Behind the Research for "Working Title"

By Jenna FebrizioEducation & Operations Director

In March 2020, when the museum closed its doors to the public due to the pandemic, I was working as the Heurich House Museum’s Operations Manager while also pursuing a PhD candidate in history. I wondered what would come next since my museum role was primarily onsite dealing with day-to-day systems. My passion has always been history research about German immigrant networks: how did people make connections with each other? How did they support each other, especially through challenging times?

Then a dream opportunity opened up while working from home - the museum’s Director Kim Bender shifted my role to Education Manager and I was invited to participate in planning an exhibit on the household staff as its curator.

From the beginning of the research process, I worked closely with the museum’s collections team including our Collections Manager at the time, Allison, and a team of interns, who transcribed Amelia Heurich’s diaries and isolated names of people who worked as household staff. I realized very quickly that the amount of information we had for each person differed greatly, and this only became more apparent while digging through the archives.

I started the research journey with some foundational goals: our work would be focused on people and their unique life journeys, it would be documented and cited to ensure accuracy, and the process would be ongoing - often including more questions than answers. We searched for biographical details for each person, closely considering what information was missing and why that may be the case. 

We quickly learned that the role of Christian Heurich’s third wife, Amelia, was much more complex than how she was originally portrayed. She was a household manager, taking part in all aspects of staff supervision in addition to completing housework herself. Amelia actively preserved the memory of the family and staff by writing detailed daily diary entries, which was a launching point for our research. At every point we kept in mind that these accounts were told through Amelia’s lens.

Photo of Amelia Heurich’s diary entry from January 26, 1912 about an employee named “Brown” who did “the rough work”  (Please note this entry features language that we would consider racist today.)

Sitting at home behind my laptop while the world was closed, I remember getting lost on, Chronicling America, and other research databases. I found myself scouring through a wide array of documents, like ship manifests, census records, obituaries, etc., and following any available leads to learn who each staff member was. The process was always exciting and sometimes rewarding, but often very challenging. Instead of being discouraged by dead ends, I viewed them as an opportunity to ask more questions.

Photo of William Bender, who worked as a chauffeur for the Heurich family, ca. 1913-1920

I began thinking about issues of memory, considering the ideas of sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (check out the book On Collective Memory). Why couldn’t we trace some staff while others seemed to have clearly outlined life trajectories? The life of William Bender, a white, DC-born chauffeur for the family, could easily be tracked, but when we tried to find information about a man named “Brown” who did “rough work” for the family, we were met with challenges.

Screenshot from the museum’s Behind the Research series on Instagram 

We began to share our research journey through videos on social media in a “Behind the Research” series. Finally when we were back onsite, we started the exhibit planning process with Allison and I working directly with the museum’s Marketing Manager, Alex, to design the exhibit. Follow along to hear more about the exhibit process… in the meantime you can check out our new exhibit Working Title, which is on view during guided museum tours.

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