If asked to define his research, Associate Professor, Dr. Maurice Wheeler would say his research is undoubtedly multidisciplinary. His research is focused broadly on diversity and ways that it relates to information and information organizations. It is centered in the social sciences, humanities, history and the growing area of cultural heritage informatics. Wheeler's current research explores racial diversity in music archives, and specifically the archives at the Metropolitan Opera, in an effort to recreate the history around the integration of the Met and the role of African American singers who were important in creating that history.
“Historically, there's been a lot of research done about African American singers, but certainly in the last five years there has been more than ever before,” says Wheeler. “But most of the research conducted has been on a handful of very prominent, well-known international singers. Not a lot has been done beyond those who have international status.”
Wheeler's interest in diversity related to leadership and organizational culture also makes exploring the Met archives exciting for him. "Far too little research has been conducted to reveal the institutional challenges and individual stories of courage that led to historical moments of racial triumph that are now legend in opera."
The opportunity for Dr. Wheeler to expand on his research would come by way of exciting news in the spring of last year that he was chosen to be a Fellow in a National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) Program. He was selected to participate in The City of Print: New York and the Periodical Express Summer Institute which covered the cultural politics of New York City during the 19th and 20th centuries as told through disparate voices of New York's periodical press. Participants in the Institute would travel to New York and take part in discussions led by cultural historians and archivists. There would be hands-on sessions in the periodical collections of the New-York Historical Society and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and opportunity to visit significant sites and attend Digital Humanities workshops.
Dr. Wheeler’s project during this Institute was to continue to examine the archives of the Metropolitan Opera and other institutions to explore how topics such as race affected media coverage of opera. “I was hoping to look at coverage of the history of race at the Met, the operatic culture in New York City – as the center of opera in America - and survey a variety of publications that covered the history of African Americans. I wanted to look at how different publications covered that material, for example, how an African American newspaper or journal may have covered the topic differently than a dominant culture publication,” stated Wheeler.
A part of the coverage of the Institute was serial publications specifically based in New York and how the cultural politics, geographical location and culture affected the history. The expectation was a two-week experience in New York City for the summer, but like many events scheduled to take place in 2020, the Institute shifted to a virtual experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this, Dr. Wheeler said the participants - himself included - had to shift their thinking and expectations for what they thought would have taken place and the outcome.
“We had to be very flexible, which sort of was an indicator of where the world was at that point,” said Dr. Wheeler. “I think it enabled us in some way to also connect with what our experiences were probably going to be for the coming months or years as researchers,” he added.
The NEH Institute required extensive reading and participation in presentations about various topics that would ultimately connect to teaching and research. Despite not being a residential experience as originally planned, Dr. Wheeler says he really enjoyed the Institute and the experience was very beneficial. One of the great benefits of the program he found was that it exposed scholars from a variety of types of institutions to each other and there was also a strong emphasis on collaborative research. It was inspiring and interesting for him to see the work that came from previous Institute participants. Through his involvement in the Institute, Dr. Wheeler connected with a Fellow who is an expert in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and they will be working together on a research project about Langston Hughes.
Like many faculty, Dr. Wheeler says he has felt the impact of the pandemic on his research, particularly since his research is based on the history of a geographical location. Since he was unable to travel to New York for the Institute, he did not get the chance to continue exploring the archives in the Met and other institutions that were not already accessible online.
“The pandemic has slowed down the research in terms of timelines. It has caused us to rethink what we’re producing and how we’re producing it,” said Wheeler.
Conducting research in the current environment, Wheeler says has caused him to rethink much of what he does. The experience of the Institute, however, has helped him to create the mind shift and mindset to be able to do that. He says he has shifted how he will approach some of his future publications and projects.
There are a few things Dr. Wheeler says he hopes to achieve through this research. As a librarian and an archivist, his focus is to provide a greater understanding of archives and archival collections and an understanding of how politics, organizational culture, social and sociological aspects affect what happens in archives. All of these things affect the material that is collected, whether something is retained or thrown away, how it is placed within a collection, material chosen for digitization, and most importantly, the completeness of the stories they tell to future generations. For example, an important aspect he says is ensuring that the story being told about the institutions he is researching accurately incorporates the biographies of the people who are important in these histories.
“Part of what excites me about my research is finding the information and finding those materials that help us in reshaping the history that we are now telling,” said Maurice. “If there are aspects of the history that we don’t know, then the history is not a full history. That is also now why it is important for the history of African American and other cultures to be told, and to be told as broadly and as deeply as possible.”
"Black Voices at the Met," an exhibition that Wheeler co-curated, is currently on display in Lincoln Center at the Metropolitan Opera. Although access to the exhibition is restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the content of the exhibition is accessible on the Met's website in recognition of Black History Month.