Reaction: Considering Relevance

February 28, 2019     

Announcement: Since my wedding is this upcoming month and will be busy putting the final details together, I will not be writing new posts for March. I will try to share previously written posts during the month. Thank you so much for your understanding. Stay tuned for new posts in April!

I came across a post yesterday on the National Council on Public History’s History @ Work written by Tim Grove on considering relevance. Relevance is an important topic in the museum field and we should be applying it more in our history museums, sites, historic house museums, and historical societies. In previous blog posts, I have talked about relevance and how relevance will help our history organizations create connections between the visitors and the historical narratives we present.

One of the points Grove made I took away from his post was when he stated “If something is not perceived as relevant, it usually does not have high value.” Our purpose as museum professionals and public historians is to help bridge together human emotion and knowledge together to keep adding value to what we can learn from the past. If we cannot translate our work’s value to the visitors, we would not be able to effectively argue history’s relevance.

I believe we have been working towards keeping history relevant in our society but we also need to remember that society does change and adapt. Therefore, as society continues to change we should be finding ways to make sure relevance is present within our exhibitions and educational programs. In my Museums vs. The Couch post I wrote last September, I pointed out that relevance

continues to be an important topic as new media, technology, events, et cetera, develop and change how people interact with the world around them. I have previously stated in my blog post “Does ‘Hamilton’ use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?”: Relevance is significant especially in museums to understand who our community is and to help individuals feel they can connect to our past in a way that they can relate to.

I feel this statement is still true today and historic sites, museums, and historical societies should keep this in mind when working towards relevance. There is at least one example out there of how historic places and historical societies use their exhibits and education programs to maintain relevance.

In the same Museums vs. The Couch post, I wrote about the Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket, New York and their consideration of relevance in the tours and programs. According to my blog post and what I have experienced,

Founded in 1964, Three Village Historical Society continues to meet its goals to educate the community about local history through events, walking tours, and educational programs. Inside there is an exhibit dedicated to General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was an American spy network, mainly made up of members who lived or grew up in East Setauket, that operated during the Revolutionary War. The spies were able to provide Washington information on what the British troops’ plans were to help win the War. A television series was produced by AMC in 2014 called Turn, which is based on the Culper Spy Ring and the Revolutionary War, for four seasons. Turn brought a number of fans to the Three Village Historical Society who wanted to learn more about the Culper Spy Ring. Even after the show ended, fans still come to the site thanks to the show’s accessibility on DVDs and on Netflix.

Three Village Historical Society uses modern media to help visitors create connections to local history and to understanding the human side of becoming a spy. Also, I liked that Grove addressed Nina Simon’s work on The Art of Relevance to convey the significance of relevance in historic places.

Grove pointed out Simon’s overall message of her book which is: relevance is necessary for any public-facing institution, or even movement, to consider. I also read and wrote a book review on Simon’s book to express why relevance should be considered. In my post, I pointed out that

The Art of Relevance is also an important book in the museum education field since our museums can practice this art of relevance through the educational programs offered including public programming, school programs, and summer programs. After reading the book, I felt that I could adapt these advices to my own practices as a museum educator.

Museum educators, of course, are not the only ones who can benefit from developing relevance between visitors and programs. Public historians in the sites, historic house museums, historical societies, and history museums can benefit from helping visitors make emotional connections with the past.

History organizations can absolutely be relevant not only within their communities but to everyone. We need to dig a little deeper to inspire visitors to make their own connections to the exhibits and programs we develop.

I like to pose the same questions Grove did in his post on relevance: Can an organization be relevant to everyone? Should it even try?

Resources:

https://ncph.org/history-at-work/considering-relevance/

Check out his website: https://timgrove.net/about/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/09/27/museums-vs-the-couch-how-museums-can-retain-relevance-and-visitation/ https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2017/06/16/book-review-the-art-of-relevance-by-nina-simon/

Reaction: Recognizing the Best in Public History Blog

Added to Medium, January 31, 2019

Since I earned my Master’s degree in Public History, I continue to review sources and read about current developments in Public History. According to my graduate program at Central Connecticut State University, public historians are front-line interpreters bringing historical knowledge to a broad public audience beyond the traditional academic classroom. Public historians expand research skills and content knowledge of traditionally trained historians to incorporate new sources of historical evidence such as oral history and material culture in varied institutions such as museums, government agencies, and heritage destination sites. I recently came across the Backstory website which posted a blog post written by Diana Williams about recognizing various mediums public history is shared.

Backstory, according to their website, is a weekly podcast that uses current events in America to take a deep dive into the past, and each episode provides listeners with different perspectives on a specific theme or subject by giving listeners all sides to the story and then more. For the first time, Backstory is acknowledging the works of public history with a prize. There are numerous public history projects that deserve to be acknowledged and it is wonderful several of them are being nominated for the prize. I did not know that other than museum associations there are recognition of excellence in public history projects, and it makes me happy to learn there is a way our work in public history that is recognized outside of academia.

I am also impressed that there was so much work that went into researching public history project. In the Williams’ blog post, she pointed out that

BackStory lead researcher Monica Blair created the list, thinking broadly about historical mediums, both physical and digital. In addition to online reviews, she looked up reviews in academic journals like “The Public Historian” and general newspapers like “The Washington Post.” For books, she turned to “The New York Times” Non-Fiction Bestsellers List and for podcasts, she used Apple Podcasts charts. Each nominee fell under a broadly conceived definition of American history.

I can imagine that there are so many projects that are out there but have not been acknowledged or noticed. After reading through the blog, there is a lengthy list for each category for the Backstory prize.

A list of categories and nominees is given to show which ones were nominated for this prize. The categories were films, documentaries, podcasts, plays, books, and exhibits and monuments both physical and digital. In the films category, there were 16 nominations which include The Post, Darkest Hour, First Man, Battle of the Sexes, and American Animals. In the documentaries category, there were 21 nominations and they include Rachel Carson: The Woman Who Launched the Modern Environmental Movement, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, and Birth of a Movement. In the podcasts category, there were 23 nominations including Ben Franklin’s World, Omohundro Institute, The New York City Public Library Podcasts, American History Tellers, Wondery, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and Witness, BBC. In the play category, there were seven nominations including American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Come From Away, and Days of Rage.

In the book category, there were nine nominations which include The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England by Douglas L. Winiarski, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross, and These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. In the exhibits and monuments both physical and digital category, there were 31 nominations including The National Memorial for Peace and Justice — Equal Justice Initiative, Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow — New York Historical Society Museum and Library, Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I — Library of Congress, Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II — National Museum of American History, and City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign — National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Each of these categories, except for the book category, have links to each of the nominations listed to show and describe the projects. The blog post also gave a brief description of the decision process for selecting a project for the BackStory prize.

The hosts of BackStory, Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly and Joanne Freeman, as well as the Senior Producer David Stenhouse were joined by guest judges Chris Jackson (“Hamilton” on Broadway) and Margot Lee Shetterly (“Hidden Figures”) to review the nominees to determine the best project. There was a rigorous debate and ultimately decided and announced The National Memorial for Peace and Justice — Equal Justice Initiative was the winner. The National Memorial, which opened on April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, according to the website:

is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

With so many nominated for the prize, I can imagine that it was a long and challenging process to select one project. Especially in this day in age, The National Memorial is important for all to visit and pay respect, so we will never forget this sad period in our history. I recommend taking the time to review each nomination to learn about what public history projects are out there.

Resources:

https://www.backstoryradio.org/blog/recognizing-the-best-in-public-history/

https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

https://www.backstoryradio.org/ http://www.ccsu.edu/history/graduate/MA_publicHistory.html

Patron Request: Does History Repeat Itself? A Discussion About This Concept

Added to Medium, June 14, 2018

One of the common thoughts that has been discussed numerous times over the years is “does history repeat itself”. We continue to ask ourselves this question as well as: What makes history repeat itself? Individuals in and outside of academia talked about the concept of history repeating itself especially when discussing current events that remind ourselves of the past. I was introduced to the concept itself while I was studying history in college. One of my history professors had stated, which I will never forget, that history does not repeat but rhymes. I think it is a good point because we are not repeating the exact same circumstances of the past but we are living through situations that definitely sound similar.

For instance, we do not go through every single day by going through the same movements and the same actions of Pearl Harbor in a time loop forever. We do, however, see similar patterns that are recognized from previous historic events as we face current events. When I was asked to write about this concept, I thought it would be a good topic to write about this week and to revisit the concept by doing research on what has been written about the topic. While I was doing my research, I found numerous information about the concept of history repeating itself.

The concept of history repeating itself is also known as historic recurrence. In addition to the concept of history rhyming, I also like the term “historic recurrence” because it acknowledges actions that have reappeared in different circumstances. G.W. Trompf’s The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, from Antiquity to the Reformation, they discussed that historical recurrence has variously been applied to the overall history of the world (such as the rises and falls of empires), to repetitive patterns in the history of a given society, and to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity. A post called “Short Paragraph on the concept of history repeats itself” provided a brief discussion about historic recurrence. It stated that,

History is thus nothing, but man’s long struggle for survival, identity and values. The struggle has often been born more than a slight resemblance in methods used and the manner adopted in such period. Such repetition of historical fact-events, ideas and acts-sometimes makes us think that there was nothing coincidental, but a planned sequence leading towards a pre-destined goal.

These statements pointed out an important idea: history is a human experience. Humans make various decisions every day whether they are living now or have lived a thousand years ago. Even though all humans that have existed and currently live on this planet lived with different technological advances and life expectancy, each human develop similar habits, thought processes, and actions which leaves the next human to look back at past human experiences and see similar patterns.

Historic recurrence is not a new concept, rather the discussions about historic recurrence began in ancient times. According to Trompf, ancient western thinkers focused on cosmological rather than historic recurrence and they introduced western philosophers and historians who have discussed various concepts of historic recurrence including Polybius, the Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Italian philosopher and historian Niccolò Machiavelli. A modern historian named Arnold J. Toynbee also discussed concepts of historic recurrence.

Scholars have come up with their own conclusions about historic recurrence within their works. Arnold J. Toynbee’s book Civilization on Trial has a chapter dedicated to historic recurrence called “Does History Repeat Itself?”, and provides an example of thoughts on historic recurrence. Toynbee stated in this chapter that

If human history repeats itself, it does so in accordance with the general rhythm of the universe; but the significance of this pattern of repetition lies in the scope that it gives for the work of creation to go forward. In this light, the repetitive element in history reveals itself as an instrument for freedom of creative action, not as an indication that God and man are the slaves of fate (38).

In other words, Toynbee believes history repeats itself based on humans having the capability of making their own decisions and have the choice to follow on their actions. Individuals also have the choice to make changes to move forward in society. Historic recurrence has been discussed in the past, and will continue to be discussed as long as humans continue to exhibit similar behaviors and make similar decisions.

What do you think of the concept of “history repeats itself”? Does it really repeat or rhyme? Do we have a choice in breaking these patterns? Why or why not?

People’s Experiences during the Great Depression

Added to Medium, May 31, 2018

For this week, I was asked to write about a topic in history that always interested this patron: people’s experience during the Great Depression. She is interested in this topic because she was told about her mother’s life when the Great Depression hit, and her mother told her that years later she did not realize the impact of the Great Depression until many years later when she talked about it with her friends. I also thought it is an interesting topic to discuss because I knew of the general information about what happened during the Great Depression, and learning more about the specific experiences of individuals within the United States would not only give us the human perspective of the event but it would also help us identify with the individuals as we continue to recover from the recession.

I took a closer look into learning about individuals’ experiences during the Great Depression through the material I came across.

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression which took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. According to PBS, on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, which was the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. A strong believer in rugged individualism, President Herbert Hoover did not think the federal government should offer relief to the poverty-stricken population. Focusing on a trickle-down economic program to help finance businesses and banks, Hoover met with resistance from business executives who preferred to lay off workers. Not many people living during that time understood how everyone was living since the big hit and the years since then.

In Washington state, for instance, more than a quarter of the population had lost their source of income, from unemployment or loss of a family breadwinner. According to research from the University of Washington, in response to the larger changes happening in the government

People in Washington and across the nation developed new household and work practices, navigated emerging social systems of welfare, explored different avenues of social protest, and reworked their understandings of their role in communities, in the nation, and in the world.

The changes during the Great Depression were absolutely felt by the individuals who lived in the state. An article written and posted through the University of Washington by Annie Morro provides a glimpse of what everyday life was like in the town of Bellingham after the Great Depression.

In the town of Bellingham, which had been a thriving coal-mining town in Washington’s Whatcom County, many men found their wages and hours cut, or lost their jobs completely. Meanwhile the wives and mothers throughout Whatcom County did their best to adjust to the hard times, and one way to do this was to change household routines such as cooking simple recipes like Quick Breads that used every day ingredients and left money typically spent on bread for their other needs.

Women were expected to be a positive force in the community and the supportive center of a family and community weathering hardships. It was anticipated that women would become active community members by attending PTA meetings, raising funds for charities, collecting clothing for the needy, saving at the market, raising a family, and providing encouragement for disheartened husbands all while keeping up a happy, normal appearance. Children in the Bellingham community absolutely felt the affects of the Great Depression.

They were raised to be competitive on the job market and active members of their community, which reflected the cooperative community’s values as well as the competitive nature of a very tight job market. Older children, teenagers and college students, felt the effects of the Great Depression through school budget cuts which made it harder for them to begin their own lives through the difficult times. The experiences of each individual in the United States seemed similar while at the same time more specific experiences were different from one another.

I learned of an experience from the patron whose mother lived in Massachusetts as a little girl during the Great Depression. This patron’s mother grew up on Cape Cod, and lived on vegetables grown in her family’s garden. As an adult, she learned about one of her friends, who lived closer to the Boston area, knew too well about the concept of “coresies”. Coresies was when someone yelled out coresies that person would be able to eat the core of the apple once the person who was eating the apple left the core. As I compared the experiences of individuals from Washington and the two women from Massachusetts, I noticed that each individual of varying ages had different perspectives of the Great Depression based on what society expected from them.

Families had to adapt in order to survive, and their misfortunes did not seem to end until the New Deal introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to help people turn their lives around. It took until the end of World War II for the nation to fully recover from the Great Depression.

What experiences have you learned about individuals who lived during the Great Depression? Are there similarities and differences that stood out the most to you?

Resources
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/dustbowl-great-depression/
http://depts.washington.edu/depress/everyday_life.shtml
https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression
https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression
https://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/the-great-depression
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depression_cake
https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/8214/depression-cake-i/

The Past is in the Past? A Closer Look into Public History

Added to Medium, March 22, 2018

As a museum professional with a Master’s degree in Public History, recent discussion in the public history field has captured my attention. One of the reasons why I decided to write a little more about public history this week is because I came across Taylor Stoermer’s “Let It Go: The Exceptionalist Narrative in American Public History” on Medium. Stoermer is a Museum Studies (Public History) lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. After reading his article, I thought more about my experience in public history and the lessons I’ve learned especially while I was earning my Master’s degree at Central Connecticut State University.

Stoermer’s “Let It Go” article briefly discussed internal issues museums face including equitable pay schemes, governance development, and better attention to the modern needs of emerging museum professionals in the economy. His article focuses more on external issues especially the disconnection between the America we see outside of our museums and the one that many of our sites represent.

He provided examples of tough issues museum professionals have always had a hard time discussing but are making progress in being awareness to these issues. According to the article, he stated that

Slavery and race have always been thorny issues for interpreters, but tremendous progress has been made to help them tell the stories of enslaved peoples, to accurately and effectively weave them throughout a site’s narrative (and maybe point out that race doesn’t really exist except as a cultural construct). Programs only for Black History Month, like those for Women’s History Month, just don’t cut it anymore, as the penny has finally dropped for museum directors that every month is for black and women’s (and LGBTQ) history (check out Old Salem’s “Hidden Town” project). But larger institutions are slowly, but surely, recognizing their responsibilities as stewards to smaller, satellite sites, in providing workshops and interpretive resources to create a rising tide that lifts all museum boats. The upcoming Mount Vernon/American Alliance of Museums program on museum leadership and the Montpelier/National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent National Summit on Teaching Slavery are solid examples. We’re not yet where we need to be in those respects, but progress is being made.

It is true that we are not there yet and that progress is being made in discussing slavery and race. We should also acknowledge what smaller institutions are doing to provide workshops and interpretive resources. For instance, I mentioned in a previous blog post about my experience with the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut.

A historic house museum that also focuses on the history of Farmington, the Stanley-Whitman House began to take a closer look at slaves who have lived in Farmington between the 17th and 19th century. While I was in graduate school, I decided to work with the Stanley-Whitman House on a project that addressed slavery in Connecticut. I had a couple of classmates and colleagues join me in the team to work on this project for a Curatorship class requirement. We researched former slaves who worked and lived in Connecticut before the 1790 Census to present the research results about what slavery was like for slaves in Farmington to colleagues who attended the In Plain Sight symposium presentations and discussion.

Since working on this project and the symposium, there have been more developments on discussing slavery in Connecticut. One of my teammates collaborated with the Stanley-Whitman House to create a database on the information about slaves in Farmington. This project is called The Farmington Slavery Research Project, and the goals were to document captive people – record them as they were discovered in primary source materials such as probate inventories, wills, account books and other records. It is an ongoing volunteer-staffed project that volunteers are welcome to contribute to the continuous research on Farmington’s history with slavery. To learn more about this project, I included a link in the resources section of this blog post.

Also, more recently a new exhibit that opened on February 17th called “Slavery, Resistance & Freedom in Connecticut”; one of the students from the Public History program I graduated from at Central Connecticut State University researched, wrote, and designed the exhibit. By being able to discuss slavery in Connecticut more, we are able to address what life had been like for enslaved individuals and draw more attention to their lived experiences.

Many museum professionals and public historians would have to admit that we still have a long way to go in creating that informative and comfortable dialogue between staff and visitors on tough issues. Our field is constantly attempting to catch up and move forward to remain relevant in the community. Stoermer brought up this question: “What are we trying to catch up to?” He concluded that the answer is that “…sites are trying to catch important, undertold, underrepresented stories up to the same tale of American exceptionalism that has dominated public history…” In other words, museum professionals and public historians research and tell stories that have been forgotten or previously overlooked to figure out how they fit into the familiar narrative of our nation’s history that the majority have become used to over the centuries.

We have realized in recent years that visitors are asking more questions that challenge the narrative and we continue to work towards answering these questions through our programming and exhibitions. Many questions come from what visitors learned or have seen outside of museums especially through our media. Movies in the cinemas are examples of media where debates have emerged to contribute to the ongoing portrayal of our history and museum practices.

The discussion surrounding the film, Black Panther, is especially important for the museum field and one of the excellent examples of public history. Before I proceed with talking about this film, there is a spoiler alert for individuals who have not yet seen the film since I will mention a scene from the film that museums should pay attention to.

Released last month, in case if one is not familiar with the film, Black Panther is a film from Marvel Studios about a superhero also known as T’Challa. He is also king of an African nation that is isolated and technologically advanced called Wakanda. According to IMDB, when T’Challa rises to power after the passing of his father, his claim to the throne is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T’Challa’s father’s mistake.

I saw the film last month, and I enjoyed it. In addition to special effects and other elements that go into making this film, I admired its look into the issues it presented especially when one of the main antagonists, Erik Killmonger, visited a museum that had items in the collections which belonged to the nation he was born in. In that scene, the curator approached Killmonger to explain the history of these items; a little while into the scene the curator told him the items are not for sale when he made an attempt to take them, and he responded by asking if her ancestors paid a reasonable price when they took them from his native country. I took notice of the museum scene not only because of what happens within that scene but my perspective as a museum professional made me think about past museum practices of obtaining items in its collections and the ethical practices we have today.

In the online museums journal, The Hopkins Exhibitionist, Casey Haughin wrote about the Black Panther film in the piece “Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther”. The article went into a deep discussion about the museum scene and wrote about the impact the film had on the continuing conversation on our nation’s and global history. Haughin stated that

Black Panther provides a platform to discuss a multitude of topics on a national scale. With issues such as police brutality, the ever-present effects of slavery in Western society, and black identity approached in the film, it is easy to gloss over one of the more exposition-driven scenes of the film that engages with the complicated relationship between museums and audiences affected by colonialism.

What I have learned in my history courses all the way up to the end of graduate school and beyond the classroom is that colonialism had a major impact on world and it continuously makes an impact as we deal with its consequences. We still have a long way to go to be as inclusive and accepting of one another as we need to be in an ever changing world.

Haughin proposed a response for museum professionals to make after seeing this film. According to the article, among many things that were proposed, it stated

The first step after this movie is to publicly confirm the reality of the situation; museums need to step up and acknowledge the fact that Killmonger’s anger in the exhibition and the experience he had were not entirely fictionalized, but rather a magnification of museum practices in the modern world. The next step is to listen. Listen to people of color, to communities, and to whole countries who see themselves both robbed by and cast out from international institutions. By communicating openly with the audience of a museum, professionals can determine how better to adapt their practices and make the institution a place that is relevant and respectful for all visitors. Until a truly symbiotic dialogue is established, this scene in Black Panther will represent the reality of museum politics where fact is truly more alarming than any fiction.

I also came across an opinion piece written by Lise Ragbir, who is a writer, curator, and the Director of the Christian-Green Gallery and the Idea Lab, both part of Black Studies at the University of Texas. In her piece, What Black Panther Gets Right About the Politics of Museums, she went into detail about the representation of current attitudes towards museums in the film while sharing her perspective of the scene, a similar situation that occurred in the film happening in France, and shared data from the American Alliance of Museums of how many African Americans visits. These are only a few examples of what she discussed in her piece.

