The recording, discovering, and sharing of history is a collaboration that takes place over time with many hands involved. Museums are one part of the equation, and sometimes genealogists are another.
Here’s what I mean: In 2003, the museum collected an 1860 college yearbook from Rutgers University. We selected this album over several others, because it was in excellent condition, the photographer was included in the album, and it also contained interesting text alongside the photographs. Our primary interest was in the photographer, George K. Warren. He was a Boston area photographer who came up with the idea of the photographic yearbook. The museum has a broad collection of his material in the Photographic History Collection, and because we felt this was an important aspect to his contribution to the history of photography, we sought out an excellent example.
The yearbook we selected had been owned by George McNeel. We found out through the Rutgers University archivist that McNeel was the youngest of three Texas boys who attended the school and died as Confederate officers in the Civil War. Because its previous owner had been a Texan attending a northern college just before the outbreak of the Civil War, we found the messages that were written to McNeel compelling insights about interpersonal dialogues during 1859 and 1860.
(Left) The portrait of George McNeel was made by Boston area photographer George Warren. Warren photographed the campus of the school and all of its staff from the President to the house mothers. Students received a list of available images and selected who and what went into the yearbook. Warren’s parents helped assemble the loose pages of the albums before they were sent to the bookbinder for personalized covers. (Right) This the back of George McNeel’s yearbook.
Last year, about this time, I participated in an online seminar in which I discussed this yearbook as an interesting intersection of personal opinion and beliefs within a larger national political story. As a result of the archived online recording, a member of McNeel’s family contacted me this past fall. The museum had not been able to identify exactly which of the portraits was the yearbook’s owner. Thanks to the family, we now know. Their research into the family history will help tell a deeper and broader story about this object that the museum is researching for other purposes. Together we are able to share intertwining histories that reveal the tangled private and public lives we lead.
The museum is working hard to make its collections available to the public through our blog, online collections database, online educational resources, exhibitions at the museum, and even on Flickr. Please keep adding your comments and questions to these resources. Through these dialogues, we can help each other create deeper and richer histories for future generations.
Shannon Perich is Associate Curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.