Monday, December 28, 2009

The Unbearable Arrogance of Being.

IT TAKES A CERTAIN amount of confidence to get through life. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities in order to make things happen - even the common, everyday stuff like driving, selecting fruit, raising children, etc.

When does confidence in oneself become arrogance? When does the politician (or plumber or accountant or teacher or whatever) go from being a person who believes in his or herself to a person who thinks they are the best person for the job? Nobody can do it better than I can, they believe. Is that arrogance?

I just finished reading David Carr's memoir, The Night of The Gun. It was an interesting read - an alt weekly journalist who became a crackhead, got cleaned up, suffered from cancer, raised twin girls, made it bigtime, became an alcoholic and then cleaned up again. His gimmick in this exercise in self-indulgence is that he reported his life rather than writing things as he remembered them. Many of the exploits occurred while he was under the influence of something - his memories can't be trusted. So he found police, legal and medical records and then interviewed friends, family and colleagues from his drug-addled days.

Carr's tales are often redundant and many are stereotypical, like a bad crime drama. But it was a fun, easy read with amazing insight into the thought process of the addict.

The book, I think, is really about addiction in all it's forms. Carr clearly was addicted to drugs and alcohol. But I think he was (and maybe continues to be) really addicted to life, and his place in it.

Is it arrogant to write a memoir? Isn't the author sharing their personal history in order to educate, or at least entertain? Aren't they saying that their life has value to others?

I searched for the purpose of Carr writing his life's story. On one hand, there is a huge sense of narcissism and arrogance. On the other hand, it's an entertaining and informative tale from a guy whose work I have respected for some time. I learned a lot.

Ultimately, I think that Carr wrote the book because of his zest for life. He documented his existence because he fears it won't last long. His track record and his family history point to a short lifespan, and he wants people to realize that he didn't waste his time or talent.

I can appreciate that. It's something I think about all the time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

History for the Common Man. Very Cool.

PHILLIES SHORTSTOP JIMMY ROLLINS (second from right) presented his 2008 championship season uniform to the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia today. His jersey, cleats, hat, batting gloves and other accessories will be the centerpiece of the museum's sports exhibit when the museum re-opens in the fall of 2010.

"People live and breath sports in Philadelphia," said the museum's executive director, Viki Sand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The World Is A Museum. Experience It.

AFTER 15 WEEKS OF discussion about the fate of museums and their connection to the public, I've come to two conclusions.

First, there is a disconnect between what curators present and what people want. People still travel and they make museums a part of their journey. I just can't help but wonder whether tourism and education necessarily go hand in hand. I get the feeling, some people are just going through the motions and not EXPERIENCING life.

Second, museums need a dedicated funding stream. They need to operate like small businesses and ensure their sustainability. A big part of that is developing a rock solid mission statement that takes their AUDIENCE into account. Too many museums, I fear, expect to be lauded for what they've done in the past. But the world is crazy these days, what with the Internet and all.

The takeaway from the semester? There is a story behind everything - people, buildings, streets ... even behind history itself. I'm fascinated by the notion that the majority of history is thrown out, deemed as irrelevant, and that people in high places essentially create a narrative that we are told is history.

Stories are all around us
. Rather than wait for someone to explain them to me, I'm going to discover them on my own.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Value of Images Outweighs All.

IT WAS ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S spartan yet powerful prose that sent me traveling around the world. I had to see Paris after reading A Moveable Feast. After reading A Farewell to Arms, I wanted to experience living in Italy, absorbing the culture by walking the medieval streets and drinking wine in the piazza. I wanted to run with the bulls in Spain after reading The Sun Also Rises.

Those books got me excited. I had to see those places. Reading about them was not enough.

On my subsequent trips, I tried to stay extended periods. The parachuting tourist is the bane of my existence. You can't experience the life of those places in a day or two.

When I travel, I am always very conscious that I smile constantly - walking down the boulevards, sitting in restaurants, climbing mountains, whatever. I can't help it. I'm a happy dude. I wear it on my sleeve. It gives me away as a tourist, for sure, but so does my relentless shooting of images.

The images are more than souvenirs, the way that I remember those places, those people or those moments in time. They are trophies that I show people later, telling them, "You have got to see this!"

To me, banning someone from taking pictures is counter-productive to a museum, private or public. The museum exists for a reason - for people to see, experience and learn from the collection.

Visits and the memories created are ephemeral. Images can last forever (or at least, a lifetime). Images can be shared (not that oral tales can't but it's not the same). Excitement can be generated by showing others what you have experienced.

Will the value of the museum decrease because images are shared by people? I don't think so. Does the institution lose possible revenue by allowing people to photograph their collection? No. Will random visitor's images wind up all over the web, without any control from the museum? Probably. But who cares? Life is not that serious.

I finished reading Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees while sitting in a square in Venice. I barely remember anything about the book except that it took place in Venice, and it was rather horrible. But thanks to the images I made while sitting in that piazza, I remember that moment like it was ten minutes ago.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In 25 Years, All Museums Will Have Safe Words.

THE CHANGING SHAPE OF America, and the way we communicate, has altered the way we appreciate history.

We are more multicultural now, and the divide between rich and poor hasn't been this stark since 1929. Ouch. More women are going to college and that means the ladies will be making more money than men someday soon. Augmented reality is here already (as are QR codes) and the future of museums, according to the American Associations of Museums Center for the Future of Museums, is in immersive experiences like at the (gulp) Conner Prairie Living History Museum.

Technology disrupted the old ways of understanding history as Roy Rosenzweig said all along.

Will all history become virtual? It probably must, to some extent. And to balance the lonely websurfing experience, we'll need real, tactile adventures that we can learn from (I'm thinking about spending a few hours locked in an internment camp).

