Gena talks about genealogy, family history, and ArchiveGrid

Gena Philibert-Ortega

To find archival materials, genealogy and history researcher and writer Gena Philibert-Ortega says she regularly uses ArchiveGrid and recommends genealogy and family history researchers do the same. “I try to talk about ArchiveGrid in almost every genealogy presentation I give,” Gena said.

At Food.Family.Ephemera, the California-based author documents her focused research of community cookbooks to learn about women’s lives. Gena’s current research project involves a the life of a 19th century British woman who left behind a commonplace book. “That research has led me to study topics such as mineralogy, fossils, scrapbooks, and ‘spinsters,'” Gena said.

Gena has promoted ArchiveGrid on Twitter (@genaortega) and in her writings as an important research tool. She was willing to answer questions by email about her work and how ArchiveGrid plays a role, in an effort to learn more about our users.

How did you end up in your line of work?

I’ve always been interested in history and love to research, so after many years in the non-profit field I decided to switch careers. In my graduate work I concentrated on women’s history so genealogy seemed like a natural fit. My current research focus is on documenting female ancestors, food history and social history. I’ve been working in genealogy for about twelve years.

How did you learn about ArchiveGrid? How do you use it, and what do you want others to know about it?

I’m not sure how I first learned about ArchiveGrid but I use it almost daily to search for unique collections that family historians could use to tell the story of their ancestor’s lives. I use it to find collections documenting organizations and groups a particular ancestor may have been involved in. I also use it to see what is available for a particular geographic area. ArchiveGrid is a hidden treasure for many who are not in the academic world but still conduct research.

What impact has ArchiveGrid had on your work? Can you point to some specific collections in ArchiveGrid you have used, or found interesting?

I think the one impact ArchiveGrid has had for me is just the ability to uncover these collections and see what vast archival materials exist about individuals, groups and communities. ArchiveGrid makes searching and discovering materials easy. Some of my favorite collections have to do with women’s organizations like the Dorcas Society or the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

How do you think genealogists/family historians research, and what would improve research for them?

Typically genealogists are taught to search by an ancestor’s name which is effective when using genealogy websites. In the case of archival collections, it is better to search on a keyword or keyword phrase. Unless an ancestor is the author of a collection, searching by their name won’t yield results but it would be a mistake to think there is nothing that might be of use. I think examples of keywords and keyword phrases, outside of just searching on a place name, would be helpful. I also think guides of how to conduct searches would be of some benefit so that researchers know how to craft the best possible search.

Gena also blogs for genealogy and family history researchers at Gena’s Genealogy and her latest book is From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes. In addition to hundreds of articles, her bylines can also be found on the GenealogyBank blog and in the magazine Internet Genealogy.

“The Monuments Men” frames an epic scene in cultural preservation history

As current events include news of libraries, museums, and archives suffering casualties caused by war and conflict, the recent film “The Monuments Men” is a decent attempt to ask: How do we preserve items of cultural heritage from destruction, and are such attempts worth the human lives lost in the process?

The real-life Monuments Men were a collection of art historians and museum personnel under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, dispatched by the American military in the waning months of World War II. Its mission was to thwart plans by Adolph Hitler to destroy thousands of cultural icons the Nazi Army stole during its march through a devastated Europe.

After D-Day in 1944, Hitler left standing orders as the United States and its allies gained control of the war: If he couldn’t have the art for a giant “Fuhrer’s Museum” he planned in his Austrian hometown, nobody could. The Nazis intended to burn, break, or bury every piece on their retreat to Germany.

Other works about the Monuments Men include the 1964 film “The Train,” the 1966 film “Paris is Burning,” The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, and a documentary film by the same name.

