Letting Go? Part 2

Billy Yalowitz’s “The Black Bottom,” shows how powerful participatory history/art can be in bringing an abused community’s story to light. His project illuminates institutionalized racism and its lingering effects, while also showing how tenaciously that community has labored to stay connected. It is a common refrain from many white Americans that black people need to clean up the crime and dysfunction in their neighborhoods before they can get ahead in society. Yet here we have an example of a supportive community, where neighbors created a positive environment that promoted constructive behaviors, only for it to be destroyed by government connivance with a powerful wealthy interest group, the local university, in a policy of ‘Negro Removal’ (162). To demonstrate this history university students researched and wrote scripts, high school students acted, and former residents of the destroyed neighborhood were an interactive audience. In allowing the former residents ultimate veto power over any scene, Yalowitz demonstrated a commendable sharing of authority. He also raised concerns over appropriation of other’s stories, and who receives credit, fame, publicity and money from the story. Do movies or plays that highlight the plight of marginalized people, make money and generate fame for wealthy white directors/producers/writers with little benefit to those who are portrayed in the work of art? Double whammy! Not only did we profit by directly exploiting you, now we are profiting again by telling the story of your abuse and you get nothing! Was the university’s employment of Yalowitz, and its sanctioning of the project a form of reparations, as some former residents of the Bottom were asking for? Or was it “Reparations Light,” where a past wrong is acknowledged indirectly, a bronze memorial is erected and the institution feels no real financial pain. Along the same lines, the former residents were glad to have their story heard and genuinely appreciated Yalowitz and all the students’ efforts, but maybe this just makes the dominant group feel good that it has addressed an “issue,” it has listened to a recounting of its sins so its conscience is mollified, and it can happily go on its way without meaningful compensation.

I found Melissa Rachleff’s piece on Mining the Museum, in “Peering Behind the Curtain,” shocking! It is a naïve question but I will ask it anyway. How could a museum in a majority African American city, in 1992, have nothing about black people on display? 1882 or 1952 maybe, but 1992? I will say that it was brave of the museum and historical society to allow Fred Wilson, the exhibit’s designer, a freehand in resurrecting artifacts from the basement that attested to the injustices African Americans suffered. The juxtaposition of iron manacles alongside refined repousse silverware jarringly reminds one of the wealth that slave labor endowed on the owner of that human “property.” Wilson’s paucity of explanatory information engenders questions rather than answers. Is the artisan who made that silverware implicated in the crime of slavery for taking money for his work that was made on the backs of unfree people? Or perhaps a freeman made the silverware and a white business made the manacles? Maybe it underlines the hypocritical nature of humans: we can create art at the same time we can create shackles, akin to “all Men are created equal” rhetoric side by side with blatant discrimination. In one display, a picture that depicts African Americans, is titled by its 1797 sketcher as Preparations of the Enjoyment of a Fine Sunday among the Blacks, Norfolk, is retitled by Wilson as Richard, Ned and their Brothers, perhaps to give back the individuality and humanity associated with familiarity that is denied in anonymity.   In terms of participatory activities, this made me wonder if retitling works could be an interactive experience. For example, “Here is a work titled The Signing of the Declaration of Independence. If you were to retitle it what would you call it?” Have page sized stickers and markers available and place the stickers, filled in with a new title, on a board by the work so they could be seen. Visitors could not only retitle a work, but also vote for the best new title, and the wining new title would be displayed the following day while others would be removed. Each day a new winner would be crowned and the week’s winners could be displayed.

When Wilson was interviewed by Paula Marincola and Marjorie Schwartzer, one interviewee stated she went to school in Maryland and was “explicitly” informed that the state “never had slaves” (238). If the Maryland Historical Society had not historically ignored marginalized groups, presenting only a white narrative, perhaps a future teacher would have encountered artifacts that would have countered this falsehood, which was then passed onto another generation. Another good example of why it is important, a historiographical imperative, to question curatorial authority.

StoryCorps may deserve some of the criticism that academic historians level at it—its sentimentality and pathos that sometimes lurches toward bathos—but it does give a voice to ordinary people’s history rather than the traditional elite version of history. Friends who involuntarily grimace at the mention of the word “history,” relate how their Friday mornings are ruined if they miss StoryCorps. I asked the same friends if they thought what they heard on StoryCorps was history. The answer I got was “maybe sometimes,” but “not really, it is more about individual people’s lives.” When I asked why this wasn’t history, why a person’s story wasn’t history, my friends struggled to reply. I believe their inarticulateness on the subject relates to what has been defined as history for generations, and how we have learned what history is. StoryCorps may be imperfect but it is an attempt to listen to ordinary people, and by doing so it validates their stories as part of the country’s history just as elites’ stories have traditionally been.

