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.

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Museum Surprises in Houston

As a Dallasite, it is required that I dislike Houston. And after spending three days there recently for the Texas Association of Museums conference, I can’t say that I’ve totally changed my mind. However, there are some wonderful museums there, and much like my experience in Philadelphia, I was genuinely surprised by a few spots.

At museum conferences, you spend your evenings at museums, probably drinking and hopefully eating. (sometimes there aren’t quite enough appetizers to turn into dinner). Often, you just dash through exhibits, if you even take the time to stop catching up with old friends and see something. However, at this conference, at least once a night, I was absolutely delighted by at least one of the exhibits.

At The Health Museum, we decided at the last second to be good museum-goers and take the tour of the DeBakey Cell Lab. I had no idea what I was walking into, but it made my educator heart sing. Hands-on experiment activities for all ages. With all the official “scientist” stuff like lab coats and gloves and goggles. The science and technology on display was amazing. But what really captured my heart was the volunteer. You could instantly tell she loved the museum and the science and you. Someone asked her about her background and she replied “I was a psychiartist, but I always wanted to be a medical doctor. So as soon as I retired, I walked across the street and started volunteering.” The other thing that amazed me about the Health Museum was the diversity of its staff and volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-culturally specific museum with that level of diversity. And yes, Houston is a culturally diverse city, but museums don’t always reflect that. So, kudos.

The next night, the highlight was the Houston Museum of African American Culture. When we walked in, I noticed a banner about a Sandra Bland exhibit, but the date the exhibit closed was weeks before. Never fear! It had been so popular that it was held over through the end of April. It was an incredibly simple exhibit that talked about her life, her arrest, her death and her legacy. They divided a large gallery space into three rooms with black curtains, plus a large overview area. The first room contained a video reel of many of her social media posts. The second was video and audio of her arrest. Each of those rooms contained individual headsets. There was something so intimate about each person sitting with a headset, and yet it was still a collective experience. The final room was set up like her funeral, complete with programs from the service.

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In the large gathering area, there was a video with interviews about the “talk” African Americans have with their children about police interactions, as well as comments on all of the recent police shootings. The whole thing had me on the verge of tears.

But perhaps my favorite part was the exhibit label that asked (paraphrased) “Can museums be involved in social justice?” I think you know my answer.

On the final night, I must admit we skipped most of the museums, but we did go to the final stop–the massive Museum of Fine Arts Houston. We walked through their giant galleries, feeling completely overwhelmed. Our brains and our feet were tired. But we decided that we should at least take a glance at whatever was across the street. And that’s where we found our final surprise–an incredible exhibit of Indian art and culture: Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.  The art and material culture were absolutely stunning–such rich colors. And I found myself desperately wanting to read (again, often rare in a jaded museum professional under the best of circumstances) but with no real energy or time to truly explore the exhibit. At the same time, the whole thing felt totally new and I realized how little I know about Indian culture. Though a fairly traditional art exhibit, it still felt very new and different.

Houston will always be Houston. But it’s got some great museums.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science was delightful, but I wasn’t surprised that the dinosaurs delighted me. But I was VERY surprised that I had straight hair in Houston.

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.

Dramatic Inspiration: Innovative theater and museums

A few days ago, I saw a play that made me think a lot about museums. And though the story was incredibly powerful, I kept thinking about how they told it–and the implications for museums that are still wrestling with curatorial authority.

I’ve had season tickets to the Dallas Theater Center since 2014–it was one of my treats to myself when I became Executive Director. Over the years, my mom and I have seen some incredible shows. Several months ago, I got a letter in the mail about their upcoming performance of Electra. Since they were performing the entire show, would we mind switching our usual matinee time to an evening performance? From that moment forward, I was very intrigued.

Electra, that ancient Greek tragedy, is currently being performed outside in the Dallas Arts District. The audience is given headphones, and follows the actors from scene to scene–4 locations in all. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. The city noises of sirens and the highway added to the overall effect. At times, the actors were right in front of us. At other times, they were yards away. There were no assigned spots or seats, we were just there, together, experiencing something magical.

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When we moved from Scene 1 to Scene 2, I got really emotional as we stepped through the curtain. What was next? I have never felt that sense of anticipation during a play before. Each time we moved, there was this sense of urgency. Somehow, we had become a part of the action. We, the audience, had become deeply involved with the play, the actors, and the story.

In the playbook, director Kevin Moriarty writes about the decision to take it outside:

This not only connects back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style. . . It also locates the performance as a public event–you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.

But I can’t turn off my ED brain. What were the logistics of moving the audience multiple times? How many times have audience members gotten left behind? What was the board meeting like when this idea was first mentioned? What kind of sound technology made all this possible? How are more traditional theater goers responding?

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Amidst all the questions, there are some answers. From the moment we picked up our headset, I knew that the DTC trusted us, the audience, to come along with them for the ride. How often do we place such radical trust in our audiences? The DTC took one of the oldest plays in existence and made it feel completely fresh and current and new. All of the “radical” ideas in this production served and amplified the story. Nothing felt like a gimmick. They didn’t make these choices “because we can” but because it made for a better theatrical experience.

