Letting Go? second half

In part two of Letting Go?, I learned important details about the African Americans of the U.S.A, and how they struggled with the challenges faced against racism. One example is the destruction of a prominent community known as Black Bottom, which was redeveloped during the 1950’s and 1960’s by white supremacists, whom did it all for ‘expansion’ of colleges, though I am sure there would have been another way to increase campus size of those universities. It is possible it was more likely college growth was just another excuse to enforce the separation of Caucasians and African Americans. I thought it was horrible that people, no matter their race, were treated with such disrespect, just for segregation to keep pushing both races farther apart. The Black Bottomers sought to insure that the story of their lives being destroyed before they were able to make a new life away from the tragedy. One way that I understood the Black Bottomers promoted awareness of what happened to their community was through theatrical production, most notably Black Bottom Sketches and Taking a Stand. These thought-provoking performances gave a brief description of what happened to the neighborhood of Black Bottom, and the former residents of Black Bottom acquired a sense of honor and pride for detailing their stories to future generations.

Besides African American life, the stories of Americans are recorded as well, such as the example of the company of StoryCorps. Storycorps is a company dedicated to the preservation of cultural history amongst varied Americans in the United States. Storycorps is depicted as a means for common Americans to tell their stories to the public; people who are not in the media such as radio show hosts or television reporters, just regular people who have their lives outside of the news. The main purpose of Storycorps would be to connect all people and events through historical content. This type of first person historical documentation is especially significant in capturing ordinary American life.

Another aspect of part two was Fred Wilson’s study in “Mining the Museum.” During his discussion with two history professionals, Wilson did an exemplary job of describing his work on studies of history and ethnography. For example, in Wilson’s own words, his main objective in archival study is to take notice of every detail, such as discussing with individual people and examining every artifact in museums. Basically, Wilson gathers as much knowledge he can by communication and study at museums, both within the U.S.A. and internationally, and puts it all into “research.” Wilson is questioned on what is left to do, and draws on the comparison of the checks and balances system of our government to say that there is an ongoing research, and there is always more to be explored.

 

Learning to Let Go

I adore StoryCorps and was thrilled to see that it was included in this book, though I did have to really sit down and think about its relevancy in this particular regard.  I spent my own weekend elbows-deep in diaries, letters, and really personal primary sources that would not exist if not for one person choosing to put their thoughts to paper and contribute to the historical narrative. Of course, for most of these people, contributing to history wasn’t their primary goal… but I couldn’t be more grateful for it today. I see StoryCorps and other user-generated historical content in the same way. One hundred, two hundred years from now, historians will, I think, feel the same way about programs like these that I feel about my sources right now. (That is, if our profession still exists…) But I think it’s here where we also have to heavily rely on trained historians, who can synthesize the material: the “facts” with the individual stories, and really look at the way that stories can be edited to tell a story, for better or (usually) for worse.

I too had a difficult time picking out the source of contention between art and history. I think if one is worried about losing relevancy, or keeping attendance numbers high, then art could be the very first place to look for new perspectives and to bring a new, more broad audience into the room. I mean, this is why we have art historians, right? Stories can be told in a multitude of ways, and all throughout history we have primary sources from artists who chose to make a statement about their own world, their own era, their own perspective…

By PICASSO, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.Source page: http://www.picassotradicionyvanguardia.com/08R.php (archive.org)
By PICASSO, la exposición del Reina-Prado. Guernica is in the collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.Source page: http://www.picassotradicionyvanguardia.com/08R.php (archive.org)

 

I struggle a little more with contemporary artists’ work being used to seriously interpret the past, but I also know that I have more to learn about artists such as reenactors, and how they bring their knowledge into play. Good thing there’s a real pro in the room to help me understand :)

It appears museums will do anything to improve their numbers.

Is the primary mission of history museums providing visitors with the opportunity to learn or keeping the doors open? If learning history is the goal, I think few of the museums included here are achieving it.  If getting attendance, membership, and donations up is the goal, there is almost no evidence indicating success.

Letting Go?  provides interesting ideas in how to move museums from being presenters of content to facilitators of learning.  Public Curation, finally provides an approach to validate whether or not new approaches accomplish the learning incumbent on all history museums. The authors ask the right questions and suggest these issues be fully researched.

Embracing the Unexpected shows the art-history dialectic taken in a more useful direction, not a shared-authority alliance as much as it is a more tightly-bound collaboration between artists and historians. The American Philosophical Society approach shows what can occur when there is meaningful conversation between, and useful boundaries set, for both participants.

Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum highlights the failure of the resident historians at the Maryland Historical Society. By juxtaposing various pieces found at the museum and utilizing various museum tropes, visitors confronted an uncomfortable reality regarding slavery and the relevance of that reality, today.  Why didn’t the museum curator think of a way to accomplish this?

The performance art pieces capturing the life and community of The Black Bottom and the individual stories of working class people captured by Story Corp and described in Listening Intently show where great ideas can take you. The materials collected in each effort may be invaluable to the historian, but both fall short in their own way. Chaotic pieces of performance art and personal stories with no context are of little use to historians.

Where would "Hamilton" fit in art versus history debate?
Where does “Hamilton” fit in art as history debate?

Where each succeed is in their ability to show the historian the “power of seeing history as stories.”[1]

For brevity’s sake The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian, Sanford and Sun, and London Travelogue are lumped together as failures.  The The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian wasn’t even a good idea and shows what can happen when an artist is given too much latitude. I have no idea why Sanford and Sun was included in this book and London Travelogue may be a wonderfully novel idea, but it would be one place I would avoid in London. There is no historical context to what I see and no one to provide it. Without context what is to be learned?

 

[1]Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 189

Letting Go? Part II

The idea of having artists collaborate with history museums at first glance seems like a good idea. Into reading the essay by Melissa Rachleff it would seem that in order for a museum and its staff to work with an artist the artist must first be tested to see if they would make a perfect pair before allowing them to collaborate. “There is a risk in engaging an artist within an institution…. The institution should approach working with an artist as a relationship that evolves over time—they need to get to know the artist.”[1] In order for the artists’ project to work the museum staff needs to allow the artist to use his creative process instead of giving them rigid parameters to follow.  I think that artist could work with museums and help in attracting different crowds as well as questioning societal norms. I think that some artist are better to work with and collaborate on projects than others. I still feel that the museum should have the ultimate say in what happens in their exhibits because they do have to report to government and board officials on what they can and can’t do. Historians do not like to be challenged when it comes to history just like artist do not like to be challenged when it comes to their art. Expression and creativity is good but when the museums start to look like the living embodiment of the History Channel I have issues. As with technology I think a middle ground can be reached with artist and historians where both sides can be comfortable but in the end, it depends on the individuals involved.

User Driven Content in museums can be a good idea in getting individuals interested in museums but needs to work in conjunction with exhibits in museums. If the User Driven Content can enhance a visitor’s experience and allow them to more explore an artifact or exhibit, then it is influential to the visitor and museum. Not only will it allow the visitor to interact with the artifact and exhibit it will allow them to discover things on their own making the experience more personal. “In the past few decades, the field of visitor studies has made substantial progress in studying and describing the complex interactions between and among visitors, exhibitions, objects, and programs, leading to a greater ability to engage in research-based practice, particularly in the area of exhibit design.” [2] This allows for better interaction amongst visitors it should not take fully away from the exhibit or artifact it is presenting either. Middle ground needs to be found so that there can be balance between the physical and interactive.

I understand slightly why the Sanford and Son script was put into the book as a further explanation of an artist’s creative way of influencing society and explaining creatively societal complexities according to race. It still seemed far reaching when comparing it to artists working with museums to explain alternate sides of history in an area.

 

[1]Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 224.

 

[2] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 197.

Collaboration and Communication is Key

This second portion of the book was much more interesting and easier for me to visualize in terms of public curation.  I love the idea of increasing the amount of history blended with art.  I feel that as historians, we all have similar educational backgrounds.  Many artists come from outside that background and provide creative ways of showcasing history (and do not shy away from controversial subjects) that perhaps historians would not otherwise consider.  Mining the Museum represented a good balance of art and history collaboration.  Wilson stressed context and environment when he was creating the installation, as well as communication and trust with the museum staff.  That trusting relationship and communication between curator and artist is the key to creating these installations, and having expectations met.  I cringe at the prospect of relinquishing control of anything, but with trust and communication, I think we can see the benefits.  Art and history are so connected that I don’t think you can separate them, even with contemporary artists and their interpretations.

I was happy that the Story Corps chapter addressed some of the questions I had when reading it.  I liked that Story Corps took these stories and created a “bottom up” framework and empowered people, but was hesitant to call it history.  I agree that when the goal is to connect people emotionally without context, and not necessarily to inform, then can it really be called history?  I understand that it can loosely be seen as oral history, but having an agenda attached, specifically to make people cry, is it fair to be included?  We have seen that when historians edit and manipulate evidence, as the Story Corps people have done, it calls into question your whole body of research (David Irving, anyone?).  By making the people telling the stories nondescript, I feel like that takes away from the historic value that can be gained from listening to people’s experiences.  I see the draw and power that these stories have, but I suppose the problems for me were that they were nondescript people and that the narratives were heavily edited.  Since I was hesitant to consider this history, I was confused why it was included at all.

