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Get to Work: Leveraging Momentum to Get Things Done

At Thursday’s lunch talk Public Humanities alumna Kaitlynne Ward spoke about her work in the state archives and how public humanities and public sector work intersect. Ever the public human, she demonstrated how difficult it is to define both publics. However, in her time in the public sector, she’s learned that both spheres are similar in terms of how work constantly evolves with time. She framed her talk around the four skills she learned from this program and that she’s honed in her career: collaboration, relatability, accountability, and adaptability. When she talked about her work, and the many, many, many moving pieces she manages, I immediately thought about the Kurin readings. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the readings (and her lunch talk) is that public humanities work involves managing many parties, with differing goals and metrics of success. Listening, flexibility, and compromise are the keys to a successful project.

However, I think the most interesting piece of wisdom she passed on was the importance of “leveraging momentum to make things work.” Hearing this and thinking about our recent class conversations and readings about how the current political climate affects our work, made me a little more optimistic about the days ahead. The one good thing about the threat of cutting the NEA and NEH is that people are more invested in these organizations work than ever. People and the media are tuning into organizations dependent on NEA and NEH funds that support communities. Recently CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on my favorite public humanities organization, Appalshop. For 48 years Appalshop has challenged Appalachian stereotypes and diversified Whitesburg’s historically coal economy into a modern creative economy. They depend on federal money to run the programs that make them a beacon for creative expression in eastern Kentucky. Riding on momentum regarding larger national conversations about rural v urban, red state v blue state, white collar v blue collar bubbles, Appalshop is subverting the stereotypes. Admittedly not every museum can get national news coverage, but now’s the time leverage the threat of budget cuts into a conversation about an organization’s worth. What marketing strategies can organizations use now to assert their community value? How can organizations ride the momentum of this years threatened budget cuts into next year without getting stale?

Navigating Power & The Current Political Climate And Doing Socially Engaged Work

Socially engaged work is crucial to keeping museums relevant. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryn’s presentation on the SMART Museum and their engaged scholar’s program. Particularly on the importance of using the word “engaged” over the more traditional museum choice “outreach”. As Bryn pointed out, engaged points to an exchange of ideas and a dialogue. Whereas “outreach” is one sided (you can imagine a museum patting themselves on the back). I’m interested in how museums can be more socially engaged within their communities while also being aware of the power dynamics at play. Sandell writes museums, “are undeniably implicated in the dynamics of (in)equality and the power relations between different groups through their role in constructing and disseminating dominant social narratives.” Particularly considering the history of museums as elitist institutions there needs to be a careful understanding of power dynamics in the community before taking on socially engaged work.  How can museums be cognizant of this and still be active, eager participants in their communities?

If doing socially engaged work makes museums relevant, what is their role in the post-Trump era? I can’t help but wonder how the vocal minority in the post-Trump age will affect museums doing socially engaged work.  Sandell addresses the role of objects in recognizing and understanding prejudice but that’s only work we can do if people choose to walk through the door. Janes writes, “at their very best, museums present the richness and diversity of life, and keep reflection and dialogue alive for their visitors.” The New York Historical Society is embracing that by offering programs designed around the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test, to aid people in becoming citizens. This is relevant, engaged, important work but I wonder if smaller museums in more conservative places could take on a similar program without the risk of losing community support. Additionally, at a moment when distrust of institutions is at an all-time high and skepticism to facts permeates the news, how do we do foster dialogue on polarizing contemporary issues? What strategies can we use to engage with those who claim that museums offer strictly “politically correct” ideas? Is it a battle even worth fighting?

Defining American Culture?

Reading Kurin’s chapters I was struck by how almost all of us pursuing this line of work are cultural brokers. We are the “coaches” doing “strategic brokering” of cultural representations. I am interested in how the growth of the Smithsonian Institution from a place devoted to scientific inquiry to an umbrella of many museums, continues to define, preserve, and broker culture. How does this reflect our government’s definition of and stake in American culture? How does the Smithsonian, “regarded as the entity that most captures the American experience” curate and broker the cultural milieu of the melting pot in its various museums?

The additions of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African- American History and Culture are the results of cultural brokering. Increased representation in both entertainment and scholarship created a broader understanding of American Indian and African American history and culture in the media, justifying separate museum spaces for their respective histories. Giving physical space to the stories of oppressed groups shows the diversity and complexity in defining American culture. The lore embedded in American textbooks is the idea that America is a melting pot or tossed salad of many cultures. Celebrating the cultural heterogenization in America through individual museums under the Smithsonian umbrella shows that the government believes those stories are important. And that other Americans should think so too. Of course, there are political advantages and ramifications in deeming the stories of oppressed groups in America deserving of standalone museums. It’s not inconsequential that Barack Obama signed the NMHAAC into creation. That in and of itself shows the power of government agents in determining the worth of culture.

What will the future of the Smithsonian Institution look like? As a national museum, will it continue to expand and celebrate the stores of American women, Latino-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, for instance, in standalone museums? What are the broader implications of telling minority stories separately as opposed to under one roof of “American history”? How does the government shape the public’s understanding of American culture?

The StoryCorps Effect? “A Shared Authority” on America’s Front Lawn

With the popularity of podcasts and the ease of technology, oral history is more accessible than ever. Podcasts like StoryCorps and the Southern Oral History Program’s Press Record share crowd-sourced and academic oral histories with the general public. StoryCorps however, is the newest generation of oral history work that disrupts the traditional practice. Instead of Studs Terkel holding a microphone and asking questions, StoryCorps deputizes the general public to participate in making a “history of America by America for America.” Traveling StoryCorps booths have captured thousands of stories and challenge the traditional narrative of history. However, StoryCorps is more than just a guaranteed weepy “driveway moment”. Its effect is opening new doors for shared authority in museums.

When I visited the NMHAAC this winter I was struck by the curatorial approach of collecting a “people’s history”. Seeing objects that belonged to people whose names are not in American textbooks was inspiring. However, I was most interested in the oral history booths located throughout the main exhibit. The booths allow individuals to continue to share their stories, adding to the diverse history celebrated at the NMHAAC. Most importantly, recording oral histories through the NMAAHC offers a chance to fill in the silences of American history. American history has largely ignored the African-American experience and recording oral histories at this place, on the National Mall, powerfully acknowledges the importance of African-American lives and culture.The future for museums and cultural institutions is embracing shared authority. Using oral history as a tool for community engagement is crucial to garnering interest in an institution and remaining relevant. More museums should follow the lead of the NMAAHC and embrace

The future for museums and cultural institutions is embracing shared authority. Using oral history as a tool for community engagement is crucial to garnering interest in an institution and remaining relevant. More museums should follow the lead of the NMAAHC and embrace crowd-sourced oral history to add people’s voices and stories to the formal collection.





So You Wanna Run a HHM…

As Rica and Emily both rightfully point out, there’s nothing truly revolutionary about Vagnone and Simon’s “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums.” It seems overly simple to chalk up this opinion to a generational divide but, engaging with the community, talking with visitors (not just at them), and changing interpretation and exhibits with the times, are not acts of anarchy. However, they are desperately needed.

I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours in historic house museums (HHMs). I know them from both the employee and visitor side, and I’ll tell ya, sometimes historic house museums are truly awful. Reading Vagnone and Simon I was struck by how many of the “rant” sections resonated with me. “A little history is fine”, “We need to make room for today in our historic houses”, and “I worry that we think we’re already providing these great participatory experiences for our guests simply because our tour guides ask questions every now and then” all highlight my frustration with guided tours of historic house museums. All these statements get to the fundamental question HHMs need to ask: “who cares?”

It’s easy to walk around a historic house and show off your knowledge of 18th-century china, a complicated family lineage, and complicated political and philosophical ideas. I know, because I did it. But that doesn’t make for a good tour. Instead, HHMs should, as Vagnone and Simon advocate, train guides to connect personally to visitors to engage with the story of the house. But beyond simply a guided tour, “who cares?” connects to a bigger point: relevance.

I bet when the average person hears “historic house museum” they don’t think about the word “relevance” which shows the untapped potential for the future of HHMs. Many sites worry about being too political or controversial, however, history is inherently disruptive and uncomfortable. President Lincoln’s Cottage’s tagline is “a home for brave ideas”. This DC HHM uses the story of Lincoln and the Civil War to connect to modern fights in exhibits like, “American By Belief” which explores Lincoln’s immigration policies and brings in Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration act to further the dialogue. They also support a program called “Students Opposing Slavery” which furthers Lincoln’s legacy by encouraging modern day abolitionists to work to end human trafficking. While not “anarchists” by political standards, Lincoln’s Cottage is paving the way for a new model of the HHM that Vagnone and Simon advocate and more sites should follow the lead, ASAP.

