The use of personal narratives
has been promoted as a panacea for the disconnect between exhibiting
institutions and audiences. As the
Oral History Society’s Michelle Crow-Duffy wrote in the Local History
Notebook (Vol. 11, No.3, May/June 1995): “…People feel connected to
history when it is told in the context of a personal history or story.
Augmenting an exhibit with oral history also brings supplementary viewpoints to
each visitors’ experience… By presenting more learning options in an
exhibit, curators and designers improve the educational success rate of an
exhibit as a whole…”
The use of existing oral tradition and personal documents, such as diaries and inventories, was promoted by alternative and revisionist history in the late 1960s on. Most work in women’s history, ethnic and culturally-specific history and labor history now follows that documentation model. Adding to the interest in personal narratives by professionals in public history, folklore and museums, has been the new emphasis placed by curriculum planners on primary documentation. Concurrently, teachers involved in multi-cultural education placed emphasis on personal narrative as a way of helping students understand that their histories and those of “others” had equal importance. (ERIC bibliography)
The award of a Smithsonian Fellowship in Museum Practice in 2000 allowed me to observe the use of personal narratives in action at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and to survey the literature at the invaluable Smithsonian Library’s Museum Reference Center. Throughout my extended Fellowship program, I looked at Smithsonian Institution and outside exhibitions, and their collateral publications and web sites through the filter of my research topic. This report focuses on the exhibits on culturally diverse, primarily African American, subjects.
Personal narratives in museums and related interpretive projects can be roughly divided into two groups. The first uses technology to bring the focus or authority of an exhibit closer to the gallery audience. The purpose is to explicate an artifact or work of art. This group is derived from the artist-in-the-gallery tradition and has been varied to include the narratal statements of curators, culture bearers and community elders, as well as art makers. Examples come primarily from art, culturally-specific art museums, and large history museums.
The second group consists of projects that develop concurrently with the collecting of personal narratives. The impetus here is due to an increased interest in public history and genealogy. Most projects are launched with a sense of immediacy, expressed in a “fear of losing another generation’s accounts of life.” (site description, www. Seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/elders.html) The value given to “ordinary people and everyday life” can be further divided for folklife, anthropology, and history museums’ purposes into ordinary observers and ordinary practitioners.
went into the Fellowship thinking that the organizational key would be based on
the collection methods of oral history interviews and folklore fieldwork.
But I soon realized that material gathered through both methods could be
used together. The observation,
discussions and research performed during the Fellowship years then focused on
four models of integrating personal narratives into exhibits and similar
· The folklore model uses and trains fieldworkers to document extant communities and individual culture bearers and then presents the process and results to the general public. This method is most often used in folklore, anthropology and performance studies based projects, which can combine public programs or performance with display.
· The public history model locates or elicits personal narratives to add personal content and emotional context to historical projects. It is associated with history and culturally- and community- specific institutions.
· The selector model elicits personal narratives from artists, culture bearers or audience members as part of the process of developing artifact exhibits, as part of a process in which those individuals curate the exhibits.
· The caption model elicits short personal narratives from artists and subjects, pairing them with images. This model comes from catalogues and publications, but is often used in traveling and panel exhibits.
Eliciting personal narratives: The
Festival 2000: Observations
My two year, intermittent work with the Center for
Folklife and Cultural Heritage allowed me to have separated experiences of
observing how the Folklife Festival develops and uses personal narratives.
by chance, the New York City focus of the Festival was scheduled for 2001, it
was agreed that I should observe use first, at the 2000 Festival, and then,
during 2000-2001, observe the ways that the Festival is developed with
narratives. This reversal of normal procedure may have impacted on my
understanding of the experience.
My objective observations of how personal narratives
were used occurred at the 2000
Folklife Festival, which was held July 23 - 27 and June 30 - July 4, 2000 in
Washington, D.C. It had three areas
of focus -- El Río, Tibetan Culture Beyond the Land of Snows and Washington,
DC: It's Our Home. I had many
meetings with Folklife staff, including the focus curators and educators. I also attended 3 of the Festival progress meetings (at
monthly intervals) from Winter to just before construction began on the Mall.
The curators took the time for substantive conversations with me about
their goals for their areas, although at that point, they seemed consumed by
livestock and other logistical issues. Richard
Kennedy wanted the Tibet participants to focus on cultural survival and to
detail the establishment of institutions to strengthen the traditional cultures. The preliminary months were filled with logistical
difficulties in assembling the participants and translators, as well as worries
about an appearance by the Dalai Lama.
Olivia Cadaval and Cynthia Vidaurri talked
about the concerns of their geographic area
(the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo border), how they (and their fieldworkers) had
identified topics and participants, and their expectations that participants and
presenters would make the concerns clear to the pedestrian visitors.
These concerns were "culture and environment, culture and identity,
sustainable development and the intersections of tradition, knowledge and land
management." Cadaval had
expanded on these themes in the Spring issue of
TalkStory (Spring 2000, no. 17, p.3): "First, how does
traditional knowledge developed over generations contribute to managing land and
water resources? Second, in what
ways is a community's cultural identity nurtured by its environment?
And third, how do local knowledge and cultural practices contribute to
sustainable development by providing the basis for successful economic
enterprises?" The focus area
had developed a core group of community-based researchers in the past years,
spurred on by a preview presentation at the 1999 Festival.
The Winter meeting with John W.
Franklin about the D.C. area focused on the themes being investigated by the
local field workers – social justice, occupations, faith communities, and
community gardens. We also
discussed leading questions of the type used by the fieldworkers working with
recent and past African immigrants, among them, “What did you expect when you
came to D.C.?” and “What did you find?” as well as more specific questions
about choice of community and schools.
My March and April conversations with Franklin
focused more on the spatial assignment of subject matter.
He gave examples of the decision-making process from past festivals,
notably the Bahamas focus that had been videotaped, leading to a wide-ranging
conversation about audience orientation.
