Monday, August 6, 2012

Service Learning Update: Katey Smith, Middleton Area Historical Society

With support from the Caxambas Foundation, the Material Culture Program is once again sponsoring three undergraduate summer service learners. Each student has partnered with a Wisconsin museum or historical society to help them digitize and share their collections online. Our second update comes from Landscape Architecture major Katey Smith.

“How is the kid? Suppose you are having a great old time, wish Kate & kids and I were with you. Well don’t forget us will you?” This message was written on the back of this postcard (below) and was sent to Mr. Leonard Brite of Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 10th, 1917 . The postcard has been a way of connecting with loved ones, sharing memories, and sending many “wish you were here” messages since the early 1900s. I have had the opportunity to decipher these hand-written personal messages and am looking forward to sharing this collection.

Over the past two months I have been working with the Middleton Area Historical Society to digitize a portion of their historical photograph collection for the Wisconsin Heritage Online database. I have always had an interest in photography and I have recently completed the landscape architecture program at UW-Madison. I am interested in many topics that this broad major encompasses and this summer I wanted to gain more experience with Historic and Cultural Landscape Preservation. This internship allows me to gain hands-on experience, while blending my love of photography and historic landscapes.

Starting out I had absolutely no idea what type of historical photographs I would be digitizing and researching for the digitization project. Wisconsin Heritage Online Outreach Specialist Emily Pfotenhauer advised me with a few logical ways to start:  1. Find a topic that interested me or related to landscape architecture 2. Narrow down the photograph search to a street or area within Middleton or 3. Focus on a topic important to Middleton’s history.

All of these approaches proved to be difficult for me and I was really starting to envy the Material Culture interns who already had a project started or designed for them. I felt pretty lost and for a few weeks I just focused on helping the other volunteers scan photographs and enter information into a data storage system. Luckily, this helped me become familiar with the Middleton Area Historical Society’s collection and what type of information was important to the citizens who visited the museum. By listening to visitor’s conversations with the museum docents, and constantly hearing “Oh I remember my grandfather having…” and trying to help them when they asked for yearbooks, family photographs, etc. made me realize that people were searching for that special way that they could connect with Middleton’s vivid history.

When I came across the large collection of postcards I was totally captivated by them. I liked deciphering the personal messages on the back and felt like I was peering into a small slice of life in the early 1900’s. Often times, the messages on the postcards are very similar to things that I would write on a postcard to a family member or friend today. I felt very connected to history at that point in this experience which made me realize – I too was searching for that unique connection!

As I kept searching through the postcard collection, I discovered some really high quality images. I personally love the image above of the Weinberg Building (currently housing the restaurant Villa Dolce) because it shows an active street life, thriving businesses, and a great social atmosphere. I also especially like images that have old automobiles or signs in them like the two below. (Parmenter Street and High School).

So far, my time with the Middleton Area Historical Society has been very fun! I enjoy finding something new each day, whether it’s a really old photograph or an interesting piece of information. The knowledge and hands on experience I have been gaining is very beneficial. I want to thank Mike Davis (City Administrator), Brekk Feely, Carol and Dave (Lead Volunteers at the Society), as well as all the other Society volunteers who have been extremely trusting and accommodating throughout this entire experience. 

--Katey Smith

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