in Museum 

Final Report

“Voices of Others: Strategies for Integrating Visitors' Personal Narratives into Exhibits and Exhibition Interpretation”

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner

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.

  I 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 interpretive projects. 

·        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 folklore model

 Folklife 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.  Since, 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. 

Folklife 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 NYC’s universities.  

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 collected.   

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)    

Folklife Festival: Products

             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.  

Eliciting personal narratives: Community documentations

           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.


Eliciting personal narratives for SI exhibitions

         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. 

Eliciting personal narratives: selector and caption models 

            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 identity."   

Eliciting personal narratives: public history models

             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 these exhibits.  

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 Cunningham]. http://www.Seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/elders.html , 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 milieu (www.seacost.com).  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:

            1.  "Browse through the short journals from the black elders.

2.        Select one to look at more closely. Find specific events or experiences that seems to be especially memorable for the person.

3.        Use your 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?"  (http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/BHM/bh_sampler.html

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.

Eliciting Personal Narratives from existing sources 

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. 

Eliciting personal narratives from audience

         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  Spring 1999).  

            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).   

Mapping Memories 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 action."   

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 present."   


            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.   

Selected Bibliography

This 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 Roundtable, 1992. 

Warren, Leon and Roy Rosensweig, Eds. History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. 

Journals, etc.:

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 Sourcebook: 121-124. 

Journal 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, 1993). 

________, "Retrospection" Vol. 20, No.2 (Spring/Summer 1995). 

________, "The National Conversation" Vol. 20, No.3 (Fall 1995). 


 [ArtsEdNet] 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). 

LinkAges: Planning an Intergenerational Program for Preschool (Addison-Wesley Longman, 1998). 

Associative 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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