When I did the directed observation in the DC area at the Festival,
during the Teachers’ Seminar, I recognized that the spaces in which the
practitioners faced an audience tended to be more performative and the prepared
narrative statement was given whole. In
outside spaces and tents without seating, the narrative statements are
integrated into conversations. Other
conversations covered his plans to decentralized activities around the City, to
spaces on and off the Mall.
The DC project, developed in collaboration with the
D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities, focused on neighborhoods and
communities, social justice, and occupations.
Events and performances were spread out through the City.
Franklin explained the differences between the two primary sites for
personal narratives -- the front porch narrative stage, and the oral history
tent, which was a joint project with the Washington Historical Society (WHS).
The WHS volunteers in the oral history tent would elicit memories (he
used the phrase "share experiences and expectations") from
audience/passers-by, as part of its “Growing Up in Washington” project. The plan, in the Spring conversations, was to include
enlarged time lines and photographs of neighborhoods.
The participants on the narrative stage would present
their own stories and memories to the audience, while focusing on the themes.
In order to emphasize the separate traditions of sacred and secular
music, the DC area included tents for gospel and a "café" stage,
designed for blues and jazz. The latter also offered a space to teen poets in
slam events, presenting their own personal narratives in hip-hop rhyme.
My time in residence at the 2000 Festival was divided
among 4 days as a participant in the Teachers' Workshop, 2 days as a volunteer
audio logger, and time as a visitor -- all roles allowing opportunities for
observation of the participants. During
these experiences, I was struck by the adherence of the participants and their
presenters to the primary areas of curatorial concern.
Water and water rights were mentioned within the first few sentences by
all Río participants, whether talking about brick making, horse cultures, food
or popular music. In Tibetan
Culture: Beyond the Land of Snows, participants prefaced almost every answer
with "before the Exile," or "since the Exile."
Even the youngest Tibetan participants seemed consumed with a degree of
nostalgia usually associated with elderly émigrés.
I could only spend parts of days in the Washington,
D.C. area, and was attached to the café and front porch as an audio logger, but
I did check the oral history tent at regular 20-minute intervals. At least on
those days, it was not attracting visitors, so I could not observe the memory
eliciting process. The gathering
places for most DC-based visitors seemed to be the always-crowded basketball
court and the high school reunions in the music tent.
Unfortunately, the oral history tent was not on a direct route to either.
The design of the tent may also have worked against it.
The interviewers were at a table, set back from the tent sides, so their
warm, welcoming smiles could not be seen by the passers-by.
During both Festivals, I served as a volunteer
audio and video logger, since those jobs complemented my role as observer. Every
presentation on the performance and talk stages are taped, with detailed logs
created to notate the participants, presenters and themes of each event.
In this way, the narratives presented at the Festival can be preserved,
for research and possible comparison to the formative narratives.
All are catalogued and housed in the Center’s archive, as part of the
documentation collection, established in 1967.
As part of my residency, I attended the Teachers Institute during the
2000 Festival. It was led by Betty
Belanus and Marjorie Hunt, staff educator/curators who at that point shared a
flex time job. The Institute was
attended by grades three through ten classroom teachers from D.C., Virginia and
Maryland schools, as well as three observers from Bermuda (a 2001 focus).
It included instruction in folklore methodology, observation at the
Festival, and the development of folklore-based projects for the appropriate
grade level. Belanus and Hunt
had provided me with most of the excellent reading matter and oral history
guides during our earlier conversations, which include readings and instruction
manuals from history, oral history, and folklore.
I was especially taken with the suggestions for observation that were
distributed, and have used them for formative critiques of my developing
exhibitions. For the narrative
stage, the guide suggests: “If you catch an introduction or reintroduction of
the participants, what information does the presenter give to the audience?…
How do the participants interact? What type of information can be provided in
this setting that cannot be presented elsewhere?” (Festival Observations)
Other guided observation methods were derived from models of classroom
and museum educations, among them info-searches, 5 Sense searches (what color is
adobe, what shape are chaps, etc.), and Venn diagrams.
Festival 2001: Process
During the preparation time for the 2000 Festival, I had many
conversations with Nancy Groce, an enthnomusicologist who had proposed, and
would curate, the NYC focus in 2001. She
had begun the planning and fund-raising process and was already compiling
suggestions on content and documenters. Soon
after the close of the 2000 Festival, she called the first NYC group meeting.
There were three intersecting groups of
New Yorkers who would develop the content and participant list.
Working directly under Groce were area curators, assigned to music,
fashion, foodways, media, Wall Street and neighborhoods; and researchers,
working in smaller slices of those fields and New York City industries and
special themes. There was also a
group of programmers, who put together the performances, and an advisory
committee of representatives from NYC institutions.
There was a great deal of overlapping, by, for example, Steve Zeitlin of
City Lore, and of participants in past projects.
Eventually, members of all of these groups served as documenters and
presenters at the 2001 Festival.
The first mass meetings (held at the National Museum of the American
Indian's Gustav Heye Center in New York City) consisted of presentations by
Festival staff and discussions of content.
There was agreement on many “it absolutely has to have…” comments
and excitement when anyone announced a particularly good example of retained
traditions, whether food, music, or trade.
The general approach was occupational folklore, although the group seemed
to be fairly evenly mixed from the disciplines of folklore, anthropology,
ethnomusicology and performance studies, reflecting the different strengths of
Groce made a preliminary list of focuses for research from those meetings. Some fieldworker/researchers were sent forth to investigate living examples of these focuses and to document their searches with photographs and audiotape. Others looked at NYC industries with the aim of locating practitioners who could demonstrate and discuss what they did. Group meetings were also held for teams of researchers in specific fields. My assignments were in the backstage crafts of performance; the team included a then associate curator in theater at MCNY, the archivist of the Actors Studio, and the head of a Broadway educational project. Groce’s job required her to balance the enthusiasms of the fieldworkers/researchers, the needs of the general interest audience and the physical realities of daytime on the Mall, aiming at her theme “local culture in the global city.” This was difficult since researchers in folklife, anthropology, ethnomusicology and performance studies tend to be highly enthusiastic and sure that their visions of what makes New York New York are universal.