The last scene was at a reflecting pool. We had each been handed LED candles and stood around the pool, the lights of downtown and our candles mingling. And then, each actor went up to an audience member and gently took off their headphones, signaling the rest of the audience to do the same. The lapping of water, voices singing, and the end to an incredible night of theater. I left feeling inspired and grateful and amazed. Theaters are the king of “sit there and I’ll tell you a story” entertainment. Museums often do the same. But if a theater can involve their audience, make them feel a part of the story, while still maintaining control of the story, what can we as museums do? Perhaps the issue isn’t always curatorial authority, but rather figuring out how to take your visitors along for the ride.

A Letter to My Nieces

To Savannah and Landri:

Every year, you get books from me for Christmas. I try to pick things that you’ll like and with strong female characters. I know you don’t read quite as obsessively as your grandmother, mother and I do, but I’ve always hoped that with the right book, the balance will tip. I also know that history probably isn’t your favorite subject.

But this year felt different. Maybe it’s because you’re teenagers. But more likely, it’s because of this horrible election season. It is always hard to be a feminist, to believe in equal rights for women. But it’s been so much harder this year, with Hillary’s campaign and ultimate defeat. The world feels uncertain and scary, and you’ll be coming of age under a president who has no respect for women. What impact will that have on your future? On your self-esteem? On how you approach your career and your relationships with others?

I flipped through Dead Feminists at a bookstore several weeks ago. I liked the looks of it. I liked that I didn’t know every single name listed in the table of contents. I thought about it long and hard, read this review, and then I bought it. Of course, I also did that thing I so often do—I read the book before I wrapped it.

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Girls, I know I can’t make you read this book, but I’m really hoping you do.  Make your mom read it too. Talk about it as a family.  Each feminist is chosen with such care—and each woman’s story connects to current events. The articles are brief and the art is stunning. I hope this book will serve as a gateway for you to explore more about women’s history.

But what I loved most of all is the obvious passion the authors/artists have for social equality and justice. We all need some inspiration right now, and I hope this might be a spark for both of you. There is so much to life (even life in junior high and high school) beyond drill team and dance and boys. Volunteer. Get involved in an extra curricular activity where your mind matters most. Don’t be afraid to be smart. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. The feminists in this book had extraordinary courage, but it didn’t magically happen when they were grown ups. It started when they were young—and it’s time for you to start too.

Merry Christmas—and here’s to a 2017 where more women find their strength. And if you ever need to add to your list of feminists to admire, just let me know. I’ve got loads more books I could send you.

 To Lucy and Schafer:

Little ones, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Hopefully, your memories of this period in history will be vague. But I have a feeling I’ll be stockpiling copies of this book for when you’re older.  Your moms and I will do everything in our power to raise you to be strong, feminist women, just like us.

Teamwork for the Exhibit Win

Last month, I headed to Detroit for the American Association for State and Local History‘s annual meeting. It’s always an inspiring few days, but sometimes that inspiration comes from rather surprising places.

As a general rule, I don’t love art museums. As someone who doesn’t know much about art, I want to learn about art when I visit an art museum. But so many art museums stick with a very basic label formula–artist, title, medium, date. I’m always left wanting to know more. Maybe I should just stand there and let the art wash over me, but that’s just not how my brain works.

But I knew I wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Art. They’ve been through hell and back, and if nothing else, I wanted to support them. Plus, I do enjoy Diego Rivera.

Jenn and I were completely blown away. It is a massive institution. The collection is incredible. But even more amazing–I learned about art!

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Loved how casual this was.

Everywhere we turned, there was an interesting tidbit on a label. An invitation to look more closely, ask questions, all those things that I want to do in a museum. There were simple, low tech interactives. Decorative arts were mixed with fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in an art museum.

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One of my favorite exhibit rooms–the entire gallery was about portraits, and this label invites you to compare the two dominant styles of the period and decide which you would prefer for your own portrait.

And then we wandered into the Great Hall. And the Diego Rivera murals. It was breathtaking. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a truly “fancy” museum–I think I would be less likely to get away with jeans.

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No way to really capture the scale. I think what I loved the most was the contrast between the murals and the architecture of the building.

It also is worth mentioning that every staff member we encountered was absolutely delightful. Security guards asked us great questions and shared their favorite piece in a gallery. Volunteers seamlessly directed us through galleries, pointing out certain pieces and sharing great stories. We had so many great conversations about art during our visit–which is exactly what is supposed to happen at a museum! From the labels to these interactions, it’s clear that the DIA is working to make their enormous institution more personal and more accessible for all.

One of my former staff members now works at the DIA, and we met for lunch. I started raving to her about how wonderful our experience had been and she explained that every single label in that museum is written by a team–a curator and an member of the interpretation staff.  Just by the nature of the positions, there’s also usually some sort of generational divide as well. So, all those labels had been discussed and fought over by multiple people.  That push and pull between curatorial and education garners some pretty powerful results.

At a small institution, it’s a lot easier to work on teams. If you need another set of eyes, you have to go outside of your department–because you’re a department of one! That’s such a harder thing to do at a large institution.  If nothing else, it inspired me to make sure we continued to work on exhibits as a team at DHV. If the DIA can do it, we can do it too!