Museum Surprises in Philadelphia

Sometimes, being a museum professional ruins museums. We develop our inner checklist, the things that we judge others on. It may have nothing to do with anything a “regular” visitor cares about, but it causes us to think differently and move differently through an exhibit. I’ve warned family and friends not to visit a museum with me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain museums that disappointed me. But the fun comes in when I’m truly delighted and surprised by a museum experience. That’s when I gush.

Last month, I visited Philadelphia for the very first time. The official reason was a conference, but I stayed a few extra days so I could see what’s required of every history nerd. So yes, we visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the new Museum of the American Revolution. And I really enjoyed those visits (the George Washington tent experience at MOAR is worth all the fuss). But that’s not what I keep thinking about.

Instead, I keep thinking about the Ben Franklin Museum. My colleague and tour guide, Jenn, used to work within steps of this spot, but she had never been.

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The “Ghost Houses” on the foundation of Franklin’s house are also pretty nifty. And have held up surprisingly well as an exhibit for the last 40+ years. (erected for the Bicentennial.)

We learned later that they had taken content from the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and re-purposed them. We didn’t care. Unlike anywhere else we visited in Philadelphia, there was this wit and sense of humor in the exhibits. Between the two of us, I think we actually watched every video and did every interactive.

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Might have watched this one twice. It was hysterical. And I just love this style of animation for history projects.

Do you realize how rare that is for two mid-career museum professionals? It takes a lot to delight us. It was stylized and engaging and used primary sources in an amazing way.

I loved the use of their mascot, a squirrel named Skuggs, dressed differently for each exhibit section.

If there had been Skuggs stuff in the gift shop, I would have bought one for every staff member. (they had squirrels, but no great outfits.) We noticed visitors of all ages equally engaged in the exhibit. They hit all the right notes and truly got the whole “Let’s appeal to the entire family” concept throughout the entire museum. Those of you who know me well know that one of my soapboxes is the museums that put their “kid-friendly” exhibit areas off in one corner, rather than integrating throughout the experience. Adults often need that level of engagement too!

Another unexpected delight was an exhibit at the Union League, a fabulous historic building just a few blocks from our hotel.

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Only took a picture of the outside of the building. But fabulous!

Jenn knew it was a great building, but it’s members only. Except for this lower floor exhibit area a few hours a week. So, we acted like we couldn’t read signs and at least made it into the main lobby. And then headed downstairs to the Heritage Center, where non-members are welcome, to check out “Risk and Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia.” It was a small exhibit, but truly spanned the entire breadth of Philadelphia history. It was diverse, went right up the present day, and borrowed from collections throughout the city. Again, we read most of it, talked about it, and did all the things a great exhibit should do. We even admired some of the casework! (As a curator, Jenn does this sort of thing all the time. It’s rarer for me!) It was also the first stop during my visit and such a great introduction to the city’s rich history.

And then there was the Betsy Ross House. Again, an example of us thinking “well, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re close and I bet we can squeeze this in.” And it was a delight. They openly talked about the myth of Betsy and how it developed.

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Some of the many ways Betsy’s name has been used.

They integrated exhibits well into a historic house (something we’re struggling with right now at DHV). There was a wonderful re-enactor, which is so often done poorly. They reminded us of the risk she was taking by making the flag, something I had never really thought about.

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Of course she couldn’t sew the flag in the main house–she was rebelling. But I certainly had never thought about that detail before.

And they spoke about all of the other people that made the house and business work.

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Love these labels and these stories.

We learned so much! They shattered all kinds of myths, but did it in exactly the right way. Plus, they had one of the best gift shops, and I totally bought an unnecessary souvenir for one of my nieces.

So even though I’m often a grumpy museum goer, perhaps my delight at these sort of surprises makes up for it? Our expectations weren’t super high for either place. National Park sites or tiny history organizations that are buried under a giant umbrella organization aren’t generally know for great, innovative exhibits. And yet. . .

This is why I always make it a point to visit a few spots slightly off the beaten tourist path when I visit a new place. You just never know what sort of surprises you might encounter–and how you might be inspired as a museum professional. Or just as a regular person.

