In Dana's Footsteps

Change is afoot! After receiving my MA in June and then spending the summer at The Munson Institute (an amazing, in-depth NEH Fellowship at Mystic Seaport - more about this later!) I have been spending time exploring my next professional steps. Many of you helped me brainstorm, research and make new contacts, and I thank you for all of those ideas. The potential paths led in many alluring directions, both thematically and geographically. But there was one that seemed the most adventurous and promising at this particular moment in history and in my career. I'm thrilled to say that come December 1st, I'll be joining the Newark Museum in December as Director of Interpretation and Program Evaluation.

Museum and library geeks will recognize the name of the NM's founder - one of our common heroes and the patron saint of relevant institutions, librarian and museum thinker John Cotton Dana. Dana's words on the role of museums in society resonate loudly with our conversations today, and the Newark Museum honors his legacy and seeks to live it out in action. In his 1913 manifesto The Gloom of the Museum, Dana advocated for museums that were central to their cities, easily accessible by working people and neighbors. He believed collections should hold not only fine art devoted to the "peculiar sanctity of oil on canvas," but applied arts, design, historical, and everyday objects as well. "Surely," he said, "the function of a public art museum is the making of life more joyful, interesting, and wholesome, and surely it can not well exercise that function unless it relates itself quite closely to the life it should be influencing." I couldn't agree more. 

John Cotton Dana. Image: WikiSource.

John Cotton Dana. Image: WikiSource.

From my first conversations with the staff, I was impressed with the Newark Museum's commitment to this vision. Energetic and forward-thinking, at once historically significant and urgently contemporary, it takes its community position seriously. It's the largest museum in the state of New Jersey, and its most culturally diverse. A historic industrial and commercial center known in the first half of the 20th century for money and might, and in the latter half for economic troubles, historic uprisings, and community cultural and political leadership models that have captured national attention. Though Newark maintains a strong core community, it is growing and changing fast, as the New York City Metro Area continues to expand westward. New members of the Newark community include the HQ of audiobook company Audible and Rutgers University-Newark I have a lot to learn about this important, complicated and fascinating city. I'm looking forward to getting to know it (perhaps starting with a Have You Met Newark? Tour). 

The museum itself is a powerhouse. Its interdisciplinary collection is the 12th largest in the U.S, strong in American painting, Native American art, natural science, and history. The Tibetan collection is one of the richest in the world, centering on an altar consecrated by the Dalai Llama. I snapped the Instagram below on a visit a few years ago, never imagining my professional path might one day lead me back. 

There's an impressive historic mansion, the Ballantine House - and you can bet I'm salivating at the interpretive opportunities it presents for food and beverage interpretation. There's a MakerSpace that interactively connects art, design, and science - and even a planetarium. What a candy box!

As I arrive, the museum will be working on gallery reinstallations and on re-opening the historic front entrance on a busy city street, building a new team and establishing partnerships with community institutions - so I'll be jumping right in. I fully expect that the NM will present me with lots of thought-provoking experiences as we experiment with effective, important museum practice and develop new models for gallery experience, object-based learning and community connection. I'm really looking forward to joining my colleagues on a walk along the path from where Dana left off. Stay tuned for more!  

The historic front entrance of the Newark Museum, soon to be reopened. Image Source; NJ Business Magazine

 

 

Chicken Soup for the History Soul: Talking Food at AASLH

Almost all professional conferences are pretty good. But some of them are great. Every so often, the inexplicable chemistry of site, partners, program, and people produces an especially juicy experience. For me, last week's American Association of State and Local History meeting in Detroit was one of those. It was truly a restorative, like a hearty chicken soup for the weary museum soul.

My meeting kicked off in the very first session slot with a collaborative presentation: "Don't Get Chopped! Cutting Through the Obstacles to Great Food Interpretation." My three colleagues and I decided to bring a fun and pragmatic spirit to this how-to discussion about introducing or expanding food interpretation. We started with a challenge in the style of the Food Network competitive cooking show Chopped, bringing up three "champion" interpreters to give a taste of their strategies for avoiding the "chopping block" of unsuccessful programming. Each drew a "secret ingredient" from the basket, symbolizing an interpretive challenge. 

Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, interpretation supervisor at Mystic Seaport, started off. Her secret ingredient - a piece piece of way-more-than-day-old bread - stood for the challenge of refreshing stale interpretation (see what we did there?). Rachel described how food stories can unite disparate exhibits, and her fresh ideas for  'pop-up' approaches, like using social media on  to invite people into preservation projects on the spur of the moment, as soon as fruits are ripe. Rachel also noted the power of retitling and rebranding classic cooking programs to lend a contemporary flair, and how to structure daily cooking around clear goals and criteria, such as requiring interpreters to demonstrate at least two different cooking technologies. 

Next up was Cathy Stanton, public historian, anthropologist and co-author (with yours truly) of the forthcoming History and the Food Movement: The Missing Ingredient (Routledge 2017). Cathy's challenge was "plain vanilla" interpretation - the same-old, same-old methods we tend to keep trotting out, 30 or 40 years in. How to spice things up? Among her creative ideas were "change of venue," taking a cue from food trucks and pop-up restaurants to move museum content into alternative spaces, and taking a "small plates" approach of putting out simple, quick, inviting interactives that open up spaces for broader conversation. 

Finally, Tanya Brock drew the beef jerky - one tough snack, representing the tough food safety regulations most communities have in place. Tanya encouraged museums to reach out to local health organizations, partnering to develop food presentations they can approve. Somewhat surprisingly, Tanya has found that many health departments are willing to create flexible plans such as allowing historic cooking in special events that happen a few times a year, or supplementing historic equipment with as-close-as-possible hygiene practices, like substituting rental sinks and sanitizers for the three-bay sink commercial kitchens have. Tanya told the group about ServSafe certification, available through the National Restaurant Association in class or online. This quick, affordable training class for food handlers can boost health departments' confidence in (and respect for) the professionalism of museum food interpreters, showing that you take safety seriously. 

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Food topics continued to dominate my AASLH experience. In sessions, tours, and casual conversations, I learned about more food programs and ideas worthy of note:

  • Genesee Country Village and Museum has really gone whole hog, extensively integrating food interpretation across its program. Several houses feature cooking daily, and period-style 'street vendors' offer dill pickles, German pretzels, and baked potatoes. There's a working confectionery exhibit, and visitors can join in regular tavern dinners and teas. Nicely produced audio mp3s include "Alcohol vs. Water" as an early American beverage, and "The Wheat in Wheatland."
  • Andrea Jones described the creative breaking of boundaries during a Girl Scout program on food waste, "Waste Not Want Not," at the Accokeek Foundation. One event featured colonial apple-butter making, while in another setting, an actor dressed as a trash can was chasing bruised vegetables to make the point that even imperfect-looking food can still be good. The trash can suddenly "went rogue" and showed up in the apple butter demo, spurring the colonial actor to feign puzzlement about why anyone would waste good food, while the kids did their best to explain why we think it's okay to throw food out.
  • David Donath from the Billings Farm & Museum proudly descried the museum's new partnership with Vermont's Grafton Village Cheese Company to make two artisanal cheeses from raw milk produced by Billings' prizewinning Jersey cows. Their Sweet Cheddar and Butter Cheddar is now available at select local stores and at the museum, allowing guests to take home an edible souvenir connected directly to the farm's history and local dairying traditions. 
  • Dearborn's Arab-American National Museum is serious about food. On an afternoon visit there I picked up a brochure and map for "Yalla Eat!" culinary walking tours of the museum's neighborhood, featuring tastings of coffee, pastries, nuts and more. The museum's exhibits on Arab-American food culture were charming, warm, well-thought-out and really inviting. I stared into that fridge for a long time, wanting to help myself.

All this and some great meals - including the bright and creative flavors of Republic Tavern's small plates and the Southern-inspired cuisine at the cool Savannah Blue (where the risotto is "cheddar-engaged") - made the Motor City meeting an especially satisfying smorgasbord. Thanks to AASLH and all the participants for a really rich and rewarding event.

