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'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.


Claudia at Museum Partners Consulting, LLC said...

We did a whole exhibition at the New Jersey Historical Society in 1997 that was essentially crowdsourced, because our collections at the time did not include many diverse and appropriate objects from teenage life in NJ 1941-1975 (from Sinatra to Springsteen). The exhibit explored how teen culture arose after WWII and the impact it had on the economy, view/role of teens, and on areas such as music, fashion, dance, school, etc.
It was one of the most popular exhibitions we've ever done, and I believe one of the first about teenagers (Teen Miami followed, as did Teenage Tyne and Newcastle in the UK). In addition to collecting objects (some of which got donated to us), we included music, dances, games, a mock-up of a teen's room from the 1950s/60s, car culture (which is big in NJ), and a section on school (and there's more I'm forgetting). There were lots of interactives too, allowing more people to share memories. One of the best parts about it was seeing intergenerational groups explore the exhibit and have conversations with each other around common topics.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Claudia--I actually saw that show! One of the things I'm interested in how this kind of collecting has changed in the area of online everything. I suspect it makes it both easier and harder to collect and connect.