Animals in the Archives Symposium

I encountered two animals in the archive my first day conducting research this summer.  The first was a mouse.  As I opened my very first box from a collection in Pennsylvania, pulled by the archivists for my viewing pleasure, I happened upon some torn paper.  A loose scroll was shredded.  As I lifted it for inspection, white pieces fell from it like confetti.  I panicked.  The archivists on staff took the matter very seriously, as they concluded a mouse had made a nest in this box.  We scrambled together to make sure the other twelve boxes I pulled from this collection were in good condition, finding dust and pests had inhabited some (not all!) boxes for some time and caused some damage.  Save for the scroll of paper, nothing else was lost to the collection.  But, it took my request for a series that had been in storage for several decades to reveal its condition (and its nonhuman inhabitants!).


The usual wear and tear of early 20th century archival materials.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016.

That same day I flipped through the pages of a scientist’s journal.  His handwriting was mesmerizing.  I loved reading about the precise days and times this early 20th century chemist met with a veterinarian to make sure the calves he bought for experiments were healthy.  And there they were at the middle of the journal – pictures of these calves!  I squealed with delight to find the glossy black and white images accompanied by the beautiful handwriting.

These are two of many ways an historian or archivist can come to animals in the archives, and this barely scratches the surface of experiences and interactions.  This was evident in the papers and roundtables organized for the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Animals in the Archives.  The two day event took place from October 27th to 28th, bringing together historians, librarians, archivists, and even scientists (to a degree) to discuss interactions in the archive similar to the ones I had this summer.  The stories shared ranged from the recognition of animals as material (parchment, book binding, taxidermy) to animals as subjects in film narratives, photographs, and rhetoric.  Below are my personal “take aways” from this event as a budding historian of animals.


A film screening of Matto Grosso, The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) launched the beginning of this symposium.  Housed within the Penn Museum’s archives, the film is known as one of the first non-fiction films to incorporate animal sounds, according to film specialist Kate Pourshariati.  This is due in part to the rapidly changing technologies of the time – when explorers could enter the field with various kinds of equipment to document visual and auditory material from a given area.  Many different kinds of animals were featured in the film and included both wild Brazilian animals and domesticated “Old World” species.  The story told by the film producers was one of science and friendship: the explorers collecting animal specimens for research purposes with the help of the indigenous groups of Matto Grosso.


Matto Grosso postcard from Penn’s Matto Grosso film website.

During a reflective roundtable discussion, Rosanna Dent provided some useful context about the history and area of Matto Grosso.  She noted how approaching the film as an artifact trying to achieve the “authentic travel narrative” reveals much of the intent behind this piece.  The back-and-forth between “authenticity” and “natural-ness” of the interactions between both humans and nonhumans was particularly striking to me – as many of the moments with animals could not be entirely staged in the film.  Carolyn Fornoff made the important nod to colonialism in the narrative, and Rahul Mukherjee reflected on how human identity is made through various interactions with animals, staged or not in the film.  Themes of extinction, creation and captivity (Noah’s Ark), and the difficulties in historicizing racism resonated with the crowd and affected the next day’s conversations.

The next day of the symposium demonstrated the multidisciplinary fortitude of taking animal material in archives seriously.  Bruce Holsinger outlined his most recent book project focused on animal skin – parchment – in the archives and his interaction with medieval texts and contemporary scientists to get at the significance of the medium in the past and today.  Iris Montero mapped the presence of hummingbird bundles in various types of archival material – making a case for the “pre-Columbian” archive.  To her, both memories and myths were materialized in these nonhuman animal artifacts.  Animal material, the question of its significance to understanding historical moments, and the question to archivists as to why material is collected and kept resonated in the other talks.   Rebecca Woods’s paper on Australian wool samples, Nigel Rothfel’s attention to elephant skins, and the “Materiality” roundtable, including both archivists and researchers, touched on these concerns.  We encountered issues of ethics in anthropodermic books, logistics in keeping taxidermy mice, and challenges in cataloging multi-species relationships: as insects and the plants they consumed leave DNA footprints on textual materials.

The last speaker, Neel Ahuja, addressed moments when animals are discussed in documents, and the different ways these moments could be interpreted by historians.  His example demonstrated that the implications of such documents were so political in certain places and time periods that it often becomes difficult for the historian to disentangle lived experience from political agenda – particularly when trying to “get at” the animal.  The presentation addressed animal welfare issues with milking cattle in late 19th century India, when legal documentation was ambiguous and hesitant to cite methods of milking that were banned based on their cruelty and ineffectiveness.  Ahuja made the case of looking at such material with hybridity in mind: the reality of the cruelty in these methods for certain historical actors, and the ban implicating something specific about colonial power and the rationalization of industrial methods of milking over pastoralist ones.  Certain human-animal interactions that took place for hundreds of years were suddenly re-contextualized as inappropriate through legal documentation.  But these interactions were also rhetorically avoided in the writing; perhaps illustrating a similar experience of getting to animal material in an archive without much written documentation of the life/experience/interactions the body had while still alive.


