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.