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Ground Truthing

Trivia question: If you leave Detroit and travel in a straight line due south, what is the first foreign country you will enter? 

This is one of those reliable stumpers that I confess I got wrong the first time. The answer isn't Mexico - it's Canada (Ontario, to be precise). I had a chance to prove it to myself this morning as I arrived in Motor City for the annual conference of the American Association of State and Local History - one of my favorite professional gatherings. 

Since I usually get in the day before sessions begin, I've developed a little routine for 'ground-truthing' (to borrow a term from cartography) in conference cities. Once I've found the hotel and dropped my bags, I like to take off on a walkabout to understand the lay of the land and learn what I can about the city's culture, identity and history. Though I devour tourist brochures and websites before most trips, it's not until I walk the streets that I really feel I understand it. Traveling by foot is the best way to let a city tell you its story. 

I started on the Riverfront, where a handsome promenade follows the river and offers views of that tricky Windsor, Ontario on the other side. Near Hart Plaza I encountered the Underground Railroad monument.

Michigan, like most of the present-day U.S., has a history of slavery, but it entered the union in 1837 as a free state. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, even free states were no longer safe havens for those escaping from slavery. With Canada in view across the water, Detroit became a major hub for people fleeing re-enslavement. This is actually a two-piece monument; across the river, a second sculpture by the same artist imagines another chapter in the story of escape.

I hung a left here and continued down Woodward Avenue, the heart of the business district, yesterday and today. As an architecture geek, I always enjoy trying to read history in the design. Detroit's downtown offers a little bit everything - nineteenth-century commercial, Beaux Arts, Romanesque, Gothic, Art Deco and a bunch of shiny new banks. Great Easter Eggs of architectural detail reward the alert hunter.

At Campus Martius Park - so named because it was once a military drilling ground - I found a smorgasbord of pop-up urbanism. A temporary sandy "beach" with lounge chairs and foosball tables sat under the imposing Civil War Soliders and Sailors Monument. A food truck alley led to a covered tent with tables and chairs. Like school kids on recess, people escaping their corporate-tower offices lined up for tacos, pizzas, and steak sandwiches.  Around the park's fountain, hundreds of people in green t-shirts were milling about some tents. It turned out to be "Donate Life in the D," a fair promoting organ donation. For a topic so serious, it was pretty lively.

Putting on my museum programmer hat for a moment, I stood back to look at how they were engaging the public. Donors and recipients wore special badges, and a forest of lollipop stands featured the individual stories of recipients. Various agencies and health care organizations hosted tables of giveaways. People posed in a giant cutout picture frame, with the option to choose from various caption paddles saying things like "I'm a donor!" or "I got my sight from a donor!" Or "I'm here today thanks to a donor!" or "Recycle yourself!" Music played, a stage hosted rotating performers and speakers, and the atmosphere was upbeat. I felt good about checking that box on my driver's license.

I strolled down along Woodward Avenue, reading a series of historical plaques placed every block or so. The avenue was the birthplace of Kresge's (now K-Mart) and the Hudson's department store chain. Rehabbed historic hotels - many now under the management of global chains - and the greatest concentration of theaters outside NYC's Broadway line the street. To the right, I caught a glimpse into the stands of Comerica Park, nicely situated right downtown and a big upgrade from the old Tiger Stadium, home of the Bleacher Creatures.

Upon reaching Grand Circus Park, I was about ready to turn around, but noticed a big monument up ahead - a sculpture of a seated man, facing away from me. Who was it - some industrialist? Politician? Abolitionist? I decided to walk around and read the plaque to see who this Detroit muckety-muck. When I saw the name, I laughed out loud - it was Hazen S. Pingree, probably not a household name to most, but famous to me: as I described in Interpreting Food, Pingree was in many ways the father of today's urban community gardening. His "Pingree's Potato Patches" were  a (somewhat controversial) plan to address inequality by allowing poor people grow food on the city's vacant lots. Headlined "Idol of the People," the plaque's message had a very 2016 kind of ring: "He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform." Perhaps fittingly, in recent history, the Pingree statue towered over the tents of Occupy Detroit.

