McNeil Center program matches Rutgers-University Camden graduate student with Bartram’s Gardens’ public history project
Josh DiPrima, a graduate student at Rutgers-University Camden, is focused on the political and social relationships between colonists and Native Americans during the pre-Revolutionary period. He graduated from Rowan University in 2021 with a bachelor's degree in history and psychology. During his master’s program, he has since worked on a number of public history projects, including digital archiving with Arizona State University’s The Journal of the Plague Year, as a research assistant and event coordinator for the Arch Street Project, and as an editorial assistant, researcher, and docent with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities.
Q: What drew you to the study of early American history?
DiPrima: As a lifelong resident of Gloucester County, New Jersey, early American history has always surrounded me. I grew up traveling to Revolutionary War sites like Red Bank Battlefield to fly kites with my family and taking school trips across the Delaware River to visit Philadelphia’s museums. It wasn’t until my time at college however, that I began to fully appreciate and connect with the greater Philadelphia area’s historical significance. As I took courses on America’s colonial history, I gradually became enamored with the region’s early Dutch, Swedish, and English settlements and their relationships with Native Americans. Despite its vastness and uniqueness, I was surprised by how little I had learned about it growing up.
My senior thesis on Pennsylvanian Quakers’ sentiments toward indigenous populations was what officially locked me in. I found William Penn’s imperfect Holy Experiment to be extremely interesting, and I focused on how Penn’s vision created a foundation for early Pennsylvania’s diplomatic, social, and judicial relationships with the region’s Native Americans. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania may have served as the initial heart of the United States, but I’d argue that the region’s earlier histories are just as interesting and worth studying.
Q: Tell us more about the site where you interned. What did you work on there?
DiPrima: This past summer, I interned at Bartram’s Garden as a researcher and digital content creator. For those unfamiliar with the site, as I initially was, Bartram’s Garden was the home of the Bartram family from 1728 to 1850. John Bartram, who first purchased the site and created its garden, was America’s first native-born botanist. He made his wealth traveling, studying the continent’s vast botanical specimens, and sending crates of seeds back to subscribers in Europe. In honor of his expertise, he eventually became appointed as King George III’s “King’s Botanist for North America,” and his descendants continued his enterprise into the nineteenth century.
During my eight weeks of research in the site’s archive, I worked on two projects: expanding Bartram Gardens’ historical content by creating six blog posts for the site’s website and creating a draft for a future exhibit. My research and blog posts centered around the site’s pre–Bartram indigenous history and the Bartrams’ encounters with and views of Native Americans. John Bartram and his son William's botanic expeditions repeatedly put them in contact with various Native American populations. Something I found extremely interesting was that while John Bartram held a very prejudiced view of Native Americans, William was much more open-minded. In a period of increasing racial tensions, William openly argued that neither Europeans nor Native Americans were superior to one another and that they could mutually learn from each other and coexist if they were to “divest ourselves of prejudice and think freely.”
For my exhibit draft, tentatively titled “Contested Country: Tracing the Consequences of Colonial Expansion through Bartram’s Garden,” I strove to connect the Bartrams’ experiences with Native Americans to the larger conflict of colonial expansion and Native displacement. Unlike other North American colonies, Pennsylvania was able to avoid large-scale Native-colonial violence for about seventy years. While John Bartram’s expansionist and prejudiced opinions reflected the worldviews that eventually undermined this peace, William Bartram’s cultural relativity reflected the side of those looking to preserve it. Even though views like John Bartram’s popularly dominated the nineteenth century, I found that William’s opinions held a lot of relevance for a modern world increasingly focused on cultural competency and diversity.
Q: What was the most valuable or interesting part of your summer internship experience?
DiPrima: There were so many educational parts of my time at Bartram’s Garden, but I’d have to say that the most valuable was creating the exhibit. Prior to my internship, I had never worked on an exhibit before—let alone created one—so planning everything from the bottom up was life-changing. My supervisor and curator of the site, Joel Fry, gave me great guidance and a figurative budget of how much the institution might be capable of spending in the coming years, but from there, I was left to work autonomously.
In addition to creating an overarching theme, planning material costs and text panel spacing, and addressing accessibility concerns, I think my biggest lesson came from collaborating with both those inside and outside Bartram’s Garden. I came to appreciate how an exhibit can be viewed by an audience as the interpretation of the entire institution hosting it. It emphasized to me how important it is to fully explore the views and messages that everyone within the institution wants to convey prior to planning the exhibit. In a similar light, I found that it is also just as important to consider your audience. What are the backgrounds and worldviews of those who might come to see the exhibit? What messages do you want to leave them with?
Q: How do you think your internship will help you in your graduate studies and beyond?
DiPrima: I once had a faculty advisor tell me that a career in public history requires a wide set of skills in order to be successful, and I believe that my internship at Bartram’s Garden provided an amazing opportunity to expand my toolkit. I learned a lot about web-page building and writing succinctly as I created the blogs; I learned about project management through planning the exhibit; and I even rediscovered my drafting skills from high school to create a digital model of the exhibit.
Spending most of my eight weeks in the archives doing research and working on my projects also gave me the opportunity to really fall further in love with history and the specific areas I have been focusing on. I feel like I was able to develop a much deeper understanding of colonial Pennsylvania’s politics, various indigenous cultures and histories, and even an appreciation of the local micro histories of Kingsessing.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about this experience?
DiPrima: Although I spent the vast majority of my time in the archives, I learned just as much from the people and environment around me as I did from the old records and monographs. My supervisor, Joel Fry, was an encyclopedia of information regarding the Bartrams, botanic history, and career questions, and he always managed to have the answers to any question that came up. Everyone else at the institution was also extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and each specialized in very different things. As a result, I learned a lot about teaching, plant knowledge, and even about fostering relationships with the region’s local indigenous leaders. Lastly, I cannot help but say that I will probably never have a better lunch break spot in my life than in the gardens overlooking the Schuylkill River.
View Josh DiPrima's blog posts on the Bartram Garden's website: