Emma Lang was born and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s a town known for it’s universities (she used to cut across the Harvard campus walking to and from high school every day), but it is also a very complex and diverse place, and one that was undergoing a lot of changes when she was growing up. Growing up there Emma learned how important it is to have conversations with people different backgrounds and, sometimes the hard way, how to have those tough cross cultural conversations affectively. Growing up in Cambridge also gave her the opportunity to find her vocation. When Emma was 14 she began volunteering at museums now located in the houses of the Alcotts, Hawthorns and Emersons in nearby Concord Massachusetts. “Almost immediately I knew I wanted spend my life working in museums or in the heritage sector. I saw then, and still view, museums and heritage institutions as being one of the most democratic ways of educating the public and I love the way they can teach us through all of our senses.”
Emma completed her BA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through a program called Bachelors Degree in Individual Concentration (BDIC), based on her interests in labour history and heritage studies. After graduation in 2007 she got an internship at the Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick Shetland and it was there she was introduced to the one of the topics that has now developed into her PhD project.
After returning to the U.S. and spending a year gaining practical skills through working with a union and interning at the National Museum of American History, Emma completed her MA in Museum Studies with a focus on Exhibition Development at George Washington University in 2010. As part of that degree she interned at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax and afterwards traveled to Newfoundland for a vacation and had the fortune to accidently come across the town of Port Union, now the other half of her thesis project at Memorial University.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
After five years in the museum world I decided that I wanted to finally begin work on a project that compares the history of the workers organizations that developed in Newfoundland and Shetland and investigates how that history is remembered (or not) and how it can be useful today (or not) and how it is presented and preserved (or not) for both for locals and tourists. This project had been banging around in my head starting in 2007 when I learned about the Shetland part of the story and became even more exciting in 2010 when I learned about Port Union and the Fishermen’s Protective Union. I began looking for programs where I could study such a thing and it turns out there aren’t a lot of schools where you can study the labour history of North Atlantic fisheries and place it in the context of heritage work! Since my project is largely based around Newfoundland history Memorial was the obvious choice. Additionally since doing a PhD is a stressful process I wanted to be in a place I knew would be livable so I would be happy in my everyday life. I also wanted to be in a place where I might have the opportunity to continue my heritage work in some capacity. I had fallen in love with St. John’s when I visited in 2010 so with all of these factors lining up there was no doubt that Memorial was the place for me. And it has been. I still love St. John’s and Memorial reminds me of UMass in many ways. I tell my family and friends back home that, for someone from Eastern Massachusetts, St. John’s feels just enough like home to be cozy and different enough to be exciting.
What drew you to explore history/folklore originally?
I grew up in a family of storytellers, and when I say storytellers I don’t mean people who tell yarns where you’re not sure what’s true and what’s made up—though there was some of that—what I mean are people who keep alive the history of our community—the community of people who seek social justice and who’s parents and grandparents also worked for social justice—through stories and songs. People who use the stories of the past to explain the present, and talk about how things have changed or stayed the same. The stories and songs I grew up with are the stories of the fights for social justice in the US and around the world: Stories of picket lines and being on welfare and what it was like to be a new immigrant. The stories of fighting fascism and fighting for civil rights and workers rights and sacrificing your life to make the world better.
I remember being confused in school when people would tell me they didn’t like history because it was boring. To me history has always been alive. It had a soundtrack (Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, the Weavers, Folkways Records, Stan Rogers, the Freedom Singers) and the smell of my gramma’s kitchen (rye bread, coffee, the New York Times and a hint of chocolate) and images (my parents at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the photographs of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Jacob Riis, my grandparents at union rallies and rent parties in the 1930s) and it had a connection to today, sometimes through a place that still existed (I grew up two blocks from a house built in 1636 only four years after Cambridge was founded), or through a debate that was still taking place or a problem still needing to be solved (in 1996 as I was learning about the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire, a garment factory in Dhaka burned to the ground killing the young women who worked there just like happened in the case of Triangle). Even history that was new to me was exciting because I knew it had all of those components just waiting to be uncovered.
