Twenty-Seventeen

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A quotation from the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I am
afraid. Folded in by the weight
of postcards and calls
links and 140 characters.
Always thinking about the invisible scales of equality  
between the unborn, the refugee, the immigrant, and those not living in privilege.

I am
certain that I have fingers
toes, a heart with blood pumping
slowly through my veins
as do you,
and them,
and us, but those that lead find
different ways to say
You Don’t Belong.

I question
my ability
my strength for this
test.
Yet I know that one cannot expect miracles
And God cannot do all the work

And so

Although I am afraid, I am certain. Although I question, I am ready.
I can be brave. I must be brave. I will be brave.


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Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr put up this panel during his talk for the Arlington County Library. I wrote about that talk here.

Whenever I begin writing my annual New Year’s post I take a look at what I wrote the year before. Here is what I said in January 2016:

Continue reading “Twenty-Seventeen”

Still I Rise: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

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The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do. – James Baldwin

Over the last year or so I’ve watched as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) rose up on the National Mall.  From the outside it felt like an inspired decorative container, monolithic from afar but interwoven and detailed from close up. My impression changed once I stepped inside. Clean lines, curved staircases, and the decorative metalwork of the exterior provided an incredible sense of openness, a constant reminder as I traveled from gallery to gallery that this is a museum embedded in the landscape of the core of Washington D.C.

A foundation. A place to start.

And so in trying to frame my first NMAAHC visit I thought about writing a traditional exhibit review discussing content, display choices, and interpretive designbut that just didn’t feel quite…right. Rather, my first visit felt incredibly emotional. In some ways indescribable, walking through the museum felt like when you peer through new glasses for the first time. Everything seemed clearer, more in tune, more complete. Continue reading “Still I Rise: The National Museum of African American History and Culture”

Who Do I Want To Be? Art, Literature and Choosing Your Own Identity (Part II)

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In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement  – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.

And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslines and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchantsdemonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.

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One of the many exhibitions at Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality

Continue reading “Who Do I Want To Be? Art, Literature and Choosing Your Own Identity (Part II)”

Who Am I? Art, Literature, and the Shaping of Identity (Part I)

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“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.

Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”

–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)

For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.

Continue reading “Who Am I? Art, Literature, and the Shaping of Identity (Part I)”

The Ordinary Extraordinary

A few weeks ago I attended a tweetup between the National Museum of American History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Using the hashtag #docsocial twenty social media users gathered to look at the role of documents and primary sources in the telling of history.

The objects central to the program were handbags–purses belonging to two women held at Terezin, a camp located in Czechoslovakia that was used as a “model/propoganda” camp.

The first belonged to a seamstress, Camilla Gottlieb, and is part of an exhibition at the National Museum of American History called “Camilla’s Purse”. The documents and objects within tell the story of her life at Terezin and later in the United States. The second purse, at the Holocaust Museum, belonged to Helene Reik, who died in the camp–her purse survived because a cousin saved it. Within the handbag was the expected and unexpected: a manicure set, scraps of receipts, and photographs Helene had used as paper, filling every available white space with words.

Continue reading “The Ordinary Extraordinary”

Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment

The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.

None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.

So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.

This American Life at 500

It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.

So some of my favorites from the last two years in no particular order: Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment”

Guest Post: Re-Discovery at National Air and Space Museum

January has turned out to be a busy month. From moving to the Presidential Inauguration I’ve developed a long list of blog ideas, but not a whole lot of time to get pen to paper. So I thought I would let someone else write for a change.

In addition to being a friend of mine, Robert Cannon spends his free time taking photographs of places in DC and his other travels.  This time he decided to go closer to home and was inspired to share his story with me.

When I was young, my family would regularly visit the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington DC.  As a kid, seeing the technology and history on display at was awe inspiring. Nothing matched seeing the history of flight; from the Wright Brother’s plane, to The Spirit of St. Louis, to Apollo 11. Even to this day, the thirty seconds when a plane lifts off the ground and my stomach hits the floor fills me with an almost Rand-ian appreciation for human achievement. Continue reading “Guest Post: Re-Discovery at National Air and Space Museum”

Breaking it Down: A Museum of News, Going Undercover, A Celebration, and Splashes of Color

From time to time, I like to put in my two cents on exhibitions I have seen. However, like any museum goer I bring of baggage: expectations, assumptions. This coupled with my understanding of narrative and story effects what I see presented—especially when it comes to how objects and technology are used to tell a story. In the last two months I’ve seen two museums and two exhibitions: the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Ralls Collection in Georgetown.

