From Storefront to Monument

This blog post is very overdue, and so it’s going to be filled with messy, finals week thoughts. In a way, the questions that Andrea Burns asked in From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement have been stewing in my mind for so long that pinpointing things to talk about has been difficult. Her focus on community, and the role that museums play in serving various communities, is a pertinent concern, especially in the aftermath of the recent election.

In her book, she talks about the genesis and development of various museums dedicated to serve African-American communities, such as the DuSable Museum in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Detroit. For these museums, political and cultural developments in the 1960s led the African-American communities in these cities to create a public center for the celebration and promotion of Black history and identity. While the museums discussed in Burns’s book run into issues as communities, locations, and institutional missions change, they still had to grapple with how to maintain the original intention to serve local communities.

These questions have been on my mind, as museums and other cultural institutions have been releasing statements about their mission post-election. I already wrote about the Tenement Museum’s statement, and a few other museums focusing on specific ethnic groups have also released statements. For example, the Asian Art Museum strengthened its identification as “a museum for all,” and the Japanese American National Museum referenced WWII internment camps in a call for Donald Trump to be more inclusive and learn from the past. While it has been discussed, NMAJH still has not put out any kind of statement, and even though a statement promoting our mission in these contentious times is fairly innocuous, I wonder if the hesitation is about community, and whether a statement like that would be uniting or divisive. How would a statement released by this museum, which aims to represent all American Jews, be received by American Jews who supported and voted for Trump? I saw a lot of parallels to the objections to the creation of the national Museum of African American History and Culture, such as Charles Wright and John Kinard arguing that a federally-funded national museum would fail to hear and represent all Black voices and opinions.

I wonder if this is a problem that all national museums have, as opposed to smaller community-oriented museums: the larger a “target” group gets, the more needs and opinions and preferences that museum’s audience will have, leading to the potential for more people to be upset by a given decision. With the new NMAAHC building opened, there have already been criticisms by certain curatorial choices, such as the exclusion of Clarence Thomas. The Smithsonian responded to this criticism, explaining they simply cannot tell every story, but many are still upset by this.

This leads to questions about the relationship between museums and their audiences. Is it an institution’s responsibility to please every single visitor? Is this even possible? In the case of things like post-election statements, which is more important: staff members’ idea of ethics or visitors’ potential comfort?

I don’t think there’s a single correct or easy answer to these questions, but I also don’t think a museum can be relevant without trying to answer them.

Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority

I was pretty inspired while reading this book. The different projects and exhibits highlighted were so fascinating, especially the series of performances telling the stories of Black Bottom. Personally, I found the first essay by Nina Simon the most useful. In it, she explains what it means for an exhibit or program to be participatory, in the spirit of Web 2.0: not only can visitors interact with and contribute to the program, but their contributions have a direct role in changing how the program develops. One example she gives is of the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum’s Top 40 program, where visitors vote on their favorite paintings, and the ranked organization of how paintings are hung changes based on visitors’ votes (20). So often, programs will take that first step towards participation by inviting visitors’ contributions, but then stop short of having those contributions directly affect the program at large.

This got me thinking about how participatory NMAJH’s programs are. I feel like it’s a lot harder to approach this topic from an interpretive, rather than curatorial, approach — you don’t have the freedom to create something from scratch, but rather you’re building upon a set arrangement of artifacts in a permanently-constructed space, and so it seems like the limits are much tighter. One idea that has come up, regarding our Traveling Suitcase program, is to encourage students to create their own suitcases that would help others learn about them. Would that run into the same problems that Matthew MacArthur points out, about how user-created “galleries” are underused and abandoned (60)? Or would this be different, since students would fill their suitcases with their own possessions? But then what would be the next step – students could analyze each other’s suitcases to learn about their classmates? But then what after that?

