Picturing the Past
A Visual Dimension for Community History

Stefan Bielinski

June 16, 2000
Conference on New York State History

For the past twenty years, I have been working with a diverse group of historians, students, and heritage hobbyists on a cooperative community history project aimed at understanding pre-industrial community life in the city of Albany - one of the oldest and most socially complex early American population centers. That effort has been based on the assumption or principle, that the life of a community is the sum of its human parts and that its history is the story of its human diversity and of how that mix changed over time. Following that is the premise that the history of a community is best told, understood, and appreciated in the real life stories of its members individually and in kinship, interest, and activity groups. Pretty strong statements I admit but that's where we're coming from!!!

To implement these ambitions and make a long story short here today, over the past two decades the Colonial Albany Social History Project has undertaken an exhaustive search of a range of historical records and resources toward the end of developing a comprehensive biography for each of the 16,000 men, women, and children who lived in the city of Albany before the Industrial Revolution.

Twenty years later, and after much hard work by more than 300 major contributors (I see some survivors here today), I am pleased to report that all of these biographical studies are still in progress and that the potential for finding and incorporating new information about the most obscure as well as the most renowned community members still seems limitless. In other words, every day we learn something new and useful about the individual people of colonial Albany and thus engage their lives, times, and world on more and more informed terms.

So we have a massive (yet open-ended) biographical database, as research (new learning) is still an everyday feature of life at the CASHP. But fifteen years ago, we began to present the story of the people of colonial Albany and their world to our world first through publications (the most permanent and intellectually impressive programming tools) and also in public programs first in the theater at the State Museum, then in every hall, auditorium, center, and classroom in the Albany area, and then across the country and beyond as the themes and issues raised and articulated with case-study evidence in our presentations are directly applicable the history of any pre-industrial community.

The need to popularize the more informal and also classroom-based presentations caused us to think about a visual perspective on life in early Albany, consider the potentials for coloring our programs, and then to undertake a search for images that today is of comparable intensity to that of our quest for the written record.

Following the philosophy that guided our search for documentary information about early Albany people that is that some kind of record was made on every facet of an individual's life and that it exists somewhere, we assumed (for argument's sake) that a portrait or at least a likeness existed for every early Albany person again somewhere! That fanaticism reminds us never to give up and say "it doesn't exist" but instead to just keep looking!

In 1986, we had developed a tidy little file of portrait prints to illustrate our Women of Colonial Albany community history calendars. The calendars proved surprisingly popular because each month's feature was an illustrated story about the life and times of a specific early Albany woman. Those portraits came from actual repositories, were lifted out of publications, purchased at bookstores, were sent to us by actual owners, or were bootlegged copies of less savory pedigree. To date, we have almost 500 actual likenesses of bona fide early Albany people. To that "collection" we began adding copies of Albany maps, street scenes and cityscapes, buildings, and particular objects owned by early Albany people although the documents historian was very much a wolf in sheep's clothing amid a building full of artifacts at the State Museum! But publications and a growing slate of public programs and the publicity and community contacts they generated were beginning to persuade my employers that sponsoring the CASHP might be a good idea after all. However, at that time, I was still pretty much a written word historian who still regarded visuals as window dressing. Programming experiences over the next ten years would revolutionize my understanding of how to present community history.

If you take a look at the programs menu of the People of Colonial Albany Live Here website, you'll see that each presentation is illustrated. That's been the case for many years now. In fact, most current programs are visually driven where the discussion follows an image. Evaluations have shown that audiences take away the most significant information and understandings when engaged by a literal image of the past.

Before showing you what I mean, let's talk for a few more minutes about the tools for visualizing the past and for engaging audiences.

At this point, theCASHP has assembled a Graphics Archive of more than 5,000 unique images of what we call "the people of colonial Albany and their world!" Today, these exist mostly on slides reflecting our initial need to illustrate public presentations that typically feature 80 or more images! Until recently, that format has served well (even ingeniously) as an efficient way of storing our "collection" (they are housed in a single file cabinet rather than occupying an entire room).

Slides allowed for having readily available focused or creatively composed and colored details of larger images (we have several thousand variations on the core visuals - dozens for each cityscape), for sending illustrations to publishers and elsewhere, and finally at this point, as a utilitarian form from which to transform celluloid into computer memory. The presentation you will soon see has been recently changed over from slides to jpegs and will be presented via Powerpoint this morning for the first time.

With our website, which is set up for your perusal outside on our display table, this program - called "Meet the People of Colonial Albany" is almost entirely visual and is the best example of how we might "picture the past!"

It features portraits and other likenesses of actual Albany residents, panoramas and other cityscapes, street and activity scenes, individual buildings, maps and diagrams, documents, and assorted iconographic items including the city seals, scriptures, and signatures. Some of these images are of actual seventeenth and eighteenth-century creations. Others are what I call "victorianizations" or after the fact representations of an earlier time. Others are modern artistic recreations (most notably and usefully the paintings of historical artist Len Tantillo). Still others are photographs of surviving places and features. Further discussions of the individual features of this community ethnography are just a click away from the gallery on our website.

I also call this presentation "Early Albany 101" because it tells the story of the founding and growth of the city of Albany in social terms and is illustrated by the best 90 images from our collection. The song (which is also the subject of a published article - and is available on our website) raises all of the most relevant issues in the early Albany story. This introductory presentation lasts less than five minutes!

When it ends, the discussion begins!!!

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