Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What did I Find at New Founde Lande?

I'd been meaning to write a post about my experience at the New Founde Lande pageant in Trinity, Newfoundland and had been pondering how to approach.  Rebecca Harz's recent post, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? made me think more deeply about questions that continue to interest her--and me--those questions about the intersection of museums, stories, and emotions.   Can we combine them?  Should we?  Does it hurt or help critical thinking?

So, on to the pageant.  For more than two decades, the Rising Tide Theater has produced this outdoor historical pageant in the gorgeous village of Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula.  It tells the story from the earliest settlement to the first Newfoundland election in 1832.  We bought our tickets and perched on a slope on a beautiful sunny day, with perhaps one hundred other visitors--unsure about what, exactly, would happen.

What followed was a combination walking tour, theater experience and history lesson.  A small group of actors, in story and song, shared a chronological, and deeply personal look at Trinity's history--but we didn't learn that history in a school room or a theater, but outside, walking from place to place in the village.  We stood on the shoreline and learned about salting cod and women's work; we entered the church, still in use, to commemorate the loss of fishermen, we saw those same fishermen and their families denied credit by the fish merchants.  Some of the vignettes were moving, some were funny (and some just weren't funny to me, but perhaps to others).  You did pay better attention to the loose story; and the moving from place to place meant that you never got bored, knowing that something new was coming.  And it gave a chance to see the town in a different way; to people the town with these historical characters.  There's no question there were some deeply emotional moments, in both story and song, during the performance.  I'll long remember the performance's end, as the cast (and much of the audience) sang Ode to Newfoundland together.

But what about that history?  A few days after the performance, I had dinner with Newfoundland friends who thought they had probably seen the pageant five years ago and were curious if it had changed.  I shared what I remembered, and Bill said, "you know, you actually learned alot of Newfoundland history!"  Did I learn the intricacies and complications of history?  Probably not.  Did I come away with emotions and a feeling of narrative and actions?  Yes, definitely.  Did it make me a critical thinker?  I came ready to be a critical thinker, so it did spur me to learn more.  Did it spur others to be critical thinkers?  Hard to say, which is where I circle back to Rebecca's questions --  I think it's all about our goals for any particular historical project whether it be in a museum or along the shore in Newfoundland.  Our goal might be to create a strong emotional connection or it might be to develop critical thinkers.  I think there's room (as I suspect Rebecca does) for both in our work.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Building Community: Outport Style

I'm just wrapping up a week in Port Union, Newfoundland, beginning work on interpretive planning with them, and as always, each new client, each new place, each new set of experiences make me think about my own practice and how I can continue to shape and learn.

Port Union is known as the only union-built town in North America and was founded in 1916 by an inspirational (and somewhat controversial) leader, Sir William Coaker, as the headquarters of the Fishermen's Protective Union.  It looks different than any other Newfoundland outport, with its factory and row houses.  The Sir William Coaker Foundation, formed after the closure of the fish plant, has done amazing work in preserving buildings in the historic district,  restoring buildings to create both spaces for exhibits and interpretation and, at the same time, also addressing community needs such as affordable rental housing.  Much of Port Union's story is different than other Newfoundland outports: the Fishermen's Advocate newspaper published there, the workers' housing, Coaker's efforts to improve a whole variety of fishermen's way of making a living. The town has a unique opportunity to connect with the growing tourist audiences on the Bonavista Peninsula.

The interpretive challenges are many--but exciting.  Many Newfoundlanders have intense attachments to the places they were born. It was moving to walk the street with Harold (that's him at the head of the post, in front of the house where he was born) and Bill, as they remember the community it was; the lives of their families (below, Bill's grandfather, Fred Tulk, the captain) and the bustling community.  How do we make sure that their stories continue to live on in ways more than just a simple video or label text?  Canada has an extensive summer youth employment program that results in enthusiastic and friendly, but not well-trained, summer guides at many sites.  How can we develop ways for those stories and that knowledge be conveyed to young people so they can continue to share those stories and ideas forward?

