Best year ever?

Last night, while catching up with a fellow nonprofit friend, she said to me: “All that shit you’ve gone through over the last few years is turning into manure!” Now, she works for a garden, so these kind of metaphors are natural for her. But I do love it, and it may be a new mantra.

Our annual meeting was a few weeks ago. By some metrics, this has been a pretty terrible year. But we’ve also had some incredible wins, many of them years in the making. Though this has been shared on the DHV blog, I thought it might be fun to share the year in review here, with all of you. With a few bonus links, just in case you want to know more about a few of these things.

2019–The Year in Review

At this time last year, Dallas Heritage Village was facing some pretty big challenges. We didn’t know what would happen with our city funding. Our budget was up in the air. Key staff were departing, and it was unclear when we would be able to replace them. There was turmoil and uncertainty, to say the least.

And it’s not as if things instantly got better. We did receive a $70,000 cut in our city funding, after all sorts of political twists and turns. The weather has generally been terrible for just about every event, and Candlelight had its lowest attendance in years. We had more staff turnover. Our longtime curator, Evelyn Montgomery, discovered greener pastures and left in January. Also in January, Tuck, one of our beloved donkeys died. The Ambassador Hotel burned to the ground. And to top it all off, we spent most of last spring dealing with sewer line issues, complete with porta-pottys for months and a $40,000 price tag. Sometimes, we do feel that there must be a black cloud hanging over DHV.

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But as I reflect on the past year, I think it’s also safe to say that this has been one of our best years yet. In February, we welcomed Joe McGill and friends to Texas. Joe is the mastermind behind the Slave Dwelling Project, a national effort to bring the story of slavery forward. We had some great partners, including the City of Irving and the Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Project. We offered multiple programs, and in spite of the miserable weather, people came and had difficult conversations about our complicated past. And people are still talking. We plan to bring Joe back next May.

This project was also a chance for one of our new staff members, Lisa Lopez to shine. She joined us in mid-November, which meant she had to dive straight into Candlelight. She also managed the logistics of the Slave Dwelling Project and did a fabulous job. As Director of Visitor Experience, she also manages our frontline staff and our school tour program. Her job is very big, but we’ll be able to hire her some help very soon.

A few months ago, we were chosen to participate in the American Alliance of Museums Facing Change: Advancing Board Diversity learning cohort—a group of 50 museums nationwide. This program is working to address issues surrounding board diversity and inclusion. The Texas cohort includes some familiar names for you: the Perot Museum, the Witte Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and more. We’re looking forward to truly getting started on this work later this fall.

For the past year, we’ve been working hard on reinterpreting Millermore. And maybe reinterpreting isn’t the right word. Expanding might be better. For most of our history, we’ve focused on William Brown Miller and decorative arts. But as we began to dive into our files and primary sources, we realized there are many more stories to tell—and lots more people to talk about. We began this work last fall—and then right in the middle, our curator up and left. And then there was another opportunity for a staff member to shine. Elizabeth Qualia had joined our staff as part time curatorial assistant in Fall 2017. We promoted her to full time Curator of Collections and Interpretation—and then handed her this giant project. We have radically changed how we talk about Millermore—we start in the cabin and talk about slavery. We end in the sitting room with walls full of family trees of both the black and white Millers. In between, we tell the story of Barry Miller, local politician, and his daughter Evelyn, a writer. And so much more. Even more exciting for some–almost all of the barriers are down. The new tour format launched last week, and I invite you to join us soon for a very different conversation.

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Other new faces at DHV include Wolf Landrum. He also joined us in Fall 2017 as  a handyman—though we’ve known him for a very long time. He’s a longtime volunteer, and most importantly, his husband has been our St. Nicholas at Candlelight for a decade. When Evelyn left, we made him our full time Buildings and Grounds Conservator. It has been years since we’ve been able to dedicate an entire staff position to the care of our grounds. He has a lot of work to do, but I hope you can see some progress.