“The Monuments Men” co-writer, co-producer, and director George Clooney tried to make this serious war story enjoyable by bringing aboard veteran comic actors like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman to play a special unit tasked to find stolen art and return it to their rightful owners. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett also star in the German-American film, which is based on the book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel. One is his earlier works, Rescuing Da Vinci, is of a similar theme.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This likeable team tries to intercept the art before it’s too late, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child statue and the Ghent altarpiece, and the one-liners fly fast and furious. The laughs work on some level as these intellectuals try to navigate the difficulties of basic training and the battlefield as soldiers. Given what the actual men had to work with, the facts of the successful missions of the platoon are remarkable in their breadth and scope.

A chronological plot stretching 118 minutes can drag and Clooney and and co-writer and co-producer Grant Heslov could have tightened up the story’s focus by re-arranging the structure some. More character dimension could have made the protagonists more convincing art and history experts. Otherwise the film does a lot well: Orchestral music by the well-known Hollywood composer Alexandre Desplat set against a lovely backdrop of war-time Europe make a nostalgic audio-visual package.

While the mixture of comedy and war picture miss the mark in revealing the true price the men paid for the lasting impact of their work (with the exception of when Bill Murray’s character stares down a leading antagonist into surrendering stolen art), the refreshing omission of graphic violence, profanity strings, and sexuality that can make movie-going awkward depending on who you’re with align with the PG-13 rating.

Clooney also proves that depiction of gruesome events in the style of “Schindler’s List” and “The Piano” do not necessarily a war movie make. Empty apartments, leveled towns, bloody military hospitals, displaced art and furniture, and discovered barrels full of gold teeth salvaged from concentration camps do enough to powerfully symbolize the horror of war and the Holocaust. However, in terms of violence toward culture, even Mel Gibson could not have taken the scene of enemies flame-torching heaps of unique paintings to a more gut-wrenching extreme.

When otherwise weak narrative wasn’t also trying to humor, simple elements hit the mark in expressing big ideas. Toward the end of the film, Clooney’s character proclaims to a captured Nazi official that news of his death sentencing for war crimes will run in the New York Times and a Jewish deli owner in New York City will read it, then not care, and use the newspaper to wrap fish. What precedes that line is perhaps the most chilling revelation of Nazi psychosis in movie history. Captured solder asks Clooney’s character:

“Are you Jewish?”


Then the solder says something along the lines of, “Then you will thank me.”

Overall, “The Monuments Men” is a convincing story about the power of art and its importance to the dignity of the human spirit. In the final scene, a senior version of Clooney’s character visits the Madonna and Child in the 1970s with his grandson. As crowds of young tourists wearing backpacks meander around the statue, he remembers his comrade’s death while trying to save the statue from Nazi theft was, in fact, worth it. It was a touching gesture to the momentous nature of the mission, and the continuing importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

Cupid strikes twice for U.S. statehood on Valentine’s Day

Nathanial Robbins (signature circled) was one of 60 delegates elected to the Oregon Constitutional Convention. Original image source: Oregon Blue Book

While Arizona’s nickname is the Grand Canyon state, it has also long been known as the Valentine State because President William Taft gave it statehood on Feb. 14, 1912, making it the 48th state.

But Valentine’s Day in Oregon also celebrates the anniversary of when President James Buchanan 155 years ago made what was the Oregon Territory the nation’s 33rd state.

Signatures of the 60 men (women were not yet allowed to participate in politics) elected to the Oregon Constitutional Convention and who had signed the document include my great-great-great grandfather’s. He was Nathanial Robbins, a pioneer from Indiana who settled in Clackamas County after traveling the Oregon Trail, farmed, and was a Democrat.

Oregon State Archives holds the original signed document and made a scanned version accessible online for Oregon’s 150th birthday celebration in 2009.

Meanwhile, there is a tiny unincorporated community in Arizona named Valentine and a photograph taken there of “Route 66″ shows up in ArchiveGrid with a description for a collection at Illinois State Library. Northern Arizona University too has historic photographs of a government hospital and Hualapai Indians in Valentine. They’re included in a collection about a nurse named Florence Barker who worked on Indian reservations during her career.

Whether there is a connection between Valentine, Ariz., and its nickname isn’t certain, but Valentine’s Day gives Oregon and Arizona an opportunity to explore what else they may have in common.