Interview: Fort Ticonderoga Association
As we head into our summer Planning & Assessment application round and prepare for another class of awardees, we decided to take a step back and catch up with the Fort Ticonderoga Association, a DHPSNY alum who received a Preservation Survey from us in 2018. We spoke with Miranda Peters, Fort Ticonderoga's Director of Collections. Chatting with Miranda, we learned about the institution’s aspirational new mission, it’s expansive collections, and more.
Tell us a little about the Fort Ticonderoga Association. Where is it located and what is its mission?
Fort Ticonderoga is a battlefield, an historic site, and a museum. With nearly 2,000 acres of exquisite landscape located in the Adirondacks on Lake Champlain and overlooking the Green Mountains of Vermont, the site’s remarkable history covers the story of the conflicts that created an empire in the French & Indian War and later resulted in the struggle for liberty and America’s independence a generation later. The site also tells the story of a family, the Pell family, who undertook the earliest act of private preservation in 1820 to protect the crumbling fort and preserve the landscape. In 1909, the museum was established and the fort restored from the ruinous state it was in since 1781—the earliest restoration of its kind in America.
Fort Ticonderoga’s collections are a singular resource in the study of the evolving role of subject, citizen, and soldier in the 18th century—a debate that links past to present and can inform the future. We are able to explore these relationships through the physical remains of the events that occurred on the site and the expansive collections that document the broader military experience and heritage of our founding era. While there are a number of places in America that present the political, social, and economic aspects of the Atlantic conflicts and America’s fight for independence, Fort Ticonderoga’s collections are distinct in that they comprehensively speak to the changing role of subject, citizen and soldier in society. Fort Ticonderoga’s collections encompass British, European, Native Nations, and African stories that show the complexities of a shared Atlantic history.
On March 2, 2018, the Fort Ticonderoga Board of Trustees approved an updated Mission, Vision, and Values. These new documents were created after months of in-house planning and reflect years of meetings, feedback from our stakeholders, and—of course—the DHPSNY survey. The new Mission—To preserve, educate, and provoke active discussion about the past and its importance to present and future generations and to foster an on-going dialogue surrounding citizens, soldiers, and nations through America’s military heritage—is a direct acknowledgement of the significance of the collections and challenges staff to consider a broader narrative than just the historical confines of the site’s military service in the 18th century. This allows for the Fort Ticonderoga Museum to position itself as more than just a battlefield or military site, but as a resource to provoke active national discussions on the conflicts that shaped the political and cultural geography of the United States in the 18th century.
What’s the size and scope of its archival collections?
The archival collections consist of thousands of manuscripts, diaries, orderly books, maps, and photographs. There are 1,097 manuscripts in the collection that include pieces of correspondence from both officers and common soldiers who served at Fort Ticonderoga in the 18th century, journals, and orderly books containing first-hand accounts and day-to-day orders from armies at Fort Ticonderoga and the strategic Hudson/Lake Champlain corridor during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. In addition to the manuscript collection, Fort Ticonderoga’s archival collections contains dozens of original maps, hundreds of engraved portraits, and hundreds of historic photographs that provide a visual link to the past. The museum’s map collection documents change in the historic landscape from the 1690s to the mid-19th century. Engraved portraits bring researchers face-to-face with the key figures involved in the conflicts for North America during the 18th century. The photographic collection documents the preservation and reconstruction of Fort Ticonderoga from the mid-19th to the 21st century. The library contains over 13,000 volumes focusing on the military history of northeastern North America and New France during the 18th century. Another focal point of the rare book collection is the collection of original 17th-, 18th- and early 19th-century military manuals. The museum’s collection of 18th-century English and American newspapers and literary magazines includes comprehensive runs of The London Magazine and Annual Register covering the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution in their entirety. Future funding will be sought to catalog and develop finding aids for the entire archives collection.
How did you learn about DHPSNY’s Planning & Assessment Services?
I first met Anastasia Matijkiw, DHPSNY’s Program Manager, at the 2017 Museum Association of New York annual conference. Anastasia mentioned the Planning and Assessment Services DHPSNY provides during her presentation at the conference, then encouraged Fort Ticonderoga to apply for a survey when we met more informally during the MANY reception that evening. After this conversation, the museum applied for a Preservation Survey to assess the archival collections and storage spaces. At the same time, I also applied to be a part of the pilot Mentorship Circle program where I had the pleasure of connecting with other museum/library/archive professionals. Others in the Circle shared their experiences with a Preservation Survey which further encouraged my interest in the program.
