Alexander Ames: Bringing the past to life

Alexander Ames.

I think I caught something today. No, not Covid. I was exposed to the infectious enthusiasm and excitement of this week’s portrait, Dr. Alexander Lawrence Ames. The handsome Dr. Alex is a historian, curator, and bibliophile. He holds an M.A. in American material culture and a Ph.D. in history of American civilization and museum studies from the University of Delaware and works as Assistant Curator at The Rosenbach, an historic house, museum, and special collections library. If I’m ever on Jeopardy, I want him as my phone a friend. (I know, I’m mixing shows.)

I donned white gloves as Dr. Ames took me on a private tour of the Rosenbach and treated me to a viewing of some very special collections including hand written letters and leaflets from Langston Hughes, a very old and precious book of Psalms and some saucy love letters from Marlene Dietrich to Mercedes de Acosta, the Pete Davidson of her time. His presentation of each letter, pamphlet and artifact came with an exuberant tale of its history. 

Let’s hear your story.

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota called Pine City, which is about an hour and a half North of the twin cities, with a population of about 3,200 people. I had a very lovely, idyllic childhood there. I did my undergraduate degree and masters degree in Public History at Saint Cloud State University and at that point in my scholarly and professional development, realized that my ambitions, specifically in the world of museums and libraries, would most likely carry me to the east coast. As I was finishing up my Masters program I decided to apply to the Winterthur program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware, and was fortunate enough to be admitted. So in 2012 I moved to Delaware and had a wonderful time there. I spent two years working on a 2nd Masters and stayed on to do my Doctoral work in History of American Civilization and museum studies. I was in Delaware for about 6 years and needless to say, during that time I regularly was in Philadelphia for social occasions, internship experiences, and research at various libraries here in the city. One of the internships that I completed was here at the Rosenbach. I quickly felt that I wanted to stay here in Philadelphia. For some reason I felt very connected to this city with its vast history and cultural opportunities. It felt like a place that I would fit in well and fortunately, I’ve been able to stick around. 

Were your parents also into educational pursuits?

Oh, you bet they were. My father was a trained social worker and public administrator and my mother was a high school social studies teacher and school administrator. I grew up in a household that really emphasized and valued education and specifically valued humanities and social sciences. So it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would end up making museum curatorial work a passion. My brother, who is 7 years older than I and still lives in our hometown, also shares a deep interest in history and literature. When you grow up in that sort of environment, it just becomes second nature. 

Do you remember the first museum you went to?

I don’t know if it was the first, but one that made a deep impression on me as a child was a historic house museum in the capital city of St. Paul, the Alexander Ramsey House, which was a beautiful Victorian house that had belonged to one of the early state governors. Seen through a child’s eyes, it was a magical and otherworldly experience. We made several visits there and spent time in St. Paul which is a very historic, beautiful city. I’m very grateful to my parents that I was exposed to all of that, which really piqued my interest in this work. It was a passion from elementary school through college, engaging with institutions like that and feeling immersed in the world of history and art. 

What kinds of frivolous pastimes did you engage in?

[Laughing] This may not surprise you, but I was not a very frivolous child. I was very musical though, I took piano lessons for many years and loved playing. As quite a young child I fell in love with the sound of the harp but as you might expect, there were not a lot of harp teachers in our town of 3,200. I wasn’t able to take lessons until I got to college. It’s another passion of mine and something I love sharing with the Rosenbach and my church and other institutions. 

Are you and your brother similar?

He’s 7 years older than I am, and we’re very similar in our intellectual interests, but he embraced Minnesota life perhaps a little more than I did. He also loves hunting and fishing, hockey… so he was the family athlete and I was the family aesthete! 

Do you remember what your favorite childhood book was?

Without a question, Jane Eyre. When I was in high school, the work of the Bronte sisters shaped my literary imagination. Younger than that? I distinctly remember getting a set of detective stories written for children. It had multiple endings to choose from and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t too long before I found myself in the world of 19th century British and American literature and history. 