One of the statements she made that stood out to me was the importance of access and how it creates opportunities to learn especially about how we are represented in other narratives. She then went on to say

To be clear, museums and other cultural spaces have functioned under the weight of these truths since people began publicly exhibiting art and artifacts. But old truths are giving way to new attitudes, as evidenced by France’s more diplomatic version of Killmonger’s vigilante repatriation of African artifacts. However, ongoing debates about representation, repatriation, and cultural appropriation — all cannily encapsulated in Killmonger’s memorable visit to the Museum of Great Britain in Black Panther — affirm that a great deal of work is still needed to make our museums truly welcoming and diverse. Besides, as Princess Shuri puts it: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”

Both Ragbir and Haughin emphasized what museum professionals need to do, and continue to do, is to work towards being truly inclusive and diverse organizations.

We need to invest in time to address each issue that we face in the public history/museum field. So many issues are brought to our attention and we need to keep moving forward to remain relevant in the changing climate of our society. We should be asking ourselves the tough questions, and finding effective ways to invite our visitors in to help our communities fully understand our past.

What do you think of our museums progress of being more inclusive and diverse so far? Have you discussed about Black Panther within your own organizations?

Resources:
https://medium.com/@History_Doctor/let-it-go-the-exceptionalist-narrative-in-american-public-history-3338e3a11b87
https://jhuexhibitionist.com/2018/02/22/why-museum-professionals-need-to-talk-about-black-panther/
https://hyperallergic.com/433650/black-panther-museum-politics/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sw#sidr
Farmington Slavery Research Project: www.captivepeople.stanleywhitman.org/
To learn more about Black Panther and the impact it has in the museum field:
https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-and-cold-war-colonialism-in-the-marvel-universe/
https://impactingmuseums.org/2018/02/16/why-museum-professionals-should-go-see-black-panther-today/

 

How to Handle Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites

Added to Medium, February 15, 2018

This week I received Museum Education Roundtable’s March edition of Journal of Museum Education and the theme of this edition is “Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites”. When I received the Journal in the field, it made me think about the experiences I have had in professional development and in the museum field with dealing with tough subject matter. It is important for all museum professionals, whether or not they directly work with narratives about traumatic events, understand how to interpret trauma, memory, and lived experience for the visitors.

The March edition of Journal of Museum Education have a few articles that delved into this subject matter.

For instance, Lauren Zalut’s, guest editor of this edition, “Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites” introduces the subject of handling topics of trauma, memory, and lived experience. Zalut stated that,

Our field typically tells stories of trauma and complex issues through museum educators, tour guides, or docents who are generations or decades removed from the topic or event. This approach utilizes historical empathy, defined as developing “…understanding for how people from the past thought, felt, made decisions, acted, and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context.” Research reveals that this approach humanizes historic figures, but is applied inconsistently by educators.

We have the skills to convey the significance of these stories, however we need to commit to what consistent approach is needed.

Not many museums and organizations have a narrative that includes traumatic issues. There are museums such as U.S. Holocaust Museum and the National 9/11 Museum that discuss emotional and traumatic situations on a regular basis. Meanwhile, there are museums and organizations that share a part of its overall narrative dealing with traumatic, emotional, or lived experience.

One of my first experiences with interpreting trauma, memory, and lived experience was when I was working at the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut. The Stanley-Whitman House is a living history center and museum that teaches through its collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington.

At the Stanley-Whitman House, I taught school programs that also discussed Native Americans and African Americans who lived in the early American Farmington. One of the students did ask if the house owners had slaves, and while at the time I was not entirely sure what the answer was I delicately explained that there were slaves in Farmington during the 17th century but slavery in the New England area was no longer accepted by the 1800s.

While I was in graduate school, I decided to work with the Stanley-Whitman House on a project that addressed slavery in Connecticut. I had a couple of classmates and colleagues join me in the team to work on this project for a Curatorship class requirement. We researched former slaves who worked and lived in Connecticut before the 1790 Census to present the research results about what slavery was like for slaves in Farmington to colleagues who attended the In Plain Sight symposium presentations and discussion.

Since working on this project and the symposium, there have been more developments on discussing slavery in Connecticut. One of my teammates collaborated with the Stanley-Whitman House to create a database on the information about slaves in Farmington. Also, more recently a new exhibit is opening this Saturday (February 17th) called “Slavery, Resistance & Freedom in Connecticut”; one of the students from the Public History program I graduated from at Central Connecticut State University researched, wrote, and designed the exhibit.

By being able to discuss slavery in Connecticut more, we are able to address what life had been like for enslaved individuals and draw more attention to their lived experiences.

I believe that with what the Stanley-Whitman House is doing now we are working towards helping visitors understand these lived experiences. Zalut pointed out the importance of encouraging visitors to ask questions and how museum educators have the skills to assist visitors in understanding and learning from the past:

Asking questions and spending time reflecting are critical parts of transforming the work of museum educators. If our field is genuine about its will to make space for visitors to process emotionally complex topics, spark social change, and learn from the past to make a more equitable present and future then museum educators are the ones to make it happen. We can create job opportunities for disenfranchised populations and draw in new audiences, but this work is resource intensive, and requires major internal work – both personally and institutionally. If taken on with great care, collaboration and gratitude, creating platforms for marginalized voices and narratives will be transformative for you, your visitors, your co-workers, your museum, and the field at large.

We have to dedicate our time and efforts as museum educators to create places marginalized voices and narratives can be heard and understood. Emphasis on spaces is especially important for visitors to feel they can go through the process of understanding untold stories.

Mark Katrikh’s “Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Visitors and Staff in Museum Programs” discusses visitors’ expectations of their museum experience. Visitors do not necessarily come to museums to have an emotional response, and it can be hard for them to be accustomed to this response especially when they are not prepared for it. Our responsibilities as museum educators include guiding visitors by helping them process their emotions with engaging dialogue between the museum educators and visitors. Katrikh discussed the Museum of Tolerance’s approach to having safe and responsible conversations through a framework for understanding and managing key issues when easing challenging conversations. Their framework points out there are many needs and interests participants have involved in conversations, and museum educators are responsible for approaching them with compassion, mindfulness, and skilled responses.