And then there's the challenge of telling history that's still new.  In 1992,  the Canadian government announced a moratorium on cod fishing (still in place)  putting tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders out of work, taking away the kind of work that had sustained families and communities for centuries. At a community dinner, over great home-cooked food like moose meatballs and partridgeberry pie, I asked people about the moratorium.  Some thought that it was still too painful to talk about--and it was abundantly clear that everyone in the room had been affected by it. Others thought that most outsiders did not understand the moratorium at all. Perhaps within the context of the Fishermen's Union, 1992 was a part of the full story of fishermen's  lives and work that needed to be told.  How can we best do that?

We came home with our heads full of ideas, but this trip strongly reinforced that there's one skill every interpretive planner should have--that of active listening.  More and more I've come to think that my job isn't to come with the ideas of how you should do it, but to work in the way that evidently Michelangelo (without meaning that comparison directly) did--which is to find the meaning within a museum, a collection, a community, a place, and to work to pare away the extraneous, to reveal that meaning.

And, by the way, I am a huge Newfoundland booster.  It is a beautiful, varied, fascinating place with a still-distinct culture.  Plan a visit!  To whet your appetite, some photos from my travels below.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I ♥ Maps

The summer I graduated from college, my friend Jane and I drove cross-country and back.  I don't even remember using a guidebook but what I do remember are a whole set of AAA Trip-Tiks that guided us across the country, showing us scenic routes and interesting places to explore (which must explain the visit to Wall Drug).

This summer I've been reminded of how much I loved those maps as I've come across a number of different great mapping projects (digital and not) that provide ways to explore communities near and far.  As I think about what local history museums might do differently, these provide all kinds of inspiration. (and don't miss this post about what one museum did with maps--an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society).

Here's a bit of what's come across my virtual desk:

This compelling animation of 315 years of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  As you watch it, think about the fact that each of tiny dots represents a boat, with hundreds of people on board.

Curious about the contemporary lives of cities around the world?  Check out Spotify's Interactive Music Map that creates playlists of "songs are most distinctively enjoyed in cities around the world." I've been working accompanied by music from places I've visited and places I want to go (and wondering why some cities are missing).

Canaction, an international architectural festival in Kyiv, Ukraine, checked out what made its city's residents happy.  In Map Me Happy, large scale maps were installed in four different locations and volunteers collected more than 850 responses--locations and thoughts--to places that made Kyivians happy (photo at the top of this post from their website)  One of the take-aways?  "Our team realized that our Map can link people and be a place where everyone can be heard."

What does your place smell like?  It's not surprising that in London, St. James Park smells like nature, but who would have thought that around the Tower of London smells like animals?  This incredible smells map of London (and the associated data and videos) let your nose lead you around.

The New York Public Library has mapped thousands and thousands of historic photographs from their collection. Literally, you can click on almost any street corner in Manhattan and get views of changing New York.

Many, if not most of these maps focus on cities.  I'd love to see more examples that explore small towns and the countryside.  We're worthy of mapping too!

Radical Cartography:  innovative map thinking about everything you can imagine--and don't forget to check out Brilliant Maps, just as it says.  Happy travels from your armchair or with your suitcase in hand.

(Above: My sisters and I on an early map-driven expedition).

Friday, August 7, 2015

Reflecting on Dialogues

Last week, I participated in the "Let's Talk"  convening organized by the University of Washington Museology Program with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  The goal of the time,  led by Kris Morrissey and Robert Garfinkel, was to explore the what, why, and how of dialogue-based programming in museums. The twenty or so participants included colleagues from science, history, and art museums, along with graduate programs faculty, evaluators and an outlier or two like me.  Everyone was incredibly ready to dive in--to try and figure out what we're doing, what we hope to be doing, and what we hope to accomplish.