What organizations were you a part of in high school?

I was involved with the National Honors Society, I was in band and I was also very politically engaged. It was a family trait, if you will, that I became involved in Democratic politics. Part of the virtue of being in a small town is that it’s not hard to get to people at the grass roots. I was involved in a lot of campaigns. In my undergraduate days I was chair of the college Democrats. 

Where along the path was your coming out experience?

I think, growing up in a homogenous community, I always knew and sensed that I was somewhat different from the people around me, especially the young boys and men. I did not connect that to sexual orientation or identity until college. But I remember having an all night conversation with my very good friend at the end of the first semester and we both came to a lot of realizations culminating with me coming to understand and accept myself. I quickly decided to be true to myself and within a matter of months told my family and friends, and lo and behold, where I thought it was going to be an earth shattering experience, it was not. I’m very fortunate in that it only strengthened my relationships. 

What is your favorite or most interesting book binding?

Well, there are many important examples here, but one that ranks as one of the most important in the collection is our copy of the Bay Psalm Book. It was the first book printed in what became the United States and it’s an English translation of the Hebrew Psalm bibles that was completed by the Puritans of New England in 1640. It is one of only 11 surviving copies, and the Rosenbach’s copy is particularly important because it’s one of the few with the original binding. When you hold that book, you can be confident that it looks and feels as it did when others held it centuries ago.

I enjoyed the book of poetry that I was able to hold.

Yes, “Early Efforts,” that’s one of my personal favorites. It was a volume of poetry written by two young Jewish girls in England in the early 1800’s. They were very gifted intellectuals and had the book bound in red velvet with a coat of arms embroidered in gold and silver threads to present it to Queen Victoria. Dr. Roesenbach later acquired the book as a gift when visiting the royal castle at Windsor. 

Thinking of impactful book covers, I remember an exhibit that the Free Library did years ago about slavery and they had a set of books that were bound using the skin of slaves for the leather. It was shocking to see but such a powerful symbol of the horror of what was really done to people. 

I can imagine, and that’s the power of material artifacts. When something is in front of you, in your physical space, it requires you to engage with it. That’s why collecting institutions like libraries and archives like this have a special role to play in fostering healthy civic discourse. Especially in our current era filled with polarization and partisanship and alternative approaches to reality and truth. We can and should be on the front lines for educating and providing resources for engaging with difficult topics. 

I often wonder, as I get my CVS receipt emailed to me instead of printed, how the historians of the future are going to piece things together. Now even things like theater programs are going online, it won’t be as exciting to look back. 

Yes, it’s a question that anyone who works in an institute like ours has to reckon with. Digital information poses incredible challenges for preservation. Think about some of the books and brochures we looked at today, physical collections have a certain power that digital media may lack. But as you can imagine, there are whole tracks of our profession emerging around the preservation of digital materials.

Are you a letter writer?

I’m a big greeting card sender. I think it’s always nice getting something in the mail besides bills. 

What are “biblioharp” recitals?

As we discussed, I’m a harpist and one of my favorite things to do is using music as a way to open up different worlds from literature and history. Especially during the pandemic I’ve had great fun doing virtual concerts from various rooms in the house. I haven’t gotten any calls from the Philadelphia orchestra yet, but I think people enjoyed it. I did one from the parlor which focused on James Joyce, who was a big lover of traditional Irish music, and over the holiday season, I broadcast live from the Marianne Moore living room. I analyzed the work of fellow poet, Edna St. Vincent Malay who wrote a famous poem called, “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.” We have a first edition of it here in our collection.

What are some of the other things they do here?