As museum educators, we do acknowledge that we always have the responsibility to engage with the visitors in a way that will allow them to take away with them the lessons our past have to offer. We are all responsible for figuring out what to do with these lessons to make our world a better place for us in the future. According to Katrikh,

At museums whose focus is discussing and presenting trauma, emotional responses are the norm. Visitors unprepared for such a personal experience can react in a multitude of ways along the spectrum that includes confusion, denial, inappropriate comments or questions, and anger. Anticipating such reactions, museums have a responsibility to build into their programming opportunities to promote dialogue, to process emotions and ultimately to allow visitors to reach a place of equilibrium.

We maintain balance within our museums, and by creating opportunities for visitors to process their emotions and reach a balance they would be able to take that lesson museum educators gave them to create a better community.

To be able to fulfill our responsibilities as museum educators, we should start with our training so we are prepared for the challenging conversations. Noah Rauch’s “A Balancing Act: Interpreting Tragedy at the 9/11 Memorial Museum” discussed the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s docent program and the challenges it presented. When the program was launched, it raised many questions including those on how to balance and convey strongly held, often traumatic, and sometimes conflicting experiences with a newly constructed institutional narrative. Since then the museum negotiated on specific issues and dealt with ongoing questions and challenges.

The more we work together, the more we learn and understand how our museums deal with fact-checking progresses, the more we are able to feel responsibility of our expertise in the events and life experiences. When we include more of our staff and volunteers in the training process, we would be able to connect to our missions and effectively help our visitors understand the narrative they learn.

When I participated in last year’s New York City Museum Education Roundtable’s (NYCMER) conference, I attended a session presented by the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum called The Challenges of Confronting Difficult Content. Rauch’s article reminded me of this session because both dealt with the challenges. While Rauch discussed mainly the docent perspective of the dealing with the subject matter, this NYCMER session discussed the school programs they developed and explained how their lessons approached difficult content.

In my blog post about the conference, Reflections on the NYCMER 2017 Conference, I revealed that I thought this session was interesting because these programs provided a way for students from third grade to seniors to express their thoughts on the events through art and discussion. The takeaways from the session are to address the common question: How to translate difficult content in ways that allow all visitors to correct with sensitive subject matter? And the second takeaway was as a differentiated and inclusive practice, strategy transcends content by incorporating storytelling and historical contents and current resonances/present day connections.

It is important to understand both perspectives of museum professionals and visitors so we can work on strengthening the relationship between the two. When we do, both museum staff and visitors will have the understanding and space to confront difficult content and learn the lessons they have to offer.

How has your museum or organization dealt with educating difficult content? What challenges have you faced when interpreting trauma, memory, and lived experience?

Resources:
Mark Katrikh (2018) Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Visitors and Staff in Museum Programs, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 7-15
Noah Rauch (2018) A Balancing Act: Interpreting Tragedy at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 16-21
Lauren Zalut (2018) Interpreting Trauma, Memory, and Lived Experience in Museums and Historic Sites, Journal of Museum Education, 43:1, 4-6
If interested in exhibit opening I mentioned, register for the Stanley-Whitman House’s exhibit opening here: http://www.stanleywhitman.org/Calendar.Details.asp?ID=743&Cat=Visit

 

Women Represented in Historical Narrative and Museums

Originally posted on Medium, March 23, 2017.

In honor of women’s history month, I thought I would discuss women’s roles in history and how women are represented in museums. I specifically will talk about the women in the historical narrative of the museums I worked for. Also, I will discuss a lesson plan that I wrote for my capstone project, Women of the Eighteenth Century at Stanley-Whitman House, as a requirement for my Master’s degree in Public History at Central Connecticut State University. The lesson plan I wrote focused on the women who lived in the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, and women’s role in 18th century America.

In addition to my experience writing this lesson plan, I also worked at Connecticut Landmarks’ Butler-McCook House where strong independent women once lived in and heavily involved in the Hartford community. For instance, there was Frances McCook who was a substitute organist at her father’s (Reverend John James McCook) church at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in East Hartford and was an active member of the Antiquarian Landmarks Society (now called Connecticut Landmarks) who saved a historic building from being torn down by suggesting it is moved onto her family property. Women’s roles in history as we are reminded this month are significant in our society.

Women have an impact on our society in large and small ways. My experience on teaching Hartford history and the women’s role in preserving that history is an example of this. Stanley-Whitman House is a living history center and museum that teaches through the collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington. My lesson plan was written based on this mission and on my experience teaching programs there. The purpose of this lesson plan was to aid school-age children in becoming more aware of the study of Early American women’s history and its significance to the overall local and American eighteenth-century history. According to my capstone project, it is based on the requirements of a Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan which focuses on eighteenth century New England women and it takes a specific look at the lives of two women who lived in the Farmington, Connecticut, Mary Steele Smith and Susannah Cole Whitman.

Mary Steele Smith was born in 1709 to Ebenezer Steele and Sarah Hart. She inherited the house from her father who purchased it from Deacon John Stanley, whose father (John Stanley) built the house between 1709 and 1720 using wood and stone, and used post and beam construction for the frame. At the time of her father’s death, he did not have male heirs who would have inherited his property so therefore Mary inherited the property. In 1725 18-year-old Mary and her 25-year-old husband Thomas Smith moved in, becoming its first occupants. Smith was a professional weaver who also farmed along the banks of the Farmington River. Mary and Thomas Smith lived in the house for ten years before selling the property and moving to another house in Farmington.

