member McKenna Britton in collaboration with other class members, the class created a website, which Dr. Mires hopes “will be an ongoing digital archive of Cooper Street-related things, so what we have now is just a start.”
A key element on this site are the individual photos of each object, which were mostly taken by undergraduate art student Jacob Lechner, even though he wasn’t enrolled in the class. The two met through Lechner’s photography internship in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences–Office of the Dean’s Office of Web, New Media, and Design.
“Jacob’s role in this was very important,” Dr. Mires said, in reference to his use of Object Virtual Reality photography.
“I had a tripod set up with my camera facing the artifact and took photos as the artifact was turning on the turntable. Each artifact would have 32 images,” described Lechner. “After all the images were edited I would open them in a program called Object2VR which would take the images and compile them into an html file. The html file allows you to rotate the object 360 degrees and even zoom in and out of the image.”
It was Lechner’s use of this photography style that really allows these fragile pieces to be viewed in detail without actually being handled, especially since they’re now being contained in a glass case.
The website also provides a link to a “resident database” of Cooper Street, which is an ongoing research initiative for Dr. Mires, her classes, and Davis, who first contributed while an undergraduate and who is now a second-year graduate student in the Department of History and digital media coordinator for MARCH. “What we’re doing is using the census and city directories to try to track down the previous people that lived on Cooper Street,” said the humanities professor, who credits Davis for the majority of the work.
As a historic district, Cooper Street from Second to Seventh Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Activities such as tours and pop-up exhibits during the recent Camden County History Week are building a community of interest on campus and with nearby neighborhoods and organizations. It has also become a top destination for history buffs to come visit. With the awareness that’s being given to this part of the town, Dr. Mires and her team at MARCH hope to “reconstruct the history of this historic district that very few people recognize. All of these mini-projects will hopefully coalesce at some point so that people will think of Cooper Street as a destination.”
“It’s a rare opportunity to be both a professor and to have the opportunity to create a community around doing public humanities,” said Dr. Mires.
As stated on its website, the aim of MARCH is to “use our university base to offer on-site teaching and training opportunities. With projects such as the one at the Alumni House, and the developing Cooper Street database, Dr. Mires upholds the this principle as well as others that were established by the organization’s founder, Dr. Howard Gillette, Emeritus Professor of History. “We consider such training an essential element in preparing and encouraging the next generation of scholars, cultural administrators, archivists, and teachers to enter public humanities work.”
Written by Asia Kittles