Researchers often documented many more practitioners
than would eventually appear at the Festival.
In some cases, the subjects could not commit 2 weeks of their summer
schedules; one of my subjects (with whom I had done a past exhibit) agreed to
the oral history but considered herself too shy to participate in the Festival
presentations. Researchers also
documented people for information and background.
The winnowing down process added to the amount of documentation that was
An e-mail listserve was
established for Groce and the researchers to broadcast questions, needs and
discoveries. A typical
communication from the field, sent by Henry Sapoznik, requested everybody’s
favorite community radio stations. The Center staff also used the listserve to
request ideas and artifacts, such as the late May call for non-English language
newspapers for the neighborhood newsstands.
In the hours, days and months following the destruction of the World
Trade Center, the Working Group refocused its collective energy on documentation
of the responses. The 2001 SI
Folklife Festival Working Group chose to stay alive as a listserve, now serving
announcements of concerts, conferences, projects and, always, questions.
Since events at NYPL prohibited
me from committing to a two week residency at the Festival, I did not serve as a
presenter (whose assignments were introducing participants, facilitating
conversations and aiding with on-site organization). While this was frustrating for me and the costume shop
demonstrators, it resulted in my serving in observer roles again.
With this study in mind, I was
an audio logger for the storytellers and street game demonstrators.
At that time, there were three storytellers in rotation – one spoke of
childhood in NYC, one related to the needle trade/fashion area, the third
focused on neighborhoods with a story of the political fight to organize a
celebration of a victorious Revolutionary War battle in Brooklyn.
I also observed, but did not log, the street game mavens demonstrating
stickball and stoop games, while telling neighborhood-specific stories. Performance artist Annie Lanzilotto served as
presenter/introducer for the adjacent areas.
Her own work, presented as storytelling on other days, had focused on her
work at the Arthur Avenue Italian street market. The area was located next to the NYC version of the oral
history tent, Mapping Memories, so that its huge maps could be used to locate
neighborhoods and prolong conversations. A
history of that program can be found below in the Eliciting Memories section.
The NYC oral history tent was placed perpendicular to the road and had
much better pedestrian traffic than the DC version.
Lanzilotto and the “King of all Stickball” were both excellent
barkers, so people were attracted to the area and the oral history tent.
I also worked as a video logger for the performance stages. For these gigs, organized primarily by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, performers did lecture-demonstrations of their national/regional genres with additional comments on how and when they (or their families or mentors) emigrated to NY.
One of the benefits of sponsorship & support to a
community [is] “Preserving
Cultural Heritage [which includes] stimulation of research and
documentation…enhanced self-representation capability…", according to a
promotional pamphlet for Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Culture of, by, and
for the People, 1993. It should
be noted that the experiences of the NYC focus were not typical, since few of
the geographical focuses of the Festival come with such large, pre-existing
communities of trained folklorists. For
that reason, the Center has established train-the-trainers programs that help
local participants to serve as researchers.
To cite the current website description: “Community scholars are
generally local documenters, presenters, and conservators of culture
repositories of knowledge and insight who are not formally trained in cultural
studies… [they] come to Washington as institute fellows to discuss their work,
meet with public officials, increase skills, examine and critique institutional
activities, and become familiar with larger networks of people and
organizations. Fellows return more knowledgeable of the support potentially
available to them and their work.” (www.folklife.di.edu/CFCH/education.htm)
In addition, planners and educators from a future focus are invited to
observe a Festival and participate in the Teachers’ Seminar.
The assembling of the Festival from fieldworkers to
realization is made as transparent as possible to visitors.
There is a large published program for each Festival, which includes
introductory essays as well as daily programs and lists of participants,
presenters, advisors and fieldworkers. These
essays present the themes for each focus and descriptions of the documentation
process. Illustrating the NYC essay, for example, is a photograph of a
fieldworker interviewing Dr. Wang Yu Cheng about herbal medicine in his office.
(Festival 2001, p. 48)
The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
enlarges its audience for the fieldwork and documentation by issuing books,
educational kits and recordings for many focus areas. The published versions of New York City at the Smithsonian
are still in production, so I looked at projects based on past Center for
Folklife projects. A typical multi-use was recommended by exhibition
curator/project director Marjorie Hunt, who was, with Betty Belanus, an
instructor in the 2000 Teachers Seminar and my facilitator throughout the Center
residencies. Workers at the White House
is a 24-page catalogue developed with an exhibition (not extant) and video for
the 1992 Festival in cooperation with the White House Historical Association and
the National Archives in celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the
White House, 1792-1992. The
project used occupational folklife methodologies to emphasize the community of
workers, rather than treating the employees as witnesses to political history.
The primary theme is pride of employment and cooperation; secondary
themes are institutional identity and, for elderly workers, work during the era
of segregation. The catalogue uses
paragraphs of personal narrative in two ways.
Hunt’s essay, Making the White House Work, is prose interlaced
with sentence-to-paragraph length quotations.
The photo essay (duplicating the exhibit in what is a caption format) by
Roland Freeman presents a paragraph-length quotation with each portrait of the
elderly retirees, photographed with tools, portraits, scrapbooks, or on site at
the White House.
Borders and Identity,
a focus of the 1993 Festival, was transformed into a set of educational
materials, comprising a teachers guide, videotapes and a poster-size culture
bi-lingual map. It was originally
recommended to me by Olivia Cadaval for its section on expressive traditions
(the anthropologist term for performing arts), which focused on corridos
and street theater. It deals
with the U.S.-Mexico border communities, specifically, and the concept of
borders, in general. The kit also
helps teachers introduce students to “ethnographic investigatory methods
(close observation and documentation of living persons) used by folklorists and
anthropologists to explore living culture.”