It was thrilling, in a way, to be a part of contemplating this big shift in our work and inspiring to hear from people at museums who have already made this a center of their work talk about the transformation.  But it was also sobering to realize how much work we have yet to do.  We wrestled with even defining what dialogue-based programming is.  Is it always a program?  How can we think about dialogue in exhibits?  Guided tours?  How do we define impact?  The two evaluators in the room helped all of us in keeping ways to evaluate impact and value on the table.

In small teams, we took on a number of different issues--and in our Community of Practice group we explored how to build the capacity of the field for dialogue.  One of our first steps: we tweeted out our team's first thoughts and shared this Google Doc.  Please take a look and let us know what you think.

What were my main take-aways?

  • Risk and experimentation will continue to be a part of this practice--and should be.  Every situation, every community, every museum, every group of dialogue participants,  is different. But at the same time, an understanding of what works and what hasn't, shared in an open way, can help inform each new effort.  
  • The practice of dialogue in museums can be transformative on multiple levels. Several participants spoke movingly about the ways in which dialogue-based work can transform internal cultures and, radiating outward, can also begin to place the museum more clearly at the center of community relevance (if you haven't read it yet, be sure you check out Nina Simon's recent posts on that topic).   
  • Listen, listen, listen and keep talking together.  Not surprisingly, it wasn't just in the sessions that learning and dialogue went on.  Over meals, over dessert in Island Wood's garden, and over the most complicated card game I've ever played, you could see this particular community building take place. Our small team's first steps in building this community of practice were already accomplished by the time we boarded the ferry to head back.  My work doesn't take me into the science museum world so the chance to learn more about that expanded my own thinking;  a long late night conversation with my roommate did the same as we shared experiences and knowledge.  It always feels a bit of a luxury to have the time to talk deeply--and we all need to make more time for such efforts.
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect.   Just after returning the long trip from Bainbridge Island to my Catskill hamlet, I headed off to my book club meeting. In the conversation, which ranged from discussing this month's book, H is for Hawk, to our county fair's refusal to ban selling of the Confederate flag, I reflected about why museums need to change.  When a fact-based question came up in conversation--what does a goshawk look like?  What was the name of that other book?  we looked it up online.  That simple.  We don't come together for information, we come together for conversation, the same kind of conversation that museum-based dialogues can provide. As museums, I think we're risking even greater irrelevancy if we persist on sticking to a solely fact-based role.  As museums, I think we have unique opportunities to expand those conversations beyond that go beyond those groups of people we might already converse with; to bring us in conversation with different perspectives than our own.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tough Talk Part 2: Stowe Center Conversations

In my last post, I attempted to make the case (made more effectively by so many others) that museums need to become places where we can talk about tough issues.  Last week, I got a chance to sit in on a Stowe Salon at Lunch, at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, in Hartford CT,  on the subject of white privilege which was skillfully facilitated by Michelle McFarland, Branch Manager of Hartford Public Library’s Mark Twain Branch. A frame for the conversation was the article, "I, Racist" by John Metta, which coincidentally was also used in the last #museumsrespondtoFerguson twitter chat.

Before it began, I was curious about who would come to the Stowe Center, not exactly in the middle of a highly trafficked area, during their lunch hour, to talk about white privilege.  Stowe Center has a great track record of their evening salons, with guest speakers, but these lunchtime conversations are a new effort.  Who came?  Almost forty people, with a great diversity of age, gender, race and ethnicity, and life experiences. What happened was moving--and yet only a start--to the conversations that can happen.

My scribbled notes can't convey the whole conversation--I was trying to deeply listen and to take notes, but here's a bit of what people said.  I haven't put these in quotes but these are as close to quotes as I can get from my notes.
I had to get past my own history (Irish) and think about what we are now and the privilege that I and my children have. 
I want to disagree that solving social and economic issues will make racism go away. 
We can no longer pretend that racism doesn't exist just because no one is shackled.
Racism only happens in silence. 
As a white person I have the obligation to speak up.
Do statistics make us whites comfortable?  Is it a way not to face up to the issues? 
We need to think about the intersectionality of racism with all the other isms. 
It's more than just a matter of balance, it's a matter of justice.
The group ranged widely over topics, ranging from a teacher commenting on the de facto segregation of Connecticut schools, to the 1965 Moynihan report and its long-ranging effect on how we think about race and family,  to the ways in which differing family structures are not judged as failures in other countries. Some of the older participants reflected on their own lives in terms of progress made and not made.  There was both a sense of discouragement--that this is still an issue--and at the same time, a sense of hopefulness, that, as one person said, "This time we live in--we're moving the ball forward with the discussion about what racism is.  We're not just talking about the grand dragon in robes."  