The second family that lived in the Stanley-Whitman house was the Whitman family. Reverend Samuel Whitman, a minister of the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Farmington, purchased the property in 1735 for his son Solomon Whitman who was born in 1711. Solomon married Susannah Cole (Cowles), born on October 22, 1721, in 1736. Susannah was the daughter of Caleb Cowles (1682–1725) who was a deacon and Abigail Woodford (1685–1736). Cowles and Woodford were both descendants of the parties that followed Thomas Hooker to Connecticut in the 1630s; James Cowles, Caleb’s great grandfather, came over to New England with his family from Essex County in England and sometime in 1633 his family traveled to where they settled Hartford, and Woodford was the granddaughter of Thomas Woodford who was one of the parties led by Thomas Hooker to Hartford, of which he became one of the founders in 1633. Based on these connections, Susannah would have come into a lot of wealth, land, and prestige.

Both were economically comfortable, two white New England women who were members of the First Congregationalist Church. Also, both Mary Smith and Susannah Whitman were landowners, mothers, daughters, faithful Christians, and servants within their communities, one in the early eighteenth century, and the other before the Revolution. The lesson includes background information about the history of Farmington and about women of different social and economic status to inform students that not every individual who lived during the eighteenth century lived the same way Mary and Susannah lived.

The capstone also includes background information on the history of Farmington taken from research materials found in the Stanley-Whitman House library and collections as well as Central Connecticut State University’s Elihu Burritt Library for more background information about eighteenth century New England. Farmington was settled in 1640 when English settlers arrived in the Tunxis Native Americans territory. For the first 100 years in Farmington, the main occupation was farming. By 1700, the self-reliant community included carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, and coopers. As the number of industries grew in Farmington in the late 1700s, the town became increasingly prosperous. After the Revolutionary War, the town became a trading center, selling Yankee wares in the South and importing goods from as far away as China. Townspeople began wearing silks and satins, buying luxuries such as pianos and phaetons — light horse-drawn carriages — and spending money on fine new homes. The lesson plan has an impact on the Stanley-Whitman House because it provides them another lesson plan for visiting students who come to the museum.

This project provided a way to teach eighteenth century New England women’s history to students. The capstone project began with a paper called “Eighteenth-Century Women’s Roles in the Stanley-Whitman House: Typical or Extraordinary?” which discusses the question of whether Mary Smith and Susannah Whitman were typical women of their time or were exceptional; based on the available evidence, I discovered that Mary Steele Smith and Susannah Cole Whitman were largely typical women of their respective eras within their socio-economic class. After the paper, the capstone project continued with the lesson plan. The lesson plan was divided into sections: an introduction to the history of Stanley-Whitman House, about the lesson which has a citation and where the curriculum fits into the national and state learning standards, objectives for students, and materials for students. Another section in the lesson plan was teaching activities which includes a map activity, a few reading comprehension activities that include narratives of Farmington and women’s history especially the women who lived in Stanley-Whitman House, and object-based activities inside the house that help students compare the women in the house as well as the 18th century. The experience of writing this lesson plan provided an opportunity for me to learn more about women’s roles in the local community.

I continued to learn more about women in the local community by learning more about three women who were dedicated to preserving their family history and Hartford’s history. Connecticut Landmarks, originally known as the Antiquarian Landmarks society, obtained two historic houses from members of the organization in Hartford.

The first property was the Butler-McCook House located on Main Street across the street from Capitol Street; it was originally owned by four generations of the same family from the 1780s until 1971, and the last living member who owned it was Frances McCook (1877–1971). In 1907 and 1908, she traveled around the world with her father stopping in places like Spain, Italy, Egypt, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong and then visited her sister Eliza in China; Eliza McCook was a teacher who moved to China to become a missionary. As a member of the Antiquarian Society, she offered to save Amos Bull House by having it moved onto her property.

The eighteenth-century building was originally a dry goods store and a residence and then it was used as a hardware store, an auto dealership, insurance offices and a restaurant; Amos Bull (1744–1825) was born in Enfield and grew up there and in Farmington. He completed his home in late 1789 and advertised that he was open for business in December 1789; his store sold linens, hardware and household items. In 1968, the building was threatened with urban renewal-related demolition but with the efforts of the community and Frances’ generosity the endangered building was moved to the rear of the Butler-McCook House.

Toward the end of her life, Frances decided to make the McCook house into a museum and spent years organizing family letters and diaries as well as taking care of the house. She wanted people to enjoy the house for its architectural significance as well as her family’s role in the Hartford community and the history of Hartford. What I have learned from these experiences and throughout my life is that women have contributed so much to our society, and they inspire me to be continue to achieve my goals as a person, historian, and museum educator.

Find out more about these women and places they lived in here:
http://www.ctlandmarks.org
http://www.stanleywhitman.org

What have you learned about women in history? If you had to choose a favorite female historical figure, who would it be? Do you have any women in your life you look up to for inspiration?

 

 

 

 

 

Does “Hamilton” use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?

Originally posted on Medium. November 3, 2016

Relevance is significant especially in museums to understand who our community is and to help individuals feel they can connect to our past in a way that they can relate to. We use that relevance every day in various mediums to reach to our audiences. I watched the Museum Hive discussion webinar with Nina Simon on the topic of museums, relevance, and community which aired live last week and it also draws on her book The Art of Relevance. In the beginning of the discussion, Simon described relevance as a “key that unlocks meaning”. We need to figure out how to make sure that we inspire them to desire that meaning we have in our museums. So how does Hamilton come into play on relevance? Broadway Tony Award winning musical Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about the life of one of our founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, is the most current example of using relevance to tell the story of our past that will inspire people to get into history and understand the meaning of that history. Hamilton’s America, a PBS Great Performances program aired on October 21st, discussed Alexander Hamilton’s history, how the Broadway musical was developed and had become the hit it is today. When I watched Hamilton’s America, I noticed that both Hamilton and museums in our country share this goal to make people understand why history and museums can be relevant today.