Aidan Wright joined us in February as Membership and Marketing Manager. He was also a familiar face—having worked as a history host a few years ago. He’s doing some great stuff on social media, and I hope you’re enjoying the “What the Artifact?” series!

But I want to talk a little bit more about Sydney Abdo, our brand new Rentals Manager. We have literally watched Sydney grow up at DHV. She was one of my summer camp kids, hanging out in my dearly departed Pages from the Past camp with Terri Brown’s daughter Isabel. She became a Junior Historian and worked on the Doctor’s Office exhibit. A few years ago, she joined our staff as History Host. When Stephanie made the decision to accept a full time position, she told Preston and I that we really needed to think about Sydney as her possible successor. And here she is.

That story encapsulates some of what makes this museum so special. Though we have plenty of visitors that we see once for a few hours, we also have many people that have made this museum an important part of their lives. People like Barbara Brockett, Queen of the Clothespin Doll, who recently passed her crown to Angie Gamez, longtime history host. Lynn Vogt, whose grandmother got this whole thing started and became a Life Trustee at last week’s Annual Meeting. Jorge Esteban, a brand new board member, who will be getting married at DHV next month.

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There’s a lot to be proud of. A lot to be grateful for. Many, many people to thank. And though there are many things about this past year I would not like to repeat, I’m incredibly proud of all that the staff and board has accomplished. Even as we have waded through literal poop.

 

During the Annual Meeting, we also announced two record-breaking gifts to DHV.

In June, we received $165,000 to fund a full-time Early Childhood Educator position that will be shared with our friends and neighbors at Vogel Alcove. This is a direct result of the 3 year IMLS grant we’re just now wrapping up, along with work that I began as educator many years ago. This new staff member started last week, and we are thrilled! It’s the largest gift from an individual donor in years, and she’s someone I’ve been building a relationship with ever since a thank you phone call where she said “Tell me more about Vogel Alcove. I’ve never thought about homeless children before.”

In September, we received $500,000 over 5 years to fund our animal program and restore various animal areas throughout the Village. One of my friends joked: Does this mean the donkeys are going to be expecting Evian water now? This gift was from the Joe and Doris Dealey Foundation and is the largest foundation gift in our history. We’ve been in conversation about this project for years as well.

More big gifts are in the pipeline as well. All that manure is definitely turning into some beautiful fruit!

Me and Lady Mary

A few weeks ago, I joined a friend to see an eagerly anticipated movie–Downton Abbey. It was exactly what I thought it would be–a soapy drama with fabulous clothes and British accents. But there was this one moment that caught me totally off guard, and it had me stifling back sobs and wanting to cheer at the same time. If you run a museum, you may know what scene I’m talking about.

It’s right before the King and Queen’s visit, and Anna is Lady Mary’s room helping her get dressed. Here’s my rough memory of the conversation:

Lady Mary: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth carrying on.”

Anna: “You mean Downton Abbey?”

Lady Mary: “Yes. When I was out in the rain moving chairs. And then planning this party. And worrying about the roof. Is this how I want to spend my life? It’s just all so difficult.”

Anna: “But Downton is the heart of the community. We’d be lost without you.”

Sound familiar, fellow museum people?

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It had been a rough weekend. Earlier in the month, we had made the decision to close one of our signature houses, the Blum House, due to ongoing deferred maintenance issues. It had been at the top of our priority list for years, but our fundraising efforts just weren’t going anywhere. With it’s fancy metal-shingle roof and elaborate gingerbread, the costs were staggering. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we also needed to bring attention to the immense deferred maintenance needs both at DHV, as well as at all city-owned cultural facilities. We believe in transparency, so after the board voted, we sent out the announcement in a very systematic way: first to staff, then the full board and city partners, then e-newsletter subscribers, and then social media. All of those groups responded the way we anticipated–sadness and concern. Except social media. We were getting a beating. Some very vocal folks couldn’t believe the estimate we put out there–$650,000. Some blamed us for not taking care of this city-owned structure, but didn’t really fault the city. Others thought we shouldn’t be asking for help, since their tax dollars already took care of everything. I could go on. It was a very long weekend.