After the conversation ended, it continued in small groups.  People exchanged phone numbers and emails, went deeper to learn more about one comment or another; and almost an hour later, people were still standing and talking deeply to people they had never met before.

As I write this, I'm in Seattle about to head off for two days of a University of Washington Museum Studies program convening on dialogue in museums so I'm sure I'll have much more to ponder.  But from my ongoing Stowe experience and this particular conversation, here are some of my takeaways.

  • Believe in your strong mission.  The Stowe Center's programs stem directly from their mission, which says in part,  [the Stowe Center] "promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change."  If you don't have a strong, community-focused mission, spend time re-thinking it.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment.  The lunchtime salons were an experiment.  The staff said at the first one, they had only set-up a few chairs.  And keep experimenting.
  • Don't be afraid of the conversations. People did disagree in this conversation, and sometimes there were parts that were hard to hear.  But we need to.
  • Make a long-term commitment.  This harkens back to the session that Melanie Adams of the Missouri Historical Museum did at AAM describing that institution's long commitment to conversations about race.  Community engagement takes time.
  • Frame the conversation, facilitate well and set ground rules.  Michelle did a great job always keeping the conversation respectful, focused and yet wide-ranging.   Staff noted that the evening salons, with guest speakers, tended to be less conversational.  This set-up provides room for different conversations.
  • Make time for follow-up.  As we watched the one-on-one conversations happening after the conversation ended, the staff and I talked about the need for refreshments, comfy chairs and other ways to keep those opportunities going.

Michelle ended the conversation with a quote from Bayard Rustin, “The proof that one truly believes is in action.”   That's true for all of us.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Still Wondering if History Museums should Talk about Tough Issues?

I've been in the museum field a long time.  This past year has felt like a time of real change in the way we're thinking and talking about museums and their social responsibilities.  From #museumsrespondtoFerguson to debates about whether we're ready to tell the stories of what the Confederate flag symbolizes, to in Ukraine, the debates and legislation about de-communisation and the removal of all Soviet symbols, there's been incredible conversation and debate both within and outside of the field about our work of representing the past.

But this past week or so, I've been reminded about why this is important--and why we, particularly as history museums, need to continue to work harder.  As I've been out and about in upstate New York, I've come across several obviously brand-new Confederate flags flying from houses or tacked up on barns.

What does this mean?  I haven't stopped to knock on any doors to find out but I 'm struck by its contrast with the other parts of this region's history.  My own county sent more than 2500 men to fight in the Civil War and statues of Civil War soldiers are found in almost every county seat.

Why the flag now?  It might mean that the owner just doesn't like being told what to do by anybody--a part of a long-standing libertarian streak here.  It might mean new prejudices emerging.  It might mean a resurgence of organized racism in an area where, in the 1920s, the Klan was highly active (and more than a few Klan uniforms exist in museum collections) It might be in protest against NASCAR's request that fans refrain from flying the Confederate flag at races.