To be honest, sometimes I worry that I’m not creative enough to create projects like these. I definitely have the desire to combat the five main dissatisfactions about cultural institutions that Nina Simon names (irrelevant, static, exclusive, stifling creativity/expression, uncomfortable), but when I’m designing a tour or other program, it’s difficult for me to make that creative jump from plain interpretation to engaging and meaningful participation (21-22). A lot of the time, I imagine this is where collaboration would play a major role: obviously I’m not creating entire educational programs by myself, and artists can help bridge that creative hurdle, as well as having that excuse to take risks we discussed in class last week. But reading through these case studies, most of which were spearheaded by artists, I can’t help but ask myself: can I be a public historian without being an artist?

The answer is obviously yes, because, again, collaboration is the key here. No successful program is created entirely by one person. And even if the idea itself is derived from a single artist, say, others must still implement it, maintain interpretive best-practices, conduct supportive research, facilitate, etc… While reading this book maybe got me a little worried about my lack of artistic talent, I need to remind myself that there are so many people involved in the creation of any given program. Just think of all the museum workers who lost their jobs over Mining the Museum!

Jokes aside, this is a book I’ll need to revisit multiple times in the future for inspiration and for questions to be asking myself about the programs I help to create. What is the visitor’s role, and how can they play a role in the program? Who has the authority, and who doesn’t but should? Am I valuing everyone’s voices and stories? Are objects and digital resources being used in modern and relevant ways?

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A student designs a psychedelic poster saying “Breath In Peace,” inspired by the posters promoting concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium. This was part of a summer class NMAJH offered in conjunction with our current special exhibition, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution. The finished posters are displayed in the museum — the closest we get to a Web 2.0-like program, I think. Students can see that the Museum has created a space for them to express themselves with an encouraging and validating atmosphere.

Interpreting Difficult Histories, and a jumbled mission statement of sorts

If I could have my way, I would definitely radicalize the children. There are many opportunities to do this at NMAJH: discussions about creating communities, mutual support in the face of discrimination, activism, and stories about people like Clara Lemlich, Abraham Cahan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Ways to encourage my students that they don’t need to live within the limits that society places on them, that through knowledge and effort and teamwork, they can make the world a better place.

Except… I don’t. Granted, my position has shifted to more back-end work so I don’t lead tours as often as I used to, but I always shy away from really engaging topics that some might consider controversial, such as the labor movement. I’ll interpret them in an enthusiastically affirming way, but then stop short of necessarily bringing it to the present, or in ways that relate to students’ lives. “Something to think about,” but only on particularly brave or daring days.

Why can’t I take that last step? Maybe not of actually radicalizing children (a joking accusation about one of my interpretive plans for Dr. Bruggeman’s class) but of engaging in these topics in immediately relevant ways. Fear plays a large part. Of trying to persuade students and risk not holding my ground, of angry teachers or parents, of offended visitors, of misrepresenting the Museum. While NMAJH’s Mission Statement centers education on a personal level, we still have a policy of nonpartisanship, and I have certainly heard stories from docents about intense political discussions with visitors that they weren’t able to de-escalate.

Discomfort, too. I saw a lot of my own practices paralleled in Cathy Stanton’s descriptions of the Acre tour in Lowell. While I always try to be conscious of how I emplot topics, there is always the temptation to take the easy path that Stanton’s tour guides often did, of simplifying stories with the purpose of displaying multiculturalism and positivity. There is a discomfort of addressing my whiteness in relation to my students of color, of my being a third-generation American talking about immigration to students who are themselves immigrants or first-generation. An uncertainty about which is better: trying to talk about students’ experiences with the risk of getting it wrong, or letting students tell their own stories with the risk of losing my historical (or general) authority. (The second one is always better, no question, but it’s hard!)

Jill Ogline’s description of NPS’s priorities also resonated with me: I want the students on my tour to have an enjoyable and comfortable time, possibly similar to the “good vibes” described by Handler and Gable, in the hopes that a positive experience will encourage them to visit museums in their free time. (Especially given that many of the students I guide are from demographics that tend to be excluded from these kinds of institutions.)

