Thanks to the work of people like George Hein, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, the idea of meaning-making has become a regular part of interpretive planning discussions in museums. We know instinctively, and tons of research demonstrates, that each and every visitor comes with their own perspectives and makes their own sense of what we present.
This week though, two friends separately happened to share examples of meaning-making from their own lives, outside the museum setting, but both dealing with family history and a much larger context. I was moved by the examples and wanted to share them--and share the meaning I made from their stories.
Here's one story that came in an email from a friend here in Upstate New York:
Interesting story in the Times today...[about Ukrainian partisan Stephan Bandera]
I am belatedly considering this element of WWII history, the conflict between Russian and Nazi supporters and the folks who got in the way of both. We've just learned that my mother's uncle and his son were murdered along with 40 or 50 others in their Slovenian village in 1944, but stories conflict about who conducted the massacre. There is a monument with their names on it in the local cemetery. Not sure if they are buried there in a mass grave or what. I'm thinking a pilgrimage to my mother's homeland is in order for 2011.
The writer cautions that her understanding may not be completely correct, given both distance and language, but she's definitely motivated to learn more.
And here's the second story:
Elizabeth DeLuca is a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine researching Crimean Tatar language education. The Tatars have a long, rich history but important to this particular story is the fact that the the Soviets forcibly departed all Crimean Tatars en masse, as collective punishment, on 18 May 1944 from their homeland to distant Central Asian republics of the USSR. Today, after the end of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence, more than 250,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea. Elizabeth's Crimean Tatar teacher took her to visit her family in a small village. On her thoughtful blog, she writes,
After dinner, the teacher showed me her collection of family heirlooms- Korans, weavings and traditional embroidery. They were so beautiful and precious, and it is still difficult to think about the long life of these items - she told me that they had belonged to her grandmother and possibly her great-grandmother. While I didn't ask her, I imagine that these were among the few things her family took with them on the day they were deported in 1944. Almost half of the population did not survive the deportation, but these items travelled to Central Asia and back again. ...
After the visit, I sent some of these pictures to a few friends and family members, along with some thoughts I had that day. It was quite moving to see such family heirlooms, and I doubted if anything of the sort had survived in my family. My grandfather (DeLuca) responded:
As to the handcraft you show in the pictures, they reminded me of my mother. When I was a kid we would sit in the darken living room and listen the radio. My mother would knit and crochet doilies, bed spreads, sweaters, socks. I recall asking her why and how did she manage to do them in the dark, only with an occasional turning on of the light?
She told me when she was a young girl back in Italy on the farm, at night, only with the light of the fireplace, she, her sisters and her mother would all knit or crochet by the fireplace.
I had noticed in some of your earlier photos, the lace work and scarfs. Brought back memories of my youth.
And what meaning did I make from these stories?
- Of course, we're most likely to notice the things we have personal connections with. I read Elizabeth's blog because of my interest in Ukraine; and my friend sent me the article about Bandera because she knew I was interested in Ukraine. Both things might not have happened if people hadn't known of my interest. How can we, as museums, determine those interests of our visitors?
- People like to see how they fit in a bigger picture. I sometimes think of genealogy as just names and dates work, but real family history helps us understand how and where we fit in the world. My first correspondent will use her own family story as a starting point to gain a deeper understanding of a major 20th century story.
- Stories about specific ethnic or cultural groups are not just of interest to that particular group. Elizabeth's grandfather quickly made the leap from a tiny Tatar village to his own Italian family history. Both stories, with Ukrainian connections, came to me not from Ukrainians or the Ukrainian diaspora, but from others who found a starting point. Exhibits should be created to encourage those leaps--those things that we have in common.
- Objects do matter. The most whiz-bang computer interactive in the world couldn't replace those Tatar embroideries and the embroideries in the follow-up photo sent to Elizabeth by her grandfather. I think sometimes we've become scared of allowing objects to be powerful unto themselves (but of course, only a well-written label would help us understand why these objects matter).
- Multiple perspectives matter. Bandera--hero or villain? He'll be debated for generations to come, I suspect. One step that I'm just beginning to see in Ukrainian museums is a willingness to embrace multiple perspectives, rather than the old Soviet-style of one single "truth." As museums, we have a unique opportunity to serve as places for discussion and debate about different ways of viewing the world.
- It's a big world out there. Those early generations of embroiderers--in any country--could scarcely have imagined a world when photos of their work fly back and forth. We have increasing opportunities--even at local history museums--for projects that put our community's history into a global context.
Photos: Top and center from Elizabeth DeLuca's blog, Clicking Again.
Top: Tatar embroidery; Center: Embroidery from the DeLuca family; Bottom: Tatar embroidery from the International Committee for Crimea set on Flickr.