This ground-truthing walk served to introduce a number of themes I'm looking forward to exploring over the next three days at AASLH 2016: public space and urbanism, civic issues and questions of justice, and (as always) food. Tomorrow, I'll be moderating the session "Don't Get Chopped! Cutting Through the Obstacles to Great Food Interpretation" with Tanya Brock, Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, and Cathy Stanton. Other sessions on my list include "Reaching Out: Contested History and Community Engagement," "Power and Responsibility: The Civic Mission of Museums," and "Breaking the Mold: Reimagining Traditional Museums and Programs." My morning ramble today revealed the ongoing, forward-looking life of a city whose past is one of the assets being used to build a healthy civic future. In that spirit, AASLH has put together a dynamic and relevant program that shows how vital history remains in the questions we face today. I'm glad to be a part of this association. 

 

Collecting Ourselves

This first post marks a milestone. In May 2016, I received my Master's degree in Museum Studies, an accomplishment that took several years to achieve. When I was invited to speak on behalf of my graduating class, I felt I owed it to all of us to tie our museum-based learning to a wider recognition of commencement. This speech is what resulted. 

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Greetings, fellow graduates, esteemed faculty, honored guests. Today, I'd like to take you on a tour. Don't worry; it's completely virtual. You can stay comfortably seated.

I'd like to take you to explore the collections of Harvard's museums. Harvard University has almost two dozen museums, spanning art, culture, history, and the sciences. It shouldn't be too surprising that the oldest university in the country would boast such extensive collections. In their earliest forms, universities were museums, and vice versa. Scholars studied ancient texts, natural specimens, and artificial curiosities to generate new knowledge.

Musei Wormiani Historia, or Ole Worm's Museum, 1655. A Danish physician and professor of classics, physics and medicine, Worm assembled this collection to inform his work in natural philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. 

Musei Wormiani Historia, or Ole Worm's Museum, 1655. A Danish physician and professor of classics, physics and medicine, Worm assembled this collection to inform his work in natural philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. 

Today, we become part of the grand tradition of university-as-museum. Harvard has collected us together to celebrate this occasion. And we, in turn, are also collections, each of us our own museum housing utterly unique holdings of knowledge, feeling, and experience - collections we began building at birth, and will add to throughout life. We are always collecting ourselves.

If we think of life histories as collections then we face a set of decisions (as any museum does): what kinds of things belong in our collections? Only the most hallowed treasures? Or a more representative sample of the stuff our lives are made of? 

Let's use our virtual tour as inspiration, taking a look behind the scenes at the Harvard Museums of Natural History and Comparitive Zoology. First, we'll pass through an unassuming side door and step down to a cool, dim basement. Take a minute to let your eyes adjust to the dim light. If you detect a smell, that's just the spirits of alcohol in thousands of specimen jars, many of them containing preserved animals that continue to serve science as the holotype, the type specimen that is the single source of truth for defining the members of a species.

Holotype of a longhorn beetle species, Saperda moesta, from the type collection of the Harvard Museum of Comparitive Zoology. 

Holotype of a longhorn beetle species, Saperda moesta, from the type collection of the Harvard Museum of Comparitive Zoology. 

Next, let's go upstairs, where whale bones and bird skins rest in row after row of tall, graceful wooden cabinets designed by natural historian Louis Agassiz, who founded this museum in 1859.

Specimen cabinets designed by Louis Agassiz at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

Specimen cabinets designed by Louis Agassiz at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

A member of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums investigates Agassiz specimen drawers at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Image source at link.

A member of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums investigates Agassiz specimen drawers at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Image source at link.

