Marilyn Arsem

1997 Wallace Fellow
Performance artist
Boston, MA

Research at AAS

In 1997 I received a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund research fellowship, at the start of my research for a new performance that was eventually titled Writing Ada. While at AAS, I examined material on 19th century Spiritualism, as well as mid-19th century daily life in New England. Staff members were brilliant at pointing me towards materials that I would not have easily found on my own.

I read accounts of early mediums; their handbooks for the practice of mediumship; Spiritualist publications including collections of hymns, lyceum manuals, and the Spiritualist newspaper that was published in Boston, The Banner of Light. I also read various books and pamphlets relating the efforts by doctors and other professionals to scientifically test the phenomenon of making contact with the dead, including rapping, writing and speaking.

I read letters and diaries of New England women, to learn how they wrote about death privately. This was in comparison to their church doctrines as revealed in the often-published funeral sermons of ministers. Perhaps the most poignant experience that I had was reading the final entries of 1871 in Sarah Stoughton's diary. She was not aware that she would die of consumption the following week, but I already knew. Microfilm or scans do not carry that visceral connection that was made holding the very journal which was once in her hands.

At the end of my residency I read accounts of the 1874 disappearance of Ada Shepard Badger, my ancestor, which appeared in more than a dozen newspapers. She was an 1857 graduate of Antioch College, had traveled in Europe as governess and translator for Nathaniel Hawthorne's family, and later operated a girl's school in Boston where she was active in the feminist community. While in Italy she participated in seances with the Hawthornes and other members of the British and American artist community living in Florence, and multiple accounts of those seances appear in publications, letters and diaries of the participants.

After my residency at AAS, I continued to work in other archives in New England and New York, broadening my research to include 19th century Unitarian history, published sermons and theological discussions at conferences; feminism in Boston and the activities of the New England Women's Club; and the public debates on the dangers of higher education for women. I will be forever grateful to staff members at AAS who made it possible for me to do additional reading in the Pumpelly Collection at the Huntington Library in California.

Arsem in costume wearing a late nineteenth century styled dress

After ten years of research, I began performing Writing Ada in private homes in the United State and Canada from 2007-2011. Modeled on Victorian evenings in the parlor, it was designed as a guided conversation about the possibility of communication with the dead. Each participant read 19th century documents on the topic in advance. We then met, gathering around the host's table to examine the original books from which the readings had come, to report to each other on what we had read, and to talk about our own uncanny experiences in comparison to those of Ada Shepard Badger. As the evening progressed, participants assisted me in dressing in clothing of her era, and the lighting shifted from electric lights to oil lamps. Finally, using instructions from an 1874 guide for mediums, we made our own experiments in automatic writing.

A subsequent performance entitled Ada Speaking on What to Wear was performed in 2017. Focused on the Dress Reform Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, it incorporated content from Ada Shepard's college letters concerning the controversies over bloomers and the new style of shorter walking dresses. It included Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward's satirical description of a woman attempting to climb into a streetcar in her beribboned bustle dress, from her book, What to Wear?. Also read were women doctors' reports on the dangers of corsets, from Dress-Reform: a series of lectures delivered in Boston, edited by Abba Goold Woolson, and published in 1874. While it was a performance on a slightly lighter topic, connections were nevertheless made to contemporary fashion trends that still promote unhealthy attire for women.

My article on Writing Ada entitled “Performed Research: Audience as Investigator,” was published in 2009 in Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies, edited by Lynette Hunter and Shannon Rose Riley (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

Most recently, an essay by John Dennis Anderson entitled "Performance as/of Shamanism and Mediumship: Writing Ada" was published in 2020 in Responding to Site: The Performance Work of Marilyn Arsem, edited by Jennie Klein and Natalie Loveless (Bristol, UK & Chicago: Intellect Books, 2020).


About the Fellow

Marilyn Arsem has been creating and performing live events for more than forty years, presenting her work in thirty countries. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, she also teaches performance art workshops internationally.

Many of her works are created in response to specific sites and are often based on historical research. In 1997 she was a awarded a Wallace Research Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. More recently she received the 2015 Maud Morgan Prize from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Arsem is a member of Mobius, Inc., an interdisciplinary collaborative of artists which she founded in 1975. Arsem taught for 27 years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in partnership with Tufts University, establishing one of the most extensive programs internationally in visually-based performance art.

Photos by Bob Raymond and Marilyn Arsem.

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