The first section, provided free on line as a sampler for teachers,
recommends classroom projects that mimic community scholar programs, resulting
in photo essays with quotations from interviews.
The culture map includes a mini version of such a photo essay, presenting
paragraph quotations about four examples of border traditions (La Virgen de
Guadalupe, Murals, Language and recycling).
The speakers are identified only by location.
The Black Mosaic project of the Anacostia
Museum is generally praised as a major ongoing documented examplar of the
community fieldworker project. From
its onset in 1991, it examined cultural and ethnic diversity within the
communities of “the African diaspora in Washington, DC” by training
community members to act as oral historians and folklorists.
The first set of questions was presented at the Black Mosaic Advisory
meeting, October 31, 1991: “What happens when communities with very different
ideas about race and color become part of US society?” and “What impact does
class and gender tensions have on community life here?” (Memos in Museum
Reference Center files) The program
expanded its scope in Spring 1992, adding focuses on artifacts and oral
traditions: “Strategy: what reminds you of home or your new life here…Use
this opportunity to introduce collecting of everyday life as well as
preservation of objects and photographs. Create
an awareness of storytelling and oral history traditions as a form of cultural
preservation.” (Outline for Identifying, Collecting and Preserving Your
Treasures: Connections between Church, Community and Family Collecting in Black
Mosaic notebook, Museum Reference Center)
The Anacostia still uses this model for specific projects, such as Speak
to My Heart on religious institutions and the Black DC community, and DC
EnPointe, on ballet schools in the segregated era.
There is now also an inter-generational documentation project directed at
adolescents and the elderly, managed by the Education Department (Presentation
by Robert Hall, AAM 2000).
The model for
inter-generational community-based documentation has spread widely. This is partially through the insistence of the public
history, revisionist historiography and museology movements, and partially
because the technology for documentation has now become seamlessly integrated
into contemporary life. Of
the thousands of examples that could be cited, I offer two – each predicated
by the fear that the history bearing elders of a community will die before their
stories are recorded. The high tech
one is the presentation on The Mississippi Project: An Interactive Genealogical
Initiative on the Mississippi to Chicago migration, offered at MUSÉE Expo by
the Manager of Information Technology of the DuSable Museum of African American
History, as part of its computer literacy project, designed to reduce the
digital divide. (conference
preliminary program, MUSÉE Expo 2000)
The decidedly low-tech example
is a flyer from a local museum in the small seaport and oystering capital of
Whistable, Kent, UK: “Telling
Whitstable’s Story! Wanted: Some
Help! Do you have an interest in Whitstable? Do you live in the
town or nearby? Do you like people, particularly the elderly? If so, would you
consider joining a small group of people collecting stories of what it was like
to live in Whitestable in the 20th century – including school days,
work and play, and Whitstable at war?
No formal qualifications needed.
You will be supplied with a tape recorder and some training in how to use
it and plenty of support.
THIS VALUABLE WORK IS NOT DIFFICULT AND REQUIRES
MAINLY A FRIENDLY MANNER AND AN INTERREST IN YOUR TOWN AS IT HAS BEEN IN THE
PAST. PLEASE DO HELP IF YOU
CAN…for an informal chat, ring…” (Whitstable Museum Gallery, Kent).
During my first week’s residency, at a time when most of the
Folklife staff was at conferences, I surveyed the museums on the Mall for
exhibitions and installations that had personal narratives as a development or
presentational element. I
focused on the 1997 exhibit, Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion, which
remained on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of Asian
Art, through all but the final visit. I
did a detailed structural analysis and observed visitors on three occasions. I also analyzed the Educators’ Guide, in its published and
on-line versions. Although the
developers were no longer at the Sackler, I was able to speak to the staff
organizer, Sarah Ridley (by then at the NEH) about the development process.
I was also able to see a different exhibit on a similar theme by the same
guest curator, Stephen Huyler.
Most exhibits of Hindu religious art focus on the aesthetic aspects of the specific displayed pieces or serve as iconographic textbooks, showing the audience how to identify the individual deities. Puja was unusual for an Asian art exhibit because it focuses on devotional practices, inviting the audience to use an anthropological gaze. I was very surprised when Ridley told me that the impetus behind the exhibit had been the acquisition of a private collection of artifacts.
The theme of Puja is defined in the orientation area as “showing reverence to a god or to aspects of the divine through invocation, prayers, songs and rituals.” The exhibit’s structure (partially mandated by the small galleries) comprised three sections – personal devotion, devotions in the home, and worship in a group at outdoor shrines, with niche shrines built into transition areas. Included in the first section were themes of avatar and the selection of a deity. Iconographic guides to identifying individual deities were integrated into the second section, which used both priceless artifacts and contemporary posters. Sections one and two used the gaze of practitioners of Hinduism in the United States. Section three put group worship of female deities into geographical contexts of Bastar and Orissa.
The public history and
selector models of presenting personal narrative were in use here, although the
exhibit balanced art and anthropological curatorial methodologies.
The exhibition video included personal narratives on the selection of
deities and demonstrations of puja at a home shrine.
The filming of the household shrine, in Bethesda, Maryland, was
especially effective, showing the activity of puja, rather than simply quoting
the practitioner, Uma Nagarajam. Most
Hindu exhibits (including others at the Sackler) detail the narratives and
visual aspects of the deities, with institutional authority teaching that
“Ganesha has an elephant head because…” The video segment gave the
audience access to Nagarajam’s authority by slowing the audience down to her
meditatively slow paced movements.
The video segments on how an
individual selects a deity for personal devotion used short personal narratives
by local adolescents and adults. They
reminded me of similar statements of personal Santereia devotion that can
often be found in Caribbean music documentaries, but were made more “normal”
by the suburban American voices.