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Variations on a Theme: African American History at 3 Museums

About 30 minutes into the tour, my parents started giving me the side eye. That look that says “Why on earth did you think this would be a good idea?” and “How much longer must we suffer?” I avoided their gaze. I wasn’t too thrilled either.

We were at the Whitney Plantation, just outside of New Orleans. It was the last day of our trip, and the Whitney had been on my list of “must-dos” I had read the articles about how the Whitney was putting the story of the enslaved front and center. I had read the articles about how the Whitney was becoming a leader in the history museum field as we struggle to share and interpret the history of slavery. As a director and a historian, I felt like I really needed to check this all out.

In a way, it was fitting that I visited the Whitney this year. In February, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. In some ways, it wasn’t a great museum experience. After all, it was wall to wall people! I got hit twice in the ankles by a wheelchair. It was hard to see everything just because of the crowds. But I couldn’t be upset. After all, it was clear that the people I was surrounded by were reading, learning, connecting—and probably hadn’t spent a lot of time in museums. The narrative put the African American experience at the center. It wasn’t just about slavery and oppression, but identity and stretching boundaries. There was a huge range of artifacts, and the curators didn’t shy away from anything.

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A slave cabin in the center of a gallery. One of my DHV coworkers helped dissemble it before it was moved to DC.

For me, the most moving moment was as I was waiting in line to see Emmett Till’s casket. There’s a small room in front of the room containing the casket, where news footage of the funeral is played. Standing in that anteroom were two women, who I presumed to be mother and daughter. They were leaning on each other, watching the video, softly crying. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the museum.

In May, I flew into Memphis for a work trip and headed straight to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had first visited back in 1997 as part of a college orientation trip. That was long before the new building and the inclusion of the boarding house where the shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr were fired. I don’t have many firm memories of that visit, but I remember liking it.

I know they just went through a massive reinterpretation, but I’m not sure exactly what all was new. Again, they did a fabulous job of putting the African American experience front and center. They also had some powerful artifacts, including a bombed out bus that moved me to tears.

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Powerful artifacts, mixed with lots and lots of individual voices from those that were active in the Movement.

So, heading to the Whitney felt like a natural next stop on this year’s tour of African American history museums. And there were aspects of it that were very good. But I have difficulty recommending it.

Perhaps I should start with what I liked? The tour did start out well. The first stop was an African American church, built after Emancipation, and moved to the Whitney Plantation a few years ago. Inside, were a collection of statues of children, representing the hundreds of children born into slavery at the Whitney. There was a nice introductory video and a discussion of the WPA slave narratives. The docent discussed how those narratives captured the voices of slaves, but is almost exclusively memories of a childhood in slavery.

We proceeded next to a memorial, listing all of the known names of the people brought to the Whitney during the slave trade years. And this is where the tour began to fall apart. We spent over 20 minutes at one side of the monument. And then he said “now let’s go to the other side of the monument.” Another 20 minutes talking about all of the known names of people born into slavery on the plantation. Then 20 minutes at the next memorial. Ten at the next. And then we finally got to see another building.

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The entire tour was 2 hours—and about half of it was spent at the memorials. These memorials are important, but do we really need to spend that much time at them? Especially in the New Orleans heat? On the day we were there, we had intermittent rain. They provided umbrellas, but the docent also made no moves to hurry the tour along or make any adjustments due to the weather. In the heat, this would be almost unbearable. Definitely not something to inspire a good visitor experience that would allow minds to be opened for learning.

And then there was the tour guide himself. He was passionate. He certainly knew his history. But he was also incredibly repetitive. He did a good job of pointing out that slavery is as much an economic system as a racist system, but he said it over and over and over again. An hour into a tour, I think everyone more than understood.

But the thing that bothered me the most is that even as they gave names to the enslaved, they didn’t give them much else. There were no stories of life on the plantation. No stories of how those that were enslaved struggled to live their lives within such harsh boundaries—how they made families and traditions in spite of their enslavement. There was no mention of any personal agency.  All of the complexities surrounding slavery were obscured by an overwhelming agenda.