The History of the News

The Berlin Wall @ the Newseum By paloma.cl on Flickr

Here in DC we are spoiled. The Smithsonian Institution allows us free access to some excellent exhibitions, art and performances. Consequently it takes a lot of convincing for me to pay for a museum, especially one seemingly as large as the Newseum. The traditional adult ticket price for the museum is a $20 pass that will let you in the museum for two days. It is a price clearly meant for tourists, and implies that there are enough activities and exhibits to fill two days at the museum. (Though it feels a little bit unrealistic because if I only had a few days in a particular city I wouldn’t want to go back to the same museum two days in a row). A few months ago a Groupon came up essentially cutting the cost of the museum in half, and so off I went.

The mission of the Newseum is to “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tell the stories of the world’s important events in unique and engaging ways.” And it does. In seven floors the museum addresses the history of the press (from newspapers to radio to television), to the press during pivotal moments of history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also deals with the first amendment to the Constitution, highlighting its importance in American history.

We went through the museum in about four hours, spending more time in the main gallery with its original books and newspapers showing the progression in headlines and type. While I did appreciate this gallery, I’ve heard that when the museum gets crowded it’s impossible to actually spend any actual time in this space.

They also have a section of the museum dedicated to the tragedy of 9/11. Headlines and broadcast reports document that day. When the ten year anniversary happened a few months ago I realized that I wasn’t quite ready for it, and chose to avoid the documentaries and discussions that evaluated our live since the attack. In this gallery I felt much the same way. My friend and I talked about where we were when it happened, and how vivid some of the details still are. It’s pretty powerful to see everything pulled together in one space, a reminder (as if we need it) of just how insane everything was.

The thing the Newseum does well is to look at current events to show the place of free speech in society. If anything its array of daily newspapers emphasizes the differences in this country, but also, very much highlights some of our similarities. It’s true that good, credible, news tries to be unbiased, but each is reflective of a certain subtle direction – and you can see that by a brief scan of headlines from each state in the country. I also appreciated how the Newseum made the connections between communication platforms from a century ago, to the different ways that we get news today.

I’m not sure if I would recommend paying full price, but if you do have time on your hands and want to see some interesting artifacts by all means go.

Going Undercover

The outside of The Spy Museum in Washington, DC at night.
Credit: Sean Rooks on Picasa

My next museum was another half off deal to the International Spy Museum. I will readily admit that I walked into the museum not knowing what to expect, and like the Newseum expected it to be a bit flashy, after all a museum about spies should be all about the spy experience.

When we first got there we were ushered into elevators that took us to the top floor where we were told to memorize an identity in five minutes. It reminded me, on some level, of visiting the Holocaust Museum, where we left the airy lobby space and entered the dank, din horror of the permanent exhibition (via elevator), complete with our own identity cards….but designed to be like a game rather than to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In the Spy Museum we were then sent into an orientation video that walks you through the different faces of being a spy, or a double agent even going so far as to chronicle famous spies and traitors to the United States.

The next stop was outfitting, where were told how to do a dead drop, provide signals, disguise ourselves. We even got to crawl through “ductwork” while listening to bugs placed elsewhere in the exhibition….and that’s where things got less interesting.

I’m not saying that the history of spies through the years wasn’t well done – it just didn’t feel engaging or as dynamic as it is touted to be. The set up is a little confusing, and at times as we hopped from time period to time period, I lost the thread of the over arching narrative for the museum.

And those identities? We were told that we would be quizzed about them—but my friend and I only saw the testing at the end, and we walked away thinking that we had missed some crucial piece along the way. (It was a few questions designed to see if you can travel through customs without arousing suspicion.)

I think I may have expected too much, and instead of seeing through the hype was disappointed when I wasn’t “wowed.”

New York Public Library's Main Inquiry Desk (c.1923). Image from the NYPL Flickr Stream.