In Fall 2001, I went to the
American Museum of Natural History to see the new show Meeting God: Elements
of Hindu Devotion, planning to compare it to the Sackler exhibit.
I was surprised to see that it was also curated by Huyler and delighted
to recognize Nagrajam’s puja on the videotape.
Huyler’s curatorial statement focused much more on India, and shifted
emphasis from the activity of personal devotion to “the essential moment of
worship known as darsham, literally translated as ‘meeting God’.”
In the AMNH exhibit, in a larger space, the focus seemed now to favor group
worship and included more photographs of Indian community shrines, as well as a
Queens, NY, street festival. Added
to the exhibit at AMNH were recognitions of New York’s own huge Indian (Hindu,
Jain and Sihk) and Indo-Caribbean populations through an accompanying exhibit of
color photographs by Steve McCurry and an extensive schedule of public programs.
Many of the SI interpretive exhibitions that I viewed
over the 2000-2001 seasons engender large-scale personal narrative projects for
the development stage, but, in installation, limit use of personal narratives to
the media area. This is a pragmatic
solution to possible acoustic and visitor flow problems.
But it tends to isolate individual sections within the interpretive
construct, and lets visitors think that some things happened to actual humans,
and other to photographs and artifacts. Sometimes, the restriction can be
integrated into the logical progression of the exhibit.
The audio clips of oral histories in the highly praised Field to
Factory: Afro-American Migration can be heard on the train, as if they
represented unspoken thoughts of the travelers north.
At other times, the placement does not seem to spring
from the script. Many members of the Center for Folklife staff suggested that I
look at African Voices, that season’s major re-installation of the
National Museum of Natural History. It
included personal narratives and extensive biographical material for a specific
artist (and his family) in the separated Wealth in Africa gallery.
It briefly introduces vendors in the Market Crossroads section, but gives
them no biographical detail. Gallery
brochures and the web component (www.mnh.si.edu/africanvoices) promises
the use of narrative voices in its introduction: “Video inter-actives and
sound stations provide selections from contemporary interviews, literature,
proverbs, prayers, folk tales, songs and oral epics…. Throughout, Africans
comment on their history and culture through selections from…epics.”
In the Remembering Slavery thematic section (researched on-line), the
voices are identified by name, but not by place or period.
They are recognizably excerpts from the WPA slave narrative oral history
archives in the Library of Congress, and therefore taped in the mid-1930s. (See
below for further use of slave narratives)
During my time at the
Smithsonian Institution, I also looked at exhibitions that did not use personal
narratives, when such material could have been available.
At the suggestion of John W. Franklin, I looked at the National Museum of
American History’s Sitting for Justice: The Greensboro Sit-In of 1960.
This mini-exhibit, in a corridor, comprises the actual Woolworth’s
lunch counter at which the sit-in was held, between two text/photo panels,
mounted on the walls. Neither the student protesters, nor the counter staff,
were quoted about the experience. The two short mounted quotations reflected on
non-violent protest, but they were not concerned with the event, but from
Frederick Douglass (1857) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963, speaking of other
protests). The (in)congruence
reminded me of the conclusion of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989),
but did not reflect on the specific reality of
the artifact. In a
November 1996 article in increase & diffusion: SI on-line (May 1997),
Bill Yeingst and Lonnie Bunch stated that the decision to install the lunch
counter immediately into the corridor, rather than waiting for an empty gallery
for a full exhibit on the civil rights movement, forced the decision to leave
out the activists’ voices. They
wrote that in a larger space, there could have been “peopling the exhibit
through video or musical presentations.”
I was not able to determine how far NMAH had pursued the inclusion of
personal statements as text or media.
Museums have honored their communities by ceding institutional authority
in the artifact selection and identification process.
Unlike the revisionist artifact selections associated with the artist
Fred Wilson, this process gives the traditional curatorial function to a large
group of individuals as representatives of their communities. The best-known Smithsonian example is All Roads are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture, which served
as the opening exhibit for the National Museum of the American Indian's Gustav
Heye Center in New York City, October 30, 1994. Director Richard West invited 24 artists and community
activists from Native American communities to serve as selectors and label
writers so that the artifacts would appear with first person interpretation. (Bulletin
April 1994, p. 4 as cited by Susan Avila, and thereafter)
The caption model is the standard museum strategy for
integrating personal narratives, most often used for representing the subjects
of exhibition images. It is used
often for exhibits of contemporary photographs and pairs quotation narratives
with images. One such tactic
was used in Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, a project of
Olmos Productions, Inc., organized by SITES and the Smithsonian Center for
Latino Initiatives, 1999. It
expanded to use quotation narratives from both the subjects and
photographers of the portraits. The
brochure depends almost entirely on these pairings. They also appear in the panel show, but are subsidiary to
artifacts. When I viewed the show
at its tour venue at the Museum of the City of New York, the impact of the
narratives was much stronger in the brochure than on the exhibit panels.
Art museums provide personal statements by living
artists as text panels, as audio guides and as media in a gallery.
In general, the personal voice provides a personal insight into a
specific work or gallery of works -- whether or not they are narratives depends
on the artist's own conceptualization.
A narratal work will often elicit a more descriptive personal narrative
than an abstract one. The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, Los Angeles,
adapted videotaped gallery media so that one version could be used to prepare
teachers for school field trips. Another
edit, stressing art as a potential life and career, is aimed at children,
providing them with "a face and voice similar to their own." In a 1999
AAM conference presentation, Alyce Quinonez-Rodriguez described one such
videotaped statement by Jonathan Yorba as a "narrative of origin…as
The integration of personal narrative through oral
history into history exhibitions has become a standard practice in North
America. Museum and public
history periodicals report on successful projects; state museum associations
offer frequent workshops on "Building Museum Programs through Oral
History" (Colorado Wyoming Association of Museums, December 1994) or
"Tell Your Stories, Preserve Your Past" (Ohio Association of
Historical Associations & Museums and Ohio Humanities Council, June 2000).