Starting in around grade five I started to think about how history was exciting to me but not my classmates. It led me to want to be a history teacher when I grew up, however, once I started volunteering at museums I realized that this interest was better suited for the heritage world. I was excited by how we don’t just teach history to a set group we preserve the history and culture and share it with everyone. You don’t have to be in school to learn from a museum or heritage institution. You can be two years old or 102 and if an exhibit or program is well crafted it will make sense and spark your thinking no matter your age. Being able to reach a wide range of people and also being in a type of educational institution where topics that might never make it into a curriculum can be discussed, be they the small sub-plots or the controversial stories, is what makes the world of heritage so exciting. Remembering the forgotten and preserving the repressed can be a political act.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
My project is about political memory and how we preserve and remember struggles for political change, even when doing so runs counter to the current beliefs or political alliances of the “memory holders.” It examines the simultaneous development of two worker organizations located in rural maritime communities, the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Lerwick Working Men’s Association in Shetland. Both were founded in the early 20th century and both were particularly active in the years prior to World War Two. The project has three interwoven components. The first is an analysis of the history of the FPU and the Lerwick Working Men’s Association, focusing on the ways in which economic and political globalization in the period from 1906 to 1938 led to the formation and popular support of these organizations. The second component examines how the memory of these organizations has been maintained through oral and written traditions as well in material culture, and what aspects of these organizations is remembered. The last component explores how those memories might be used to benefit rural maritime communities today.
By exploring the writings, objects, and oral histories that have already been collected and by conducting new oral histories with descendants of those involved in the movements in both in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Shetland, I hope to add the perspective of the “rank and file” to the historical record of these organizations
I am deeply committed to the practical application of my research and to its benefiting the communities where it is conducted. I hope my project will make an intangible aspect of heritage—political ideas and the desire for social justice—tangible and accessible to both informant communities and to the tourists who visit them. Political ideas from the past are not just not just worthy of scholarly attention but resonate in the present. Instead of a reliance on lumber and fish in Newfoundland and Labrador and fish and wool in Shetland, both now rely heavily on the oil industry and tourism for their economic survival. Both are still trapped in a global economic environment that frequently ignores the interests of rural maritime communities. By making the ideas of the past tangible in the present, this project intends to initiate conversations, and hopefully action, about the challenges facing rural maritime communities today.
What’s the most “exotic” location you have travelled to as part of your research?
Funny, when I first started thinking about this project Port Union seemed exotic. When this is published I will be doing research at the Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick Shetland. A wonderful museum similar to the Rooms if on a smaller scale. In the same way that here in Newfoundland we get to say that we are the most Easterly everything, Shetland can claim the most Northerly everything for the UK. While in many ways Shetland isn’t very different from this province, thing that makes it distinctive is the Shetland dialect, a mixture of Scots, English and some Nordic words. It’s beautiful but a can be a bit challenging to understand for someone who speaks standard English.
You have been working as a graduate student assistant with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences COASTS initiative – can you explain a bit about this and your role in it?
COASTS (Cold Ocean Arctic Science Technology and Society) is a campus wide initiative drawing together faculty, students and staff who engage with topics relating to maritime and northern spaces. The goal is to promote dialogue across disciplines and areas of study and exchange research and teaching ideas. In HSS the work being done ranges from studies of Newfoundland speech, to the culture and traditions of maritime and northern communities to studies of the impact of the oil industry both on culture and the environment and much much more.
I am one of two HSS graduate students who were hired by the HSS COASTS Working Group to establish a better understanding of the range of work on COASTS related topics taking place within the faculty (including the work being done by students at all levels, post docs and staff) and also organize two symposia to promote cross disciplinary exchange. This April we had the first of the two symposia and the second will take place in early 2017.