The diversity of these collections shows that the act of collecting demands a willingness to see everything as potentially valuable. The project of creating a comprehensive catalogue of the world - naming and numbering its every thing and being - is complex, and it presents serious dilemmas. Museums love to show celebrated treasures. But they also hold objects with painful histories. We remember Louis Agassiz as the museum's founder and collector of more than 35,000 plant and animal specimens. Agassiz was so respected for his drive to understand nature that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem for his 50th birthday:  

"And Nature, the old nurse, took

The child upon her knee,

Saying: "Here is a story-book

Thy Father has written for thee." 

"Come, wander with me," she said,

"Into regions yet untrod,

And read what is still unread

In the manuscripts of God."

We remember that Agassiz.

But we also remember him, less reverently, as an early theorizer of eugenics. Acting on the theory that human races had separate origins, he attempted to generate evidence by hiring a photographer to force enslaved people to pose for daguerreotypes, so that he could sort them into types - a notion which, today, we find abhorrent, and recognize as deeply unscientific. 

This is the difficult part of maintaining a collection, the part that demands serious commitment  - acknowledging that some objects are linked to mistaken understandings, inexcusable actions, and bitter legacies.

Harvard's museums still hold those daguerreotypes. Why preserve such a thing? At their most careful, museums acquire objects with the expectation that they will keep them in perpetuity, acting on the assumption that we can't know what insights they may yield in the future. Today, historians and anthropologists study the Agassiz photos to piece together clues about the identities and communities of the enslaved subjects, finding meaning where once there was only misery.

Drawers containing materials from Agassiz' collecting exhibitions. In her report, archivist Gwendolyn Henry reflected on the changing interpretations of objects, writing  "when I took on the project, I did not think of the subject areas of cultural anthropology, Native aesthetics, colonization, sociology or ecoloy as research uses in addition to scientific exploration and zoological specimens. I think of the descendants of the indigenous people in these images and their possibility to have more access to their elders that are long gone." 

Drawers containing materials from Agassiz' collecting exhibitions. In her report, archivist Gwendolyn Henry reflected on the changing interpretations of objects, writing  "when I took on the project, I did not think of the subject areas of cultural anthropology, Native aesthetics, colonization, sociology or ecoloy as research uses in addition to scientific exploration and zoological specimens. I think of the descendants of the indigenous people in these images and their possibility to have more access to their elders that are long gone." 

Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has said “every object has a story; most objects have multiple stories.” We collect objects knowing in advance that we can’t possibly imagine all of the stories they may contain.

So it is with our own collections of experience. As we celebrate this Commencement, take a moment to imagine walking through the storage rooms in the museum of your own life. No doubt, some of the things on the shelves are sublime, and some somber; some proud, and some painful. Today, as graduates, we add several new acquisitions to these collections. They include tokens of achievement of which we are justifiable very proud: A diploma. The letter giving notice of acceptance into the degree program. Posters, PowerPoint presentations, and papers...endless papers. A mortarboard...and a gown rental receipt from the Coop. These signature objects are our Mona Lisas, our Lincoln's hats, our Sue the T. Rexes. We're thrilled to put them on display.

Gowns, fans, mortarboards and other tokens of achievement. 2016 Museum Studies Master's graduates with program director Kathy Jones. Photo by Kathy Jones.

Gowns, fans, mortarboards and other tokens of achievement. 2016 Museum Studies Master's graduates with program director Kathy Jones. Photo by Kathy Jones.

And, as in real-world museums, there are also relics of struggle. Piles of dishes and laundry, testifying to a constantly rearranging schedule. Parking tickets and commuter rail receipts tracking our travels home after the 7:40-9:40 class. Disappointing grades that came now and then, giving the honest, if unwelcome, feedback we needed to improve. Invitations declined. Mistakes, missed deadlines, and postponed projects.

These are wide-ranging collections. Just as museum collections illustrate humanity's unfolding understanding of the world, these objects tell of our journey to this moment - both successes and sacrifices. We will care for this achievement of commencement, with all its joys and challenges, in perpetuity. We won't jettison any of them, because we know that one day they will yield up meanings we can't predict now. In Longfellow's words, we will take all of them with us "into regions yet untrod, and read what is still unread."

Congratulations, Class of 2016!