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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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.

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.