Rosenbach really is Philadelphia’s center for history, literature and culture. We offer a wide variety of things both online and in person for people to do. We welcome people to visit our collections — with some Covid restrictions of course — our house tours are a great way to start. In February our “Behind the Bookcase” series will host, “Yours Forever: Love Letters in the Archive,” “Charles Dickens, The Inimitable Boz,” and “I am no bird: Charlotte Brontë and Currer Bell” in March. We offer courses like “The Clearing: The Multidimensional Legacy of Toni Morrison” which is being offered online, and “The Lives of Early American Women Series 2: Victorian Voices” with Kalela Williams, the Black History Maven, which will be in person, or “Reading Samuel Beckett, The Shorter Plays” with Lois More Overbeck. We also have a free podcast that I host which is a great way to learn about what we do and what we have available in the collections.

This is an old building, any ghost sightings?

No, the only ghouls we have are a part of our literary collections. There are a few areas of strength for which the Rosenbach is globally known, one of which is our collection of materials related to Bran Stoker and his masterpiece “Dracula”. We hold the manuscript notes that he compiled when writing the tale. From that we’ve built out a large collection of gothic and horror materials. 

Back to you, what are you currently binge watching? 

Around the world in 80 Days on PBS; I’m really enjoying that. 

I watched the first episode, I need to go back and catch the rest. I watched “The Gilded Age,” which was meh. 

Yeah, I’m kind of Downton Abbeyed out, so I’m staying away from those big dramas. 

A song that makes you sad?

Anything by Prince. I’m from Minnesota so whenever I hear a Prince song, part of my heart is crying because of his premature passing. 

Did you have a favorite bedtime story?

How odd that as someone who loves books, I can’t remember! I recall loving the little golden books; my grandmother used to read them to me when I was just a little guy.

If you could go back in time, what author would you want to have tea with? Actually, I’ll give you 3 to make it easier.

That’s very generous. I think I’m going to use all three on one family. I think it’s rather appropriate since we’re going to have programs regarding them, I’ll choose the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. I devoured all of their works before I studied abroad in the UK and I fell in love with each of their distinctive styles.

What were you doing in England?

I spent a semester at Oxford at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and at the end of the semester, I had a chance to trek up to Yorkshire with a group of pals from the program. We went to Haworth, which was the hometown of the sisters, and we even got a chance to hike across the moors to Wuthering Heights on a very foggy morning. Looking back it was probably not the wisest idea because we could have easily gotten lost in the fog. But it’s a memory I really cherish.

Who taught you how to drive?

My mom, who would be the first to say that she’s a nervous driver. It’s funny, my friends from home have noted that I’ve become a much more aggressive driver since moving here. When I go home, I have to try to reign in my Philly. 

You’re a snappy dresser, what’s your favorite piece of clothing?

I have a velvet, wine colored dinner jacket that I purchased for no particular reason, and shortly after I purchased some gold studded slippers to go with it. I don’t know why. I mean when does one have an occasion to wear such a thing? Fortunately now I have found a use and I don them for the recitals here. 

Before we wrap up, can you tell me why it’s so important to preserve the written word, especially as we’re hearing more and more cases of banning and destroying books across the country. 

Over my years working at museums and libraries, I’ve really come to see the fundamental mission of institutions like this as critical to the healthy functioning of our society. And by that I mean preserving the record of our shared history and interpreting that record in relation to our current culture, creating a physical and conceptual space where people can come together and learn from each other, share ideas, and have conversations. 

We live in a time which is dominated by perhaps ill informed decision making, doubt, distrust, hatred, and ignorance. The work that special collections and museums do is to protect history, art, and culture, and to provide an anchor of who we are and who we could potentially be. This is a lovely townhouse on a residential street, and it would be easy to look at us as just an interesting byway, but at a time when so much information is suspect and dangerous and based on fear, we can play a key role in giving people the tools that they need to be citizens in a democratic republic. I see it as mission critical for the continued existence of society. When we have an opportunity to share the papers of the founding fathers, share historical records of past oppressions, share inspirational works of literature, it gives me great joy. I think it forces us to take a step back from our busy lives and think about how we fit into history.

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