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So it was under that weight that I went to see Downton Abbey. It was a relief to turn off my phone for a few hours and not think about roofs and rotting wood. But then Mary started talking about roofs and the enormous task of keeping a place like Downton functioning, and it came flooding back. Suddenly, I understood Mary in a very different way. Perhaps we’re more alike than I realized, though I have yet to find any sort of wealthy suitor, much less husband.

Of course, throughout all of the online drama about the Blum House, things were happening behind the scenes. There were those that spoke up in our defense. There were two reporters that reached out to us to get the full story. Their articles are here and here. I spent over an hour on the phone with one reporter, and the result was an article with the headline: DHV Executive Director: “Maintenance is not Sexy.” Always fun to see something I’ve been casually saying for years in a headline! A few old friends reached out and asked how they could help. We’re getting to know a few new friends. Meetings and conversations are happening, not just about restoring the Blum House but how to get more support to DHV.

As Lady Mary also knows so well, old buildings are expensive to maintain. They were built and established when ways of funding them were far different. After all, the entire show is about how to adapt the business model in rapidly changing times to keep the estate going. And you can say the same about my museum career.

Yep, Mary, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But in the end, it’s worth it. Most days.

Preparing for the hard stuff

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy at the workplace. No, not THAT kind of intimacy, but rather emotional intimacy. Think about it: these are people that you spend a very large chunk of your life with. But have you ever been emotionally vulnerable in front of your colleagues? Have you ever talked about the bigger, life issues, beyond the day to day work of running a museum?

I first experienced one of those moments of intimacy back in 2012, when a coworker that had been at the museum for 20 years, died of cancer. Though she had been fighting cancer for years, her final decline was very rapid. At her funeral, probably half the crowd had some connection with DHV–whether they were volunteers, board members, donors or fellow coworkers. It was a very traditional Episcopal service, and I remember thinking how strange it felt to be participating in that ceremony with colleagues. We had never really discussed religion beyond the surface level. After all, that’s not something you do at work. And yet, there we were.

Just last month, we made the incredibly difficult decision to put down one of our beloved donkeys, Tuck.

He had retired from active wagon-pulling duties a few years ago due to arthritis, and we had been treating him with medication. But eventually the arthritis got to a point where the medication wasn’t doing much, and he was in a lot of pain. We were lucky enough to be able to plan his last days. We made sure key people knew that it was time to say goodbye and gave them the option of being notified of when the end would come. When that day came, staff gathered around him. He had many, many treats and nose scratches. Some staff left, but some of us stayed until the very end. There were many, many tears–that donkey had quite a hold on our hearts! But we cried together and shared kleenex and hugs. We went to lunch as a group and toasted Tuck–some of us with Moscow Mules (because why not?). As hard as that day was, it really couldn’t have been better.

This weekend, we’ll be sharing a very different type of intimacy. Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project arrives tomorrow. On Friday night, many of us will be spending the night at the Miller Log House, built as a pioneer home but given to Arch and Charlotte, (two of the people William Brown Miller enslaved), once Millermore was complete. After Friday night, we’ll know who snores and talks in their sleep. Everyone will know how weird my hair can look in the morning.

More importantly, we’re going to be having some really tough conversations about slavery, racism today, interpretation and the weight of history. We’re going to be faced with our biases–both those that we have as individuals and those we have as an institution. It will be an emotionally exhausting weekend.

This is the kind of thing that could be an absolute disaster for some teams. But I know we can handle it. We’ve been preparing for this weekend for months. There are the obvious things–diving into the primary sources, making sure all staff knows as much as possible about the 13 enslaved African Americans at Millermore, having tough, honest conversations about all this history–and preparing for the variations in visitor reactions to this history. But there are the little things we’ve been doing too–regular staff meetings for the entire staff. Cooking lunch on property. Making sure there are always cookies at meetings–and making sure our gluten-free staff can enjoy them too. In general, just caring for each other as people, not just colleagues.