My work with COASTS has provided me with the opportunity to meet with faculty whose research ties into mine who I may otherwise have never met or had the chance to talk to.It also provides the mechanism to organize a monthly or bi-monthly meet up of graduate students working on fisheries related research in all fields, something that many of us have been thinking should exist for a while. The meet-up will provide us with a chance to meet people with similar interests as well as share information and resources across disciplines. I’m hoping to get the first meet-up organized for late summer or early fall.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
In October I attended the Conference and Annual General Meeting of the Museum Association of Newfoundland and Labrador; in March I attended annual Newfoundland and Labrador Youth Heritage Forum; and in April I attended the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Museums (CMA) in Halifax. All of them were great opportunities to meet other people working in heritage and network with potential employers and colleagues. CMA was particularly exciting as it was a chance to hear about what is going on in the heritage sector nationally and learn from experts in the field of museology.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
I serve as mentor to incoming international graduate students through the MUN Mentors program based out of the International Student Advising Office. MUN Mentors are current students (both international and domestic) who meet with new students a minimum of twice a month during their first term at MUN to help them adjust to life at MUN and in St. John’s. Through being a mentor I’ve learned as much about what it means to be North American and the culture of my mentees as I’ve taught about the practicalities of life here. Of my mentees one was from Brazil and two from Italy. The later has become a bit of a joke as I’m now teasingly refereed to as an “honorary Italian” or the “Italian’s mentor.” As a mentor I’ve helped with practical issues (getting a cell phone, learning how our grocery stores are organized, sorting out problems with landlords, explaining tipping), shown people around the area (trips to Cape Spear, Middle Cove Beach and hiking at La Manche) and also just hung out and swapped food and stories with my mentees. In some cases my friends have become my mentees friends and vice versa. When I looked around my birthday party this last April there were people from all over the world with no country or language dominating it was wonderful!
I also have managed to stay involved with an organization from back home called the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). RFC was founded by Robert Meeropol the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed as part of the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s and provides grants to support the children of political prisoners in the United States. It is Robert Meeropol’s way of carrying the legacy of his parents forward and giving back to the community who supported him and his brother after their parents were killed. I’ve been involved with RFC in one way or the other since 2005 including as an intern and helping at events. These days most of my involvement is online helping with promotion and connecting them with people and communities who they may not otherwise have ties to.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
Memorial is the perfect size, it’s big enough that there are endless opportunities for all types of learning and skill development, but it is also small enough that it’s possible to develop strong relationships across disciplines and departments. MUN, and HSS in particular, is supportive of interdisciplinary work and helping students get to where they want to go. For someone, like me, who came back to school after working in my chosen field and who wants to return to that field, being in an institution that values the skills I’ve developed outside of the classroom during my years of work and is supportive of my choice to pursue a PhD to further my career and not follow a traditional academic career track is very important to me. I also like being on a campus that has so many research initiatives going on from the To Big To Ignore project and On The Move in the social sciences to the Maritime History Archive and the MUN Folklore and Language Archive. These provide the opportunity to learn in many ways.
I’ll mention one last thing, since I don’t think they get near the credit they deserve—the International Student Advising office (ISA) has been amazing. The support they provide on everything, and the fact that they consider support on everything part of their mission makes all the difference. There’s a comfort knowing that no matter what someone has your back, even if you a grad student and a fully functional adult. As an American—and a New Englander at that—it’s easy for me, and others to forget that I’m an international student and I’m lucky that I didn’t have many of the problems facing international students, but ISA has still been there for me—from running tax workshops to explaining MCP and SIN and confusing aspects of MUN bureaucracy. So while they may not be the thing I like most, they’ve provided me with a peace of mind that has allowed me to discover the things I like most.
What do you hope to do after completing your Ph.D?
My hope is to continue working in heritage in some capacity ideally in Newfoundland and Labrador or elsewhere in Atlantic Canada . I would love to go back to working in museums but given how many cutbacks we’ve seen to heritage funding I’d be happy in any position in the field, I’ve yet to find a part of heritage work I don’t find exciting and inspiring.