Until then, I'm going to buy a tri-corner cap and cheer on marathoners like the guy in the picture did this morning near Washington Square.

You're all winners!

Web Review: The Clara Breed Collection at The Japanese American National Museum.

CLARA BREED BEGAN SERVING as a librarian in San Diego in 1929. The region housed many Japanese American children, many of whom frequented the library and befriended Breed.

Two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to move anyone to anywhere at anytime without a trial. By March 1942, any Japanese American in California, Oregon or Washington was to be relocated to Spartan, dusty camps in Wyoming, Idaho, Arkansas and other remote, inland places. They were fenced in and guarded by armed military. Around 120,000 Japanese Americans were shipped to these internment camps, including dozens of young friends of Breed.

Breed, who was 35 when the war started, gave stamped envelopes, paper and journals to her young friends before they were relocated. She then corresponded with numerous internees during their years of captivity.

In 1993, the year before Breed passed away, she donated her collection of 300 letters, journals and cards to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. In recent years, the museum has scanned many of the documents – most of which are several pages long. There are currently 243 records available for online viewing.

The result is a haphazard but intimate insight into life behind barbed wires, state-sanctioned xenophobia and blatant racism.

Louise Ogawa, then 18, wrote to Breed shortly after arriving in Poston, Arizona from a temporary holding facility in California:

“A friend who returned from Colorado related the following incident to me. He said, while in town a few boys entered a restaurant to have a bite to eat. The first thing the waitress asked was ‘Are you Japs?’ When they replied, ‘Yes,’ she turned her back on them and said they don't serve Japs.”

The same young men, who were sent to Colorado on a work detail, were harassed by police officers as well, according to Ogawa’s letter.

Letters are presented as scanned images. They are also transcribed for easier reading. However, several of the transcriptions contain typos.

It’s difficult to locate material – the search function actually serves 13 of the museum’s archived databases. There are few keywords to assist the average visitor. On the home page, there are individual documents but the order is completely random despite two viewing options – one by date and another by object number. Once a document is clicked, there are subject tags for each post on that page. Those will help find similar documents but nothing else.

There is a link to the bio of the letter writers. But the bios only provide birth dates and the camps the writer inhabited. There is no further information about them – how long they lived in the camp, whether they enrolled in the American military, where they went once the camps were evacuated, etc.

The visitor must stumble across material. But often, what is found is stunning. For instance, Yukio Tsumagari, who had been studying at Berkeley before the war broke out, wrote that American military investigators searched the internees’ barracks at random, without asking permission.

“Huge mob of infuriated people gathered to ask for the reason of such doings,” she wrote to Breed’s sister, Eleanor. “Frightened by the large crowd and excited by pointed questions directed to him, the investigator drew his gun and threatened to shoot anyone who might molest him.”

For the most part, the museum allows the letters to speak for themselves. There is little interpretive information accompanying the documents. The museum occasionally labels the internment camps as “concentration camps,” a term that is rather controversial. Anyone who seeks out this material, however, is likely to sympathize with the language.

It would be amazing to see the museum link their image, oral history and video collections to the letters, creating a multimedia experience.

(Photo at the Manzanar War Relocation Center by Jack Iwata via the Japanese American National Museum)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Quato to Quade: "A Man Is Defined By His Actions, Not His Memories."

I REMEMBER THE MOMENT Princess Diana died. I was watching television late at night when the newsflash came across the screen. Tailed by paparazzi, her car slammed into a wall. I knew it was a huge story, so I decided right then that I would have to document the funeral.

The next day, however, I had to photograph the Eagles playing the Giants at the Meadowlands. I remember walking down the tunnel to the field. The fans leaning over the railings - waiting for the players - saw me and a few other photographers with our long lenses and multiple cameras. Then somebody yelled, "There's the guys who killed the princess!"

It was unexpected, to say the least. People were aware of and cared about Diana. At a football game. In America. But that doesn't justify the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia holding a Princess Diana exhibit in 2009.

After reading Alison Landsberg's Prosthetic Memory and Jay Winter's essay on memory, I can't help but think the NCC's decision to run the exhibit is purely financial.

People's lives are so disconnected from their traditional, familial past that they cling to histories created by the mass media, Landsberg writes. And they take those collective histories and place themselves within the context of that history. She says that the phenomena usually surrounds larger, traumatic events - she specifically cites the Holocaust, the early 20th century mass immigration of Eastern Europeans, and slavery. Because of mass media, we identify ourselves within the context of these events.

The problem, I think, is that as history becomes more and more commodified, the history that we are presented are events that have greater appeal to a wider audience. Maybe it's just the history as presented in the mass media but that history aspires to be popular.

Landsberg believes that the commodification can be used for progressive agendas - the loosening of traditional narratives, the establishment of tight, yet diverse communities. I think her book doesn't satisfactorily take into account the power of the Internet. As people have the ability to completely tailor their media (and historical) intake, we have less and less in common with each other. In 50 years, I can't help but wonder what we will consider the massive traumatic events of our time. Already, the attacks of 9/11 seem like they occurred so long ago.

Is the creation of a prosthetic memory an over-simplification of history? Is there a problem with creating a false sense of shared authority? Is there such a thing as a privately held public memory? I don't know.

I'll never forget how quiet London was on the day of Diana's funeral. There were millions of people around Kensington Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and everywhere in between. No one spoke above a whisper. It was an experience - one that could only be fully appreciated by someone who was there.

Does that personal experience of a public event count as history? Does it only become history when it is recalled as memory, or presented as memory in the mass media?

How can you trust memory when it is so altered by the context of the present? Because I've told the story dozens of times and each time, London gets more and more quiet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Yesterday Was Cool. But It's Over.