It has been an incredibly difficult year for us, with lots of challenges and staff transitions. And yet, we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. I realized how far we had come as we worked through Tuck’s death together. I’m convinced that this weekend will transform DHV on many levels–from how we tell history to how we help each other through the next hard thing, whatever it might be.

Credit where it’s due

This past summer, I was asked to join a City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs task force regarding contextualizing the Confederate symbols scattered around Fair Park. We would also be discussing a memorial to Allan Brooks, victim of Dallas’ most notorious lynching. And then I went into panic mode.

Like any good public historian, I had been following the many conversations regarding Confederate memorials over the past several years. Of course, I closely followed the conversation here in Dallas, though we didn’t take part in that conversation in any official capacity. Mostly, we were just grateful that the memorial erected in City Park in the 1890s had been moved off of park land when Interstate 30 was built. I tried to keep up with how other communities were handling the conversation and taking action. But let’s be honest: that’s a lot of news articles to keep up with. It’s a really big story, as it should be. However, research gives me great comfort, and so with that invitation, I knew I was going to have to pay a lot more attention to what my colleagues were doing in other cities.

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Some postcards of the Confederate Memorial that used to be at City Park, but was moved to Pioneer Cemetery in the early 1960s

Shortly after that call, I got notice of a new publication from AASLHControversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. I ordered it immediately. But I didn’t read it immediately, as suddenly there were a few other things on the front burner for me.

Luckily, the first meeting of the task force wasn’t until mid-December. And I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about that first meeting, especially after an article like this appeared. It’s never good when people start talking about task forces before you even have a first meeting.

One of my goals for the holiday break was to finally read Controversial Monuments and Memorials. I’m so glad this book was waiting for me–I feel almost caught up! In one place are all the big stories of the last few years of how communities are reckoning with their complex past. There’s a concise chapter about the historiography of Confederate memorials. There’s an examination of international approaches as well. It helped me synthesize my own thoughts, both about the task force and some ongoing reinterpretation work we’re doing at DHV regarding our signature house, Millermore. This should be on every public historian’s desk (not shelf, desk, so it’s close at hand). Whether your site has any connections to the Confederacy or not, there’s probably something in your site’s history that has to be examined through new lenses. This book will help you do that.

We have our second meeting tomorrow, and I feel so much more prepared. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the professional literature out there. And usually, it takes a while for books to catch up with current events. But kudos to AASLH and editor David B. Allison for getting this out in such a timely manner. And I’m glad I finally found the time to read it.

Reading this book was also an excellent reminder of how important it is to keep up with professional literature. And so, my new year’s resolution for 2019 is to take one day a month to work at home, focusing on catching up with professional literature and maybe even a bit of writing. Friday was the first day I did this, though I was only moderately successful with the “only reading” part of the day. What’s in your pile of things you’ve been meaning to get to?

It’s not just about us

Somehow, two big projects I’ve been working on for eons landed at City Hall for big votes on the same day. In truth, I found this highly annoying. Seriously, what are the odds? And who wants to spend all morning at City Hall?

Spoiler alert: both projects passed unanimously. And though on the surface, the two projects are very different, their origins are rooted in the exact same question: are there needs in the neighborhood that we can meet through our existing assets?

The story begins in late 2014, several months after I became ED. Some conflicting ideas came up about how to use certain museum spaces, so I gathered key staff together for a series of meetings. We sat down and discussed each and every one of our buildings. The public spaces. The office spaces. The storage spaces. We asked ourselves a series of questions: what is the highest and best use for this building? What needs to happen to get this space to reach its highest and best use use? We saved the most challenging building for last–the Park Avenue House.

Back in 2004, my first office was located in this house. It’s one of two homes on their original locations, facing the historic City Park land. Past master plans had called for that building’s demolition. But the 2006 master plan was sitting on a shelf, and meanwhile, the building was starting to really fall apart. With the rapid gentrification of the Cedars, we knew that original Cedars homes are rare and becoming more rare every day. These two homes tell an important story of what the neighborhood used to be, and there’s no one better to tell that story.