A main component of Stanton’s conclusions is that, to create effective and relevant interpretive experiences, we must embrace these discomforts and fears through a critical questioning of traditional narratives, systems of power, and our emotions and assumptions. As I further my career, study both the field of public history and the content, improve my interpretation techniques and even develop my confidence and comfort, I intend to follow Stanton’s advice.

Not just because of my own politics, but especially after the recent election. It’s barely been three days and the number of stories about hate crimes, threats, and violence is terrifying. While I have not yet experienced any direct harm and probably will not for a while, museums must take a hard stance to promote messages of unity and calls for mutual support while warning against the mistakes of the past. Morris J. Vogel, the president of the Tenement Museum, released a statement explaining,

We explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility. Generations of newcomers prevailed even in these circumstances; it is our strong hope that today’s immigrants will prevail as well. […] Renewing our shared commitment to tell stories of the American past can help us comfort and strengthen one another—and shape America’s future.

This is what I hope to achieve in my tours, when I give them – acknowledgment of the pains and triumphs of the past while asserting a hope that can only be achieved if we actively strive towards it. When developing tours, I hope to leave space for docents to have these tough conversations, supported by trainings that address topics like cultural sensitivity and skills like facilitated dialog and I ASK. I also hope to improve in these skills myself. I hope to use the museum as a space both to educate and validate. While I may not radicalize the children, I want them to leave my tours inspired to make the world better than it is right now.

Museum Education

Finally, the week I’ve been waiting for! Not just because museum education is what I do for a living, but because my education/preparation with it has been so “as needed” that I’ve been anxious for more resources to grow and improve.

My main interest in museum education – again, due to my job – is in school programs. Creating positive, educational experiences in museums for children is essential to helping them grow up into museum-going adults. [1] However, many of our readings this week, when they did discuss children, it was in the context of self-guided family units. Focusing on children accessing museums in this situation can be problematic; families that cannot travel to the museum’s location, parents that are too busy working to bring their children on an outing, or people who might feel excluded from an institution for whatever reason, are all left out of this scenario. While individual families visiting with children are an essential part of any museum’s visitor base, and while there are strategies museums can use to encourage excluded families to visit, school programs offer a structured opportunity for children to visit museums (where logistics are all taken care of!). Not only do school programs help students access museums regardless of economic or familial circumstances, but they also offer unique resources, a change of scenery, and fun activities that can’t necessarily happen in the classroom. [2]

I really loved The Museum Educator’s Manual, which elucidated a lot of areas (such as logistics and docent management) that I had never considered before starting my position. So much of my job involves helping docents, interacting with teachers, and doing promotional outreach, way more than actually giving tours to students or visitors. I’m terrible at organization and logistics, so I appreciate the authors laying out steps and advice, and I know I will return to this book for some upcoming projects I have planned (such as re-designing the professional development workshop I lead on object analysis).

The one aspect of museum education that I thought was curiously missing from this is the actual educating part. This is probably just the specific selection of readings we were given, but there was no discussion of how to create tours, or pedagogical strategies that lead to dynamic and educational museum experiences. (I did see a bit in the tables of contents, such as John Hennigar Shuh’s “Teaching yourself to teach with objects,” also found in The Educational Role of the Museum.) One of the most difficult aspects of museum education, in my opinion, is taking complicated subjects (such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, America’s response to the Holocaust, the movement to save Soviet Jewry…) and making it accessible to children while still keeping the subject rooted in its historical context and significance. As I mentioned in my post on exhibit labels, when you’re giving a tour, you can’t rely on self-editing and often have to improvise based on specific groups’ needs and interests, and regarding complicated subjects, I have trouble striking the balance between interpreting “too much” or “too little.” Maybe it’s just a skill I’m still in the process of developing?