While reading this book, I was asking myself the very question that appeared on page 198. Does public curation engage a broader audience or does it simply engage a different audience?  I know more research needs to be done to answer this question, and I’m curious to see the results.  In my experience, I keep thinking back to a few people I know that have no interest in museums, regardless of the content.  Either they do not have the money or time, or they feel that other things are more important and leave the museum visits to school field trips.  I see the value in public curation and the attempts to gain broader audiences, but I wonder how many people like this are out there who just refuse to go to museums.  Is the goal of these efforts to change their minds?

Lastly, I couldn’t help thinking of a history-art instance that went terribly wrong that I experienced, again in my trip to Paris in 2008.  One day of my visit was spent at Versailles.  At the time, Versailles was home to an art installation by Jeff Koons, which featured giant balloon animals and vacuum sculptures amongst the baroque palace rooms.  In my personal opinion, it was ugly and bizarre, with no collaboration between art and history.  As a tourist, you go to Versailles to see the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.  You go for the extravagance, albeit the very thing that ruined the monarchy, but nevertheless, the sheer extravagance and significance is the draw.  The sculptures had no context or relevance to the baroque period and were completely out of place.  Had they been in a museum that covered a range of time periods and pieces it would have made more sense, but by choosing a historical site such as a baroque palace, it really soured my memory of touring Versailles.  Call me old-school, but I did not appreciate modern art juxtapositioned with the most famous French palace.   I think this can be considered an example of what not to do.

koons1

Here is the link where I found the picture. It contains a slideshow of all the pieces at Versailles if you’re interested in seeing more: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/11/arts/design/20080911_KOONS_SLIDESHOW_index.html

On a side note, this weekend I watched a documentary on Netflix called A Ballerina’s Tale.  It follows Misty Copeland’s journey to become the first black principal dancer of any major international company in 2015.  The documentary remarked that by casting Copeland in famous major roles with the American Ballet Theater, it brought many different people to the theater, a place that historically does not contain much diversity.  It discussed the growing diversity within the arts, the “color of ballet”, and the influences that can have.  I connected it with our reading because museums are trying to do just that.  Their goal is to broaden audiences, just as ABT had done.  Plus, you get to see some beautiful dancing. Just thought I’d mention it because this happened so recently (2015) and shows that boundaries still exist within art and history.

Letting Go? Part II

Having community input on projects is so important. If a community or a committee of people want to create an art piece, a museum gallery, or an exhibition of any kind that surrounds a particular place or group of people, it is of the utmost importance that there is input by those people. In the chapter regarding the Black Bottom neighborhood, they talk about how the community members of Black Bottom had the final say on any of the scenes that were to be performed. I think this is one of the most important parts of public history. With the approval and input of the Black Bottomers, they allowed the community to truly tell their story and their history without it being patronizing or told incorrectly. If you start an exhibition on the history of cattle ranchers but have never spoken to a cattle rancher, then what is the point?

The reason why I am so on-board with user-generated content and public history projects like the ones talked about in Letting Go? is because of the real power it can give communities and groups of people if done right. And this is exactly why I am all about StoryCorps. “First, and most directly, StoryCorps sets out to spark a shift in historical understanding: it wants to demonstrate powerfully, viscerally, exhaustively that ordinary people shape history.”(pg. 177) They’re focused on breaking the mold of top-down history telling, which I am very passionate about. “If museums tell stories–rich, complex ones that engage emotions–then visitors will engage, reflect, and, likely, be moved to tell stories of their own.” (pg. 189) History to me should be based on the bottom-up storytelling and StoryCorps is a great example of how this can be done well. People will always be passionate about their own history and their own stories and if museums and historians can incorporate that kind of passion into exhibits, classrooms, and galleries, then maybe historians won’t be the only people to care about history.

Public history should be seen as a way of collaborating (with either artists, communities, or just people in general) that ultimately strengthens public history as a whole. While museums and historians shouldn’t give up their academic discipline and authority over collections and interpretations, they should be open to collaborations and input from communities in order to strengthen their work and bring everyone into the fold of the beauty of history.