A Centennial

I’ve often heard that the architecture of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is a must-see for visitors to the city. So when I had a chance to visit a few weeks ago, I decided to go. It is a beautiful building. Great arches, stonework, what you feel a library should look like. Though there wasn’t time to go through the reading rooms, I did walk through the centennial exhibition “Celebrating 100 Years.”

Not a large exhibition, but it was a very effective one. Dividing the room into Observation, Contemplation, Creativity & Society the objects and books reflect documents of discovery, religion, imagination/fiction, and political/social history. Music scores, Charles Dickens’s letter opener, engravings all pull together a bigger picture the written word.

One of the things I loved about the exhibition was how the architecture features of the building were used to enhance the exhibition. Pre-existing columns and archways mark the section breaks moving visitors in a smooth manner.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Toy Theatre mural opposite the Brewmaster's Castle in Dupont Circle.

Earlier in the month I found myself arrested by color in a mural that had gone up in Dupont Circle. It was fairly magnificent and reminded me of why I find myself in awe of individuals who can put together two seemingly disparate shades of color and make them “pop.”

And so a few days later I visited The Ralls Collection in Georgetown to attend a lecture by two artists about the effect of place (specifically, Japan, Korea, and India) on their work. Once again I found myself drawn into the color and the abstract nature of both of their work.

During their gallery talk, John Blee and David Richardson spoke about how their travels influenced the their color palette. Richardson spoke of how his Expatriate series reflects the reds, gray’s, and blacks of Seoul. That being said, neither individual’s work “screams” Asia, and that subtlety is what makes the paintings strong and imaginative.

Both artists are part of the exhibition “20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection” which is filled with a wide array of fantastic pieces. What I loved about the talk was how passionate both artists were about the process, speaking candidly about how they got started, and how their art comes after the inspiration, but also from a place that is sometimes unexplainable.

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While this exhibition is different from the three others I described they each worked to tell a story using color, text, objects in an effective way. If you visit (or have visited) any of these exhibitions let me know what you think in the comments below!

Be an Upstander: Youth Programming and the 2011 AAM Conference

By guest blogger Linda Neylon

This year’s American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas, was the third of these that I have attended. And while each year varies in usefulness to me,  this year’s conference in Houston proved to be one of the most interesting I have been to. Though it has been a few months since the conference I still have many thoughts running through my head from the sessions, as well as from the city itself.

I have never been to Texas, and was looking forward to the experience. One of the people I met at the conference grew up in Texas, and told me that people often ask her if she rode a horse to school.  While I did not think that would be the lifestyle, I will say I was surprised that the only people I saw in cowboy boots at the conference were from the north.  Besides the clothing expectation, I am not sure exactly what I thought Texas would be like—but Houston was definitely not it.

PODS ArtThe city was sprawling, and parts of it reminded me of Levittown, Pennsylvania.  But the area around the conference (downtown, and near Minute Maid Park) was great.  There is a park there call the Discovery Green, that I wish I could have brought back to Pennsylvania.  There were basic science experiences, such as seats with concave backs where two people could talk from a distance and still hear each other.  There were PODS set up in which artists had created pieces, including a “box of curiosities” with an exhibit about Joaquin Squirrelieta: The Battle for Campo De Los Cacahuetes.  This particular art piece spoke to me, seeing the artists’ interpretation of what museums—particularly history museums, are.  And if this is the case, it needs to change.  It was a funny and creative parody, but it would be a sad, sad museum.

So how should we be moving forward with museums?  Many of my colleagues and I are realizing that we need to think beyond the traditional methods of interpretation in museums, and to look at perhaps the scariest audience group we have…teenagers!  I think many of us have something to learn from the Holocaust Museum Houston.

The mission of this museum is: “Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.”  This mission is summed up very succinctly throughout their website, marketing materials, and gift shop, in sentences like “Stop Hate.  Starting Here.”  The museum is a very powerful one, with a very active group of volunteers who are also survivors.  The topic, artifacts, and exhibits are moving, but every step of the way, visitors on a guided tour are reminded of a triangle that the docent carries.  This triangle has three points- “perpetrators,” “bystanders,” and “upstanders,” with “victims” in the middle.  The triangle is used to show that everyone outside of the victims, or targets of hate, have a choice in how they handle it.  Will you pretend that you don’t hear your friend making racist jokes?  Will you stand up for the people your friend is making jokes about (be an “upstander”), or will you participate in making those jokes?