You do see a bit of overlap with curricular creation in Judy Rand’s “Write and design with the family in mind.” While her essay focuses primarily on creating exhibitions that are family-friendly from the start, a lot of her techniques and emphases apply to creating family guides, or other worksheets that adults can use to translate an adult-oriented exhibition into child-friendly terms. Through supplementary materials that ask questions, help parents read out loud to their children, and express historical subjects in the first person, children are better equipped to actively immerse themselves into an exhibit. [3] Family guides are useful tools to offer to parents and can be very helpful for seeing the exhibition through a certain lens, or from a certain perspective. We have family guides for major holidays like July 4th, and we’ve created guides for certain audiences, such as finding parallels between Jewish and Catholic experiences when the Pope came.

As we saw in Creating Exhibitions, and like any other aspect of museum work, museum education is an art that requires a lot of collaboration (with curatorial, visitor services, development…), must be specific to each institution’s mission and resources, and cannot really be reduced to an exact, comprehensive “how to” guide. But these readings offer a really nice, though broad, idea of what museum education looks like.

captureSuccessful child-friendly interpretation can lead to super cute results like this letter, written with a feather quill and ink during a President’s Day family activity, which reads: “Dear President Jackson, I am not happy with your service to America. You  must treat everyone as equal. Yours truly,  Emmie B.”  Photo credit: the author.


[1] Charles F. Gunther, “Museum-goers: life styles and learning characteristics” in The Educational Role of the Museum, edited by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (New York: Routledge, 1996) 124.

[2] Alan S. Marcus, Jeremy D. Stoddard, and Walter W. Woodward, Teaching History with Museums (New York: Routledge, 2012), 5.

[3] Judy Rand, “Write and design with the family in mind” in Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, edited by D. Lynn McRainey and john Russick (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010), 262-267.

Thesis Thoughts

Big decisions are terrifying to me. I agonize over making the “wrong choice,” especially with something as significant and potentially-influential like my thesis topic. There are too many things that I “could be” interested in, and yet I don’t want to close myself off to other possibilities. Too much excitement, not enough direction!

Here is a rough idea of all the potential topics I’ve floated so far:

  • The go-to is Jewish immigration 1880s-1920s, which can lead to some fantastically relevant work in current immigration communities, but I don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole myself, especially since I come to this topic through work.
  • A subset of this could be looking at the urban renewal efforts in the 1950s that turned what once was the Jewish Quarter into what’s now Society Hill/Old City…
  • Labor history and women’s activism via Clara Lemlich (or lesser-known women??)
  • Something something non-binary history
  • Wondering about any history of disability activism in Philadelphia, a largely inaccessible city
  • Maybe tracing how West Philadelphia became a sort of “queer hub” while the gayborhood became more corporate/tourist-y

Like, I’m all over the place here! Plus, there are the other elements of what the result will be, and an organization to intern with. All I know on that front is that I can’t intern with the Edu Dept at NMAJH, and I want my thesis to involve some degree of community outreach, or be tangibly beneficial to someone in some way. (And yet, I don’t want to do too much oral history, mostly because people are scary, but not as scary as the risk of misinterpreting others’ stories.)

But I gave a tour at NMAJH’s Educator Appreciation Night tonight, and I was reminded of my original interest as stated in my Personal Statement – I want to do something that will help students become more interested in history, especially through helping them become “mini-historians.” Especially students who might not encounter history (or museums) in such a way otherwise.

We do this in the Traveling Suitcase lesson, when we bring artifact replicas to schools and help students essentially do research through material culture/primary documents. Whenever I lead these lessons, I always encourage the students to ask questions not just about the historical subject but also the process of historical research. I tell them about all the research I did to create this project — and how it looked exactly like what they’re doing in class now. I didn’t really become interested in history until I took an active part in “doing” it (through interpretation and research), and I want to help students to do the same.

(The only caveat is that I don’t want to do another Traveling Trunk program. It’s an incredibly useful model, but also a common one that I’m already familiar with. I’d love to create something that helps students do their own research from scratch, or like a scavenger hunt where they need to separate out the relevant artifacts! A fossil dig but the fossils are primary documents!!!)