What organizational needs prompted you to apply for a Preservation Survey?
The need for a dedicated Collections Department to gain better intellectual and physical controls over the collection was prioritized in 2011 as part of a comprehensive planning process. Past periods of rapid collections growth at Fort Ticonderoga overwhelmed the limited staff. There was usually a single Curator who managed both collections and curatorial responsibilities for most of the museum’s history over the past century. Understandably, this left a major backlog of work to undertake. In 2015, I was hired as the museum’s first Collections Manager to open a Collections Department dedicated to managing collections documentation, preservation, and access. Work began those first couple of years largely responding to projects that needed urgent attention. By the time I met Anastasia from DHPSNY, we were beginning to get out of “triage” mode and able to think more seriously about long-term planning. Starting this process with a Preservation Survey was the best way for the department to look at the steps needed to gain physical and intellectual control over the collection.
What have been some of the outcomes of your survey? Have you been able to make progress toward any of the goals identified in the survey report?
I knew the Preservation Survey would be important, but was surprised by the number of ways we have subsequently used it in our work. The survey included a preservation plan, a list of preservation priorities, and an assessment of specific needs with Fort Ticonderoga’s collections. One of the most useful formal products from the survey was a succinct list of short-term, medium-term, long-term, and on-going goals. Some of the smaller goals were easier to accomplish and were integrated into departmental staff annual work plans. The list has been especially useful as we continue to seek support for some of the longer-term goals. Shortly after Gillian Marcus, DHPSNY’s Preservation Specialist, came out to Ticonderoga for the survey, we applied for an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to support the wall-to-wall cataloging, inventorying, and rehousing of the collections. Since we didn’t have the survey in hand yet, Gillian wrote a letter of support for our grant application—and we received the award! I believe having DHPSNY as a 3rd party come in to assess the collection contributed to our success. The survey also informed our 5-year strategic plan that was approved by the Board of Trustees in January 2019. It has been easy to work with DHPSNY throughout this process. The resources they make available on the website, including free webinars and workshops, also support the continuing professional development of the Collections Department staff. Over the past four years, the department has grown from a part-time Collections Manager to five full-time collections management professionals—without whom the successes we have seen at Fort Ticonderoga would not be possible.
What has been your favorite part of the process? What has been a challenge you've met during the process?
Spending an entire day walking through each storage space and discussing the collections with Gillian was an extremely rewarding process. We collections care professionals can be our own toughest critics. Often “in the weeds” with collections work, we sometimes tend to focus on everything that isn’t ideal or still needs to be done. I was pleasantly surprised that Gillian also directed our attention to everything that was going well with the collections program. Sure, there are also the action steps from the survey that still need to happen as we take the program and our care of the collections to the next level, but it was nice to step back and see the many things we had accomplished from an outsider’s perspective. One challenge with the survey is the length—it’s a big document and that can feel overwhelming. After we received the survey and reviewed it, we needed to step back for a week or so before we revisited it. Even though it is lengthy, it is organized into digestible chapters and sections that are easy to navigate. The survey is extremely thorough, which is fantastic, and has guided our department in the decisions we have made ever since.
What’s your personal favorite item or collection in the archives?
While our archive is very suited for research on topics that relate to warfare in the early modern period, I have a particular interest in the museum’s 19th-and 20th-century photograph collection. These photos illustrate the development of the site from the ruins of the 19th on through the reconstruction of the fort in the early 20th century, and the growth of the museum. The department was able to catalog and digitize hundreds of photos from the collection last year through the Institutional Legacy Initiative, an oral history project aimed at recording and preserving stories from the 20th-century history of the site. Assistant Registrar Tabitha Hubbard managed the initiative, which resulted in over 70 hours of recorded interviews from nearly 50 people. These stories enhance our narrative and provide context for many of the photographs in the collection.
How do you make your archival collections accessible to the public? (exhibits, online exhibits, appointments for researchers?)
