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.