Again, some academic historians probably shudder at the “power” of the “evocative” over the “merely informative” that Mary Teeling discovers in “Visiting Dennis Severs’ House” (321). She too, as a public historian worries about blurred timeframes and fake pieces, but she feels the overall effect outweighs the drawbacks.  Based on her experience I would agree.  A site like Severs’ House can do more to help us understand the influence of daylight and nighttime on the rhythm of life before electrification, than an academic work might.

From Passive to Active

So far in my life, I have only been to museums that follow the “old” way of doing things- I approach a painting or artifact, read the brief description, then move on in the low-light galley to the next object. I have never had the opportunity to use digital devices, participate with strangers, or create an object d’ art. I think that is why it is hard for me to visualize the effectiveness of all these new ideas within my museum context. One thing is for sure; the concept of what museums are to be is going through a major revolution. Last week in class, we discussed the blurring of lines between digital and physical presentations, as well as the shared ownership of authority between curator and community. This week’s discussion focuses two other changes that I feel are much more daring. One, the lines between historical and art museums (or other artistic groups such as playwrights, and dancers) are becoming blurred. This includes the idea of bringing in an artist and having them curate with the museum’s artifacts or creating a play about a historical figure. Secondly, and probably most revolutionary, is the idea that historical museums are moving away from being collectors of the past to being active creators of the present.


Using the Mining the Museum exhibit as an example, I wonder what the public reaction was to the collaboration.   People are used to being shocked and pushed in art galleries, but not necessarily in historical museums.   Instead of seeing the stagnant displays that had been there for years, visitors were treated to displays that were meant to create strong emotion and discussion.   Challenging the emotions as well as the intellect can be a difficult process for visitors. That being said, is challenging emotions such a bad thing?   Probably not, but it will be something that visitors will have to get used to in the new museum model.


Curators will have to become much, much, more creative when developing new installations for museums.   It seems that museums will spend less time will be spent building up collections in lieu of creating collaborations with others.   Ideas are now the focus, not things.

Letting Go: Part 2

I’m not exactly sure what it was, but the second part of this book didn’t quite grab my attention like the first half. The examples didn’t seem as diverse as in the first half, perhaps since they were all surrounding the theme of artists in public history, and maybe because it didn’t enter discussions of agency, shared authority, and the role of visitors like the first half. I thought they kind of beat a dead horse in showing how the two fields of art and history could converge, but that is just my opinion.

I thought the piece on community performance in West Philadelphia did a good job at exploring issues of power in embarking on a project in a disadvantaged community. I liked how Yalowitz stressed his and the students’ role of being led by community members, acting as listeners and learners, then offering their skills to assist the residents in telling their story. This is an important aspect of the community-collaboration model, especially when working in historically oppressed communities. It was interesting to consider the ways that the project itself could be at danger of repeating institutional racism in the way it was carried out.

Like others, I have been interested in StoryCorps for a while now so it is interesting to see representations from advocates and critics of their work, and the different spheres it can be evaluated in: history or…not history. I think it is very possible to appreciate it for what it is, not for by-the-book oral history and its traditional uses, but for “inculcating history-mindedness.” It encourages broader audiences to consider the stories and hidden pasts of everyday people, and appreciate the every-man role in making history. These aren’t groundbreaking reflections, just reminders that arise from considering the subject in the readings.

Perhaps the most intriguing example of art in public history for me was Dennis Sever’s House. House museums are such a ubiquitous part of the American historical landscape, from the really mundane to the extraordinary, so it was interesting to consider it in a sort of upside down approach. I think I might prefer the absence of a docent, though it would be unsettling not to have any reference or interpretive material. I like the idea of having it appear lived-in, as a snapshot of a specific time in a way that comes to life. Sever’s house is troubling for historians in that it is more of an art installation than a typical historical site, with anachronistic features arranged throughout. I think it is both satisfying and troubling in the same vein that historical fiction is to academics; it is “real” enough to be immersed in it, but chock-full of historical inaccuracies that in some ways serve to paint a prettier or more vivid picture. So do you credit it for drawing in the atypical visitor/audience, or discount it for all of its fluff and incorrect history? I think I would quite like to visit Sever’s house, it reminds me of being on the set of a historical drama – like Downton Abbey, plastic water bottle on the mantle included.



Dear Letting Go, I’m Not the Uptight Historian You Think I Am.

When Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, herein Letting Go, began discussing how historians should work with artists I found the idea a little obvious. While I might not know a whole lot about fine art, but the fact that half of the Best Picture nominees for 2015 are biopics sort of proves that artists are going to incorporate history into their art regardless of whether or not they have a historian’s “permission” to do so.

