I've been working on my presentation for a session on narrative at the upcoming AAM conference. Ken Yellis, Deborah Trout-Smith, Susie Wilkening and I will be coming at the topic from different perspectives. I'm working on thinking about how narrative worked in Soviet museums, how post-Soviet museums in Ukraine have maintained, adapted or jettisoned that structure, and what thinking about how a different place and culture view narrative might mean for my own work. Big thoughts all, and not yet in a cohesive place (if you're at AAM, please join us at our session, Imagining the Past Remembering the Future: The Role of Narrative in Museums on Sunday, May 22 from 4:15-5:30 for some thoughtful conversation around the topic.)
But narrative...I thought of it today as I went through the focus group notes for a local history museum I'm working with. It happens to be a community I know well, and I was struck by how many narratives had emerged. Participants shared hints of compelling narratives about first jobs and first dates; about teen tragedies and loss; about the things you did that your parents wouldn't have approved of; about the influence of well-loved teachers and coaches; and about how bicycles opened the world to you when you were a kid.
But fascinatingly, the narratives from high school students were very different--more circumscribed in some ways. They felt that there was not much ethnicity in the community (despite the fact that the census tells me residents claim more than two dozen ethnicities in their heritage). One student thought immigrants, to his definition, were only from Latin America; and another thought immigrants just weren't relevant! Narratives about ethnicity seemed absent from the students' mindsets, but narratives about economic status seemed much more front and center; and some ideas about race were couched in those economic terms. Of course, it may just be that teenagers don't see very far beyond their own immediate concerns. In a diverse adult focus group, participants were much more willing to share their own narratives about race, discrimination, economic status and change. One of the participants commented about residents who lived in a different part of the city, "You hated them...because they had everything and I had nothing. I didn't even know them but I didn't like them."
So how does all this connect to my thinking about post-Soviet narratives? This local history museum's soon-to-be-redone and outdated permanent exhibit tells a single, straightforward narrative, from settlement forward. The Soviet system mandated the single narrative approach; many American museums arrived at single narrative without any dictate from a ministry of culture. But this museum, like so many others, now has a tremendous opportunity to reach out into the community; to listen to those stories, to find those narratives, and to, as one participant said, "Open the front door and be bold!"
That's an opportunity no matter where you are.
Images: FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. From a single small farming community, top to bottom: Mr.and Mrs. Ben Harris, Mr. Miller, Mr. D'Annunzio, Mr. Mirki.