Pairing narratives with images (or artifacts) is the standard format for
The impetus for this model comes from the public
history (and revisionist historiography) communities, not from traditional
history. It is appropriate that
most of the projects that elicit formal oral histories for exhibitions are about
defined populations, not specific individuals.
Many "how we did it" articles on these oral history projects
for exhibition appear in the Canadian museum magazine, Muse. One
described using teenage documenters for a community-based exhibit on immigration
and refugee experiences (Royal Ontario Museum, 1995), "…to allow
immigrant senior citizens a voice within a multicultural history museum"
and to introduce the adolescent to careers in museums and public history. (Muse, vol. XV/2, p.46)
An article about the Vancouver Holocaust Education
Centre's exhibition program focused more on the unique value of personal
narratives to its mission. "Survivor
testimonies have been crucial to our understanding of the Holocaust…We have
access to survivors, who for the most part retained few artifacts; it is rare
for survivors to have any photographs of their childhoods, pre-war lives or
perished families. What they have are their stories, which are legal documents
as well as valued personal possessions." (Muse,
Vol. XVI/3, Dec. 1998, p.36)
Eliciting personal narratives as local history was
the focus of an ILMS Leadership Grant (2001).
The Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum of Calvert County, Maryland,
worked in cooperation with the Banneker-Douglass Museum, Anne Arundel County,
and the Southern Maryland Studies Center, Charles County, to develop a traveling
exhibit Strive Not to Equal, but to Excel:
African American Schools During a Century of Segregation. As reported in Primary
Source (the online ILMS newsletter; reprinted in MAAM
Courier Winter 2001, 10-11), the wide-ranging project elicited memories and
artifacts from people who had taught at or attended local public schools before
integration. In this instance,
every personal narrative was of equal value since each participant had
experienced the subject matter – the segregated school system. In the article, Barbara Stewart Mogel described the process
of eliciting as "tapping into the same social activism network that had
sustained African American education in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when very little
public money was allocated to support African American schools."
The project's web site (http://www.csm.cc.md.us/ccschools)
further elicits memories as "a living document, [that] will be included in
the schools section." The site
uses a flexible vocabulary to thwart the digital divide and attract as much
input as possible. Clicking on
either "add new information" or "share experiences" gets one
to an easy to use slot and scroll message pad, keyed to the individual schools.
A similar exhibit that currently exists only on line
is the Black Elders of the Seacoast site, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Black
Elders project developed by the African American Resource Center, 1990-1991.
The site has photographs and audio excerpts "journals" from the
oral histories. The opening page
describes it as "inspired by a fear of losing another generation's accounts
of life in the region as experienced by African-Americans…not to write
definitive autobiographies, but simply to capture some of the memories and
images of people who had lived in the region since before WWII." ([Valerie
, consulted 1999)
The Internet has expanded the geographic impact of
what had been local history projects. Occasionally,
this moves older projects so far away from their original geographic framework
that they lose valuable context. The strongest narratives, however, survive as statements of
memory, applicable outside the specific sphere of reference. The Black Elders
project proved to be informative even as detached from its original seacoast
Education First: Black History Sampler, which links middle school
classrooms to 11 Black history sites, developed three leading questions for each
to make students get "make a personal commitment to what you like, believe,
or feel about a topic."
The questions for the Black Elders project are:
through the short journals from the black elders.
one to look at more closely. Find specific events or experiences that seems to
be especially memorable for the person.
imagination to focus on what might be the most memorable events you except to
encounter in your life. Are any
similar to those experiences by the Portsmouth Elders?"
A related project on segregation was developed by my
own institution, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPLPA),
from an oral history project co-sponsored by the Faculty Senate of the City
University of New York. It dealt with a limited group of participants, African
Americans who had become ballet dancers before the establishment of the Dance
Theatre of Harlem in 1971 (i.e., during segregation).
Dawn Lille Horwitz and graduate students in the City College MA Program
in Dance conducted oral histories to learn how their subjects had found
training, where they danced professionally and their ballet careers (or
inability to have a ballet career). From
these oral histories, we developed a traveling exhibition, Classic Black
(1996-), which was intended to inspire local documentation projects on African
Americans dance training before integration.
There were problems with the original oral history project because the
topic was too strictly defined, focusing so tightly on ballet that it seemed to
disrespect successful careers in other forms of dance.
This was not a problem for other venues, which have so far included
museums and cultural heritage centers in Kansas City (Missouri), St. Louis, and,
currently, the National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs.
The 6-month residency at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African
American History and Culture featured an excellent oral history and
documentation project. The
installation was spearheaded by staff historian Tamara Brown, who combined
interviews with archival research. (Anacostia Museum: DC
En Pointe: Three Schools, 1999; pamphlet and lecture)
The State Museum of South Carolina and the Children’s Fine Arts Academy
in Orangeburg have just begun such a project towards a 2004 venue.
It was inevitable that at
least one of the exhibits that I developed at my day job during the Fellowship
would rely on personal narratives. Surprisingly,
the exhibit (catalogue, and web site) was Touring West: 19th
century Performing Artists on the Overland Trails, which was limited to the
years between the Louisiana Purchase and the Columbian Exposition.
It focused on actors, musicians, dancers and their producers who
performed on the seacoast, riverboat, wagon train and railroad circuits.
Paired with an exhibition of documents from the Map Division, it showed
where they performed and how they got there.
Using manuscript and archival sources, we discovered enough diaries, date
books, correspondence, and memoirs to present their travels in their own words.
It approximated the caption model, although it was impossible to match
quotations exactly with artifacts or images. For example, there were no young
images of Louisa Lane Drew to match her memories of adolescent shipwrecks while
touring the eastern seacoast. However,
Edwin Booth’s letters to his daughter about presenting Shakespeare in
unfinished, roofless theaters on the railroad circuit illuminated photographs,
itineraries and his annotated prompt scripts.