As we all know, tour guides can make or break a museum visit. I don’t know if a different tour guide would have been less repetitive. However, he was certainly working within parameters set by the institution. The memorials are important, but a quick explanation of them and then allowing people to return after the tour would be far more effective. No guided tour, especially outside, and especially with few spots to sit, should be much more than an hour. Attention spans waver. Feet get tired. With my mom’s knee issues, she can’t stand for too long in one place—and there was a lot of standing in one place. It was an incredibly disappointing and frustrating experience.

For those that do want to explore the complex relationships on a plantation between enslaved and slaveowner, I would highly recommend the Laura Plantation. It was our first tourist stop when we arrived in New Orleans, chosen because it had been managed by four generations of women. They did an amazing job of describing slave life and pointing out all the complexities. They gave us time to pause and reflect, but also kept us moving. Our tour guide had passion, but never let that passion overtake the pace of the tour. All three of us (parents and myself) loved the tour, felt like we learned something, and were challenged by some of that information.

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Laura Plantation
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One of the several extant slave cabins at the Laura Plantation. As was true at many plantations in southern Louisiana, these cabins were lived in through the 1970s by workers. Most of whom were descendants of those that were enslaved on the same land.

African American history is a complex subject that has long been ignored by major museums. There is some stellar interpretation out there, but we have to continue to question it just like we do any other interpretation. In this age where nuance and complexity are getting bulldozed by loud voices shouting, I commend those organizations that are holding fast to telling the complete, messy history of our past.

On this historic election day. . .

The polls don’t close for another several hours, but I’ve already been teary several times today. We still have a long way to go before we get anywhere near gender equality, and yet, this day still means so much to me as a feminist and a historian.

Today is a profound response to:

  • The guy who walked into my apartment during a party, spotted my “votes for women” banner and started spouting off on those crazy feminists and how they are ruining the country. I looked him straight in the eye and said “Yes, you’re in the home of a feminist liberal and you’re drinking my booze. You can either shut up and stay or walk out the door.” He stayed. We didn’t become friends.
  • The guy at the bar who was trying to pick me up. Don’t remember how the conversation shifted, but suddenly we’re talking politics or work or something. And then he said “Don’t tell me you’re a F%&*ing feminazi.” He didn’t understand why I started yelling at him. Also, he didn’t get my number.
  • My grandfather, who didn’t understand why I was “wasting” my time studying women’s history. Of course, he may have been more upset about the African-American portion of that work.
  • The many men at various meetings that end up with this look of amazement and surprise when it becomes clear that I do know what I’m talking about and they can’t  pull one over on me.
  • Those that questioned whether I could handle the ED job–because I’m a woman. And how can a woman lead? Especially in Dallas?
  • My former colleagues at the now defunct Women’s Museum, who wished the timeline was a little less negative–and chose to shy away from the more difficult topics surrounding women’s history.

Today, I’m wearing white and purple, for the women that came before me, fought this fight, and made my current life possible.

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I’m thinking about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul–as well as the countless others who fought beside them. I’m thinking of the tears I shed when I was in Seneca Falls, standing in the ruins of the building that started this movement in 1848.

And now I’m going to attempt to get back to work, as Hillary would, because there is still so much to do. But first, I might sneak a peek of the livestream of Susan B. Anthony’s grave–and cry just a little more, before the big tears come tonight.

New England Travels

Generally speaking, August in Texas is a terrible, terrible thing. So I planned a trip to escape to New England and catch up with a few friends, visit a few museums, and drink a few beers. Ironically, the temps in New England were about the same as they were in Texas, but it will still a delightful trip.  In a lot of ways, this was a trip made possible by SHA–stayed with SHA friend Aimee, toured a SHA lecturer’s museum, and hung out with a second SHA friend Carrie. Here are a few museum related highlights:

I’ve been following the good work done by Stawbery Banke for years. In a lot of ways, we have more in common with them than any other museum–located in an urban environment, no huge endowment to shore up finances, lots of buildings to interpret and care for. It was wonderful to tour with Larry Yerdon, their director.  He spent most of the day with us, on crutches, no less! My favorite exhibit element is the house they left completely unrestored–layers of wallpaper, exposed lathe, holes, etc.