A SKINNY TEEN draped in a dark hoodie smacked me in the face with a brick one night when I was walking in my neighborhood.

Gentrification? Yeah. I know how touchy the subject is.

The kid, who I'm guessing was in some sort of initiation thing since his pack of 12 friends watched from across the street, was presumably part of an old guard in Northern Liberties - working class or poor African-Americans. They used me, a fairly white-looking dude, as their statement against the new people moving into their enclave. The brick carried great symbolism: the new people in the area were moving into newly built homes. Construction was everywhere back then (2004), and future homes (i.e. bricks) were piled on every block.

Here's my beef with gentrification: the world spins constantly. You can't grab one moment in time and hold on to it forever. It just doesn't work that way. Things change. Get over it.

Nancy Raquel Mirabal
poses interesting questions in the conclusion of her essay, Geographies of Displacement: Latinas/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District. Who decides how we remember and why?

I think what we're seeing is, as Cary Carson eludes to, a fragmentation of the audience, and therefore a democratization of history. Museums are in trouble because people want personal connections to history, a la Tilden, or Rosenzweig and Thelen. They can't draw the masses anymore because the common denominator is becoming smaller and smaller.

So who decides how, what and why we remember? It's on us, sadly. Where does the historian fit in? I don't know.

We've been suffering the same problem in journalism. The audience doesn't need us to tell them what is news. They pick and hunt what they want to ingest. That leads to people horribly uninformed about important things (many of my journalism students didn't realize there was a Septa strike last week until they saw the locks on the subway entrances). But it also leads to people becoming completely absorbed in the things they love. That can mean opportunity.

I would say there is still a demand for museums and history, despite the lack of interest in the National Museum of the Old West. But people don't seem to want to go to the history. They want history - their specific, targeted history - to come to them (even if only virtually). The delivery system has changed.

These are changes that have happened already. Museums, history, journalism - and everybody in between - must adapt.

You can't hit everyone in the face with bricks.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sometimes, Tourists Don't Totally Suck.

MOOKIE AND I JUST returned from a walk around Independence National Park (chasing squirrels and PATCo trains, as well as sniffing dogs ... for more than two hours!). Near 4th and Market, a pair of out-of-towners stopped me and asked, "Do you know where Rancid Street is?"

They were looking for Ranstead Street and the Ritz movie theater, not the punk band. But they made my day (and it's actually been a pretty grand day).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tourists, And The Vital Importance of Beauty.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT PARK rangers rescued picnic baskets from bears and verbally snapped at little critters. I always thought of them more as law enforcement rather than cultural guides (maybe it's the badges?). I think that says something - I can't be the only person influenced by popular culture, can I?

I never would have considered the rangers to be the middlemen of history and/ or information. I'm used to green-clad men and women barking at me, "Put that dog on a leash!"

Tourists (and the occasional rogue local) need to be herded, and rangers do a fine job.

I'm not sure if I buy into Freeman Tilden's idyllic notions of rangers as provocateurs, though I do admire his thinking.

His principles, as stated in Interpreting Our Heritage, seem to be applicable beyond the rangers, interpreters or even historians. I see lessons to be learned in journalism, and especially in teaching. The text is really a pedagogical outline.

The presenter needs to be aware of the audience, inviting them to participate - even if only in their minds. Reaching that personal connection is key. I think interpreting is not the best word, but providing context is invaluable. Striving to make people think and ask questions, I believe, should be the goal of every person, regardless of occupation. Using your mind means you are alive.

The danger, I imagine, is in the views of the interpreter. All information is analyzed, edited, and processed, meaning the audience may hear a compelling, one-sided narrative rather than the documented history.

The transformation of Louisa May Alcott's home, Orchard House, is a great example. The home served the mindset of the time it was turned into a monument (early 20th century) rather than the middle 18th-century era of Alcott's famous book, Little Women. Alcott's post-publication suffragist activities are largely ignored. Patricia West argues that the Alcott home preservationists used the home to champion social and political agendas of the time - primarily the anti-immigrant/ traditional values ethos held forth by Anglo-Saxons.

I agree with Richard Handler and Eric Gable when they write that history can't be presented as it was, especially in a living setting like Williamsburg. Our understanding of history changes, and the presentation needs to change as well. They argue that the Tilden-esque idea of audience awareness creates an atmosphere where the audience is left comfortable - and the ugly truths (i.e. slavery) do not get proper treatment.

I think that, however, is a harsh example of Tilden's principles at work.

Perhaps it's connected to the stage of life during which he wrote (most of) this book but Tilden, to me, seems to be a man who enjoys life. He sees nature and he is in awe. He waxes poetically about the amateur, the happy person who does things for the love of it, not for material gain or fame.

He pines for a renaissance of the appreciation of beauty, and not just the superficial appearance. He wants people to experience things.

I wonder if tourists have that ability.

ON A SIMILAR BUT UNRELATED TOPIC: Deer culling at Valley Forge National Historic Park? They want to kill around 1,100 deer over the next few years, leaving fewer than 200 remaining. The deer pose a threat to drivers, apparently.

Hey gas guzzlers - how about you move away from the deer, dumbasses? They were there first.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chasing Squirrels Where History Was Made.

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, my father and I used to walk around Philadelphia all the time. We'd hit Penn's Landing or the Ben Franklin Parkway when there were festivals, and sometimes we just walked around Independence National Park (above).

When I moved into my first apartment in town, it was within walking distance of Independence Park ... and purposely so. Walking through the historic area reminded me of my youth, of fine days with my Dad.

I know the area's history and I appreciate it greatly. I love knowing that I live where the Revolution began, where visionary people plotted the fate of the nation. I eat that up bigtime.

These days, I love living near the park as much for the sentimentality of the place, for the connections to my personal past. When I chase squirrels and stomp through the leaves with my dog, I remember those Kodachrome days of my childhood.

It's cool that there is history here. But that's not my primary reason for visiting all the time. The history here, I think, is primarily consumed by out-of-towners.

History was used to revitalize this area long before the progressive public historians got their mitts on the national park in Lowell, Mass. While I don't like the idea of using history and/ or tourism as an economic engine, I'm grateful that this space exists.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tourists Suck, Cultural Or Otherwise.

A FEW YEARS AGO, a Japanese friend came to Philly for a few days. We did all the requisite stuff - took pictures with the Liberty Bell and ate cheesesteak sandwiches, blah, blah, blah. But I wanted my friend to see authentic Philly.

So I took him to work.

That day, I photographed a college basketball game where a Drexel University player crashed to the ground but continued to play defense. When an opposing player ran over top of him, the Drexel player pantsed him (above).

It may not have been a classic Philly moment but it was real. And few tourists would leave Philly saying that they had witnessed such a thing (while sitting on the floor of the court, below the basket, no less). It was way better than riding a stinky horse around Old City or touring a history museum that would carry no relevance for my foreign friend.

Living the life of a local was way better than being a tourist.

I listened to a lecture by Columbia University's Kenneth Jackson one time and he said that a city that relies upon tourism is a city that has nothing else to offer (paraphrased, of course). I completely agree. We shouldn't design or renovate our cities to suit outsiders. There has to be more to us, right?

I understand that Lowell, Mass. had multiple reasons for glorifying it's manufacturing past. It wasn't just to draw tourists. But the first step in the revitalization of the pioneering industrial town was to bring in outsiders - tourists. Economic stability would stem from there, the theory goes.

After reading Cathy Stanton's The Lowell Experiment, I see traces of that outsider-attracting philosophy in other cities, including Philadelphia.

To combat Lowell's post-industrial decay, Massachusetts added Lowell to it's system of state heritage parks in declining mill towns. A few years later, the town was designated a National Historical Park. The intent was to inform people about the culture and history of the town. But there was also an element of using federal funding to spruce the joint up and bring in tourist dollars.

The immediate impact was job creation and cleaner looking properties. The downside seems to be that the jobs were much fewer than the former industrial businesses created. The new jobs were either for high-end positions that went to educated outsiders, or low-paying service-industry jobs. The divide between rich and poor has grown, according to Stanton.

Philadelphia has been expanding the convention center in order to draw more and more outsiders. And we are likely to see similar results - the jobs created will be service-industry positions with low ceilings. The benefit to the city will be minimal (except we'll have a mammoth facility that sits empty for much of the year).

Why, Ed? Why?

I appreciate the notion of preserving history, as Diane Lea wrote about in her introduction to A Richer Heritage. Nationally significant landmarks and historic places with relevance to their communities should be saved and maintained (despite the difficulty in defining what is significant or relevant).

But manipulating the past in order to reinvent a city seems misguided, a temporary fix. As Stanton noted, it has taken an obscene amount of public money to renovate Lowell. Why should they receive more money than Altoona? Or Philadelphia?

If the past is such a burden on the city and it can't maintain it's glorious heritage, maybe it should just crumble. That would be real, like Rome or Athens. Or Detroit. Besides, the renovations have no authenticity except in the light of post-urban renewal guilt.

I bet there is a reason that we hear very little from actual, long-time residents of Lowell in Stanton's book. I bet they see right through the facade of the subsidized village.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Life Is Not Black & White.

SLAVES LIVED ON THE grounds now occupied by the Liberty Bell pavilion and other national park space between Market and Chestnut streets.

Should that fact be integrated into the stories told inside the pavilion and other area historic sites? Of course! Would the sin of slavery ruin the narrative symbolism of the Liberty Bell? Who cares?

History is written by the victors
, for certain, but does history have to be full of winners and losers? Can't we simply throw out ideas and let people interpret them on their own? Do historians have to be such control freaks? Does the National Park Service have to sell America as the land of heroes all the time?

I understand that slavery in America is a touchy subject. While I found Horton and Horton, the editors of Slavery and Public History, to be a bit condescending, I see their point. Appreciating how slavery shaped the country is relevant, something that deserves to be known. But the recognition of that past can be awkward. We've ignored it for so long.

How should museums and historians handle slavery?

Here's my advice: Deal with it.

We weren't always angels? I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you. Whatever. Add it to the script and move on. Own your past, I say, for better or worse.

Perhaps I feel removed from the controversy since the majority of my family couldn't have been involved in America's dirty past. Half my family was in Japan (that's my grandfather with friends in the image at left), and a quarter were in Ireland. That leaves a little Pennsylvania Dutch (those are my great grandparents below) but that part of my family has generally been poor, rural folks (my father actually had an outhouse when he was a child).

I found some of the controversies in the book to be rather empty. The Library of Congress shows images of plantation life? An Abraham Lincoln statue in Richmond? Brown University was funded by the slave trade? Get over it already.

I just don't get it. I'm not saying everyone needs to go all David Letterman or anything, but why not have the conversation about slavery? It doesn't mean that it has to change you. But maybe it will?

Debate the evidence. Don't deny it's existence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Hundred Million People Can't Have a Collective Memory.

AMERICA IS TOO BIG. It's too large to have a two party political system. It's too big for a national health care plan. It's too big to have standardized education requirements.

And it's too big to have a single collective understanding of our nation's history.

Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, asked the question: should memory be unified (one people, one nation) or should it be fragmented and personal.

My answer is that it's impossible to have the singular approach. There are just too many of us. We come from so many different places, with so much different baggage. What we deem to be relevant often is of absolutely no interest to other folks.

