The most recent Wolfsonian research fellow, Josi Ward, spent three weeks in January reviewing the museum’s holdings of materials related to landless farmers and the migratory labor camps established by the Farm Security Administration to provide shelter to this population in the 1930s and beyond. The farmers were driven from their homes by the combination of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and advances in agricultural technology.
Ward, a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Architecture and Urban Development at Cornell University, is writing her dissertation on the labor camps in California constructed between 1936 and 1942. She is analyzing these sites as physical constructions, looking carefully at “the needs those buildings and communities met as well as their design influences.” She is also exploring how those communities were represented in national media “and how those representations influenced understandings of the agricultural crisis,” she says. “A major contention of my dissertation is that these migratory camps functioned simultaneously as shelter and as rhetorical tools.”
Ward has been considering FSA photographs, Hollywood movies, documentary films, popular literature, and other materials to explore how these communities were depicted to the country at large. One result of Ward’s research at the museum was a decision to expand her examination of two-dimensional representations of the camps beyond photography to include mural studies and lithographs. “Some of the materials I found at The Wolfsonian were just too interesting to not include,” she says.
Because much of her previous research was conducted in archives and focused on the architecture of the buildings, the plans of the communities, and data about the period, The Wolfsonian fellowship led to an expanded view of the subject matter. “My research at the museum prompted broader questions. It helped me to zoom out and think about the topic at a more foundational level. The Wolfsonian materials are much more articulate, poetic, and function at a mythic level when compared to archival research; working with the collection helped me think about the stories America tells itself,” Ward says.
Ward’s research synthesizes prevailing interests of hers. She has long been attracted to the 1930s in American history as well as to ephemeral architecture that meets a need briefly and importantly. The ways in which the agricultural landscape can be considered as an element of the built environment is also an area of great interest. “My dissertation allows me to explore theoretical and disciplinary areas of interest as well as a historical period that has long intrigued me,” she says.
Working at The Wolfsonian was “extraordinary,” she reports. “The objects are amazing. The quality of the curation of the library and the pleasure of searching that library catalogue—it was a real privilege.”
Ward is one of three scholars awarded a fellowship for 2013–14 through The Wolfsonian’s Fellowship Program. Inaugurated in 1995, the program has hosted more than seventy scholars from colleges, universities, and other institutions in the United States and many foreign countries. Research conducted during the program has contributed to books, dissertations, articles, exhibitions, university courses, and more.
Captions (click to enlarge):
Print, Dust, 1936
Mervin Jules (American, 1912–1994)
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, TD1991.99.15
Photo: Lynton Gardiner
Painting, Missouri Woman, 1938
Burr Singer (American, 1912–1992)
St. Louis, Missouri
Oil and tempera on canvas
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, TD1991.30.1
Photo: Silvia Ros