Monday, August 24, 2009

Finding Sites of Conscience

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Erika Gee and Maxim Novichenko of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The coalition is a worldwide network of “Sites of Conscience” – historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies. You can read a recent NY Times article about the coalition here.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we focused on my experience in Ukraine, talking about Chernobyl, Holomodor, and the Holocaust. I had the opportunity to learn about projects of individual sites such as the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 in Russia where events, dialogues, exhibits and programs helping to ensure that the human cost of totalitariansim is never forgotten.

But as I drove home, I thought about the many communities in the US where I have worked--and what sites of conscience might be in each of them.

I realized that almost every community has somewhere that is a place of conscience, whether it's a museum or historic site. We, as history workers, could take the lead in interpreting and telling stories about the fight for wages and worker safety, suffragists, abolitionists, pacifists and environmental activists. Many community museums have begun to tell those stories--but far fewer have begun to tell the more difficult stories of their past--the 1920s anti-nativist movement in upstate New York; the forced removal of Haudenousaunee during General Sullivan's campaign; the ways in which our communities treated the poor and the mentally ill; the inevitable pollution that was a result of industrialization; racial and religious segregation and discrimination; the often casual discrimination where some ethnic groups were slotted into low level jobs, and many more.

How can community museums begin the process of identifying sites and stories in their own communities? First, begin the conversation. Set aside time for your staff and your board to talk about the difficult parts of community history. Take a look at your collections and see if any of these difficult topics are embedded in your objects. One of the most powerful exhibition displays I've ever seen was one where, in its exhibit on slavery, the New-York Historical Society had a group of high-style 18th century objects--mahogany chairs, silver tea pots and the like. And the label? It said, simply, that everything in this case was made or used by slaves. It made those objects have an entirely different meaning for visitors. I haven't yet had a chance to see the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Table Conversations, but they definitely seem to provide a wonderful model for creating community dialogue about contemporary issues.

What else can you do?
  • Seek out different parts of your community for conversations and dialogue.
  • Consider who's not represented in your work.
  • Check out the Coalition's website under resources for models and more information. The coalition works by bringing groups together to share experiences, ideas and perspectives--the same approach will work in your own community.
  • Take a look at the Living Library, a worldwide project where you're given the opportunity to speak informally with people from diverse backgrounds "on loan" as a way of breaking stereotypes and challenging prejudices.
At a time when communities sometimes seem increasingly fragmented, museums and history organizations can be places where we come together, to consider our shared concerns.

Top to bottom:
Kern County, California. Undernourished cotton picker's child listening to speeches of organizer at strike meeting to raise wages from seventy-five cents to ninety cents a hundred pounds. Strike unsuccessful. Photo by Dorothea Lange, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Memorial Park at Perm-36, via Gulag Museum website

Two male workers make sausage casings for Adam Stecher in a cellar located on the edge of the Hudson River at #656 West 41st St., New York City, 1912. Barrels and machinery fill the room, which the investigator described as "excessively hot, humid and foul smelling." Factory Investigating Commission Collection, New York State Archives.

Living Library event in Edinburgh, Scotland

No comments: