Reading: Interpreting LGBT History At Museums and Historic Sites

Ferentinos-210x300Months ago as part of a National Council on Public History annual conference workshop I received a copy of Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic SitesI started reading the book months ago but somehow it managed to get lost in my to-read pile until fairly recently.  This book examines queer history in the United States, provides an overview of sexuality and gender studies in the US, includes three case studies on interpreting LGBT history at historic sites, and a lengthy additional reading list for more information.

I learned more than I anticipated in the sections which covered queer history in the US – perhaps partially because queer history touchstone events in Canada follow a different time line and the history of the LGBT movement in Canada has been documented in different ways than the US.  This background section is worth a read if you’re not familiar with queer history in the US. I also really enjoyed the case studies which included in the book – all of which looked at approaches and challenges related to interpreting LGBT history as a public historian.  The case studies looked at queer history in museum spaces, historic houses, and archival settings.  They also touched on the value of integrating queer history in permanent exhibition or interpretation guides vs the inclusion of LGBT materials in special or temporary programming.  For me these case studies where the real value add and the best part of the publication.

This book contains a lot of advice around consultation, community based interpretation, and the need to have institutional and local buy-in to projects relating to LGBT history.  It’s a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about queer history in the US or about successful initiatives relating to the display and discussion of LGBT history in the US.

Baltimore Museum of Art

During my last day in Baltimore I took the Charm City Circulator to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).  The effort of looking up a free bus service and dragging myself outside on a raining day was definitely worth it.  The BMA is free and is well known for its contemporary art collection.  It was pleasantly surprised by the range of artwork in the museum, the innovative displays, and the effort made to make the space friendly to families.

20160320_114532There were a number of great exhibitions on during my visit but a couple have stuck with me in the weeks following my trip.  I was really excited when I saw that there was an Art Quilts exhibition currently at the BMA.  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile you might know that I am fascinated by textile art (eg. I loved the Ethel Stein Master Weaver exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago).  So I was intrigued by the idea of an exhibition dedicated to art quilts.  Though the exhibition was very small – probably under ten times on display I still really enjoyed the pieces and  contextual information included in the exhibition.  The quilts on display were all from the 1980s onward and showed the conscious choice of artists to use quilting as an artistic medium, often merging previous artistic practices with this quilt medium.  I really enjoyed this small look at quilts as art.

The other memorable exhibit was the Imaging Home exhibition, which is the inaugural exhibition in the Patricia and Mark Joseph Education Centre.  Imaging Home was really accessible to all ages and I loved the interactive components and activity spaces that were integrated throughout. The ‘Home Stories‘ video stations were particularly powerful.  These videos focused on families and their experiences living with a reproduction of one of four art objects that are currently on display in Imaging Home.  The households featured this project ranged greatly in age, race, neighborhood, and family makeup and the works of art included a shower curtain from The Thing Quarterly, Issue 16, featuring text by human branding opportunity Dave Eggers; a set of four annotated photographs from Jim Goldberg‘s “Rich and Poor” series; Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph “The Steerage”; and Walter Henry Williams’ painting “A Quick Nap”.

Home Stories tablet station.
Home Stories tablet station.

The Home Stories stations include tablets where visitors can listen to interviews to the participants responses to the artwork.  I found these responses insightful, moving, and a very powerful addition to the overall exhibit.  The idea of how artwork and conceptions of home can impact your life if really communicated through these videos.  I love the idea of using creative ways to connect people to art.  And a number of these videos included children responding to the artwork, which I think is important in engaging other kids in discussions around art.

I also found the “Three Sheds for Three Sites, Shed I: Home Shed” companion piece by Marian April Glebes‘ a great example of using  sculpture to inspire conversation.  This installation piece is a set of connected cabinets on wheels filled with household/domestic items.  Visitors to the space are invited to actively engage with the installation by opening drawers, rearranging items, and talking about conceptions of home.  I loved watching families engage with this work and was inspired by the conversations started in Imaging Home.

I really enjoyed by visit to the BMA and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of artwork on display, the creative installation methods, and the friendly staff.

The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum in Balitmore was a short walk from the NCPH conference hotel and was free, so I made an effort to take a walk over there one evening.  The building itself is architecturally beautiful and the museum is well know for it’s collection of European artwork.  The material on display during my visit included a lot of religious artwork, European and Asian, artwork, as well as design artwork.

WaltersThere were two exhibits that I found particularly interesting at the Walters.  The first was the From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story exhibition which highlights the role of the Walters family in amassing the core art collection of the Museum.  The exhibition was an interesting mixture of family photographs, artwork of numerous mediums, and explanations of the how the Walters family obtained certain items.  I particularly liked the emphasis on how the collection developed – we often don’t think about the donors behind museum items but their history is crucial to understanding the provenance of items and creating a complete narrative. The artwork in this exhibition was largely European with some interesting textile works, but for me it took second place to the historical family narrative of the exhibition.

The second exhibition that I really enjoyed at the Walters was the Madame de Pompadour, Patron and Printmaker exhibition.  Okay, I admit the first thought I had when I saw Madame de Pompadour’s name was about the “Girl in the Fireplace” episode of Doctor Who. Once I got over that particular train of thought, I really enjoyed the selections from Madame de Pompadour Suite of Prints which were featured in this exhibition.  The Suite of Prints first edition held by the Walters includes a set of etchings created by the royal mistress in the 1750s. Fewer than 20 of these suites were made overall and the Walters has the only full remaining copy, which was also Madame de Pompadour’s personal copy.

The exhibition included etchings created by Pompadour of gems that were carved by Jacques Guay.  These gems included carved images of French culture and portraits of royalty.  I found the explanation of how  etchings were created from the gems, the print making process, and the preservation of carvings in gems particularly interesting.  The etchings were complimented by additional items that reflected Pompadour’s wider interest in arts including paintings, tapestries, and porcelains.

I really enjoyed my evening at the Walters and would recommend it to anyone visiting Baltimore who is interested in art, history, and culture more broadly.

 

NCPH recap: Day Four, March 19

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first three days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  The final day of NCPH included a great keynote address and the bittersweet nature of a conference winding down.

Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

The awards ceremony celebrates the winners of the numerous awards offered through NCPH including book of the year, public history project of the year, and others.  The awards were followed by Patrick Moore’s presidential address titled “Places, Privilege, and Public History: A Journey of Acknowledging Contested Space”. Moore’s talk took the form a personal narrative exploring his exposure to history in his childhood, youth, and professional life and the personal realizations he developed about how history is interpreted and experienced.

Moore raised questions around interpretation – is it possible to overlap different historical narratives? To share space in history? How do we as professionals reframe questions to look at things in different ways? And how do we talk about people who ‘lost’ who are not part of popular narratives? It is crucial that we give history and authority back to communities and provide opportunities to people who have never had their stories told.  It can be deeply challenging to recognize your own privilege but that recognition can make for better professionals and better approaches to historical work. This talk was great mixture of reflection on the public history profession and a call to arms around approaches to challenging the exclusive past.  A very fitting presidential address considering the theme of this year’s conference.

Not Lost and Not Forgotten: How to Help Cultural Communities Preserve Their Sacred Traditions and Sacred Spaces

Singing and Praying Band
Singing and Praying Band

This was one of the most unique conference sessions I’ve ever attended.  It focused on the African American Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware and one of such bands actively participated in the session.  The session hinged on the idea of how historians can document cultural communities and what tools are needed to build collaborative partnerships – especially around the documentation of spiritual traditions.

Prior to this session I had zero knowledge about the Singing and Praying bands.  The session did an excellent job of highlighting how these bands are deeply connected to church culture and African American history.  The bands brought people together, they were the worship experience of many early Methodist societies, and have a connection to the participatory worship that links back to the slave trade.

This session also picked up a number of themes that were discussed throughout the conference – the need to build relationships of trust within the community, the fact that history can be deeply personal and that personal experience has a place in historical narrative, and the fact that successful collaborations are a relationship, not a project. Having the singing and praying band participate in this session was a great experience – it brought the community history to the forefront and showed the nature of this deep history.  It also brought community voices and community realities to the forefront – something that could not have been accomplished by someone simply presenting on this topic.

Cemetery Activism Roundtable

The final session I attended at NCPH 2016 was a roundtable focusing on cemeteries and the use of cemeteries to present more diverse and inclusive historical narratives.  The discussion was facilitated by Lynn Rainville of Sweet Briar College and included Steven Burg, Shippensburg University; Savannah Darr, Metro Louisville Planning and Design Services; Dennis Montagna, National Park Service; and Ryan Smith, Virginia Commonwealth University.

This session focused primarily on the preservation and documentation of community cemeteries and African American burial grounds.  The presenters all highlighted the need to advocate for cemetery preservation, the need for community engagement around these sites, and how to get people to care about these sites — particularly if they exist in an area which the impacted community is no longer represented in the population.

NCPH recap: Day Three, March 18

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first two days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  I presented on day three and also had the chance to attend some great sessions and the inspiring public plenary.

Transformative Archival Methods: Inclusivity, Partnerships, Human Rights, & Activism

This panel was one of my favourite of the whole conference.  It included Trudy Huskamp Peterson, Human Rights Working Group; Marla Ramirez, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; and Patrick Stawski, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. This session was frames around the idea that access to archives is an essential part of professional archival practice and that archives can be transformative within a human rights context.  A lot of what was covered in this session was very relevant to ongoing conversations in Canada around Indigenous archival material and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Trudy Huskamp Peterson‘s discussion of the International Council on Archives (ICA) Human Rights Working Group was particularly inspiring.  It also raised a lot of questions about best practices for archives, access, and marginalized communities. Archives have the ability to be play a key role in transitional justice processes but they need to be preserved in order to do so — archivists need to actively consider human rights claims when they are appraising documents. Similarly, archives need to be accessible to victims of human rights offenses and archives need to do a better job of communicating with marginalized communities about how access can be gained and facilitate connections to records.  Trudy also touched on the need for professional discussion around displaced archives and the role of archives within human rights contexts more broadly.  I was particularly struck by the irony of the fact that the ICA working group draft document on human rights is not publicly accessible, when so much of its content emphasizes access as a right.

Trudy’s presentation was followed by Patrick Stawski‘s discussion of archivists as ‘memory bandits’ who engage in a proactive redistribution of archival memory.  Stawski spoke a lot about the politics around archiving community materials and raised an important point around the language we use — we talk about acquiring collections, but in the case of communities we need to think and talk more about partnerships and address how we can support the origin of the materials.  Stawski also highlighted how archives are the beginning of relationships and archives around human rights are often connected to living communities and we need to evolve are archival practices to address changes within the communities we are serving.  This presentation also included a discussion of the transformative nature of records and how there can be a huge value in examining records that cause discomfort.  Records that document trauma can be directly linked to community healing and the redistribution of memory.

The final presenter in this session was Marla Andrea Ramirez who spoke about creating platforms for silenced voices, filling in archival silences, and the important of oral history in transforming historical narratives. Ramirez’s work focused on transgenerational oral histories to create narratives that reflect both survivor and community experiences in relation to the deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s from the United States.  She also spoke about her work with family archives and documents help by individuals that explain their history that don’t exist in official historical narratives or government archives. Ramirez’s talk emphasized the power of oral history to highlight the long term trauma that archival records do not capture and the need for establishing trust and patient relationships when doing this type of oral history project.

This was an extremely powerful panel with so many perspectives and experiences relating to archives and trauma. As Canadian archivists start to consider their own role in reconciliation, access, documenting the impact of colonialism and residential schools looking to examples outside of Canada has the potential to be extremely useful.

Finding the Embedded Archivist

I was fortunate to present on this panel organized by Jennifer Black of Misericordia University.  The other presenters included Marc Brodsky, Virginia Tech; Suzanne Catharine, University at Albany, SUNY; Jessica Garner, Misericordia University, Mary Kintz Bevevino Library; Noreen O’Connor, Kings College and myself.  This session brought together archivists, faculty, and a student and looked at the potential of embedded archival instruction and the power of moving beyond ‘show and tell’ archival instruction.

I learned a lot from my fellow presenters and gained a few new ideas for instruction exercises, such as: having students examine a rare book or other item with the question of if it should be de-accessioned; or telling students they are the head of a brand new archives facility and having them consider how they would design the space to be used by archives staff.  Both of these examples highlight important work that archivists do and get students to engage with some of the difficult questions associated with archival practice.

This session also highlighted the need for the archival community to talk more broadly about instruction strategies, techniques, and successes.  There are a lot of great archivists and faculty partnerships out there that can be used as examples but they often require substantial digging to learn about.

Using Spatial History to Challenge the Exclusive Past

This panel included discussion of the “Spatial History in the Public Square” project by Bradley Andrick and Kevin Borg of James Madison University, the “Canal Lives on the James River and Kanawha Canal” project by Gregory Hargreaves of the Hagley Museum and Library, and the “98 Acres in Albany: Documenting a Demolished Neighborhood” by David Hochfelder, University at Albany, SUNY.

There were some interesting discussion around technology used in these three different mapping projects.  The Canal Lives utilized Omeka to setup a very basic visualization of the cannal and embed underrepresented stories of those who built and worked in the canal region. The Public Square project was more complex and used digital map tools to overlay archival Sanborn maps with present day terrain and to include metadata within the maps for contextual information.  This project used completely open source software including Leaflet, GMP, and github.  They wanted to create something that would by easy for other communities to replicate using similar Sanborn maps and a bit of hacking.  I loved that aspect of the Public Square Project.  The 98 Acres in Albany project focuses on the social history of urban renewal and highlight the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  The site appears to be currently setup on a WordPress blog and is very narrative driven currently.

These were all interesting mapping projects and were connected by their desire to highlight unrepresented narratives. However, I was very concerned by the fact that all the presenters on this panel were white males and the community voices were lost in their presentations.  Despite their work seemingly revolving around silences communities those voices did not seem to have a place at the table for the project administration or overarching project decisions. In the case of the Canal Lives project there was a particularly jarring moment where the presenter indicated they were using ‘placeholder’ images to show what slave or servant individuals probably would have looked like.  I understand the desire to make projects visually appealing but using an image of a historical document or explaining why there were no photographs of a marginalized person might have been a more appropriate option.

Public Plenary

The public plenary was held at the Ebenezer AME Church a short walk from the conference hotel.  Titled “Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore” amd moderated by Elizabeth Nix the plenary included photographers Devin Allen, J.M. Giordiano, director of Ingoma Foundation Paula Gregory Harris, and long time Baltimore residents Robert Birt and Devon Wilford-Said.

This event was open to the general public and focused on the history of activism and protest in Baltimore in response to racial injustice.  It focused on both the 1968 protests following the death of Martin Luther King and the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray and used images as a lens for looking at the past and present racial divide in Baltimore.  The church was packed for this event and the narratives of the panelists highlighted the need to look beyond the images of protest presented on CNN and other major news sources.  Devin Allen’s talk in particular was inspiring and deeply moving.

Other Fun

This was a busy day – I also attended a membership committee meeting and participating in a Canadian public history meetup. One of my favourite parts about NCPH is getting the opportunity to connect with other public history professionals from all walks of life.  The Canadian contingent this year included a number of fellow Western alumni who it was great to see again and discuss the challenges particular to public historians in Canada.

NCPH Recap: Day One, March 16

LGBTAnother year, another NCPH conference down.  This is by far my favourite conference.  It brings together so many diverse perspectives, there is a welcoming sense of community, and the sessions are always dynamic and engaging.  I had a fantastic time in Baltimore at NCPH 2016 and over the next week or so I will be recapping my experience at the conference and exploring Baltimore.

This was the first year I was able to participate in any of the pre-conference workshops.  The “Daring to Speak Its Name: Interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pasts at Historic Sites” workshop facilitated by Susan Ferentinos, Frank Futral, and Megan Springate was a wonderful way to kick off the week in Baltimore.