It is way too easy to manipulate the past in order to further certain agendas. Launius asserts that some national figures wanted a historical narrative that served the public good and buttressed the nation-state.

I can't even tell you how much that offends me. Especially in the case of the Enola Gay. Seriously, you want to use the plane that delivered a bomb that killed 140,000 people as a booster for the nation's ego? Maybe they should blast "Rock You Like a Hurricane" in the exhibit hall. I'd feel so proud.

I'm not just saying this because I'm half-Japanese. I visited Nagasaki's Peace Park (above, circa 1994) and it made me sick to my stomach. As an American, I felt so guilty. The argument that dropping two atomic bombs saved American lives is ridiculous to me. We massacred innocent people, not just those with weapons. It was inhuman.

The National Air and Space Museum, which is devoted largely to war and the constant pursuit of "progress," is a tool of the government. Now, I'm depressed that so many children visit the place.

History cannot be objective. It is open to interpretation, and that is a wonderful thing. The problem, I imagine, is ensuring that society functions with a backbone of common ground.

And this is why I think the nation is just too large.

What is deemed important in one community may not be important to another community. With more than 300 million people, our lowest common denominators are few (hello, American Idol?). Our museums should focus, I think, on serving the local populations, teaching them about the region and it's place in the world.

(I'll have thoughts on the Horton/ Horton book later ... I purchased the wrong book!).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who Gets The Money?

HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION: The city has a grant to evaluate local museums. In the end, two good museums and five bad museums will receive sizable amounts of cash to address key areas. Who gets the money and why?

First of all, let me say this - if you can't earn your keep, maybe you shouldn't exist? Isn't it about time cultural institutions were run like the small (and not so small) businesses that they actually are? Isn't it about time they developed actual revenue streams beyond ticket and merchandise sales? Donors are always welcomed and encouraged but how much can these places rely upon the government for support? I mean, tax breaks and other services provided by the government are acceptable to a point, but can the business model actually be to beg for money every year?

I'm not a capitalist. I just don't trust the rag tag bunch of goons who run the government (city, state or federal). Come on ... they wanted to give Comcast millions of dollars in tax breaks by deeming the Comcast Tower site as a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone. The Keystone tax breaks are intended for disadvantaged areas struggling to attract business and people. Um, the tower is at 17th and JFK, not 3rd and Indiana.


I don't think you need to compare the various institutions in order to determine the best or worst. To me, it really comes down to the mission/ purpose of the institution and whether they live up to that mission.

If the city is going to dole out the grants, there has to be significant benefit to the public within the mission of the various museums. How do you determine public benefit? Good question. The simple criteria would be number of visitors, but it's also important to factor in potential - could an organization better serve the public if they had more funding?

If the city is controlling the purse strings, there should also be significant relevance to the local community. Relevance is another idea that is difficult to asses. Basically, the institution should provide a product that speaks to the local/ regional audience (an Atwater Kent would therefore score higher than a Barnes Foundation, for instance).

An evaluation of this sort would actually be a great publicity tool for the cultural community. It would force them all to evaluate their institutions. The results would be controversial, of course, because the 493 places that did not receive a grant will bitch and moan about cronyism, favoritism and general unfairness (like lack of money to compete, preconceived notions, etc).

The places that received the money would be obligated to document their use of the grant in furthering their community reach or their local relevance. The good museums would be expected to build on what they have whereas the bad museums would have to make steps to achieve their potential.

Personally, any talk of money absolutely disgusts me. I'd rather see museums and other institutions fall under the realm of universities. Then, museums become a prestigious asset with a built in audience (in theory) who can use the collections for further research. Museums would be an amenity for the students. And the burden of a museum's financial survival would be lumped into the university's overall budget.

Just a thought.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tell Me You Love Me. Please. Pretty Please?

WHEN YOU GO TO PARIS, you visit the Louvre. You have to. It's an obligation like gazing at the Eiffel Tower or sitting in a French cafe. You just have to. In Madrid, you see the Prado. In London, you have to see the National Gallery.

In Philadelphia, the tourist obligations are less sophisticated - the only mandatory experience is that you eat a cheesesteak sandwich, complete with a gooey, cheese-like, orange substance.

Nonetheless, I usually take out-of-towners to the Liberty Bell and the Art Museum. Philadelphia has to be more than sports hooligans, bad schools, violent crime and political shenanigans. Please?

On my recent trip to the Art Museum, my Japanese guests remarked that the pride of our art world was like a small version of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. How cute!

I swallowed my pride. But it did raise questions, like, how do you define/ quantify a good museum? What makes one better than another? And, should a museum reflect the citizens' interests or should it present what the museum staff consider to be presentable art?

Stephen Weil's book, Making Museums Matter, addresses these questions and many more.

At first, I feared I wouldn't like Weil. He begins his collection of essays with a proposal for a museum score card of sorts. He establishes four criteria for museums (purpose, capability, effectiveness and efficiency) and assigns weight for each criteria - a rubric for the museum world.

As I believe that each museum is different, and to compare them is rather irrelevant, I disliked his rubric. But I understand his point - museums need to establish and constantly be aware of their mission. Then, they need to set goals to ensure that they live up to their mission. Museums, like people, need to be loved and appreciated. We need assessment tools to tell us we are good and relevant.

Weil seems far too interested in the business of museums for my taste. But again, I understand his point. There is a financial reality for these institutions, and competition for funding can be intense (especially given the current economic situation). A museum that can assess it's own worth - especially in comparison to other institutions, is going to fare better financially (assuming they score high).

That rubric won't necessarily prove the museum's worth, however. Some museums will recognize the proper criteria and design exhibits to satisfy those demands. They can artificially reach target numbers. It reminds me of No Child Left Behind requirements, or Temple's system for faculty earning merit raises. Play the game right and you get paid.

Ugh ... money matters just make me sad.

Anyway. Weil is an enjoyable, intelligent writer, though I didn't realize he was enjoying himself until I learned that Ferd Threstle is a fictional character.

I can't help but now think about whether the Philadelphia Museum of Art should change, grow, maybe take chances with art by lesser known, local artists. Maybe our museum is a little Met, and maybe we need something that more closely represents this city.

The problem is that if you let the people decide, will Rocky hold court in the grand staircase, and will galleries be dedicated to Cheez-Whiz collages?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bygone Industry and Beer: I'll Drink To That.

THE COHOCKSINK CREEK RAN right through my neighborhood, Northern Liberties, making the area an industrial hub in early America.

While the creek has long since been filled in (the only traces of it remain as part of the municipal sewer system), you can follow the creek's path and see how industry developed around it.

The Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association organized a pair of historical tours today, one looking at industry in general and the other focusing on the breweries of the area.

Along the creek's bed were leather manufacturers, iron works, glass makers, wheel makers, electric companies, sugar refineries, and numerous mills producing copious amounts of linens, laces and other dry goods. Many of the streets in the neighborhood were built around huge industrial plots, which explains why this neighborhood has so many angled streets in contrast to the strict grid system of Old City.

At various points in time, there were more than 100 breweries in the immediate vicinity. The first porter and first lager (as noted in the historical marker in the image at right) brewed in America were both brewed here.

It was interesting to note who attended the tours: mostly gray-haired folks on the industry tour, and many of those people are active in the community. The brewery tour brought out a different crowd - younger couples who created a much livelier atmosphere on the trolley tour (both tours began and ended at Yard's Brewery which offered free beer).

Everyone was snapping pictures even though 90 percent of what was discussed is no longer there, and the ten percent that remains is in a dilapidated state.

Friday, October 2, 2009

History, Culture & Vandalism at Fairmount Park

THE JAPANESE HOUSE IN FAIRMOUNT PARK is an unusual attraction in that it combines culture, Japanese history, Philadelphia lore and horticulture. As site manager Matt Palmer says, the house has a different meaning for every visitor who arrives.

Tours at the house delve into the history of the site, history of the house, historical context about medieval Japan, architectural information, and anecdotes about famous Philadelphians like John Morris, John Kelly and Frank Rizzo.

The location is near the site of the Japanese Bazaar exhibit featured in the 1876 Centennial celebration. Shortly after the Centennial event, an Asian-inspired lotus pond was built where the Japanese house now sits. In 1905, a 300-year old Japanese Gate House that had been displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition was installed by the pond. That house, known as Nio-mon, slowly deteriorated from neglect, and ultimately burned down in 1955.

The structure that is there now was installed in 1958, having been donated to Philadelphia by Japan. The house, known as Shofuso, was originally built by the Japanese government in 1954 to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The house is built in the traditional style (hiroki bark roof, tatami mat floors, etc), with architectural references that point to the style popular between 1550 and 1660. The house is representative of a nobleman's home of that era, featuring a room with a built-in desk, typical of high ranking priests, scholars or maybe even samurai.

For nearly 25 years, the house was tormented by vandals who tagged the shoji screens, stole priceless works of art and otherwise abused the building. In the 1980's a grassroots movement formed an organization that maintains the site, which is technically owned by the city.

While vandals continue to break into the house, it is much less of a problem than it was in the 1970's.

The site receives around 12,000 visitors per year, and many people spend much of their time walking the gardens that surround the large pond. If you step near the edge of the pond, colorful koi rush to the surface, assuming you are there to feed them.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Seriously: No Pictures Beyond This Point.

THE BARNES FOUNDATION gallery is among the most amazing collections of art I've ever seen. You can get within sneezing distance of the 181 Renoir's, 69 Cezanne's, 59 Matisse's and handful of Van Gogh's.

But you can't take pictures anywhere inside.

Technically, you aren't even allowed to have a camera in your possession inside the private facility. There are security cameras in every corner of every room, and there are security guards throughout the facility.

But the foundation is otherwise progressive when it comes to images of their art work. They have digitized every single piece in the collection, including the three-dimensional pieces. Images are made available to educational and commercial outlets upon request, a spokesperson told me. There can be fees for commercial use of the images, with fees varying based upon intent of the product. Images for educational use are generally free, though that can vary as well.

The spokesperson said that camera restrictions are in place for two reasons. First, the flash can damage the art. Second, this allows the foundation to control the use of images of the gallery. When the collection moves to the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2011, the photo policy may be reassessed, the spokesman said.

Until then, the closest thing you'll get to a family snapshot will be outside the current facility.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Danger of Historical Ignorance.

A GERMAN JOURNALIST serving in a fellowship with the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the health care debates and the use of Hitler-like imagery in reference to President Obama. The journalist wrote:

"Equating Obama to Hitler and the Democratic health-care plans to Nazi policies shows no understanding of the inconceivable cruelty of Third Reich Germany. The people who invoke the Nazis don't seem to know what they're invoking - or, worse, don't care. This is a reckless insult to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes - especially given that, 70 years after the outbreak of World War II, we are rapidly losing those who lived through the horror."

This seems to exemplify the distance between history and people. Those offering Nazi imagery either believe that Obama is also pure evil, or they are ignorant of history.

(On my journalism blog, I questioned whether it was irresponsible of journalists to perpetuate the ignorance).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Hey look kids! There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament."

LIKE ANY GOOD PHILADELPHIAN, when visitors arrive in town, I take them to see the Liberty Bell. As far as Philadelphia icons go, the bell is right up there with Geno's and the Rocky steps (otherwise known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Beyond those sites, I'm hard-pressed to think of places to show out-of-towners, especially when they only have a few hours here.

Today, I slowed down a bit and watched people's reactions to the bell and surrounding exhibits. Most people walked right past the displays in the foyer leading to the bell. The 4-foot wide black and white photographs and other historical reproductions were largely ignored by the packs of children. A few French-speaking tourists watched a video about freedom and the bell (the park ranger generously offered to show the Japanese-language version of the film but my Japanese friends declined). I noticed that there was nothing interactive in the facility.

The bell itself was at the center of a 360-degree photo op. There were people everywhere - not facing the bell - having their picture taken. The last time I visited the bell (when other visitors were here), there was a park ranger throwing out bell facts and stories. Maybe he was off today.

I'm not sure there was an appreciation for the symbolism of the bell by many of those in attendance. They sure did seem happy though - I bet they tell all of their friends they saw the bell.

At the Art Museum, the guard at the gate welcomed us and told us that photography is fine as long as we don't use the flash. Inside, few people took pictures. I noticed that there were numerous fragile pieces that could be negatively affected by a sudden burst of light (like the skirt on the Degas' statue, left). Guards in every hall kept a close eye on the visitors - a luxury not every semi-public institution could afford.

The guards didn't stop me from getting very close to the paintings, which is something I love to do. I appreciate art on several levels - the superficial, the process itself, and as a piece of history. Paintings, like fiction, are not always realistic but they can represent the mindset of an era (just as fiction can). I love seeing the evolution of styles. Getting inches away from this Pissarro landscape (right) shows me how he used texture in his work.

Like many of the museum visitors, we spent the bulk of our time with the impressionists. My guests didn't get very excited about anything else in the building.

All in all, my day of touring made me wonder whether marketing history and museums to out-of-towners is a worthwhile effort. There seemed to be a sense of obligation - I'm in Philly, I need to see the bell, etc. Instead of actually experiencing the city, people see the stuff they're supposed to see. I'm not sure what the alternative would be - how do you provide random visitors authentic Philly experiences?

I drew the line at Geno's. I feared they might not serve my foreign friends.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Authenticity of The Alternative Self (Or, How Flogging Fantasies and HistoryMobiles Make People Happy).

WHERE TO BEGIN? How about this: I'm thinking Renaissance Festivals might be fun.

According to scholars Hyounggon Kim and Tazim Jamal, the Texas Ren Fest is a hotbed of binge-drinking, promiscuity, role-playing, nude partying and posing for cameras (not all at once, please). Regular attendees say that the costumed-environment is a carefree world where everyone is an equal (as long as you are costumed) and judging is left at the gate. The regulars say that at the Ren Fest, they can finally be their authentic selves.

My questions is this: why not be your carefree self every day? Why let people control your desires? If it's legal, go for it. Want to wear a cape to the office? Do it. Want to wear a mask and leather boots? I won't stop you. Express yourself, my friend. The world would be a much more interesting place if everyone did.

But I digress. We're talking about authenticity. I question whether you can be your authentic self (existential or otherwise) simply by donning a costume a few weekends per year. The rationale seems to be that the people are not authentic in their workaday life. At least during the festivals, you can choose your persona. To me, it sounds like you are leaving one social construct for another. But hey, have fun!

My reading of Michael Frisch's "A Shared Authority" was difficult. The dang Google book program lopped off half the chapter. I glean, however, that Frisch was among the crew in charge of educating the masses in 1982 for Philadelphia's "Tercentenary" celebration.

The challenge was to provide information that people would appreciate and learn from. The solution? A HistoryMobile. Yes. Everything with "mobile" on the end is going to be fun.

The ultimate lesson learned, I think, was that people wanted to interact with history. The HistoryMobile brought information to people, creating a street-festival type atmosphere. People learned on their own, without the weight of a museum over them. Did they sacrifice the message through the presentation? You need to find that balance, I suppose.

In the end, who decides what is authentic anyway?

(The images are from Offagna, Italy, during their annual medieval festival).

Life, One Frame At A Time.

MY MEMORY OPERATES in still frames. I remember the past in a single image, or sometimes as a series of still pictures. No one is ever moving. My memory is stagnant.

I shoot a lot of pictures and they are what I remember from the places I've been, the things I've done. I can remember the context of each and every picture I've ever taken (and I was a professional photographer for a long time).

Looking at those pictures - either the old prints or the digi files - evokes emotions, ideas and, often, a sense of place. Just seeing the images, I recall smells, stories, sounds, expressions. I can remember the exact details - time, names, weather, etc.

I remember feeding Poki and Riri, the two little dogs in the image above, sushi using my chopsticks during the farewell dinner with my family in Japan. I remember drinking sake, my face turning red with every cup. I remember my uncle's eyes welling with tears because his oldest daughter, my cousin, had passed away recently. She would have loved the party.

My problem is that without images, I have a hard time bringing the past to life. I can't imagine the moments, experience the events, or even recall the reason why things occurred. If I didn't take pictures, I can't imagine the event and it fades into nothingness.

I fear that without images, I'll forget everything. Those pictures are my direct link to the past. That's why I always have a camera with me - I'm an unbelievably sentimental person.

I'm interested in why other people care about the past (as well as how they remember it), so I enjoyed the beginning of Rosenzweig and Thelen's The Presence of the Past. But I quickly became frustrated with the book - the different reasons people appreciate their past are just so disparate, and their tales, I feel, verge on psychology rather than history. Their thoughts are often self-centered - legacies of family violence, finding God, drug abuse, lamenting lost innocence, determining what made them the people they are today, etc.

The personal past shapes the individual, more than formal history lessons do. I get that. I understand that people want to know their family background - as much for themselves as to pass that history along to future family members. But I'm curious why we remember what we remember. Why do certain things shape our identity more than others? Is that even a question for historians?

