GDS History Lab
Susan B. Anthony stands with her back turned, one hand upon a lectern. Her familiar long black dress extends to settle into the white fur of an animal throw rug. While Anthony remains a powerful icon of history-making women, few know that from her position of privilege, she and other white abolitionists turned their backs on African-Americans, reverting to ugly racist messaging late in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
A reproduction of this portrait, from the Library of Congress’s collection of works by 19th century photographer C.M. Bell, introduced visitors to the GDS History Lab, a massive collaboration that spanned most of the second floor at the High School. The six stunning, tri-fold panels that greeted attendees through the library windows at the exit of the stairwell set the scene. Each panel was topped by an essential question—for example, “How did the experience of Black and White female abolitionists intersect and diverge?”—that asked viewers to think critically about the intersectionality between the many pieces presented in the library-based panels, as well as the framed images that lined many of the second-floor hallways. To encourage deeper inquiry, a table stocked with books and a binder full of primary sources and scholarly articles sat in front of each panel.
The seeds for the History Lab experience began with a generous offer from Michael Horowitz and Devra Marcus (grandparents of Saul ’20, Rose ’23, and Abe Atwood ’18) to loan GDS 79 framed autographs of women who “challenged power—and sought it—in various ways” and who “operated in a variety of areas, from abolition to zoology” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as explained by the interdisciplinary GDS team who created the history lab. Rather than inviting a passive experience, history teacher Carlos Angulo, HS librarian Rhona Campbell, studio art chair Michelle Cobb, history department chair Lisa Rauschart, and history teacher jon sharp developed a history lab approach that would allow GDS students (and staff) to “do what historians do: investigate and assess sometimes contradictory sources, discern whose story is not being told and what sources reveal about the complexity of historical moments and events, and connect the past to the present.”
The Horowitz/Marcus collection gave the team an incredible place to start and the opportunity to use the collection to begin curating a rich, nuanced picture of these history-making women. “Preparing the History Lab wasn’t as simple as hanging the frames up on the wall,” Michelle explained. “We needed to take time to do it right. Lisa really opened my eyes to how much more we could do to advance the representation of women of color in the learning lab.”
In the spirit of our school’s mission, the teachers worked to find a model that would prompt inquiry, teach students to evaluate sources rather than memorize, and challenge people’s expectations. History Lab is a university-developed model that values open-ended questions over leading ones, critical thinking over simple solutions.
“As a Black woman, it was life changing for me, as I dove into the research to develop the extensive design work, I realized how much more there was to learn about Black female leaders during that time period.” For the team, this was an exciting collaborative opportunity to bring a diverse range of skills and perspectives to the project.
To the original 79 framed portraits with autographs, GDS added 58 more. The team curated 50 more images of primary sources including newsprint, flyers, and photographs, culling from perhaps twice that many gathered. Lisa created binders containing well over 100 primary and secondary sources designed to provide some of the evidence needed for students to answer the essential questions. Rhona selected 50 books from the HS library, on loan from DC Public Libraries, or checked out of the LMS library to join the tables of research materials. No materials were included if the team couldn't substantiate them with authoritative, scholarly sources, which they were careful to cite.
The team also engaged a group of eight students during a minimester course to bring the narratives of different voices into the lab. For three days in February, Carlos and jon led a research course called Women Who Shaped the World. Jessica Ganley ’21, Leila Jackson ’22, Celia Johnson ’21, Julia Pastreich ’20, Tia Piziali ’21, Hannah Sanghvi ’21, Ellen Schlick ’19, and Gigi Silla ’20 chose some of the primary source material that appeared in the central fold of each panel, helped design these panels, and gathered biographical information for some of the women featured in the History Lab.
Leila said, “I was surprised by how many important women there were who did great things that many of us had never heard of. Even though that was a goal of the minimester, it still surprised me how many there were: artists, politicians, journalists, and others. I'm glad to have learned about them.”
The cross-disciplinary collaboration proved powerful as each team member brought different strengths to the table. Michelle’s design eye helped the team recalibrate the collections to work within our walls and curate all the information in a way that would allow attendees to discover and learn as they moved through the experience. Others brought history or research perspectives as well as the logistical expertise needed to keep their design process meeting milestones. They developed a great deal of respect for each other as they transformed these marvelous raw materials into an experience that would inspire inquiry and interest from students, teachers, and other visitors alike.
Both students and teachers found information within the lab experience that challenged their preconceptions about some of the individuals involved. For Lisa, it was a discovery about Frederick Douglass, a longtime supporter of women’s rights who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of his ‘friends’ who turned on him,” she said. “She increasingly used race as a lever to elevate the cause of woman suffrage at the expense of Black men. Yet Douglass kept her picture on the
wall of his Anacostia home until the day he died.”
wall of his Anacostia home until the day he died.”
In the final days of the lab’s installation, four of the five teachers gathered beneath the library panels, as they had done at the opening, to discuss their work and the legacy of the History Lab. “This has been one of the most challenging design projects I’ve ever worked on,” Michelle said. “There has been so much information to organize.” As is the case with many of GDS’s most prized projects, we wish we need never reach the close. There is always more to the story.
Gigi reflected, “Even with a tremendous platform and incredible resources, there were certain aspects of the stories we had to cut out due to limited time or space. I knew we wouldn’t be able to capture the entire history of women in America, but it was difficult to make compromises when it came to decreasing the scope of the project in its final stages.”
Even as they worked to elevate the original collection to a higher pedagogical plane, the team members held strong personal hopes that Michael and Devra would be excited by what they saw.
“The History lab was extraordinary,” Michael Horowitz announced. “It also exceeded my wife’s hopes beyond measure. It was a wonderful thing to see how people from different disciplines—from history, from the library, and from the arts—worked together. In my experience, those kinds of collaborations just lead to squabbles, but this was just the opposite. It was a marvelous integration of the teachers’ different skills and those of the students integrated into the process. Their research to add more diversity was simply terrific.”
The History Lab team would like especially to thank the maintenance team and the Leadership Team for their support.
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