Harriet Ritvo’s Animal Estate (1987).

Harriet Ritvo, who arguably jump-started the animal history movement with her book Animal Estate (1987), provided some helpful closing comments to the event.   The two big questions participants seemed to be grappling with included 1) What are animals like?  and 2) What are archives like?  When historians engage with animals in the archives they are forced to recognize their living qualities.  Animals are not just metaphorical, even though we often approach them in this form in writings.  Animals are very real, and they were very alive before their bodies were placed in museums, libraries, or universities.  When animals are archived today, we see some difficulty in placing material objects within their context – particularly as papers become part of separate archival spaces housed away from their objects of reference.  The importance of these material objects – these animal bodies – in understanding the past is something historians and archivists need to keep in mind, and they are sources that are useful, troubling, and fantastic.

Reflections from Amish 2016

Part of my research includes the collection of different perspectives of nutritional health and welfare from different kinds of people.  Though I work primarily with “modern” American farmers and veterinarians, I’m always interested in what different cultural groups have to say about human and animal health.  When I was completing my Master’s degree, for example, I focused more pointedly on the Amish community.  My research on animal health companies that work with the Amish largely inspired the kind of cultural/historical work I do today, and I continue to participate in events involving the community and its farmers.

amish conference

Brochure of conference, Elizabethtown College 2016.

From June 9th through the 11th I participated in Elizabethtown College’s International Amish Conference.  This year’s theme was “Continuity and Change: 50 Years of Amish Society,” based in part on the timeline of John Hostetler’s renowned book Amish Society (1963).   What is the benefit of taking part in such a specialized conference?  I think Steven Nolt’s opening plenary helped contextualize the significance of the Amish and our current interests in studying them.  The group at the publication of Amish Society, for example, was thought to be a dying culture.  Reviewers of Hostetler’s book noted how he was documenting the traces of a disappearing community.  This was because in 1963, Nolt noted, there were a documented 21,000 members of the Amish community in North America.  Things changed, though.  By 1993, 135,000 members were documented.  Today, there are an estimated 308,000 Amish members on the continent.

amish society

Amish Society (4th edition), 1993.

The Amish have been growing, and so has general and scholarly interest in them. Their growing visibility is somewhat to blame, partially from scholars like Hostetler and partially (more significantly, Nolt would argue) from popular media representations of them.  The 1985 crime thriller Witness is constantly cited as a particular point of departure (albeit, inaccurate in many parts) when Amish life was played out for the public.  Nolt cited other examples including other films and reality TV.  He did miss the important intervention made by Orange is the New Black with its third season flashback of Leanne, which touched on the consequences of adolescent experimentation held in some of these communities.   Regardless of this missed opportunity, his speech emphasized that the general public knows about and is fascinated with the Amish – and often we find ourselves pressing our outsider desires, ideals, and misconceptions onto the community.  Amish romance novels with innocent storylines and environmentalists taking up Amish farmers as poster children for environmental sustainability are just two ways this is illustrated.  As Donald Kraybill would note in his concluding plenary, we hold up a cultural mirror to ourselves and think about our own society’s changes when we think about and study the Amish.

Leanne orange is the new black

Screenshot from Orange is the New Black, Leanne Taylor flashback.  I was happy to see at the conference that there was a panel on Amish and the State, with one presenter who looked into underage drinking violations during Rumspringa.  It would have been nice to see more engagement with this popular take on the community in this panel or others.

There were some incredibly helpful *academic* ideas expressed throughout this conference (which I write about below), but for some (including myself to a degree) this was not enough.  I think the level of engagement and reflexivity needed in working with the Amish community could be improved, as it continues to be improved more generally in anthropological, sociological, and historical fields.  For example, I was surprised to hear when I asked if Amish scholars were implicated in any of the changes we are seeing in the community today (particularly the instability of categories and nuance between churches), that most scholars did not have an answer.