Last December, the American Association for State and Local History issued a statement as a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson.  It read, in part,
As integral members of American society, history organizations have a responsibility to collect, interpret, and engage in our country’s history, including both the harmonious and the controversial histories. Difficult histories include the recollections of controversy. By commemorating and teaching difficult histories, organizations and museums can make a powerful statement to the collective narrative effectively demonstrating that difficult histories matter in the present. Museums and history organizations must take risks to represent difficult histories, even when they are uncomfortable and even painful to recall. Historical representations of difficult histories have the power to awaken a passion in citizens by asking them to look at history from multiple viewpoints, viewpoints that can reveal the struggles for a more just and compassionate moral order. AASLH continues to lead and advocate for inclusive interpretation that reflects all voices with mutual respect. As our nation grapples with the events surrounding Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, AASLH encourages all its members to look to their history collections and their position within their communities, and to participate in community healing by providing access to history exhibits, programs, and educational materials. 
I urge history museums to take those new flags I saw as a call to action.  We can't say that the flag--or the debate over slavery and contemporary issues-- has nothing to do with us, us Northerners, us rural residents, us whatever we are. It does have to do with us and we need to make our museums places where thoughtful discussion can take place around painful histories and the challenging present.

If you're really unsure of where to start, begin in your own archives and collections.  What's represented, what's not represented?  What stories do your documents tell?  And start the conversation--unsure about how to do that?  Begin checking out resources including the Front Page Dialogues now available from the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience and the ongoing blog posts by our thoughtful and passionate colleagues at The Incluseum.

Don't be afraid to begin talking-- and listening-- now.

Image:  Protest outside the South Carolina capital, from Flickr user Perry B. McLeod.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What, Me Worry? Crowdsourcing Teenage Memories

It's sometimes tricky to figure out the starting place for collecting memories for an exhibition project.  Do newspaper press releases work?  What about the Facebook page? The museum staff's own network?  How do you figure out who will be a great interview and what topics really resonate, given the constraints of time and money?  How can we approach it more creatively?

I've been experimenting with a new way of doing this preliminary collecting and wanted to share what I've learned (and some questions I still have).   I'm developing an exhibition on 20th century teenage life in Chemung County, NY for the Chemung Valley Museum (this also happens to be where I spent my own teenage years).   I was really interested in the ways in which teenage life reflected larger changes in the culture.  So I began with the incredibly thoughtful group of questions developed by StoryCorps on their Great Question List.  If you've ever sat in your driveway, letting a StoryCorps piece finish, you know that they go far deeper than we, as museums often do.

But then, where to find people to talk to?  And how to get them to share?  We did a really simple survey using Google Forms to begin the conversation and shared it on the museum's Facebook page and on the ChemungHistory.com's Facebook page.   We've received dozens of responses, and many who also volunteer to be interviewed.  It seems as if the privacy of responding to the survey, rather than responding publicly on Facebook is a bonus.  Our respondents were born in decades ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s,  testament to Facebook's reach in terms of age demographics, and it appears we have both men and women responding.

And what are we learning about teenage life?  A great deal, from worries, to first jobs.

What did you worry about?
I worried about getting caught drinking and going to bars and I worried about getting killed while hitch hiking!   On a more serious note, at a young age I got involved in the animal rights movement and worried about animal abuse. In junior high I threatened Woolworth's with a boycott and told them my friends and I would not shop there anymore unless they took better care of their turtles. They installed a new roomier tank for them within a month. It was empowering. It taught me about the power we all have to make change happen.
Zits, hair, weight, boyfriends, getting a license and grades.
Being unhappy as an adult. Being stuck in a miserable job. Life having no hope. Ya know, the regular stuff.
Family anger. Finding a girlfriend. Getting drafted for Vietnam.

war, race riots
And several, like Alfred E. Neuman at the head of the post, said, "not much!"

We've learned that far fewer of our informants have photos of their high school years than we would have expected and that cool clothes ranged from mood rings to clogs to white pedal pushers to your leather jacket.

We've also got an exhibit soundtrack going from the answer to, "What song do you hear that still reminds you of high school?"  Which of these represents your teenage years?

Questions that still remain:

  • Can we turn these respondents into interviewees and project contributors?
  • How representative is the group of people who respond?
  • How can we spread the word even more widely?
  • Where are those photos hiding?  (for many in Elmira, the  devastating 1972 flood may provide the answer).

I'm really interested to hear if anyone else is crowdsourcing in this kind of way for local history projects.  Please share away, if you are.