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So, we made the decision that we needed to figure out a way to save that house. But it was going to cost a lot of money. It was currently being used for storage of items that didn’t need super-great environmental conditions–so exhibit cases, stanchions, signs, things like that. Even with my non-expert eyes, I knew renovation would be six figures–and who is going to give us money for storage? With our current staff size, we didn’t need additional office space. So, what is a purpose for that building that might attract funding? Was there an opportunity for us to provide some stability in a neighborhood where all rents were skyrocketing? And could that opportunity also result in some revenue for us?

 

Looking back in the file, my first email about this idea was sent to the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas (they own all DHV buildings) in spring 2015.

Around the same time, we started looking at updating our master plan. The neighborhood was changing–and our former plan, with a visitor’s center facing east, no longer made sense. With major properties being purchased to our west and south, we realized that we couldn’t have a back side. The master plan had to reflect the new reality of the Cedars.

We formed a committee and started exploring options. We have about 26 acres under our control. The core of the museum experience is on about 13 acres. The parcels that were undeveloped currently serve as overflow parking. But with the changing neighborhood, what was the highest and best use of that land? We don’t need more historic buildings to maintain. We only need that land for parking a few times a year. Our biggest need is a Visitors Center–and we just didn’t need all of that land to make that happen. But there was something the neighborhood desperately needed–a public park. The Cedars has no public park. They once had the only park in the city, but now it’s a ticketed museum. So, what if we turned some of our land back to the neighborhood and created a public park?

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We first shared the new master plan with the public at our annual meeting in September 2017. Though there were some questions–what about Candlelight parking? Will we ever be able to take down fences?–the general feeling was (and still is!) excitement. This is something different.

Around the same time, I became aware there was about $800,000 available for a district wide project. Could some of that money be directed to DHV?

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So, I began to put together a proposal for the Park Avenue House. The city wasn’t used to a non-developer asking for TIF funds. They had to create a new application for us. Lots of back and forth. Lots of meetings. We developed a heck of a plan–and a different way of thinking about possibilities for these funds.

Last Thursday, my architect, Craig Melde, and I presented the master plan to the Park Board for approval. It passed unanimously. And then, I headed to the Cedars TIF Board to request $650,000 to renovate the Park Avenue House and turn it into leased office space for other nonprofits. It also passed unanimously.

These projects are far from over. The Master Plan represents the beginning of a capital campaign that will probably be in the $25 million range. To receive the $650,000, we have to raise another $550,000. This money will be used to fix the house next door, take care of pretty things like landscaping and furniture, and establish a maintenance endowment for both buildings.

Though both projects will certainly benefit DHV, the ideas that are being applauded came from us looking not at what we need, but what our community needs. How many museums do you think are asking those kinds of questions? How much more sustainable would museums be if they looked at both internal and external needs before coming up with big ideas?

So, yes, it was annoying that both votes landed on the same day. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhood, and it’s making us a better museum. How many other museums can say the same thing?

Sometimes, the answer is “not great”

Next week should be one of my favorite weeks of the year–the annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History. It’s a time to start growing new ideas, catch up with old friends, and make connections. But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m actually really dreading it.

At a professional conference, what is usually the very first question someone asks you?

“How are things going at work?”

And if I was to be perfectly honest, my answer right now would be “Not great.”

In mid-July, shortly after returning from a wonderful MAP (Museum Assessment Program) review in Montgomery, I got a phone call from the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas. You know, the department where we get 20% of our funding? We hadn’t done well at all at our bi-annual panel review–and our city funding was at risk. Though there are nuances to the scoring, it really boils down to diversity and inclusion issues.

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Millermore, completed in 1862

The next several weeks were full of meetings and tough conversations–with the staff, the board, and the city. As an organization, we have never fully faced the truth: we were founded to save the home (Millermore) of a prominent local slaveholder. And we are in a city that is ranked as one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. You’ve seen the headlines about Confederate Memorials and Botham Jean. Long before the call from the city, we began taking steps to start facing all this. We were exploring options for cultural awareness training. We planned to begin a deep dive for all staff into the primary sources for Millermore so we can tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked there–enslaved and free, men and women, first and second generations, children. And we were already in talks to bring Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to Dallas, in what would be just his second visit to Texas.

