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.