So this is a start… now what? Of course there are a number of organizations that do something like this, from huge endeavors like National History Day to local school projects like the annual “My Home, My History” project at Esperanza Charter School. I would also need to figure out how to actually access children (especially over the summer!), though that could be solved through wisely choosing an organization to intern with. And there’s still the issue of a topic to research…

But I think this will be helpful, to keep this theme/goal in mind of connecting children with history by “doing” history. Also to remind myself to not think too big, and that I would have the support of some kind of institution rather than doing all this by myself.

*exhale*

History and trust

One of the recurring themes in grad school so far has been trust. This primarily has involved sources, and the problems of taking them at face value. Especially with primary sources, how can we trust a document’s author to tell “the truth,” or “the whole story”? Oral history turns this issue of trust into a two-way street: as interviewers, we must deal with trusting our narrators, but we must also create an atmosphere and relationship in which the narrator trusts us enough to share their story.

While reading Sommer and Quinlan’s concise and lucid Oral History Manual, one anecdote stood out to me. In this story, a young white woman interviews an acquaintance, an elderly African-American woman who was the granddaughter of slaves. The interviewer sought to collect information about racism and related issues in the narrator’s childhood, but the narrator did not trust the interviewer to understand. Through open communication, the interviewer encouraged the narrator to open up more, but there remained certain details that the narrator, perhaps out of instinct, kept from the interviewer. [1] Sherrie Tucker deals with a similar problem: how does she write about potential homoromantic experiences in all-girl bands in the 1940s when her narrators refuse to explicitly discuss non-straight sexuality? [2]

I’ve only had one experience taking someone’s oral history, and I doubt any interview will beat it in terms of ease. It was a serendipitous meeting, a Main Line rabbi calling NMAJH to schedule a tour and wanting to make sure she has enough time to visit artifacts from her grandmother. Who was her grandmother?  Eva Baen Kravitz, the Russian immigrant that my program centers around! My supervisor and I drove to her synagogue and we had barely sat down and turned on a phone recorder before the rabbi launched into three hours of stories about her grandmother, no prompting needed. She even called her mother (Eva’s daughter-in-law) on speakerphone a few times to verify details.

What can I do to create a similar comfortable atmosphere in future sessions of oral history? One of the main obstacles for me personally, I would imagine, is the fear of misinterpretation not only creating an unspoken air of anxiety, but hindering me from possibly asking deeper questions. Sommer and Quinlan offer a detailed guide of how to prepare contextual research, both to help inform the interviewer about the subject and also so the interviewer can help prompt the narrator with names and dates if needed. [3] This also helps the interviewer to understand the motivations and limits behind the narrator’s words, such as understanding the political contexts surrounding veterans’ recounted experiences. [4]

Another thing the interviewer can do to create a more comfortable atmosphere concerns the literal atmosphere – the location where the interview takes place. My interview with Eva’s granddaughter took place in her office, where she presumably spends a large portion of her time. It’s similar to the home, which Sommer and Quinlan declare is usually the best setting, due to its convenience and its familiarity to the narrator. [5]

A third (and final, for this post) thing an interviewer can do is accept that the narrator does not necessarily have all the answers, or is willing to share them with the interviewer. The interviewer cannot yank a memory out of the ether, nor can they force the narrator to say something the narrator doesn’t want to. The young white woman experiences this when her narrator changes a culture-specific detail in a story, as does Tucker when the band members refuse to discuss sexuality. I experienced this too, when I attempted to ask the rabbi about a date and she simply could not remember or guess. In these cases, forcing the issue would only hamper the relationship, and the situation has to be dealt with on an individual basis. The young white woman accepts that certain details aren’t for her, Tucker attempts to “talk around” the issue of sexuality, and I decided to try to dig into the archives again.

No two interviews are the same. There are plenty of elements to a successful interview, such as those in Sommer and Quinlan’s manual, but you must have the most important element: trust.