The diaries of Creole composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gotttschalk produced
graphic description of one-night stands and train travel in the 1850s.
We used one diary passage to bring chronological grounding and emotional
weight to the gallery visitor. Written on a steamship, traveling the Panama
route to California in April 1865, it depicts the stunned reaction of crew and
travelers when a passing ship told them of President Lincoln’s assassination.
Perhaps no collection
project for personal narratives is as acutely part of American history as slave
narratives. The earliest, highly
politicized, project was the eliciting and dissemination of narratives of slaves
and free men/women by Abolitionist magazines, newspapers and publishing houses,
primarily 1820 – 1860. These
documents depicting capture, Middle Passage, plantation life, and escapes were
published, presented as public lectures and turned into performance texts.
Seventy years later, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored
documentation of still living former slaves and their descendents.
Both sets of documents are easily available in publication and on the web
sites maintained by the Library of Congress and The New York Public Library’s
Schomburg Center, as well as www.slavenarratives.com,
from Greenwood Publishing.
Use of these narratives
adds impact to exhibitions on ante-bellum life and politics by
culturally-specific and history museums. One
example that I found almost devastating in its power is the Middle Passage
exhibit at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Inc., in Baltimore, visited during
the 2000 AAM conference. The
claustrophobic room displays wax figures crowded onto a 24 x 30’ reproduction
of a holding room on a ship going from West Africa to the Caribbean.
Quotations from 19th century slave narratives (and diaries of
slave traders) provided labels and texts. The
aim of the display was stated in an 1993 press release from the museum: “The
realistic three dimensional display will allow visitors of all ages to become a
part of the slave ship experience, to have their senses heightened and their
imaginations stirred as they walk throughout the vessel and view the scenes from
the vantage point of both captor and captives.” (included in Expansion Project
package, 2000). The WPA
narratives in African Voices, however, were not successfully linked to
the exhibit (or web version). They
have inherent emotional impact, but the chronological gaps and the lack of
information about the effect of slavery on contemporary Africa brought
discontinuity with the exhibit content.
As the use of personal
narratives becomes more popular in the classroom, exhibitions aimed specifically
at children are also adopting them. Children’s museums, working with the same needs as
classroom practitioners of multi-cultural education, often mix source
categories. An example that I
consider typical is Jeremy’s Story, developed by the Children’s
Museum of Southeastern Connecticut and toured by Museum Presentation Associates.
It addresses bias through the activities of 6 children – the fictional
Jeremy, and the real activists Ruby Bridges (school integration), Anne Frank
(anti-Semitism), Ryan White (AIDS), and child labor protesters Iqbal Masih, and
Craig Kielburger. The exhibit
begins with a video of “Jeremy’s Grandfather telling Jeremy their family
story,” which includes descriptive references to slavery and the Middle
Passage. The next module includes
audio material from Little Rock integrator Bridges and Anne Frank about being
the subject of discrimination. The
final area focuses on the contemporary child/activists.
(brochure for Jeremy’s Story, Museum Presentation Associates, 2000)
Like most panel shows, this one uses the caption model for integrating
narrative with images.
The selector model can be varied to give curatorial role to the
audience. One such project was the
exhibit, Seeing God: Art and Ritual Around the World, developed by the
Dallas Museum of Art from its permanent collection.
Community members were invited “to write a personal response label to a
specific work of art from the perspective of their faith tradition or cultural
heritage.” (E-mail from Carolyn Bess, Head of Academic and Public Programs,
DMA, proposing a panel for the 2001 AAM meeting, 6/22/2000).
More recently, the Tate Modern has dedicated a gallery to audience
response for an exhibit of competition entries.
The inclusion of audience response can help to
rescue an exhibit from accusations of exclusion of community input.
An example that was frequently cited during SI conversations was the
presentation of Back to the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the
Plantation by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Library, after it had been
cancelled by the Library of Congress. As
reported by John Michael Vlach in History News, “…In a brilliant
move, the King Library staff transformed the exhibit into an interactive
experience by soliciting written responses from viewers which were then printed
as poster-sized statements and hung on the walls of the gallery.
Day-by-day, these comment signs became a growing controversial element
and visitors not only reacted to the images but to these statements, and thus
with each other. This public
dialog extended the impact of the exhibition out into the community; it gave
them a stake in the exhibitions’ message and ultimately allowed the audience
to take ownership of it.” (History News, AASLH, Vol.54, No.2
We have had similar dialogues played out in gallery memory books on
political topics and those that connect to audiences’ identities, which for us
range from Blacklisting to Bebop.
An ongoing project for
eliciting site-specific personal narratives has become a model for a variety of
institutions. It was developed by
Liz Sevcenko, as Mapping Your Lower East Side, an installation and
video project created with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Sevcenko then expanded the public history project to cover the five
boroughs of New York City as Mapping Memories: A Series of Family
Workshops Exploring The City’s Diverse Neighborhoods, held on Sundays in the
Fall of 1998 at the Museum of the City of New York.
It served “as a way of connecting local communities, exploring
neighborhood identity, and facilitating conversations about the different
meanings of, and conflicting claims to special local places.”
A huge black and white map (10-15 foot) of each borough was laid out on
trestle tables in a hall gallery, along with colored markers.
Asking “questions that help contributors reminisce about specific times
and places,” Sevcenko invited visitors to write memories directly on the map
site. There were two predicted
responses written into the project. The
first focused on a specific location, be it homes, stores or public places.
The other invited visitors: “to mark the map with the path they’ve
taken through the city over the course of their lives or a single day, and to
describe how they used each place along the way – for work, celebration,
social action, or family connections.” (flyers for the Workshops, 1998-1999).
was adapted by City Lore and Place Matters as a tent activity at the 2001
Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During
the first week (when I was in residence), it was hosted by Place Matters’
executive director, Laura Hansen. Sevchenko
was in DC for the second week. Placed
adjacent to areas devoted to Storytellers and Street Games, it attracted many
visitors. It also served as a huge,
legible map so that visitors could locate the neighborhoods and locations
mentioned by participants and presenters.
