Monthly Archives: November 2013
One of the central themes throughout this year’s program has been impact. The thinking being, that if we don’t have impact, and are not able to demonstrate and quantify our impact, both visitors and funding will dry up. So how can museums/history organizations have impact?
At a point in the three-week program when my mentor advised you start to lose steam, I got a tremendous boost in energy from the busy and varied day we spent on Friday, November 8. I felt the impact of three history organizations that day in ways worth noting and remembering.
The day started out with what I had expected to be fairly dull- statistics. James Chung from REACH Advisors pelted us, in his rapid delivery, what should have been kind of terrifying. The numbers show that if we don’t change something soon, many history organizations may become history themselves in the not too distant future. But rather than feeling doomed, I felt inspired- the perspectives offered by REACH Advisors (importantly, from outside the history/museum field) give us something real and concrete to work with- the more we know about the problem(s), the more effectively we can work to address them. On that note, we headed out for some much-anticipated fieldtrips, having spent the entire rest of the week in the classroom.
The first stop was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. While it would have been a welcome respite from thinking so much about history to go play in the fun spaces, we were headed for a more intense experience- the Power of Children exhibit. This space shares the story of three children – Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White – who made a difference, and hopes to inspire present-day kids to know that they too can work towards positive change. The theater piece portraying Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was incredibly moving, but it was not the place where I found a deeply personal connection. That was Ryan White’s baby blanket. I have to admit that before going to the Children’s Museum, I didn’t really know who Ryan White was. I won’t tell his story here- visit the museum’s website for more, http://www.childrensmuseum.org/power-of-children/ryan/story. But Ryan was born just six months after I was, and died in 1990, when we were both 18 years old. In one of the cases of real objects (unusual at a Children’s museum in my experience) was Ryan’s soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket. So very much like my soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket I still keep on a chair in my bedroom. Impact.
The next stop was Conner Prairie, where the centerpiece of the evening was the Follow the North Star program (http://www.connerprairie.org/plan-your-visit/special-events/follow-the-north-star.aspx). In this program, you play the role of an escaping enslaved person in a highly dramatized hour-long experience. I expect that my background more in anthropology that history made me more like the regular person participating in this experience, so it was interesting to hear the detailed responses of my classmates to the program, but I have to say I found it to be an immersive and intense experience. In the early part of the program, you are yelled at, demeaned and told to never look up, never look a white person in the face. It sucks. I quickly found myself staying as still and quiet as possible, and trying to come up with answers to the questions I heard hurled at other participants, so I would not get yelled at again. About half way through the hour, we made it to the home of a Quaker family, where we were told we were safe (at least for a little while), and told we could look up. Hell, no, I wasn’t going to look up! Just stay invisible. And I felt this at a very basic level, not intellectually. Even if this is not just like what enslaved people would have experienced in 1830s Indiana, I felt it. Perhaps this is how women living with domestic violence feel every day? Impact.
But tired and emotionally a bit overwhelmed, my evening was not over. After a conversation filled bus ride back to town, a small group of us went to one more event. The Eiteljorg Museum was celebrating the opening of their 2013 Contemporary Art Fellowship exhibition, RED (http://www.eiteljorg.org/explore/exhibitions/contemporary-art-fellowship), and followed their more tradition exhibit opening with an after-party with live music from A Tribe Called Red (http://atribecalledred.com), a native Producer/DJ crew who in their own words mix “traditional pow wow vocals and drumming with cutting-edge electronic music.” In a room filled with a much younger crowd that almost any other museum would see at an exhibit opening, we danced to loud, creative and culturally relevant music. It was totally fun, and there was actually some learning going on, even if it was mostly subconscious. But mostly it was fun… for young adults…at a museum. Impact.
So is the future for museums and other history organizations scary? Absolutely. But maybe we can see James Chung’s synthesis of the data as a wake-up call to start trying some risky, exciting, and cool new things. While I realize that the examples above are very individual, and I don’t know if they will make me a better citizen of the world, making that personal connection to your visitors is a key first step. Museum can most definitely have impact if we are willing to try!
Prior to this experience, this Texas girl had never spent any significant time in the Midwest. As I packed I had many burning questions running through my head: how cold will it get in November? Will there be any edible Mexican food? Will my fellow students tease me about my Texas accent?
And then there was the really big question: Will my brain really be able to contain three weeks of deep thoughts about museums and history?
Now that we’re 2/3 of the way through, I can answer some of these questions:
- It is pretty chilly in Indiana, but the five coats that I brought (yes, five–I drove mainly so I had fewer packing decisions) seem to be doing the trick.
- There is edible Mexican food, though I’m also pretty sure one of my first meals when I get home will be Mexican.
- My roommate has a more pronounced Illinois accent than my Texas one, so I’m safe there.
- And my brain is pretty full.
The culture shock during this experience hasn’t been the giant hamburger patty or the corn fields or the fact that the trees actually change color here, but rather being surrounded by people passionate about museums almost 24/7.
The first week, when all we really knew about each other was our work, work was about all we talked about. We’ve shared victories and defeats, funny stories, and done some problem solving, both in and out of the classroom. In my social circle at home, I sometimes struggle to explain what it is I do and why I care so much. And when I do attempt to tell work stories, I have to be careful because there are many friends who just aren’t interested in my life at the museum. Because we have so many other shared interests, this isn’t a big deal, but it is strange right now to be talking about work most of the time.