But in a situation like this, words and plans don’t really matter. Only actions do. So, I made the decision that we are closing Millermore for reinterpretation while we do this work. We have some that are upset by this decision, but they’re not saying anything directly to me. In the end, I’m actually grateful to the city for giving me this very powerful tool. These are plans and projects I’ve been pushing for a long time and getting resistance at various levels. It’s much harder to argue when inaction could result in the demise of the organization. So, we carry on with these plans and wait for word from the city on how deep the budget cut will be.

At the same time, we’ve been struggling with our fundraiser, History with a Twist. About a year ago, I suggested to board leadership that we not continue this event and outlined a plan to make up that revenue. They decided to carry on–and we invested in a top-notch event planner, found an off-site location (no more weather worries!), and secured a great honorary chair. We moved the event from spring to September. It will be a great party. But sponsorships and ticket sales never really came in, and though we probably won’t lose money, we’re not going to make much either. More money woes.

On the bright side, there was very little discussion at the board meeting about making this the last Twist. And I have a pretty fun dress to wear.

In early August, my Director of Education, who has been with us for 5 years, announced that she was heading to the classroom to teach PreK for Dallas ISD. All of our work with Vogel Alcove and early childhood education made her realize that her passion is with the little ones. It is absolutely the right decision for her, but oh! The timing for DHV!

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Also, in the middle of all this, I had a birthday. I almost cancelled our weekend plans (mini-road trip) so I could be a hermit. So glad I didn’t do that! These friends help a lot.

In the middle of all this, I left for a two week trip to Europe in mid-August and removed the work email app from my phone. It was glorious. With everything going on, maybe the timing of the trip wasn’t the best. On the other hand, with everything going on, I desperately needed the break. I only had a few nightmarish dreams about work while I was away.

The day I got back to the office, my brand new part-time educator (started in July) told me she was taking a full time job at another museum in town. The good news about these education departures–they’re both working part-time for a little while to help with the transition. The bad news: with all of our budget question marks, it’s impossible to finalize a plan for the future of our education department. Not that I’ve had time to think much about it.

So, here we are, ten days from the end of our fiscal year. We have no budget for the next fiscal year. No real idea on how bad the operating deficit will end up being this year. No idea on who will carry on the work of the education department–or how that will be possible. And we have to make sure every step we take is perfectly placed, because all eyes at the city are on us.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some remarkable bright spots. The wonderful thing about a crisis is that there is an opportunity to really see what people are made of. Staff are stepping up. Board members are stepping up. And as always, our neighborhood has our back. And there are other signs. A surprise $25,000 gift from a long time donor who had never given more than a few hundred at a time. The news that one of the premier food and wine events in Dallas is moving to DHV in early November. My appointment to an AAM task force on museum education standards. The Board Engagement Committee (that I’ve been asking about for over a year) has finally formed–and is doing things.

Last Sunday, the sermon at church was about the gap between what you have and what you need–and how sometimes that is absolutely the best thing. That gap can force us to grow. So many parallels for where DHV is right now! I’m taking courage from Andrew’s word as we continue to step into the gap. All of these recent challenges are a powerful reminder of how precarious our financial situation is. Some days, I think we’re in the middle of what will be a remarkable turn-around stories. Other days, I’m not so sure–and feel completely inadequate for the work ahead.

I know I’ll enjoy my time in Kansas City (once I get through Twist and finalize those session powerpoints!). I know it will be refreshing and that I’ll come home with some new tools and idea to face these very big issues.

But I also know that when colleagues ask “How are things going at work?” I’m not going to say my usual “Great!”

I might say “interesting.”

I might say “challenging.”

I might say “not good.”