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Tuck traveled with me, of course.

It was remarkable to see some of the entrepreneurial elements they’ve put into the museum–an independent museum store (providing a second entrance to the museum!), residential and business rentals on second floors, etc. Everyone we encountered was absolutely lovely, and I don’t think that was just because we were walking around with their boss.  Highly recommended if you’re in the area.  There’s also a great brewery, Portsmouth Brewery, not too far away!

I was staying in Quincy, so it seemed logical to visit the homes of the Adams family. I’m no colonial historian, but when in Boston, it’s required to dip your toes into the Revolution. Peace Field, the Adams’ last home, was delightful–it’s rare to see a house that shows generations of ownership. And then there was the library! The tour guides did an excellent job of telling the story of the family, not just the Presidents. And I admit it–I had a bit of a “historical moment” (upswelling of emotion, often resulting in a tear, at the weight of history in a physical place) standing outside the room where John Adams died on July 4, 1826, thinking of his friend and enemy, Thomas Jefferson.

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The Library at Peace field is swoon-worthy.

I will admit I wasn’t as impressed by the JFK Library. After a stint as an intern at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza back in the dark ages and solid friendships with many staff members, I’ve learned a fair amount about Kennedy. The introduction film was excellent, the beginning of the exhibit pretty good, and then I started asking myself some pretty key questions. Where is Jackie? Where are the kids? And there were minor exhibit annoyances too–too many Kennedy voices around me, saying different things. An unclear exhibit flow. And then, we got to the assassination. It was just a hallway, painted black. On one side, silver letters that said “November 22, 1963” on the other side, a series of small screens, playing the footage of Walter Cronkite announcing his death and some shots of the funeral. That was it. No context. No explanation. Just an exit into a bright, cheerful gallery about his legacy. I was sputtering in shock.

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The building is very impressive, even if I didn’t love the exhibits.

Now I get why the family doesn’t like to talk about this tragedy. Aimee said “Well, everyone knows the story.” But I really don’t think they do. The Sixth Floor Museum is constantly struggling with how to keep the story relevant, now that most people don’t have memories of that day in Dallas. It could be simply done–just a few paragraphs about why he was in Dallas and the immediate aftermath. The Library also misses a chance to create a “historical moment.” Where’s the emotion? Where’s the mourning?  It can be done tastefully and well–perhaps follow the example of the Bush Library and their treatment of 9/11. But I feel that the visitor deserves to know more about that crucial turning point in American history.

On Saturday, I was solo and decided to do a hop-on/hop-off trolley. At the last second, I decided to hop off at the USS Constitution spot. As a rule, I’m not a fan of military history, but I remembered that they had won some major grants and awards to research family learning. And they deserved every award! It was a busy Saturday, and people of all ages were enjoying the exhibits, playing with the interactives, and talking with staff. Love, love, love!

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I’ve walked goats in my career, but I’ve never hauled one on to a ship. Such a fun touch!

On Sunday, we visited the Governor Lippitt House Museum, run by fellow SHA Alum, Carrie. Such a beautiful home! And such a great family story! I will admit that I am a bit envious of her only having one house to worry about. We wrapped up our adventures with a trip to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) that had a special Todd Oldham exhibit. Some truly wonderful pieces, but the layout of the museum was one of the most confusing I’ve ever encountered.  Three museum pros couldn’t figure it out!

It was a museum-filled trip, and I think some don’t quite believe it was a vacation. And yet, I still came back to Dallas, relaxed and energized. Good museums and good friends will do that for you.

Milestones: The Consequences of a Successful Junior Historian Program

On this rainy Friday before a holiday weekend, I’m wrapping up one of my favorite annual tasks: creating a photo collage of our graduating Junior Historians.  For many years, figuring out a way to honor graduating Seniors wasn’t an issue, because the kids never stuck around that long.  But now, it’s an absolutely wonderful problem to have.  All graduates get a brick on our walkway with their name and the years they were part of the program.  Most also get a photo collage of their time at DHV.