I was later approached by an Amish convert who assured me that scholars probably don’t make great changes, but I still wonder what consequences may be held in living with, researching, writing about, and promoting studies about Amish life.  I think these questions are often avoided because there is a sense of fragility that comes with working with and representing a community so dedicated to being separated from our larger world.  This is understandable and comparable to experiences held by academics who work with other culturally specific groups.  But I want to challenge this notion of fragility a bit, as it is perhaps only reflected within our own perceptions of this kind of lifestyle.  Who has the self-control nowadays to limit technology use, to be satisfied with community-based (usually only up to 8th grade) education, and to be fully devoted to a religion largely criticized socially and politically for its exclusionary history?  I feel many scholars look to Amish communities with a sense that this space *can’t* be stable, forgetting that many members struggle daily with the *same* physical, economic, and philosophical challenges as us, but with perseverance that now boasts over 300,000 strong.  Their support system is different, and perhaps we are envious of this system in a world where definitions, categories, and identities have become more ambiguous, multi-faceted, and unstable.  Nolt proposed this of the non-academic media-driven world around us, but it certainly extends to those of us dedicated to studying and documenting different histories, cultures, and communities.

**Note the comments by @easyEZ at the end of this LancasterOnline article.

Considering what academics might gain from Amish studies, I think Nolt, Kraybill, and others at the conference provided some really wonderful frames to think about many different academic topics that transcend Amish life and society.  I wanted to share some of my notes that might be useful for other readers and scholars.

  1. Satire is a “hypermodern” narrative. Nolt repeated this phrase a few times in his plenary.  He was interested in driving home examples of satire from talk show hosts like David Letterman who have poked fun at the Amish (or ourselves through the Amish) in the past.  What is wonderful about satire, Nolt expressed, is that it isn’t confined to one point of view.  Multiple points of view are revealed in a satirical narrative – and this is what makes it uniquely a device of our “hypermodern” age.  We are not confined to categories or even a singular perspective in how we express our feelings – we talk about, engage with, and essentially *are* many things at once.  This is what makes our contemporary age exciting and unstable, perhaps reflecting some of the longing we have for the seemingly more stable Amish community.  In actuality, the Amish are also experiencing similar in-betweens and multi-identities as we are; the anxiety is just expressed in different ways.


  1. Christianity may be too anthropocentric for environmentalism. This came up in an Environmental Stewardship seminar, which in ways challenged this notion that Amish farming “stewardship” is comparable to the goals held by environmental activists. Though the focus was on Christianity, and more specifically the Genesis narrative getting in the way of farmers caring more about non-human welfare, I thought this was an important frame of departure for those in environmental studies.  There are multiple ways of seeing the world that are human-centric, but the big question today seems to be, “how do we get past this?” However, *do* we need to get past human-centric notions to engage in meaningful behaviors that consider our non-human counterparts, including the climate we are altering?  In ways, Marilyn Loveless and David McConnell, who headed the seminar, implied that anthropocentrism isn’t the worst relationship one can have with nature.  The Amish community has a significantly smaller carbon footprint when compared to other groups, and this is in part due to their devotion to the Christian Bible.  The discussion left entangled notions of Christianity, environmentalism, and stewardship up in the air.  What “environmentalism” as a term triggered for Amish members, however (including liberal/immoral stances), should not be ignored.  Can’t wait for their book, which will cover these discussions in more depth!
faith in nature

The seminar reminded me of some of the arguments held in Dunlap’s Faith in Nature (2005) book.  Environmentalism has also borrowed a bit of language from Christianity in its history. How do we grapple with this?  Where do the Amish fit in this narrative?

  1. Externalizing v. internalizing rules is contested, informal “testing” of cultural structures is often more meaningful for individuals. In the technology panel of the conference, rules for adopting and using computers, the internet, and cellphones were investigated with the philosophy of technology in mind. I was happy to hear Gerald Mast cite McLuhan in his paper on internet-use between Amish orders (New v. Old Order).  For his paper and the others in his panel, understandings of technological control and extension (from body, mind, etc.) ran rampant through Amish debates about the use of these devices.  What all the panelists concluded was that testing was an important component of technological adoption, whether on part of individuals testing the Ordnung and its limits, or testing the tech itself and the dangers it could pose to the community.  I thought this finding showed an incredible, empirical nature to human decision-making and community building – the fact that “testing” was a meaningful process regardless of proximity to scientific practice (the Amish prefer “natural study” over “science” given its similar political underpinnings to “environmentalism”).  Testing was also shown to be an important internalized, informal process.  Formal notions of rule-making like written down rules or copies made of written down rules proved less meaningful to individuals when taking connections between technology and society seriously.  This is definitely something I want to keep in mind as I move forward as an educator.  Sometimes the informal spaces of learning are the ones where the most meaningful connections are made.