The workshop included a broad discussion of challenges interpreting and integrating LGBTQ history into mainstream historical sites and common historical narratives.  The session allowed for substantial discussion of participant ideas and projects.  The workshop opened with Sue Ferentinos highlighting some of the different ways that LGBTQ history has been interpreted – monuments, memorials, special events/exhibits, and reshaping of existing programming.

We also spent considerable time talking about the challenges or ‘issues’ around interpreting LGBTQ history.  Some of the issues that resonated most with me was the idea of archival silences or silences in the historical record.  How do you tell a history that isn’t well documented?  And without imposing present day identification and terms on the past?  And who has the right to tell these stories? And how do you tell it without ‘whitewashing’ or generalizing the very diverse range of experiences of LGBTQ communities.  As an archivist much of this conversation made me consider the need to more actively engage in documenting present day queer communities, so that future generations have more information and the ability to tell this history more fully.

The session also pointed participants to a number of resources including:

And the morning concluded with participants workshopping ideas around LGBTQ history interpretation at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site and specifically Val-Kill the home of Eleanor.  Overall this was a great workshop with great ideas around engaging with LGBTQ past and the need to be more proactive in documenting this history. There was also a lot of enthusiasm for more LGBTQ history at future NCPH meetings in terms of working groups and presentations.

Following this workshop I concluded Day 1 of NCPH by helping the Resume Building Workshop and attending the Opening Reception.  I had a mentee for the conference so the opening reception was a chance to meet her and orient her to the conference.  I also had dinner with a number of the Canadian attendees at NCPH – and it’s always great to connect with those great public historians.

NCPH 2016 Plans

The National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference for this year is almost here.  Next week I’ll be heading to Baltimore, MD for NCPH 2016.  It looks like it’s going to be a great conference with a wide range of panels, walking tours, workshops, and other events.  The full conference program is available on the NCPH website. I planning on taking in a variety of events including:

Wednesday March 16

  • 8:00am-12:00pm “Daring to Speak Its Name” Workshop
  • 5:30-6:00pm I’ll be attending the “First Time Attendee and Mentor/Mentee Pre-Reception” as a Mentor.
  • 6:00-7:00pm Opening Reception

Thursday March 17

  • 7:30-8:00am As part of the membership committee I’m attending the NCPH New Member welcome.

Friday March 18

  • 10:30am-12:00pm I’ll be presenting as part of the “Finding the Embedded Archivist” panel.  The panel is focusing on archival instruction, partnerships between faculty and archives, and teaching about archives in substantial ways.
  • 1:30-3:30pm Membership Committee Meeting
  • 6:00-7:00pm The Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore public plenary.

Saturday March 19

  • 8:00-10:00am NCPH Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

I”ll also be attending a variety of sessions but if you’re at NCPH in Baltimore and want to connect I’ll definitely be at the above events.

2016 NCPH/SHFG Joint Conference Topic Proposals

Last year the National Council on Public History introduced the idea of topic proposals for its annual meetings.  Topic Proposals allow individuals interested in submitting sessions to the conference to receive feedback on their ideas, recruit other panelists, and further develop their ideas with community input, prior to submitting their final proposals to the conference committee.  The History@Work blog has written about last year’s success of the topic proposal idea.

This year the deadline for topic proposals was June 1st.  A complete list of the 40 topic proposals received by NCPH can be found here. There are a lot of creative ideas and lots of people looking for feedback and potential collaborators.  It’s a great way to connect with people who might have similar ideas for presenting at this year’s conference and connect with other like minded public historians.

Ongoing Challenges: Paper Writing and Committee Work

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Challenges.  What did you wrestle with in 2014?  What did you learn?  What challenges do you foresee in 2015?

This past year I wrestled with how to turn down great projects that I simply didn’t have time to do justice to. In 2015 I foresee a few new challenges including:

  • Finalizing a paper on sports images and residential school archives.  This was one of the few projects I took on part way through 2014, as it draws directly on a lot of the work I’ve done with the Rev Father William Maurice fonds in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  
  • I’m continuing to be part of a couple of public history committees and part of a conference organizing committee. There will be lots of planning and implementation work in the next year relating to those commitments.
  • I will be returning to work in June 2015 after taking seven months off as maternity leave.  This will be another huge life/work adjustment.