The traveling exhibit and project, Indivisible:
Stories of American Community, is an ongoing project that employs elicited
personal narratives from its subjects and from gallery audiences.
A project of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS)
in partnership with the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), the University of
Arizona, it is organized and circulated by the CCP (2000).
With funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the developers varied the
caption format by adding videotape to the usual photograph and text-as-graphic.
It focuses on people in twelve locations who are actively involved in
"challenges of contemporary society and some grass root solutions for
change." The website's
FAQ page (www.indivisible.org/faq/htm)
specifies "the interviews were conducted by accomplished folklorists, radio
producers, and oral historians whose work has been widely broadcast."
"The result, the words recorded from community members and the
images that interpret their lives, were gathered and edited for an interactive
postcard exhibition, [as well as a] book, traveling museum exhibition,
historical archives, and Web site." Each
postcard has a black and white image of a community activist on the front, and a
substantive quotation on the back. The
interactive postcard exhibition includes a computer station on which audiences
are invited to "consider recording your own story of community work and
It is also possible for an audience member to add a
response at the Indivisible web
site, by going to the bulletin board page where there is a passive slot and
scroll message pad. The web site
includes an on-line version of Putting
Documentary Work to Work, in which the CDS's Tom Rankin recommends
documentation for activists: "… Indivisible gives wide-ranging
presence and voice to many people who are working actively to improve their
lives and communities. The hope is
that their stories will provoke discussion in communities throughout the
country, moving individuals and groups to consider the role the documentary arts
might play in social action, and also what role each of us -- as members of our
own communities -- must play in order to live actively and responsively in the
In one version of my Fellowships in Museum Practice proposal, I wrote
that “museums are not collecting the retrospections of visitors before they
leave the galleries that could contribute to our understanding of artifacts,
sources and communal history. In
return, by recognizing personal and group memories, we could assign power and
value to our audience members.”
But, through my fellowship
research, I have found that there are many admirable examples of such activity
at exhibiting institutions, such as folklore centers, historical societies and,
especially, culturally-specific community-based documentation projects.
Museums are beginning to follow these models in their exhibit
development, auxiliary texts and products, such as education kits and web sites,
and, to much lesser extent, in gallery-based interpretation.
In New York, and I suspect around the country, the spontaneous creation
of 9/11 memorials will bring with it a greater recognition of the audiences’
right to create and interpret artifacts. Over
the last year, I have watched the construction of shrines at firehouses adjacent
to my workplaces, including one that honors the fireman who was also King of all
Stickball for the NYC Folklife Festival. I
expect that this year’s exhibitions of documented 9/11 memorials, especially
the community-based shrines, will require that the sponsoring museum (or
non-museum public space) provide for immediate public input.
I am very grateful to Nancy Fuller, Bruce Craig and their colleagues at
Smithsonian Institution Center for Education and Museum Studies for support and
patience. The resources of
the Museum Reference Center were invaluable.
My thanks also to Richard Kurin, Richard Kennedy, Olivia Cadaval, Cynthia
Vidaurri, John W. Franklin, Betty Belanus and Marjorie Hunt, Nancy Groce, the
staff and volunteers of the Folklife Festivals of 2000 and 2001, as well as the
entire NYC SI Folklife Festival Working Group.
selective list focuses on the literature of dialogic exhibits and experiments
within museum interpretation, with examples of primary source material in
interpretation and in on-line teacher curricula.
Ames, L. Kenneth, Barbara Franco and L. Thomas Frye. Ideas
and Images: Developing Interpretive History Exhibits. Nashville: American
Association for State and Local History, 1992.
Karp, Ivan and Stephen D. Lavine, eds. Exhibiting
Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
National Archives and Records Administration.
Teaching with Documents: Using
Primary Sources from the National Archives. Washington, D.C.: The National
Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989.
Nichols, Susan K., ed. Patterns in Practice: Selections from the Journal of Museum Education. Washington, D.C.: Museum Education
Warren, Leon and Roy Rosensweig, Eds. History
Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Avila, Susan, et al. "Multiculturalism in
museums: Is it working?" Office of
Museum Programs Bulletin, Vol. 2, No.1 (April 1994).
[Cherry, Schroder, Ed.] "Opening the Door to the
Entire Community" New York: The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, 1998.
Cronon, William, "A Place for Stories: Nature,
History and Narrative," The Journal
of American History, Vol.78, no. 4 (March 1992) 1347-1376.
Sullivan, Laura Temple, "Hispanic Folk Arts and
the Environment: The Collaborative Development of Teacher Resource
Materials," The AAM Annual Meeting
of Museum Education",
The Exhibit as Educator: Seven Points of View"
Vol.17, No.3 (Fall, 1992).
"The Multicultural Museum: A Medley of Voices" Vol.18, No.2 (Spring,
"Retrospection" Vol. 20, No.2 (Spring/Summer 1995).
"The National Conversation" Vol. 20, No.3 (Fall 1995).
Multicultural Art Prints Theme: Historical
Narrative [Teachers' guide] (Los
Angeles: Getty Education Institute for the Arts, 1996).
Celebrating Pluralism [discussion
moderated by Graeme Chalmers and teachers' guide] (Los Angeles: Getty Education
Institute for the Arts, 1999).
Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia
University, Report on American History Archive Project, 1996.
[Library of Congress] American Memory
Collection, American Life Histories,
1936-1940 "Using Oral
history" (Library of Congress on line, 1997).
Planning an Intergenerational Program for Preschool (Addison-Wesley Longman, 1998).
texts, magazines, e-zines, educational texts, lesson plans, community guides,
planning documents and abstracts from museums, social and educational advocacy
organizations and clearinghouses consulted as hard copy books, teaching kits and
on-line site products.
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