Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Story of La Guerra Civil or Why I Work in Museums

Nina Simon wrote a fascinating thoughtful post on her Museum 2.0 blog on why she works in museums and encouraged other museum bloggers to do the same. So I'd been thinking about what I would say when an experience this past week brought it into clearer focus for me.

At the beginning--like a number of museum professionals I know--I came into the field as a teenager. I didn't work wearing a costume, but I began volunteering at my local historical society when I was fourteen. I started with my mother's encouragement, mostly as a way to get me out of the house (my older sister was a candy-striper at the hospital which was not so interesting to me). I was lucky enough that summer to work for a young graduate of a museum studies program , who was very encouraging and gave me a varied selection of tasks to do. That year, or one of the ones right after, I did an inventory of the costume collection--and so at first glance, it was the cool stuff that attracted me to the field. I still remember a magenta evening dress from that summer.

But now, as I think about it more, I think the real answer might lie somewhere else--and the illustration for this isn't me in the attic inventorying costumes, but rather me, creaking my bedroom door open so I could read, late after bedtime, by the light of the hallway that streamed in. I loved reading, and I particularly loved a whole range of old-fashioned stories--Anne of Green Gables, the Railway Children, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Those stories and the details in them--the apple tree outside Anne's window or the Turkish delight found through the wardrobe door. These compelling stories, filled with detail and texture, fill my memories. As my career in museums has progressed, it's that love of stories, that opportunity to understand other lives, that has formed the main frame for my work. I found I wanted to tell stories, to hear stories, and to connect stories to other lives, past and present.

What reinforced it this week? For a project at the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville, MD, evaluator Catherine Harris conducted a series of focus groups for us about different topics. Montgomery County is tremendously diverse (at some high schools, 94 different languages spoken). This project will be done tri-lingually, in English, Spanish and Chinese, the three most prevalent languages in the county. The Spanish-speaking group, all mothers meeting at a high school, provided me with a memorable connection. We asked participants about their interest in several different topics in local history. One topic was the Civil War, with a question framed around the idea of battles fought in your own backyard. I have to admit, sometimes I think of the Civil War as the province of re-enactors, or academic historians.

But to these women, most from Central America, the idea of the Civil War here was a fascinating, important one. Why? To paraphrase one participant, it was because they knew civil war at home, where brothers and fathers were taken or killed, and it was amazing to think that, not much more than a hundred years later, that a place where the American Civil War was fought could now be this--the land of highways, rolling fields, housing developments and shopping malls--and of freedom and safety.

After this morning discussion, I wanted not only to find better and more meaningful ways to tell the story of the Civil War, but also to learn the stories of these particular women and find ways to share them with their community. Relevance comes in surprising forms--but only if you take the time to listen to your audience. Those human stories connect us in many more ways than we might perhaps imagine.

Top and Bottom: Participants in the Spanish language focus group, Gaithersburg, MD
Center: Boys read story books in the shade, Caldwell, Idaho, July, 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

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