I sort of take offense that this book assumes all historians are so uptight about hard facts and dates that they need to be encouraged to make like Queen Elsa and let it go. In my experience, public historians pride themselves not so much on the facts, but on the ability to help people see the beauty of history. In helping to foster an appreciation for the peculiar way time, geography, culture, and human nature have a way of interplaying with one another. Now don’t get me wrong, I know somebody has to be accountable for making sure historic claims are accurate (Here’s to you academic historians!), but I feel more laypeople would value efforts for accuracy if, first, they felt personally invested and connected to the research at hand. The final article in Letting Go, Mary Teeling’s “A London Travelogue: Visiting Dennis Severs’ House”, felt to me like the only article that really understood this about public historians.

What I found oddly absent in Letting Go was any coverage on how historians and cultural institutions can actively bring their expertise & historical authority to the public on the public’s turf. Many of the examples explored throughout the book relied on the public making an effort to go to their museum or semi-obscure website in order to interact with the history on exhibition. As we now live in an era of social media, I would have liked to see more discussion on how can historians can “let go” of their historical authority to help better direct and learn from the public conversations about history on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Further, how can historians utilize these sites, or even physical public spaces or events, as a place to host our projects and exhibitions?

Authority, Social Commentary, and Subjectivity

I was all over the place in this half of the book. I agreed with some and had qualms with some aspects of each of the sections. The following is a highlight reel of the most important takeaways for me in some semblance of themes…

The concept of power and authority is extremely interesting to me. It often raises ‘should’ questions and also becomes controversial in an almost hidden way. “Who should tell that story?” The controversy is hidden because it has become almost politically incorrect (or at least “uncool”) to not share authority. The problem often then lies in the execution as authority is grudgingly relinquished and the trust that should develop is immediately hindered. In “Peering Behind the Curtain”, Rachleff states, “Ideally, the boundaries between the commissioned work, the institutional voice, and the public become fluid in collaborative projects, and trust builds over time” (p. 221). Along the same lines, “the relations of power are transformed and a culture of cooperation, exchange, mutual respect, and urban vitality is developed” (Yalowitz with Stathis, p. 172). In both of these cases, the sharing of authority and power over the telling of history is key to the success of the projects.

These two pieces and the StoryCorps piece share an issue that caused a small epiphany for me. While there is merit in each as they tell untold stories and highlight crucial social issues, are they not what Bogan calls “‘hit-and-run’ social commentary”? (p. 223). These types of efforts often highlight an issue for the moment and may even bring about short-term change, but what about the long-term? I think this is what the “Why?” question from earlier in the book is really trying to address. Yes, we know it is important to tell all of history, but why? What do we hope to do in the long run by telling all of human history, not just the official line or the juicy bits? My epiphany came when I realized that similar ‘hit-and-run’ or ‘band-aid’ social efforts are the current solutions for problems in the US education system and true, long-term change is the ultimate loss.

The StoryCorps piece also brought to light a concept academics and especially historians are hung up on – objective and subjective. “Years of graduate work and peer review inculcate the value of being dispassionate. We are supposed to gather evidence, evaluate preponderances, and track patterns, all with an eye toward creating balanced interpretations, free of factual inaccuracies, that advance or overturn conclusions in the body of literature that precedes us.” (p. 181-182) I absolutely love that quotation. Here is my weekly book plug – you should all read The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. In it he addresses this issue and outlines two theories of learning – an object-centered theory and a subject-centered theory. In the first learners are vessels to be filled by the expert who is the only one who has contact with the object. In the latter the community of knowers is continuously learning and engaging with the subject and with other knowers. That is an extremely simplified version, but the idea of creating a community in which we all share our experiences is so inviting and I think academics sometimes live in their ivory towers too long and forget to look for the invitation.

Sparking Ideas

The second half of Letting Go was more thought-provoking to me. I suppose that is because these chapters focused on collaboration and creativity, which are really important to me with projects. Here are a few reflections, and some ideas that these chapters sparked for me:

The Black Bottom
The stark difference in perspectives about the Black Bottom neighborhood between West Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Agency’s 1954 statement of authority and Dr. Pearl Simpson’s recollection of her neighborhood got my attention! The entire piece drove home to me the ways communities can use collective memory to present history. The relationships between the Black Bottom and the University taught me that sensitive topics can be broached with the right attitudes at a collaborative table, but that trust must first be earned. Several ideas popped out of this that we may consider for a group class project: college students mentoring high school students project; pairing generations together to present history, such as the powerful life stories that were shared by the older generation with the younger students. I know that politics of community councils, working with elected officials, and partnerships can sometimes inhibit or even derail projects, but the collaborative aspects of the Black Bottom Advisory Council and community representation to evaluate the project and develop it further worked to their advantage. People’s voices were heard, which is critical. Could we do something with the City of Boise, or some of the State elected officials?