I’ve written many times before about our revitalized Junior Historian program, including this article for AASLH’s History News.  But this spring, there have been a few moments when I’ve realized anew what the long term impact this program can have on both the kids, my museum and me.  And also what it means to stay at a museum for 10+ years and watch these kids grow up.  These moments are the kind that make me choke up a little and realize how much museums matter to our world.

A few highlights:

  • A former JH attended our big fundraiser, History with a Twist, with her mom (now a board member).  Kaitlin is now old enough to legally enjoy the cocktails, which blows my mind.  And she’s about to start med school.
  • I made a surprise visit to a JH during her freshman year of college.  Grace will be spending her summer working as a History Host and getting paid.  Plus, she’ll be doing some development work as an unpaid intern.

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    Grace and me at Amy’s Ice Cream in Austin. I delivered some treats from her folks and her dad bought us ice cream.
  • I got a Save the Date card for a JH wedding this fall, which will be held at DHV.
  • And then there’s Isabel, our senior.  I first met her 10 years ago when she was a camp kid at my beloved (but long defunct) Pages from the Past camp.  And now she’s all grown up!
  • A kid who was a regular at Barnyard Buddies (preschool story time) will soon be an official Junior Historian.
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At a memorial service for a coworker. Christian is now a Marine, Evelyn is engaged (set to marry at DHV this fall), and Isabel is about to graduate.

We don’t always have the data to prove our impact and relevance, but all of this certainly gives me a pretty confident gut feeling that our institution has had a profound impact on these kids’ lives.  Someone did have the data to do some work on this, and I’m so grateful they shared that study with the world.  After all, it helps prove that my gut isn’t always wrong.

When I became Executive Director, I couldn’t leave these kids behind. Obviously, I’m no longer as involved, but I still work on the fun stuff with them, including this video.

 

This year, I’ll be out of town for most of JH camp. It makes me a little sad, but I also know that Mandy is fully capable of teaching these kids as well as I did–and caring for them as much as I do.  In a sign of the continued evolution of our neighborhood: for the first time ever, we have a neighborhood kid joining us.  We finally have neighbors with kids that want to hang out at a history museum!

Community involvement isn’t just about being involved with your neighborhood; it’s also about creating a community through your museum.  We have some great examples of this at DHV, but the Junior Historian program will always be my favorite.

 

 

End of an Era?

Like all snarky liberals, I stayed up late on Thursday night to watch the end of an era–Jon Stewart’s last episode of The Daily Show.  I’m sad that he’s leaving for many reasons, and Trevor Noah has some awfully big shoes to fill.  I know that it won’t be the same, but I sincerely hope that Noah likes historians half as much as Stewart.  As one of my friends said on facebook “What I love about Jon Stewart is that he is as (or more) excited about his historians as guests as his entertainment friends.”

During his final stretch, historians continued to be featured.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough and Sarah Vowell all made appearances.  Of course, it might make sense that a snarky historian like Vowell would be a regular on The Daily Show.  And McCullough and Goodwin are some of the most widely read historians today.  These aren’t exactly obscure folks Stewart is interviewing.  But let’s face it–shouldn’t we ecstatic any time a historian sits in the same chair as a Hollywood celebrity?  I can’t think of another popular medium where historians and their books are regularly featured, honored, and promoted.  This is public history at its finest.

But if you dig deeper into Comedy Central’s schedule, you’ll find there’s a greater love of history there than well, maybe some other network that calls itself the History Channel.  I never really got into Drunk History, but they’re doing a heck of a job of skewering both well known stories and those that are hiding in the shadows. I hate that I love Another Period, but it cracks me up on a routine basis.  It pokes at so many different angles of the early 20th century–and there are plenty of jokes that will fly right over non-history nerd’s heads, which is awesome.  How often do history nerds get the “insider” jokes?

None of these things are “serious history” but I’ve long believed that part of our problem as historians is that we often take ourselves too seriously.  History is the story of humanity, and people can be awfully funny.

I know The Daily Show will change with Trevor Noah as host (and honestly, it should feel different).  But I sincerely hope that I’ll continue to delight in interviews with some of my favorite historians–and they’ll get exposure to a broader audience.  And maybe one day, there will be more than one place in this world where historians are treated the same as Hollywood celebrities.