Living History

As someone who has participated in living history, the attitude toward reenactors as kitschy bothers me a lot. While it is true that many such installations are created by amateur historians, said amateurs did not simply pluck their ideas from the ether and call it fact. Most of us have spent the majority of our lives reading academic books and articles on our topics, and strive for accuracy to the point of absurdity (see Dr. Madsen-Brooks’s comment about how questions about Civil War battlefields devolve into discussions about historically accurate buttons). While its true that reenactors have the potential to provide inaccurate information, the majority of people involved are only there because they have so much passion for the time period that minutiae like buttons are fascinating to them, and they wish to share that passion with others.

Additionally, these installations provide valuable insight into the lives of people long gone. I had read about medieval cloth weaving techniques, and seen curated examples of medieval cloth, but I did not have a fraction of the understanding for the time and labor weaving cloth takes until I watched a woman work a medieval-style loom. Living history presentations are essential for someone who cares not only that a process occurred, but how.

History has a lot to gain from the inclusion of artists of various kinds. Certainly they lend a visceral component to history that is generally not present in curated collections alone. The concern that what artists lend to the conversation may not be entirely historically ‘correct’ is a valid one–however it is also true that many amateur historians and artists have valuable contributions to make to the overall understanding of how the past was experienced by those who lived it.

Maybe Elsa was right…

image

When this picture was taken it was his first day on the job. He explained to us that his garb was representative of what was worn by both Native Peoples, as well as coureur de bois, the Europeans who lived among them as trappers and woodsmen. I offer this tidbit because as Koloski notes that these sort of interactive “performances” made “history/science more fun and interesting” (274). It definitely did for two of my four daughters who not only swooned while he was talking to us, but forced me to take that picture, and returned to his post several times through the afternoon we were there.

A large part of the assigned reading centered around the idea of having an artist in residence at a historical museum. I know several artists, and know that they can be difficult to deal with at times, because some of them believe that they are geniuses, that they could walk on water if they so chose to, and that their idea of art is the only true measure of it. And it is possible that this is the position that some museums have found themselves in. Now mix in a curatorial staff that also believes that they are geniuses, that the artifacts they are entrusted with are theirs, and their interpretation is the only true interpretation of them. Sprinkle in the questions of funding, and other capitalistic nonsense, and you have a recipe for disaster. Unless everyone is willing to talk, discuss their ideas, and what they want to get out of the exhibit.

I fail to grasp the inclusion of a never-before-seen episode of Sanford and Son. Was it included to be a counterpoint to the general acceptance of StoryCorps? StoryCorps offers a heavily edited message aimed at a specific (NPR/PBS) audience. Similarly Sanford and Son was also aimed at an audience. I think where we as a society have progressed (or maybe we haven’t) is that the Sanford and Son episode is included here, as are the excerpts of StoryCorps that are deemed too risqué for general consumption.

2nd half of Letting GO?

While reading the second part of Letting Go?, I found it impossible to see the major conflict being brought up between art and history. The themes of historians critiquing art as either historically “correct” or not began to seem like a lost cause to me. It parallels the great search for Truth, which I find to be a ridiculous venture. Rather than looking at the art as accurate or not, why not just take it for what it is worth and simply exhibit it as such. There seems to be no way that an artist is truly either wrong or right but rather giving an interpretation of what they see and how they choose to portray it. Although I can clearly see how, if improperly represented in its description, art can lead to a false sense of understanding about history, I feel that as long as it is made clear what kind of a resource it is and is not used to create a narrative that is historically inaccurate then it too can be a resource for opening the minds of the people that look at it.

I also find the consistent worry about maintaining authority over the general historical narrative and who gets included and who gets excluded by some museums to be equally ludicrous. No one group should have complete control over a story that covers so many different points of view. Many of these points of view have not even been in the eyes of historians until the last fifty or so years. What now makes us think that we as historians have all the points of view now after so many years of excluding so many in the traditional narrative? The best comparison I can make is when Fred Wilson discusses the overturning of institutional narratives. He states that, “I think there will always be another layer that can be looked at because they are institutions, just like the government.”[1]I could not agree more if I tried. Much like any other institution, educated people especially will consistently challenge the status quo because as according to Dr. Horrible in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, “The status is not quo.”[2]

[1]Benjamin Filene, Bill Adair, and Laura Koloski. Letting Go?  sharing historical authority in a user-generated world, (Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), ProQuest Ebook, 241.

[2] Joss Whedon, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Los Angeles, CA:Mutant Enemy Productions. 2008. Dvd.

The-seeker-after-truth