 

[1] Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 2002), 71-72.

[2] Sherrie Tucker, “When Subjects Don’t Come Out,” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, edited by Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 295-297.

[3] Sommer and Quinlan, The Oral History Manual, 53-56.

[4] Michael Frisch, “History, Memory, and Cultural Authority,” in A Shared Authority (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 23-24.

[5] Sommer and Quinlan, The oral History Manual, 61.

Emotional detachment and difficult histories

I had the opportunity to attend another lecture tonight, this time at NMAJH, about the Holocaust and memory. It was delivered by Jeremy Black, a distinguished professor at the University of Exeter and, at 90 books, one of the most prolific historians to date. He spoke about how different aspects of the era, such as killing sites and the participation of non-Nazi citizens, have been represented both over time and in different countries. He also spoke about how the Holocaust fits into, or doesn’t fit into, the national narratives of various countries such as Hungary, Finland, Japan, and India.

Black was clearly well-researched and I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear him speak, but as he lectured, I could feel myself getting more and more upset. Afterwards, I got a drink with some classmates and coworkers to discuss the talk, and they had similar reactions to Black’s talk. They criticized his methods, his arrogance, and his avoidance of certain subjects such as personal memory and how to actually interpret this topic in public. But while I agreed with their criticisms, what truly bothered me was Black’s tone.

The Holocaust is a peculiar subject. It’s getting further away from us – 71 years since the camps were liberated – but it’s still so present for a number of reasons. Of course we still have people among us who lived through it, but also people still deny various aspects of its existence, or use it to support hateful and dangerous mentalities, or even make jokes about it. This means that we cannot talk about, or interpret, the Holocaust without also affirming that it happened and that it had a debilitating effect on so many people. It’s a raw and extremely personal thing for so many people. Historians must recognize this – you can’t talk about the Holocaust without acknowledging that your audience may still be processing this trauma, or living with the aftermath of it, even 71 years later.

Jeremy Black failed to do this. I could have forgiven his constant arrogance (maybe it was the British accent??). I would have overlooked his penchant for generalizations, as much as I disagreed with his use of them. But there was one audience interaction that I just can’t get over…

While discussing various groups’ responses to the Holocaust, Black was not kind to the Catholics. Referencing things like the Pope’s indifference and the Vatican’s post-war role in helping Nazis escape to Argentina, Black generalized about how the Catholics were a harmful element during the Holocaust. Towards the end of the Q&A session, a middle aged woman asked about best practices for people carrying on their survivor parents’ stories and, on the verge of tears, mentions that her mother survived the Holocaust and was taken in by nuns. It was an incredibly powerful moment, because you could tell the immense courage she had to muster to stand up to this man who, for the past 45 minutes, had been insulting the Catholics as a whole. Black didn’t even pause before exclaiming, “Good! Well…” and launching into a technical description of how to record one’s story. Maybe it was just me, but the tension in the room during his answer was palpable – he eventually thanked her for her question as a formality, but he never addressed her comment about the nuns. I can’t imagine how painful this must have been for that woman: to endure a whole lecture of invalidating her mother’s experiences, a moment of anxious self-advocacy, and immediate dismissal.

History is so difficult. There are so many subjects that are hard to do fairly, to interpret them critically while still being sensitive to others’ complicated relationships with that subject. I certainly struggle with that myself, such as when I’m interpreting immigration history to children who are immigrants themselves. How do you discuss your audience’s experiences without taking advantage or misinterpreting their stories?

I don’t think there’s a single right way to do this. But whatever this might look like, I certainly didn’t see it tonight. I got the impression that, for Black, the Holocaust was just Another Thing to Study… Sure, he spoke of it as a horrifying tragedy that we must maintain in our collective memory, but his generalization and his focus on statistics over individuals, his treatment was more clinical than anything else. Which might be okay for other subjects, like 18th century British politics (his apparent specialization), but absolutely not the Holocaust. You just can’t.