In the fall of 2018, Registrar & Site Archaeologist Margaret Staudter launched the museum’s first online collections database, Ticonderoga Online Collections. This website was a huge leap for the department in creating pathways of accessibility to the collections. Nearly 1,000 records have been uploaded since the launch, and we have committed to an additional 12,000 over the next three years. In addition to the online database, the Collections Department is very involved with the museum’s social media accounts. The department has several social media initiatives on Facebook and Instagram, including #MuseumMonday, #WhatisitWednesday, and #CollectionsSpeedDating. Collections Speed Dating is an opportunity to get behind-the-scenes looks at highlights from the Fort Ticonderoga Museum's collection. They feature 3-5 minute videos of Curator Matthew Keagle speaking about a specific object from the museum’s collection. In 2018, over 72,000 people tuned into these videos on Facebook and YouTube, and we have more in production now. An example of one from our archival collection is here: https://youtu.be/XDTvRpGhjX0. In addition to our online presence, we also have a rigorous exhibit schedule, and host researchers from around the world to study in our collections.
Have your collections been used to support any interesting research projects?
Yes, so many! I’ll highlight one of the most recent, since we just completed a big project this morning. Although our museum has been around for over a century, I was surprised to find out that there weren’t any collections-based publications. Sure, our collections have been used by scholars for decades to illustrate articles and books, but we didn’t have a publication or catalog that truly focused on the object. In collaboration with the Curatorial Department, in the last two years we have created and published three collections-based books: A Noble Legacy: Ticonderoga, Boston, & the American Military Experience (2017); Achieving Independence: Philadelphia & Ticonderoga (2018); and Ticonderoga: Between Two Waters & Many Worlds (sent to the printers today and forthcoming in 2019!). These are available in our Museum Store in addition to the rest of the Ticonderoga Press publications.
Are there any upcoming exhibits, projects, or events you'd like to mention?
The museum’s main exhibit, GREAT WARS: TICONDEROGA AND WORLD WAR I, explores Ticonderoga’s deep connections with the First World War. The Great War deeply affected Ticonderoga, a museum barely a decade old when the war began in 1914. When the US entered the war, the co-founder of the museum, Stephen Pell, traveled to France where he served as an ambulance driver in major campaigns in 1917 and 1918. While there, Stephen was wounded in action near the end of the war. His family, including his wife Sarah Pell and his two children, kept things together on the home front avoiding German shells, but battling the implications of a conflict whose effects were felt across the globe.
The First World War reshaped the scale and repercussions of warfare in the early 20th century. Similarly, the Seven Years War forever altered the face of imperial warfare and its implications in the 18th century, not only leading towards the creation of the United States, but giving birth to Ticonderoga itself. This exhibit explores the lives of the Pell family and Ticonderoga from 1914-1919, as well as the important links between the Seven Years War and World War I, featuring paintings, photographs, weapons, uniforms, and other artifacts, many newly restored or uncovered and on display for the first time.
In working on this exhibit, new documents surfaced that highlight our museum co-founder Sarah Pell. Stephen H.P. Pell is almost always credited with restoring Fort Ticonderoga in the early 20th century. But if you picked up a paper in the 1910s, you would have read that Sarah Gibbs Thompson Pell, Stephen’s wife, was being touted as the driver of Ticonderoga’s historic preservation and restoration. A contemporary described her as a “charmingly aggressive woman,” and most early newspapers identified Sarah as the prime mover behind Ticonderoga’s rebirth.
Sarah also helped restore the Pavilion into a summer home, developed the King’s Garden, and was a tireless advocate for women’s rights. Sarah was involved with the suffrage movement across the Atlantic as early as 1913 and joined America’s National Women’s Party (NWP) in the 1920s, setting it on the path of financial stability. She became the NWP national chair in 1936. During her tenure, in 1923, she reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment written by Alice Paul, who had attended NWP events in the Pavilion. It was a personal honor to help reinsert Sarah’s narrative into the story of Ticonderoga and a special exhibit, SARAH PELL: STRUGGLE FOR HISTORY AND HUMAN RIGHTS, pays respect to this remarkable woman.
Honestly, there is so much to see and do at Fort Ticonderoga, it would take pages upon pages to detail everything and explain how what our guests see on the front line is informed by the collections. Seeing is believing. If you have never been, or it has been a long time since you were out, I’d highly recommend you come pay a visit!
Image: Aerial view of Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Ticonderoga Association.