The Future of Empathy?

“The Couple in a Cage” highlights the long history of “othering” in public spaces. Circuses, World Fairs, and museums have long “othered” individuals in the name of entertainment or education. As we tackle the large subject of empathy and the public, it’s important to find spaces where dialogue can actually occur. Fusco nods to kids as the ones to bring about change. However, this is a trope that’s been around for generations. Fusco writes, “for all the concern expressed about shocking children, we found that their reactions have been the most humane. Young children invariably have gotten the closest to the cage; they would seek direct contact, offer to shake our hands, and try to catch our eyes and smile.” Free of many years of encountering stereotypes, learning damaging behaviors, and getting hardened to history, many children are able to see humanity and situations with fresh eyes. Children who encountered “The Couple in a Cage” turned to their parents with questions prompting important conversations about race, history, and the treatment of indigenous peoples. Perhaps if this project had a more educational focus, interpreters could’ve been on hand to assist parents with answering those questions. Otherwise, the idea of children as vessels for empathy and compassion are moot without the guidance of equally empathetic and compassionate adults. The future of an empathetic public doesn’t lie within children without spaces to encourage dialogue and resources to assist parents. How can institutions better support that dialogue? What kind of programming can be done to encourage questions from kids and empathetic responses from parents?

Living Memorials? Re-Enactments and Memorial Mania

“Memorial Mania” is particularly relevant in this moment in American history. As college campuses and cities across the country examine the weight of names and images of people connected to slavery and white supremacy, debates of history and memorialization are particularly relevant. Both Doss and Sandage show that history, memory, and memorials are political touchstones. I’m particularly interested in where re-enactment fits into modern memorials. Doss addresses living memorials as libraries, museums, and other physical spaces devoted to public welfare but where do individuals, acting out a moment in time, fit in?
The last mass lynching in America occurred at Moore’s Ford, near Athens, Georgia, on July 25, 1946 when two African-American couples were lynched on a dirt road in rural Georgia. Like many other lynchings in the South, the killers never paid for their horrendous crimes. This moment in Georgia history was largely silenced. However, in the 1990’s a biracial committee formed, perhaps out of shame and “shared understandings of civic morality”, to acknowledge this moment in history. One of the outcomes was a re-enactment that’s become an annual tradition in Monroe, Georgia. In the South re-enactments are most often used to commemorate the Confederacy and the Civil War. Choosing to re-enact a lynching flips that common trope on its head. Instead of celebrating the “Lost Cause”, it memorializes a painful moment, and becomes a teaching tool. Using costumes and actors, and drawing a crowd, it acknowledges the history of lynchings as spectacles and events that people chose to witness. The re-enactment of the events at Moore’s Ford is a loud and sombering thing to witness. It evokes different emotions than a physical monument. Being a witness forces you to think about the events at Moore’s Ford differently than looking at a historical marker. This type of memorial is acting in the name of education and makes me think about how other re-enactments and costumed interpretation can memorialize moments. What if Civil War re-enactments were about more than simply living out the “Lost Cause” mentality in the modern era? Instead, it was about the realities of slavery and the 19th century South? How can and do living people memorialize an event in public spaces? How are memorials more than simply a space?

Collective Memory and Myths

A key component to public history is recognizing the power dynamics that control the narrative of history. As Glassberg writes, “a civil-religion approach that emphasizes public history’s role in holding political society together tends to overlook how dissenting voices view experience, the historical visions of minorities, and conflicts over the construction and dissemination of a public history” (13). While collective memory is crucial to public history, historically it’s the memory of privileged communities that’s displayed in museums and public spaces. In recent years the solution has been to build separate institutions devoted to various communities histories and cultures (NMAAHC, NMAI). These spaces give power to collective memories previously silenced in history. But, what about opposing collective memories regarding a singular event? The question then becomes: is it possible to display multiple communities’ disparate memories under one roof? Interestingly, museums devoted to the Civil War that were once separate institutions recently joined under a single umbrella to become one institution. The Museum of the Confederacy (founded in 1896) joined the American Civil War Center at Tredegar (founded in 2006) to offer what public historians hope will be a more unified history experience of the Civil War in Richmond. The Museum of the Confederacy was created at the height of the “Lost Cause” mentality that perpetuated a myth of the South that never was. Preserved by women devoted to the “Lost Cause” it became home to thousands of relics of the Confederacy. Now it’s merged with the American Civil War Center, a site that takes a neutral stance on the Civil War, though firmly states that slavery was the cause of that conflict. Two museums founded with opposing memories and ideologies under one roof. This merger was not met without protests. Confederate heritage organizations protested the joint museum endeavor and called for the executive director’s removal. Despite the protests however, the Museum of the Confederacy and Civil War Center partnership is an interesting example of two different archives, boards of directors, and ideas about history coming together to combat the myths of the Confederacy and to forge a new collective memory of the Civil War in Richmond.

