What a first four weeks at Banting House National Historic Site—mounting an online exhibit the size of a website. Four weeks! In that time, I was introduced to the Teddy Ryder collection, I decided how I wanted to shape the online exhibit, I gathered all the artifacts I needed (and scanned them), I outlined the exhibit in more detail, I wrote the exhibit text, I made the website and put all the artifacts and text on it, and then after all that, I sat for a moment and thought, “woah. Only four weeks since I first walked through the door. Four weeks since I got the big binders about Banting House policies and since I had to sign all the employment and internship documents.” What a whirlwind. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
In fact, on Friday (the evening before the exhibit launch), I went home, looked at my partner and said “I made the right choice when I asked to intern here,” because those four weeks were some of the coolest weeks of my life!
This blog post is part one of a debriefing of my time working on the online version of the “I’m a Fat Boy Now” exhibit. Think of it as a bit of a behind-the-scenes post about my experiences. There may be future blog posts that go deeper into specific moments in the creation process or specific ideas that I want to flesh out more. But these next two posts give me (and you) the opportunity to take a step back and think about what I’ve completed.
I’ve had to keep quiet about the exhibit for so long that it’s incredibly exciting for me to write about it here. In addition to the necessary paperwork and reading days that start most jobs in this field, the first week was dedicated to sifting through the Ryder collection—just the opportunity to explore it, find which artifacts intrigued me the most, and start thinking about ways to connect them. I find that this part of the process is sometimes overlooked. It’s so fun to just pick up the different artifacts, have no idea how to incorporate them in an exhibit, and move on. That part of the process is really just about having fun with the artifacts—exploring.
(This process is when I discovered the last insulin vial, which I discussed in my second blog post, here.)
I found so many fascinating artifacts (most of which I still want to keep a secret until the in-person exhibit is up), but for the purposes of an online medium, I was especially excited for this box:
Correspondences (mainly letters) are a great source for online exhibits. They’re two-dimensional, so they look just as clear on screen as they do in-person. While it’s obviously really fun to see artifacts in-person, good online exhibits have to choose artifacts that will still look interesting and intriguing even though the visitor cannot see the real thing. Letters are also meant to be read slowly (especially because of the messy handwriting), and more methodical reading is easier to do at home on a computer than in a cramped exhibit room with a dozen other visitors trying to read the same thing at the same time.
So I opened the box, and well? I found folders and folders of letters that span Ted Ryder’s whole life:
Exploring this box may have been the most fun. I knew the Teddy Ryder story from news clippings and historian-written articles, but this box had the primary sources—the letters that make up Teddy’s story. For example, I knew that Dr. Morton Ryder (Teddy’s uncle) told Banting that Teddy would die unless Banting treated him ASAP, and that the sentiment behind those words pushed Banting to start treatments earlier than he had planned. So, I was blown away when I found this letter from Morton that says “it looks to me as tho a very few more months on this starvation diet will be all he can hold out—and we are very sure that any increase of diet would shorten his existence.” This letter is the tangible primary document that represents that part of the story (and it was also the first clue in the week leading up to the exhibit. For that post, click here.)
I was also so excited to find the letter from Edward Joseph to Stanley Cornish (Earl Ryder’s brother-in-law) that was definitively the letter that sparked Teddy’s entire Toronto-bound journey:
132 Aberdeen Street,
Quebec, 8th April, 1922
Stanley D. Cornish, Esq.,
Putnam Co., n.y.
Mr. Louis Burdett wrote me some time ago, inquiring about a recent discovery in connection with the treatment of diabetes. Being unable to get definite information here, I wrote to Montreal and Toronto, and have only today received the enclosed answer to my letter. Perhaps you could get into direct touch with Dr. Banting, and if it be possible, a trip to Toronto for a personal interview might bring quicker results. I merely suggest this as I understand the case is urgent—if there is anything further I can do, do not hesitate to let me know.
Trusting this will be of some use,
Edward G. Joseph
I was happy to find some letters in Teddy’s hand-writing to make sure we put his letters into an exhibit about him:
July 18th I HAD PEACH TODAY AND LAMB CHOP AND SCRAMBLED EGG, AND RADISH AND BEET.
WE HAVE BEEN AT THE MUSEUM. WE SAW FUNNY SHOES, AND SOLDIER HELEMETS.
I also love the “legacy” letter written by James Bushnell in 1929, where he opened up about how scared he was that his daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. It shows the broader significance of Teddy’s story—that others like him, up to and including my brother and me, have gone through his experience too:
POST OFFICE OLD BRIDGE, N. J., Jan. 10 1929.
Dear Mr. Ryder:—
Our little girl aged 10 had developed diabetes and as I remember how badly your little boy was, I am writing to you for help and advice.
How is your boy now? How old is he?
We would appreciate more than I can tell you any help that you may give us.
We have sent Cynthia to Dr. Allen’s Physiatric Institute at Morristown. Do you know of any better place?
What are the best books on the subject?
If I came up there some time, would you mind telling me of what your experiences of 6 or 7 years must have taught you.
Dr. Gerswein has scared us to death with his forecast.
Thanking you in advance, I am,
Somehow, I was able to find at least one letter that perfectly fit a beat in the story or perfectly represented a broader theme I wanted to touch on. Finding that material? That was a good day.
The weeks continued, as I scanned all those letters (and the accompanying photos) and as I planned and outlined the exhibit (thank God for cue cards). But the week before the exhibit launch eventually came, and we were off to the races. However, this blog post has already gone on long enough, so that’s where we’ll leave it for this week. Tune in next week for part two of my debrief as I discuss the week leading up to the launch.
Until next time,
If you haven’t yet checked out the exhibit (or want to check it out again), then click here and it will take you right to the exhibit website. If you want to listen to Anne Pritchard (Teddy Ryder’s niece, who donated the collection) and I talk about her experiences with Teddy, click below that for her interview.