Towards the beginning of the documentary, Lin-Manuel Miranda talked about how he becomes the character as soon as he sees the rest of the cast dressed in costume. He revealed that the cast comes together as a community that agrees to create the world of Hamilton for people. What stayed with me during the documentary was when Lin-Manuel Miranda said,

“There’s the part of my brain that works really hard on making Hamilton historically accurate and exciting and high stakes; and then there’s the charge and the adrenaline that comes from performing something and hearing a response.”

My first thought was: Isn’t this what we do as museum educators? We teach about how history can be exciting with high stakes by in many cases dress up in historical costumes and create interactive experiences to hopefully get students inspired to see how this history has meaning in their own lives. History is a story of humanity; this is what most people forget and it is our job to remind them of that. It is a lesson that I remind myself I need to teach the students that visit the museum I work for.

Throughout my career as a museum educator, I have aspired to inspire students to learn about history using my excitement for what I teach and make sure they leave with the understanding of how history is relevant in their own lives. During my experiences as a museum educator, I dressed up in period clothing while I taught programs at the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, and the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages. Every time I dress in these costumes I step into the perspective of the individuals I portray; when teachers as well as students ask me questions about my costume and then ask me about why people dressed the way they did, I feel like I inspired them to understand the past. The more questions they ask, the more I think they are learning about the past. For instance, while I was at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society I dressed as an old woman named Deborah Moore Kellogg and when students ask me questions about my character I tell them about who she was from her perspective as a woman who had to raise her children on her own when her husband passed away. Students learn about what life was like in 18th century was like by learning how hard people especially worked to survive in the then young country.

Another example was when I dressed as a school mistress in 19th century Long Island as I taught the School Days program at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages. The program was taught in a one room school house where I gave students samples of the lessons students in the 19th century learned, such as arithmetic, reading, and writing, and talked with the students about what school is like now and back then. What I take away from this experience is kids understand how different the one room school house was; while it is important I wonder can students see the similarities and therefore can relate to the past? That became my mission as I took the students to the one room schoolhouse. I also wondered about how relevance can be realized while I was taking a school tour through the Long Island Maritime Museum. I facilitate the school groups visit by taking them to each historic building including the Bayman’s Cottage, Boat Shop where boats were made, and the Oyster House (where an oyster business was held) as they hear about the history of each building from the docents. I enjoyed learning about Long Island’s maritime history in which I had limited knowledge of before I joined the museum. What is important for students to learn is to find out, in addition to the significance of maritime history, is to learn about the humanity behind the history. I like that when the kids were brought inside the Bayman’s Cottage the docent shows them how the bayman’s family had lived in tight living quarters in the early 19th century. These experiences have brought up this important question: what can we do to make our educational programs more relevant and inclusive?

As a fan of musicals, I believe historical themed musicals provide a creative way to teach history to a wide audience. Hamilton is not the first musical to teach history to people attending, since there many musicals especially 1776 which premiered on Broadway in 1969, but it gave a fresh look at our nation’s history using Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton as inspiration as well as modern music to tell the story of this founding father. While I have not seen the musical live, I listened to the soundtrack and have seen clips from the news and the documentary. At first, it seemed like an odd concept to use rap in a historical musical; but when I listened to the soundtrack I realize how clever it was to describe Hamilton’s life and the lives of those around him using rap and other types of music for each different character. I also thought that the musical brought life into our founding fathers’ past and could inspire people to learn more about Alexander Hamilton and the rest of our founding people in 18th century America. The important take away from this musical is not only we learn about our founding fathers and mothers but as a community we learn about how we can relate to them. By casting of different racial backgrounds, i.e. Hispanic and African American, as Caucasian founders of the United States this shows what our country is like now and how our founders’ stories can happen to us now. No matter how big or small, we all work hard to make an impact on our country and to make a difference in our community. Hamilton and other founders worked on finding a way to create a democratic nation after breaking away from Great Britain. Miranda’s decision to create music that bring life to historical events rather than history textbooks giving general statements of what happened.

In Hamilton’s America, for instance, Miranda discussed the idea behind the song “Room Where It Happens” sung by Aaron Burr. He stated that instead of giving a “dry” history lesson about Hamilton trading New York City as the capital in exchange for the passage of his debt plan to pay off debts because of the Revolutionary War, a song is written from a different perspective to create human reaction to this event. This event was sung from Aaron Burr’s perspective as he sees everyone else pass him by and that is the moment when he realizes he wants to be more involved in this life rather than hanging back and being too careful. Individuals who have seen the musical and listened to the soundtrack would be able to find their way to meaning, and therefore it leads to them discovering its relevance in our community.

What do you think of Hamilton? Do you think it is an example of how relevance can be used? Why or why not? Is there another medium other than museums that create relevance? What does your institution do to bring relevance inside and outside your institution?

Resources:
Hamilton’s America. PBS Great Performances. Directed and Produced by Alex Horwitz. Executive Producers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeffrey Seller, et. al., October 21, 2016.
Museum Hive with Nina Simon: Museums and Relevance. Google Hangouts on Air, Brad Larson. www.museumhive.org. Streamed October 26, 2016.