The Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHNN) held its annual conference on September 28 at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center, Hyde Park. The theme of the conference was “Mining the Museum: Using Your Existing Resources in New Ways” with Executive Director Priscilla Brendler presiding. The meeting was so-well attended I didn’t even have a chance to speak with the all the people I would like to have talked to. The format has been expanded beyond being primarily an awards ceremony to be more like the Museumwise conference with a plenary speaker followed by concurrent sessions but for one day instead of two.
The plenary address was given by Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director, Historic House Trust, New York, entitled “An Anarchists Guide Historic House Museums.” The talk was indeed a stimulating and thought-provoking one on the current state of affairs in house museums with an identification of some of the problems. He called for systematic paradigmatic change focused on who you serve instead of sticking to the narrowly defined “mission” that probably exists now. He called for people to be aware of the mythology and politics of interpretation particularly in one-period museum sites of buildings that were occupied in multiple periods by multiple people. He observed that historic houses often present a well-ordered interior of immaculately clean space that is at variance with the way people really lived and which bears the smell of Benjamin Moore paint. [He might have mentioned how well-shampooed and scrubbed Hollywood actors are in historic movies or scenes set in inhospitable places. Knowing when people want spic-and-span and when they want the authentic blemishes is a constant challenge.]
Another problem Vagnone identified was the disconnect between the potential visitor and the historic house museums run by boards uptight white people and about dead white men. They are boring. They don’t speak to the younger generation which is interested in presentation and from a different demographic. Museums need to engage in transformative social media in a world where there are multiple alternatives to tourism, attention span is down, literacy is down, attendance is down and places are closing (or barely hanging on). He ridiculed (gently) the dull docent-led tour of obsessive detail on the furniture and dishware (and he might have mentioned family portraits as well). He challenged historic museums to stop creating “magazine spreads” and to let people play with recreations. Instead of telling visitors what they can’t do, provide an opportunity for them to explore, create, and play and thereby connect with the past through a sense of discovery and exploration. Vagnone recognized that such change requires money and suggested the need for pilot programs to determine exactly how this should be done in any given historical site. He mentioned the Matilda Joslyn Gage House in Fayetteville as one site which has been redeveloped along the lines expressed in his talk.
Vagnone has raised many important issues which do need to be addressed if historic house museums are to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Rather than critique them one by point, let me add some general observations which also should be taken into account.
1. Since Vagnone mentioned Mount Vernon, let me start with George Washington. He happens to be the father of the country, the indispensable person for the creation of the this country meaning without him it is questionable whether the United States ever would have come into existence. He also was the first action hero in American history, a frequently overlooked fact that once upon a time he was the guy with abs. He is a dead white man and he did own slaves. Instead of taking a politically correct view that would reduce him to a cliche (Vagnone did not do this; I am using his talk to tackle a larger issue), we would be better served to recognize the humanity of the individual in all his facets than to hone in on the sexist and racist elements based on our cultural values. For Americans regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual preferences, George Washington is the one who made America happen. The challenge is in telling that story in a way that gives credit to what he did so people today can understand what he achieved while simultaneously noting what was taken for granted then but wouldn’t be today.
To distort history simply to entertain a hyphen is an unacceptable sellout of the history mission. (Again, I am not saying Vagnone did this; I am pointing out a potential danger if his ideas are implemented incorrectly.) Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater or exalt people because of their demographics. While the story of Harriet Tubman deserves to be told, her impact on the Civil War pales before that of Lincoln, Lee, and Grant. If Americans of diverse hyphens can’t celebrate what we have in common such as through the leadership of Washington and Lincoln then we are more likely to end up have entertaining museums in a divided country rather than a united one. Let’s remember it wasn’t that long ago when Germans, Irish, and Italians were all considered a lower order of humans. Let’s not rush to be Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria or almost any country wracked by tribal, ethnic, racial, and religious conflict in Africa because we can only relate to historic figures of our own race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual preference. Similarly let’s not forgot that people of all backgrounds contributed to the making of America and that their story has not received the proportionate credit it deserves. Politicians and corporations are superb as slicing and dicing the American public into minuscule segments which they can exploit. It does work. I hope historic museums don’t follow the same path and we lose sight of fact that to continue as a single nation it needs to be based on WE THE PEOPLE and e pluribus unum.
2. Vangone’s comments about presentation are extremely important. As Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise said, “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.” [It is also true that the more simple the mind the greater the need for the complexity of play.] Historic museums should encourage that sense of play, discovery, and exploration. When we visited the Dutch Reform Church in Fishkill [Willa Skinner, Fishkill Town Historian was at the GHHN conference and we had lunch together], besides listening to a talk we also listened to organ music and meet with the organist who was not a docent. Last time we were there, one teacher who was a member of her church choir sang in the church. Do you think she will forget that? Many of us climbed up to the steeple behind the organ through a trap door. Do you think we will forget that? Once on another trip, a docent who happened to have been the fifth grade student of one of the teachers in group, despite his not being that interested in social studies, led us through the nooks and crannies past the ropes beyond the standard on to the roof where tourists normally don’t go. I arranged for a thunder and lightning storm to pass by downriver over the Hudson just as we arrived on the roof for a spectacular sight that we will never forget. Good planning, wasn’t it? Made for a memorable experience.
The point of these peregrinations is to arrange different types of experiences for different audiences.
A. The docent-led tour can be boring but it is efficient. In one instance I recall a docent who gave such a tour but then when I returned with a group of teachers some of whom grew up in or still lived in old homes and had old objects, they couldn’t get enough of asking about furniture, dishware, and other boring objects. For such a group, there was a personal connection with those objects. Let’s not forget those people although they probably are not the typical 4th grader or a family.
B. There is a need for a new kind of docent called the storyteller. There are of course professional storytellers but I am talking about storytellers for story of the house or community. When the Town of Rye celebrated its 300th anniversary, Camille Linen, the Literacy through the Arts coordinator for the Port Chester Schools, created a multi-act musical telling the story of the village almost in accordance with state standards. Students who perform in the musical are more likely to remember their local history although, unfortunately, it is not a regular part of the curriculum. Imagine if such research, art, music, and writing was in the curriculum. There is a place for a Thanksgiving play for all Americans since it is one of our true, meaning non-Monday, holidays, and we should give thanks for being American but remembering the Pilgrims isn’t the only way to do so. What about giving thanks for our community’s place in the American tapestry?
Recently Ludger K. Balan, Environmental & Cultural Program Director UDEC Harlem River Ecology Center & EnviroMedia Mobile Art & Education Director at CHE Nautical & Enviro Edutainment sent me an email in response to a previous post:
I commend your tenacity and passion. NY is not short of story tellers. As they are at least a few institutions here and there that are committed to tell the story of their respective citizens of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, as well as the diverse European heritage et al. What I do persistently see, though is the lack of effective social exercises within this platform that would bring all the story tellers of the peoples of a culturally diverse state together to share their stories, whether be it new, different and or share a common tale.
Could it not be considered that there is not a chapter in NY State or American history that one cannot pluck any individual randomly off our country’s main street or urban center and not find their tale in any aspect of our social, cultural and economic life history. I think much can be achieved with that understanding.
Consider our historic houses for instance. In my neck of the concrete, steel, and glass, many exist in the heart of the “black” and “latino” communities, and occupy open green spaces where, such a resource is quite scarce. Yet typically, they are highly underutilized, and have very little relevance to the community. And I see this principally, because there is very little innovation or passion to honor and excite the communities in which they exist. Take a historic farm house in the depth of central Brooklyn in a American-Caribbean community for instance, a tale of a place that was build by an illiterate Dutch immigrant, who eventually with his sweat blood became owner of the farm and passed it on to his children etc etc, right?… a story of most of the residents that live, learn, play, work and worship in the community, that this historic colonial farm exist. Yet there is generally very little exercises and innovation to present a similar culturally relevant programming to the community intended to be served. Wouldn’t Edgar Allan Poe ( House in the Bronx) appreciate a fellow writer like Domingo Sarmiento, or if Poe lived much longer, Paul Dunbar…and wouldn’t that give an open opportunity for a wide and diverse audience not only to further appreciate a Poe, but also learn about their neighbors.
I think a solution is in the actual exercise. Maybe more advocacy for social exercises is needed. How about a “NY Living History Reenactment Day in the Metropolitan area, with an aim and goal to have all of its citizens represented in History. Each of us out there can offer a contribution to the cultural enrichment.
This would also serve as great networking opportunity for everyone to get to know of and about each other and the expense of resources that exist.
Here we have the potential for a great symbiosis between the schools, which Vagnone did not mention in his talk, and the historic sites. Let’s ask the schools and the historic sites to partner in creating the stories which will be presented at the sites. I know I am not the first to mention this and that it is being done, but think about the stories 4th graders would write, the stories middle school students would write, the stories high school students would create and using various media. Think about the portfolio of community-based stories a k-12 student would create in a place-based approach to education. Now imagine every week a different class was acting its story at an historic site….in front of their families just like at Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. Which would create a greater connection between the future taxpayers of the country and an historic site that helped define one’s community? Which will have a longer lasting impact: a bus trip to a site that is removed from anything you are doing in school or a bus trip to a site where you help to tell its story and return there at night or on a weekend to perform a story you and your class wrote. Let’s break down that barrier between the site and its neighborhood, between the old board and the young students and create social venues where historic storytelling can flourish. We are a storytelling species and what is history if not the telling of stories. The docents still can point out the objects and present the basic facts but let the kids of all ages tell their own story based on their research. Let’s join the community and historic site together so the people think of the historic site as their site, as part of their story as citizens of their community, state, and country.
P.S. See what that plenary session did. I don’t even have space to cover the rest of the conference which included a professionally written and performed play about an African gardener at a Dutch family home at Mount Gulian and a potential play from the archival investigation into a mulatto minister who passed as white before being exposed and wrote about the reconciliation of geology and the Bible back before Darwin when it was a hot-button issue that involved geologists, ministers, and Hudson River artists.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.