And I encourage you to be honest also–because we’re not always honest about the challenges we face in this work. Or the emotions. I can now say that I have cried at a staff meeting. I cried at our Annual Meeting. I have cursed a fair amount. And I’m not always sleeping well–I’m finishing up the rough draft of this at 12:30 a.m.

So yes, I’m heading into AASLH absolutely emotionally exhausted. I’m writing this post partly so I don’t have to explain everything quite so many times. I’m happy to talk more about any of this, though I may also say “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And it won’t be because I suddenly no longer believe in transparency. It will be because I am tired.

However, I will gladly accept hugs. Let’s face it: after the year we’ve had, we could probably all use a hug or three.

Babel: Sifting through the noise

Right now, some theater kids in Dallas are doing some of the most amazing historical work I’ve ever seen.  Cry Havoc Theater Company is a young organization, formed in 2014 , full of active and involved young people. I first heard of them when they opened their play, Shots Fired, a play about the July 2016 police shooting in downtown Dallas. What intrigued me wasn’t so much that they were doing a play about recent events–it was that they had interviewed so many people directly connected to those events.

I missed the first run of the show, but a museum colleague and I attended when they brought it back in July 2017. Both of us were incredibly moved, and at the same time, our museum educator brains were working overtime. Here were these kids, taking documentary evidence about a very complex subject, and turning it into a compelling narrative. They were historians! They’re also pretty great actors, and at times, I completely forgot how young they are.

We chatted with Mara, the founder, after the performance. The informal education community in Dallas is pretty tight-knit, so we already knew each other and were able to openly rave about what we had just seen. It was then that she mentioned the origins of their most recent production, Babel. They were going to tackle one of the most contentious issues of our day, gun violence, and they were heading to Sandy Hook, Washington D. C., and the NRA Convention (conveniently held in Dallas last May) to talk to as many people as possible. There has been amazing media coverage through our local NPR affiliate of their journey to create this play.

The idea of documentary or devised theater was new to me, and I remain incredibly intrigued about the possibilities of blending these techniques with museum programs. After all, it’s not totally unlike what we’ve done with some of projects through our own Junior Historian program at DHV. Mara wrote in the program notes for A History of Everything (from January 2018):

Devising theater isn’t for the faint of heart. Each sixty seconds the audience sees onstage in the final performance takes roughly sixty minutes to create. In devised theatre, a lot of really great ideas get worked and reworked only to be discarded hours or days later. The process is tedious and time-consuming. It takes herculean self-discipline and a willingness to leave ego at the door. For this reason, very few adult, professional theatre companies devise theatre. And there are only a handful of youth theatre companies in the United States that solely produce devised works. We are one of them.

I saw Babel about 10 days ago, this time with another museum colleague and her family. It’s a long, sprawling play that hits every nuance in this debate. It was as emotional and gut-wrenching as expected. What I didn’t expect (and should have known better since I’ve worked with a few teens over the years) were the injections of humor and sarcasm and the occasional f-bomb into the show. You can read some more great coverage of the performances, now over, here and here and here.

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Another powerful note–the set was surrounding by shoes–one pair for each death due to gun violence since January. It was over 7,000 pairs.

But why talk about a teen theater company on a blog ostensibly about museums? Besides the obvious of “finding inspiration everywhere” or my usual soapbox of believing that teens are capable of far more than we give them credit for, I believe this is an incredible example of historic relevancy. In this field, we spend a lot of time moaning about how to connect with young people. Or current events. Or whether we should even talk about current events. And at the same time, we often make it out like history is this magical, mysterious thing that only certain people are allowed to create. We, as a field, neglect to show the process of DOING history, and with that neglect, we’ve helped create a world that is incapable of collecting a variety of sources, analyzing them, and forming some sort of narrative to share with others.

But the teens of Cry Havoc show that it can be done, even with incredibly difficult subjects. Did some people walk out during intermission? Yep. On the other hand, did almost everyone in the theater after the two-and-a-half-hour show stay to talk about it some more? Also yes. These kids are on to something, and there are lessons in there for all of us that work to teach the public something.