Memory and History: It’s Complicated

This week’s readings address the complicated relationship between history and memory. Though they, “appear now in fundamental opposition” they are in reality, intrinsically linked. Nora writes, “the quest for memory is the search for one’s history” and you can’t have one without the other. If memory is used to find history then museums and archives are the lit flashlight used in the journey.

My background is in Southern history, a tangled web of memory, and history, and silences waiting to be given a voice. Trouillot writes about the agents, actors, and subjects that shape our understanding of history. Slaves who labored in cotton fields are agents in history, but the actors with power are the ones who shaped the narrative told. History, like memory, evolves to amplify stories smothered by earlier historians with power and an agenda to maintain that power.

As if memory and history don’t have a complex enough relationship, where does the public fit in? I worked at a plantation museum in Virginia whose institutional history excluded narratives about slavery. For years Monticello, like many house museums across the South, ignored the reality of plantation life in favor of a “Mt Rushmore” styled interpretation about Jefferson. He was exalted and guides avoiding talking about anything that would bring him off that pedestal. Over the years, as America more honestly remembers slavery the history interpreted at Monticello has changed as well. This weekend the Washington Post ran an article about restoration that includes interpreting a space that Sally Hemings lived in. The changes in interpretation at Monticello illustrate how quickly history evolves and is reconstructed to match present day values, but is it shaped by memory? What shapes the zeitgeist? Memory? History? Both? Though there are people frustrated by the recent progress in interpretation, their memory about the Founding Fathers as Gods among men once so amplified is now minimized. The inclusion of slavery and trauma narratives at Monticello opens up a once silenced history, in part because of the modern trauma/therapy paradigm that allows these conversations, and memories to be discussed in public.

The One Where I Ask What it Means to Make (kinda) Public Spaces More Public

Hilde Hein’s, “Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently” argues that museums should follow the lead of public art projects, in creating a relevant and visitor focused dialogue with the public. Hein encourages us to think about museums as public art, spaces that “wield power to move and re-assimilate us.” Historically, thanks to our Victorian forefathers in the museum sphere, museums are seen as elitist institutions where, if engulfed in flames, employees would save the valuable painting over the human visitor. Hein offers the public art model as a needed alternative way to best serve modern audiences. Public art is centered on engaging the visitor with many differing questions and realities. There is no right or wrong, instead a space filled with dialogue that engages. While I love the idea in theory I wonder how it would work in practice. I imagine it would require a constant change in programming and exhibits to keep the dialogue fresh and interesting for a 21st century audience, which could be difficult to implement.

I was also interested in the section about “art in public spaces”, as memorials. I’m currently working on a project about the architecture of Downtown Providence. Much of Westminster, Weybosset, and Washington Street’s architectural gems are late 19th and early 20th century financial buildings. From an artistic point of view, Hein writes off the architectural flourishes of buildings as “corporate baubles”, that merely add aesthetic value to otherwise boring office spaces. However because of the financial hardships that hit Downtown, several buildings were left vacant, most notably, the iconic “Superman Building”. Though privately owned, it’s an icon of downtown and a point of navigational reference for many who explore downtown. I wonder how the tallest structure in the Providence city skyline can be transformed from simply an empty art deco building with Gorham bronze doors and beautiful frieze work into a memorial to the prosperity of Providence’s past? Since it no longer truly serves its original purpose as “art in public space” can it be transformed into a monument or memorial to happier financial times? Can it become “public art”? How can we think about art in (kinda) public space as an evolving experience to engage with?