Sunday, August 24, 2008

What I've Been Reading Online

A couple items from various places:

My friend and colleague Anne Ackerson has started a new blog, Leading by Design. She's one of the most thoughtful thinkers about museums and leadership I know, and her blog will share her reflections on a wide range of issues relating to museums and organizational development.

I heard a story on NPR about Cornerstones, a project exploring the history of New Orleans through place. As they put it, less "Andrew Jackson slept here," and more "this is the last mom and pop store in the neighborhood." Their site has a registry with a map and a nomination form. A new book, already in its second printing, shares the information in a different format. Places of note: The House of Dance and Feathers, Deutches Haus, and the Sportsmen's Corner Bar.

From the Cornerstones site, I linked to The Neighborhood Story Project. Their tag line? "Our Stories Told by Us." It's a project in collaboration with the University of New Orleans and their work has already resulted in seven books and numerous programs. Those books include: (descriptions from their website)

by Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club
Beginning with their own childhoods in the Desire Housing Project, Nine Times take the reader on a journey through their world: Motown Sound at Carver games, DJ's in the courts, and sandlot football. Written by the members during the year after Katrina, Nine Times writes about their lives, their parades, the storm, and the rebuilding process. Through interviews, photographs, and writing, Nine Times brings readers into their world of second lines, brass bands, Magee's Lounge, and the ties that bind.

Arlet and Sam Wylie

In their book Between Piety and Desire, brother and sister team Arlet and Sam Wylie talk about their regular and irregular life living above a neighborhood store. They interview the people who hang out on the block, weaving the history of the street through their own history living upstairs.

These New Orleans projects are great examples of what local historical societies could and should be doing. It would be nice if more local history organizations stopped trying to own a building, just because it's there, stopped collecting objects just because someone donates them, and tried harder to really document and share the history of a place.

And by the way, in my own corner (more or less) of the world, Traditional Arts of Upstate New York (TAUNY) has a Register of Very Special Places in New York State's North Country, including locations such as Clare and Carl's, home of the "michigan" hot dog and the Italian American Civic Association in Massena. Citylore, a folk arts organization in New York City partners with the Municipal Art Society for Place Matters, a project designed to uncover places that "evoke associations with history, memory, and tradition."

In all these efforts, the decisions about what to document, share and register, is made by community members, with open nomination forms, a process that opens up a community's history to everyone.

Above: New Orleans Street Scene, 1935, by Walker Evans, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Sustainability--it's a much used buzz-word these days, but my trip to Peru encouraged me to think about it other ways as well. In the Andes, generations of weavers have created incredible works, using natural dyes and simple hand looms. However, that work is vanishing. So to communities, sustainability isn't a question of adequate financial support for an organization's work, it's really a question of how families and communities can both sustain traditions and, at the same time, make strides to improve education, health care, and a host of other issues.

We visited the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the work of local weavers. The center includes a large retail store, where a large percentage of the sale of textiles goes directly to the weavers themselves, rather than a middle-man. In addition, each piece is made with natural dyes and local wool or alpaca, unlike many pieces in tourist markets with their neon colors and acrylic fibers. Each piece at the center comes with a hang tag that usually includes a picture of the weaver, along with their name, age and village. This reminded me of projects done by Native American basket makers in Maine and northern New York by the Akewsasne Museum to highlight the work of their traditional craftspeople.

The center also included a beautiful thoughtful exhibit on traditional textiles, both their manufacture and their meaning.

Poverty in the Andes is a critical issue and changes in Andean lives mean many things. We were told that few young people want to farm anymore and that they are emigrating to cities to make their fortune. It's the same story the world over. Tourism itself is a mixed blessing, bringing money into small villages but at the same time, placing stress on the environment and changing the lives of those who live there.

The mission of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco is to "recapture the history of, spread information about, and stimulate the production of traditional textiles as well as to provide support and assistance to the communities of weavers with which the Center works."

As tourists, it was both a responsibility and a pleasure to purchase textiles at the center, works that will remind us of both Peru and of the challenges of sustaining a culture for years to come.

Top to bottom:
Weaving on a hand loom, Cusco, photo by Drew Harty
Weaver at the Center for Traditional Textiles, Cusco, photo by Drew Harty
Exhibit at the Center for Traditional Textiles
Elderly woman coming home from the terraced fields, Colca Valley, photo by Drew Harty
Textiles from the Center for Traditional Textiles

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Can't Guided Tours be Optional?

I'm just back from two weeks in Peru and hope to spend a little time blogging about the time I spent there. To start, I was particularly struck by the options in ways to visit historic sites. At the Cathedral in Cusco, you could just wander on your own, you could take a tour with a guide, use an audio tour, or, just read the simple, informative, bi-lingual labels as you wandered around. At many historic sites, including Machu Picchu, the fortress at Ollantaytambo and the Monasterio Santa Catalina in Arequipa, you had the option of taking a guided tour. At some of the sites, this was clearly the way guides made their living, and you paid them. At others, they were employed by the site and your responsibility was a tip. Some wore uniforms, others did not.

Earlier this summer, I took a tour at a new historic site here in the United States and was totally turned off by the other participants on the tour. In every room, "is this original?" and a whole host of other questions that were interesting to them, but not to me. It turned a tour from what I hoped would be an evocative, memorable experience to a painful one. By making the tours optional as in Peru, it meant that you could persue your area of interest with the guide (and bore only your traveling group, not others!)

I realize that many factors may make this kind of optional tour difficult for historic sites here in the US: these were highly visited sites, so it made sense for a number of guides to be on hand; the economics of pay are very different; and it appeared that no site worked with volunteer guides.

The experiences did reinforce for me the sense that we need to allow visitors many options for their experiences. And a confession: we didn't take a tour at any of the locations, although did lurk around the edges of several tours.

Top: Monasterio Santa Catalina, Arequipa, Peru
Bottom: The view from Machu Picchu