This idea is carried throughout the museum and its programming.  Its program,  Youth and the Law, takes these ideas to at-risk juveniles, as part of the city’s anti-gang task force.  Listening to the educator, I became truly inspired.  She told us that the recidivism rate (the number of times someone re-offends) for teens in her program is lower than that of the standard punishment for juveniles considered at-risk for gangs. While not every museum has the content and ability to participate in something exactly like this, I do think we all have the ability, no matter how hard it is to see at first, to connect to our youth in an important way.

While most of the conference was full of thought-provoking sessions, the time spent at the Holocaust Museum Houston has stuck with me.  It has reminded me of what is possible, and where I have been.  When I worked at the York County Heritage Trust, I worked with teen volunteers (ages 13-18) each year, teaching them history and how to interpret.  Today, many of the teens that have reached college age are studying history in school.  They connected to their history, and it has had a lasting impression.  I feel like I have lost sight of that possibility in recent years, and my time in Houston reminded me of my love for working with teens, and the endless opportunities this age group really does present.  If the Holocaust Museum Houston can have the impact it has had on teens, imagine what more our history museums can accomplish!

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Linda Neylon is a public historian with experience in youth and adult education and interpretation.  She is a graduate of American University’s Public History program, and most recently directed the education program at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

A House Tour – Just Like a Building – Should be Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This blog has been re-posted from the PreservationNation blog.

Chris Madrid French’s recent blog post on Phoenix modernism on Preservation Nation reminded me of a recent weekend jaunt I took just a few miles east in Scottsdale, Arizona.

While there I did what any self respecting historian/preservationist would do and dragged my two cousins and my sister to see a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Taliesin West. I’m going to start off by admitting that I do not know much more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture style than his overarching building ethic of having structures that are “in tune with nature.” I love the way they mirror the landscape, providing an almost abstract art-like vision, modernist masterpieces that are close to the earth. They remind me that the soul of a building is much more than the sums of its parts—as Taliesin West exhibited with its tilted roofline, low ceilings, and sunset colored walls.

As magnificent as the building was, I found myself contemplating another art form—the art of a house tour. Being an interpreter is a tough job. No tour is alike—as I well know from giving historic house tours when I was in college. A guide has to be on his/her toes ready to pull from the reams of knowledge they have amassed. My experience—both in giving and attending—tells me that moving a house tour from good to great also involves the following:

  • Know your audience—at the start of the tour it is fine to ask your group about where they are from—but delve deeper. Find out how much the group knows about the site and why they’ve come to visit. And then ADAPT.
  • Show—don’t tell. Obviously there is a reason that this home/structure/architectural wonder has been preserved. However, a repeated exclamation stating that it is wonderful is not instructive when the evidence is right in front of us.
  • Time. I’ve often found that one of the biggest problems with house tours is the need to fill a specific time frame. It is important to recognize when you don’t have enough material—so as to prevent repetition. It is better to produce a tight program, rather than one that rambles and is repetitive over the course of an hour.
  • Tell us a story. This is a personal preference of mine. The house tours I tend to gravitate to make the broader connections between the architect, the place, and those who lived there. It is that interconnectedness that makes a space come alive and makes those past lives tangible.
Taliesin West

Maybe the early morning 95 degree heat in late March may have had something to do with it, but the last point is why I found the tour at Taliesin West slightly unfulfilling. We had the building, we had the great story of an architect whose work dots the American landscape in many forms, but we also had this amazing living history of a school—and the students who lived (and continue to live) there. However, as we moved around the main area, each of these pieces remained disconnected from one another; each existing as a part of their own separate sphere, ultimately lacking the organic, natural flow emphasized by the teachings of Wright.

As our guide stated—entering a Frank Lloyd Wright house is like listening to music. Each element blends seamlessly with the other—low entryways opening up into a robust chorale of space—with its own volume and tone leading to a symphony of nature in something that is man-made. This is how a great house tour should be: elements building upon one another, sifting through the potential cacophony of information creating seamless (with occasional improvisation) orchestration.

See pictures from Taliesin West.

Learn more about my trip to Arizona.