My other shock is more about my institution, rather than myself. I always knew Dallas Heritage Village (www.DallasHeritageVillage.org) was pretty special–after all, why else would I spend 9 years there? But in these continuing conversations, I’m starting to realize that there are some truly unique projects happening at DHV, and these projects might provide some useful lessons for other history museums.
I suspect that when I head home in a week, I’ll have one more culture shock when I’m no longer surrounded by these great minds. But at least these new colleagues will only be a phone call or email away.
Reflections by Marc Blackburn: As we start the last week of SHA I have had the weekend to reflect on where we have been and where we are going in this final week. I am one of four National Park employees who were sent to SHA this year. Unlike my peers in the museum world, we don’t have to constantly think about when the next donor will walk into the door or deal with an obstreperous board, but we have our own challenges of a daunting bureaucracy and declining funding from Congress. Putting those differences aside, what has really captured my attention over the past two weeks is that we are all bounded by a passion for our jobs, and a deep, deep love of history.
While it is always fun to swap war stories over a beer after dinner, what has intrigued me is that what can make our profession stronger is reaching across our institutional lines and helping each other out. In one of the in-class exercises, I had the pleasure of working with the director of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum Director, Jennifer Landry. While discussing the merits of an exhibit project her institution is hosting in the coming year, I shared my excitement for the topic, Chemistry Sets in America, and I came up with some ideas that had not been considered in the scoping process of her exhibit project. It’s been a great opportunity to share and make new friends.
The subject matter of SHA has been engaging and though provoking. It has given me permission to go back to my park and make a positive change. Moreover, this experience has opened my eyes to the potential that we have as a group of professionals in the realm of museums and interpretation to continue to not only move our institutions forward, but to create a network of professionals who want to continue to make history relevant to our institutions, ourselves, our audience, and to our country.
At the keynote address for the 2013 Developing History Leaders @SHA, Katherine Kane of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center asked the Class of 2013 for their “Lightbulb Moments”–the time that the history light went off for them. Below are their responses.
- Reading about Egyptian archaeology in National Geographic in 4th grade. I decided to become and archaeologist. (And yes, this did pretty directly lead to becoming a curator at a Native American museum, through lots of steps along the way…)
- A visit to Fort Necessity (NPS) site at age 10 or 12, with a family friend. Historic site, living history interpreter, original object, sensory experience of smoke and sound from a musket-firing. Being in a place where someone I knew (George Washington) was in a pickle, and survived.
- Summer intern at Dallas Historical Society–a job I applied for in order to not work food service or retail that summer. Going through the stacks, finding documents signed by Sam Houston, and realizing this could be my life.
- Internship at the Indiana Historical Society and having a researcher use a collection I had processed for the first time. Doing an exhibit and having people really respond to it and the thesis presentation lecture.
- Chance to work with original primary documents, rare books, and manuscripts in college inspired me to learn how to preserve them and share with others. Also visited lots of historic sites and museums on family vacations–fun times 🙂
- My entree into administration came out of a simple assignment to outline the steps to complete one task. In order to give perspective, I sketched a vision for a radically different program. My boss took one look and shifted me to an assignment which eventually led to my administrative role.
- A visit to the Fort Clatsop National Memorial as a young boy. The physical space & sensory experience of the reconstructed fort made real the Lewis and Clark expedition and showed me it was possible to see the past and experience it first-hand.
- The realization that I wanted to work with teaching kids history without being a history teacher. I wanted to be able to get kids excited about history and love it as much as I do, and change the idea that history is boring.
- The spark was three months providing visitor services at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Facilitating connections to those places was an energizing and deeply profound experience and validated the cumulative life experiences I had had up to that point in time.
- Working in a bookstore & helping people find information to change their lives.
- Accidentally participated in Student Conservation Association program in 1993 and had the opportunity to work at Gettysburg National Military Park. Working directly with the public at a historical resource was a major turn-on that directed me away from becoming a teacher in the public schools.
- Living in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial at the age of 5-8; Mercer Museum curatorial volunteering when I was 13.
- Our family vacations always included museums, historic sites, & parks. I’ve always been good with history and went with (as a career choice) my strength.
- When I was 14, I went on a tour at a historic house museum on Cape Cod., The house was empty (no furniture) while the museum was being reinterpreted. But the tour guide used material culture to help us learn about the original inhabitants (they were peeling back the wallpaper to the original). The first owner was a ship captain and they took us upstairs and we looked out the windows to see that the front yard was landscaped into the prow of a ship. I had never realized that we could learn from things and I was hooked.
- Mine was not a lightbulb, but a slow indoctrination from a childhood spent at museums and collectors’ houses learning American history through objects.
- (1) Seeing the ruby slippers: history can be cool. (1a) Gettysburg: the power of history’s presence. (2) Processing collections at the Mathers: someone’s job is to handle really cool old stuff. (3) Bartending near a political meeting where history was being distorted to further an agenda–enraged, motivated to use history to counter.
- I was awaiting deployment as a Peace Corps volunteer and was offered an internship with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. I had the opportunity to help with the analysis and management of a new park, and realized that there was an alternative to academia. (I had not heard much about public history…)
- My transformative experience began with my grandmother’s stories which made me fall in love with history. But it evolved with my 8th grade history teacher Mr. Richardson and his way of engaging us with history that made me want to do that too.
What was your “lightbulb” moment with history? How has it impacted your career path?