Listening Intently: StoryCorps
I am such a huge fan of this project that I enjoy reading both the pros and cons of it. The debate about “polish” and what gets edited to be presented to the public on the airwaves is very interesting. I do believe there is great power in telling and sharing stories and that sharing common, everyday story resonates with us all. Filene’s statement that the project aims to shift historical understanding by allowing listeners to learn that “ordinary people shape history” is foundational to public history. I agree that facilitated discussions are helpful, as that role can help the more inexperienced or cautious interviewees and interviewers get over tough humps – emotionally and technically during the interview. One of the most intriguing aspects of StoryCorps to me is the trailer and the recording booth environment that StoryCorps uses. Has anyone been in one? I love the intimate space, and the “road-traveling” aspect of it, which is reminiscent of family camping trips of the 50s to me. So, my point in mentioning this is two-fold. First, it led me to realize that physical space is critical to oral history and cultural sharing. It can make or break the project. I would love to use an old sheep wagon to do a generational oral history project, or to do a traveling Basque exhibit – maybe even a digital hands-on for kids!!! Secondly, intimate spaces are critical for one of this article’s key points: Listening. As Filene says for the storytelling project, “its biggest ambitions lie not in the telling but in the hearing.” Lastly, can storytelling affect social change, or at least increase cultural awareness, because it stays firmly in the realm of emotion? I would like to see more emotion in public history: detachment seems to alienate.

Public Curation Research Framework
This was just so-so for me, but it did make me draw parallels between my previous life working for scientific agencies and history learning. The messages and goals are very similar. I know research and strategic planning are important for museums and other public projects, but sometimes I have found that planning and research won’t always get the results you hope for…sometimes, it just takes trying something out of (yes, intuition), and let it move forward — with shared input.

General thoughts about historians and artists
Hmmm…I am an artist, and an historian. It never really occurred to me that they could be mutually exclusive or problematic as some of these pieces note. Rachleff’s mention of “winners and losers” with stakeholders and museum staff just didn’t sit well with me, neither did her comment that “Artist provoke accepted interpretations.” I guess if we look at art as a purely internal, personal experience, collaboration with artists can affect viewing experiences and public (or Board/stakeholder) relationships. The Peter Severs house project was the epitome of internal personal experience. Mining the Museum – wow – powerful, and yes, individual reactions cold be all over the board. I can see why it sparked debate. The pre-work between artists, museum staffs, advisors, all – everyone must have initial input at the table. That was a big problem as Adair acknowledged with the Rosenbach project. Of all the art pieces, I took away the message that more than just artistic collaboration may help museums with the issue of dwindling relevance: interdisciplinary collaboration may be more important. History and science…History and nature trails/outdoor experiences…History and performance such as Katchor’s Rosenbach Tragicomedy. Fascinating lessons in historians’ responsibility to help connections to others – not objects. Lastly, maybe we could start some sort of an interdisciplinary-in-residence program, not just an artist-in-residence? Could we work with another class on an interdisciplinary project? These seem to be healthy and progressive approaches to increasing attention and historical awareness.

Marrying Art and History

Letting Go? Reading Part 2

The bulk of our readings this week dealt with using artistic interpretations to tell history. I am not a particularly artistic person. I dapple in music, I can style a room, and I immensely enjoy theatre…but that is where my artistic abilities end. Despite my lack of ability, I deeply appreciate the arts and I enjoyed reading how artists were contributing to the historical field. I agree with Koloski in “Embracing the Unexpected”, that “creating genuinely interdisciplinary experiences for our visitors could be one way forward as we seek to engage their curiosity, and in the end, provide them with greater access to deeper and more potent historical and cultural experiences” (p. 280).

I loved the Mining the Museum project. The levels of learning there were so multifaceted! Taking artifacts (which are by themselves objects that promote learning) and arranging them in a way that not only showcases societiy’ biases and shortcomings, but also the museum’s, was such an interesting way to make an argument. I also enjoyed the Black Bottom project presented at University of Pennsylvania. Theatre is powerful and I am a sucker for historical fiction. I would love to be a part of this kind of exhibition.

That being said, I think bringing artists into a museum must be done with much care and planning. Curators, professors, and researchers have a depth of historical knowledge and skill that just cannot be trumped by a few months of specific research done by an artist. It seems like many of the artists that we read about in this week’s selection worked closely with museum staff to research and create a story. I applaud these efforts. I would caution against allowing an artist to present an exhibit as history without any oversight. For example, Fred Wilson, creator of Mining the Museum project, indicated that he was “not for shared authority”, which I find troubling. His exhibit was about exposing holes in the Maryland museum’s collection, so I think he is mostly justified in not wanting to share authority with the museum’s staff. However, it is important that artists understand that their artistic interpretation has an obligation to be truthful and inclusive. In order to promote innovative presentations that are also accurate, museums must carefully select and work with artists.



The site is supposed to be updated soon, but there is still a lot of interesting information such as; what is expected of the “book” and reader, categories of books (everything from accountants to strippers), how to organize an event and feedback on previous humanlibrary events.