By: Kathleen Donoho
What are you carrying in your backpack, pockets, or bag right now? If a stranger saw all those items, what might they learn about you? If that stranger was from 100 years in the future, what might they learn about the moment in history we’re living in right now?
Some of the things in my backpack right now include my laptop and charger, notes on medieval history, car keys, a bunch of pens and pencils sort of haphazardly in the inside pocket, my current craft project, a book from the Ball State Library, and, of course, a snack. Maybe that already gives you some ideas about who I am or what I’m like. If so, congrats! — you have just done some object-based research!
If there is one thing I’ve learned through my internship at Minnetrista Museum and Gardens here in Muncie, it is that objects tell stories. They can reveal information about the people who made and used them and can be part of an engaging way to share historical information.
During the Spring semester of 2023, and again in Fall 2023, I’ve been the Collections Management intern at Minnetrista. Mindy Price, the Collections Manager, and I work with the museum’s collection of over 15,000 artifacts. Minnetrista’s Collection contains objects related to the history of the Ball family, Ball Corporation, and local history of Muncie and the surrounding area.
I focus in particular on working with the textile objects in the collection. On any given day you might find me creating records in the database for objects new to the collection, participating in the physical care of the collections, doing research to support the exhibits team, or helping with installing/uninstalling exhibits from the museum. It’s the rare type of job wherein one day I’m carrying around a big stack of books, the next, power tools. Altogether, the work we do is ultimately aimed at uncovering and sharing the stories of the objects in the collection and caring for those objects so they’ll still be around telling their stories long after us.
This semester, one of my projects has been going through and making an inventory of several boxes of clothes and textiles from the estate of Rosemary Ball Bracken. Rosemary was the daughter of Elizabeth Wolfe Brady and Frank C Ball (one of the 5 Ball Brothers), and was the youngest of five children, living from 1909-1997.
One set of objects placed among the napkins, baby clothes, and costume hats was a pair of small fabric scraps; a doily and a crumpled white piece of cotton. The doily features a cotton center with the outline of two blue flowers in the center; beneath the flowers, in white thread is stitched, “R.W.B., five yrs” (Rosemary’s maiden name was Rosemary Winifred Ball). The other is a wrinkled, roughly cut bit of cotton muslin, with a mess of stitches done in pink thread, seemingly not attempting to make any particular image at all. Beside the stitches someone has written in pencil “R.W.B.’s ‘embroidery’ made in 1914 – at four years”.
I first encountered the two pieces separately, and initially I didn’t think much of either object.
They were each just another item to add to the already massive and ever-growing list of objects in the donation. It’s the larger items, the ones that are more flashy or that will present some sort of challenge that tend to be most memorable initially. But at the end of a long day as I gingerly moved objects from the worktable into boxes to put them back in their temporary storage location, I first saw the two embroidery samples sitting side by side there at the very top of the box. It was like seeing a poem.
Rosemary had done the pieces no more than one year apart and the difference was staggering. The scrap seems to have been completed during playtime, perhaps imitating the activities of her mother or older sisters. The doily was made by a young girl learning, but already showing skill in, embroidery. Her backstitches vary in length, but they dutifully march along following the curve of pencil lines that occasionally peek through the design. It spoke to me of a moment of transition— in what other ways did life differ for Rosemary from the age of 4 to 5? What else was she learning? How did her play change as she grew up? What pressures or expectations did she experience as she grew up as the daughter of a very wealthy, very visible family? It spoke to me of continuity across history— of the 18th century samplers I had been researching for another class, of my very own first attempts at embroidery, not much older than Rosemary, following pencil lines drawn by my mom.
In that moment Rosemary was not just a name on a family tree; she was a little girl holding an embroidery hoop. And she was a woman who decided to keep that embroidery until the day she died. Maybe she saw the same meaning in those pieces that I do, maybe their survival was merely coincidence; without a written source of her stating her intent, we’ll never know for sure.
So much of the study of history revolves around what was kept/recorded and what was lost or never recorded. We have to ask ourselves “Why?”. We have these samples showing Rosemary Ball’s process of learning needlework. But what about the young girls who worked in her father’s and uncle’s glass factories? Where are the artifacts of their childhoods? These girls were in the same city, at the same time, but “childhood” was undoubtedly a very different experience on the floor of the Ball factory than inside the walls of the Ball mansions.
Two small objects side-by-side, neither more than 7 inches in diameter, and already they allow a glimpse into one girl’s childhood. Furthermore they hint at a grown woman’s memory of childhood. At the same time they prompt reflection more broadly on the history of Muncie— on the intricate interactions of gender, class, race, and more that shaped the lives of those living in the city.
That’s the power of objects. It’s one thing to read a paragraph in a textbook, but it’s a very different thing to hold an item and feel connected to the hands that made it, as if you are watching that story play out in front of you. In my internship in collections at Minnetrista and in my Public History work in general I have the great privilege and great responsibility of doing my part to share these stories with the public.