Perhaps I was miffed from the get-go, when on page 57, the authors referred to people of mixed racial backgrounds as "half breeds." Nice. Is it 1950 again? Maybe they want to hold on to 1941, as they wrote on page 123, "One of the most important contributions of professional historians has been to foster the idea of nationalism, and the rise of nationalism has in turn fostered the practice of professional history." Seriously? They're boasting about increasing nationalism? Or were they being wry?

Nationalism is way outdated, especially in a country with 300 million people. When Kanye West is the greatest common denominator among people, the message is clear - we have very little in common with each other. What can be considered "collective history," let alone common knowledge, barely exists.

Rather than harping on the past, I try to live in the present. That's the other reason I take so many pictures. Shooting pictures means appreciating the moment, seeing the beauty in the instant.

That's why I love my dog so much. Mookie (left) runs, sniffs, jumps, barks, spins, dances and fetches with abandon, unencumbered by the events of yesterday. He has habits and he learns stuff, but he's generally uninhibited by the past. His world is right now, a very Zen existence.

I imagine the next step in the concept of public history is figuring out how to make history relevant to a wider audience, and establish commonalities as to what makes for important history.

It's ironic that you have to be visionary in order to make people appreciate history beyond their own past.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

There's Only One Version of History: Mine.

I CAME CLOSE TO NOT existing. Very close.

During World War II, my grandfather served in the Army, fighting in the Philippines. It was hot and swampy, he tells me. He contracted malaria for which he still receives disability checks. But that's not the only point when the family tree was nearly cut before I came along.

My other grandfather - my mother's father - served in the Japanese military (he shot the image above). And he was in the Philippines, roughly about the same time as my American grandfather. My Japanese grandfather was shot in the eye during a battle there, and he nearly died, I'm told.

Sometimes I wonder if my grandfathers were shooting at each other.

And sometimes I wonder where the real history lies. By American standards, Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, unprompted in a military sense. Sure, there had been trade injunctions and verbal sparring, but crush the Pacific fleet? That was uncalled for.

What about the Japanese perspective? Is that history?

What I gather from Ian Tyrrell's Historians in Public is that some traditional scientific historians are uncomfortable with the democratization of knowledge. They'd prefer that there was a universal idea of what is considered history, and multiculturalism and political correctness be damned. History is what they say it is - with they being Ivory Tower intellectuals (i.e. white American dudes).

I find that shocking.

The discomfort that historians apparently have dealt with since the origin of "History" is more understandable. As Carl Becker says, the facts are malleable. They are subjective and constantly changing as needed. How can an historian, even one of ph.D caliber, claim to know anything for certain when the facts are so easily massaged to suit one's needs?

As education evolved, and social sciences garnered credibility, and political power ignored historians, and mass media rendered them relatively obsolete beyond academia, traditional scientific historians seemed to grasp for appreciation, influence, importance, and indeed, relevance. They complained about the narrowness and fragmentation of the field (while at the same time perpetuating it). They called for specializations to act as bricks that build a collective home.

That's progressive?

There is a purpose to history, I think. It's more than nostalgia or romance. We can study the past, looking for best practices and warning signs. It is the infrastructure of the present, and an outline for the future. While the historical facts themselves may be debatable, so are the moral outcomes. And that's a wonderful thing.

I think this really comes down to how we define history. If everyman is an historian in some fashion, then there are millions, if not billions of histories. There are commonalities, for certain, but there are also different perspectives. That doesn't have to hinder history. It can actually enhance it by making history inclusive, maybe even personal (that's my Japanese grandfather on the far right).

In the end, history belongs to the individual. Nobody knows my history better than I do.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pictures Steal Your Soul, Turn You to Bronze.


A semi-public institution that houses rare and delicate material has a problem with people taking pictures inside the building. Their collection, it seems, is light sensitive. Flash could hasten the erosion of their stuff. So they completely ban photography in their space.

But we live in the age of cell phone cameras, TwitPic, Flickr and Facebook. Images are part of our every day life, and we (as a society) snap them constantly.

So, should the institution allow people to take pictures - without flash? Or do you prohibit anyone from taking any images, assuming that many people don't know how to turn their flash off?

My immediate thought is this: you can't control people. Really. You can tell them not to shoot images, and they still will. It's like telling them they can't drive faster than 55 mph. Or don't walk on the grass. Or don't take pictures of the Sistine Chapel.

People will continue to take pictures. So, what can you control?

What about being proactive, creating easily accessible images (with water-stamps) that people can view online or purchase in the gift shop (perhaps in book form)? They could be revenue generators for the institution. People would be able to grab the images online and use them wherever they want but so what? The institution's mission is to serve the public, right?

If people can see the place online, some might ask, "Why would they want to visit?" I'd answer, I've seen the Eiffel Tower a million times on magazine covers and in my friends' vacation snaps. And I still want to go there. In fact, the pics make me want to go even more.

The institution could continue the "no photography" policy (knowing full well that they don't have the staffing to police the place). People will still snap images, for sure, but they may not if they know the online database is there and free.

Ah, free. That could be a catch. This interests me as it relates to the dawn of journalism on the Internet. Back in the early 1990's, people put their content online for free. Now, they can't get anyone to pay for it. This hypothetical institution needs revenue, and images and video could be a potential source.

The reality is that there will always be free images online. So why not be the original source, and brand them in such a way that the images further market the institution?

When it comes to professional photographers or video crews, well, I'm thinking they are a case-by-case kind of thing.

These are simply my preliminary thoughts, without support or data about how other institutions handle photography. But I think the giant loophole will always be the Internet, and the free flow of information that exists there. You can't stop it. So you might as well adopt it and use it to your advantage.