In April, I stepped into a theater transformed. Gone were the tiers of formal seats dividing the stage from the audience. Instead, I was ushered into a tent holding a ticket marked Kurdistan and led through two countries to a seat on the floor of a raised platform. This was The Jungle, a refugee camp that existed from January 2015-October 2016, in Calais, France.
In May, the seats were back in their seemingly rightful place for a different, yet equally powerful immersive experience. Centered around a photo album featuring Nazi perpetrators vacationing at the concentration and death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, the audience was pulled into a detective story, one where we glimpsed the practice of a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), and the search for meaning within this unexpected object. This was Here There Are Blueberries.
As theatrical performances, both shows were examples of effective stagecraft. Each production connected audience members to complex stories, and each actor’s performance was designed to ask a series of questions about the broader scope of humanity.
As historians we are told to interrogate our sources, trained to see connections, and build a historical argument based on primary, secondary, archeological, and physical documentation. As distant observers of past events, we look for detail and nuance—and for new ways to glean what lives within the silences.
In a lot of ways, this is not far from being an audience member at a Punchdrunk theatrical experience.
Nearly a decade ago as part of a piece on breaking the fourth wall, I described a play called Sleep No More—a co-production between Emursive and Punchdrunk. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth the companies adapted three warehouses in New York City to create a massive theatrical experience. As the story unwound the audience meandered through five floors of sets in a fictional McKittrick hotel, stumbling upon scenes and story elements that included more than just the actors performing before us.
Since that production, I have been fascinated with the storytelling methodology of immersive theater, and in June of 2021, as part of Punchdrunk’s online educational offerings, I took a course on Introduction to Design. I hoped that the course would give me some insight into how immersive theatre layers on different elements of sound, visual spectacle, movement, and narrative cues to build a story that demands the active use of observation by their audience.
Circles are interesting things. Providing an illusion of comfort, they are made up of a series of dots meant to be equidistant from its central point. If you are standing in one, the shape provides a sense of belonging. That we are all in this, whatever this is, together.
However, in a circle there is nowhere to hide. While they imply equal footing, equal power, they also represent transparency, or the hope for clarity.
With that in mind, I spent the 2019 National Council on Public History Annual meeting in circles. These circles were tangible, physical, and metaphorical — but they all connected to a central conversation about the ethics of being a historian. About our truths as professionals where neutrality is no longer an option.
Last November I received a grant to attend a conference I’d had my eye on for a while. A two-day speaker driven event, MuseumNext is a space where individuals from across the museum world (and I do mean world) gather to share the best examples in museum production and practice. For this particular Museum Next, the focus was “designing the future of museums,” and the talks presented dealt with topics ranging from using augmented and virtual reality, to creating unique experiences for visitor engagement.
In my book, The Heart of the River, I wrote that “every adventure starts the same way, with one foot in front of the other.” After averaging 7 miles (14k steps) a day for the last month, I can testify that I embraced my adventure through formal/informal theatrical performances, walking tours, museum visits, historic site wanderings and so, much, more. It wasn’t merely the steps that made a leap forward, but also my mind as I started to pull on different threads of my project on storytelling, trying to find the ways in which these pieces fit and slotted together.
As a reminder here are the four research questions that I presented a few months ago:
What are the ways in which history and culture are being presented in an increasingly digital world?
In what ways do digital projects dealing with art, music, and the past connect with the public beyond a momentary impression?
What are some of the innovative ways in which the arts and history intersect to tell a narrative – both offline and online? How can we create a more fully immersive experience for the user?
How do various historical presentations and cultural mechanisms relate and effect individual and collective identity?
It’s difficult to describe the way Italy inspires. Perhaps it is the unchecked eating of pasta and gelato, or the way we learned to appreciate beautiful vistas amidst ungodly heat (heat wave code name: Lucifer).
Whatever it is, my feet hate me, but my heart is soaring. There is a lot to tell from this trip so far, but I’ll start with one pertinent to my storytelling project.
From the outset of this project my first lesson about studying the past sketched out the rough edge of my frame of reference. More specifically, that in addition to written chronicles, one of our primary sources of evidence comes from the stratigraphic layers written in the earth.
I grew up comparing the work of archaeologists to time traveling, where each layer took us further back through the ages, revealing how each era built and settled upon the times before.
Many fans of fantasy and sci-fi fall into two different camps: those who love time travel and those who don’t. For those who love it, suspension of belief is sufficient to get through the paradoxes that these narratives develop over time. The inverse is true for those who abhor stories that change the past, because repercussions from the butterfly effect leads to stories that are convoluted and messy.
I thought about this the other day when watching Rogue One, last year’s Star Wars movie about a group of rebels plotting to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star. While thrilling in its own right it is only through the final minutes (the final, last ditch, effort to escape Darth Vader) where we see the connective tissue between this film and 1977’s A New Hope.
In some ways it feels like a historical document. A primary source that fills in a missing piece — why everyone fears Darth Vader, just how desperate Princess Leia was to get the plans away from her ship, the absolute critical nature of C3PO and R2D2’s mission. It puts things into perspective and provides insight into a story that captured my imagination for the past twenty years. Continue reading “Journey to the Past: Timeless & the History Film Forum”→
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 design—but 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”→
This post originally appeared on History@Work. You can read it here.
My daily job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation doesn’t involve day-to-day interaction with the broader public. Rather I am a historiographer, in that in my work as a content manager for preservation professionals, I am constantly thinking about the methodology of history–how we protect, communicate, and talk about the past. At the National Council on Public History annual meeting this past April, I realized that our most successful conversations and discussions were the panels and sessions that actively included the public’s viewpoint as part of the presentation. Continue reading “Challenging the exclusive past | Challenging my inclusive past”→
It’s been over a week and I’m still thinking about the Slate Academy symposium “How Do We Get Americans to Talk Honestly about Slavery.” Why? It’s not just because the subject matter resonates with a lot of current events on race and class. It’s not just because the panel mimicked how I think about public history i.e. through a broader lens of objects, oral histories, literature, and popular culture. Rather, it is because the conversation presented to us represents a lesson on how to talk honestly about the entire past, period.
A culmination of a podcasting series for Slate Academy the live symposium brought together experiential historians, museum professionals, divers, authors, critics, and a pop culture icon to investigate the process of myth-making surrounding slavery. The strength of the symposium lay in participants ability to delve beneath the surface of history to identify ways to encourage a dialogue in the face of resistance. To investigate, as culinary historian Michael Twitty says, how “slavery is not a blip, but a chronic condition.” Continue reading “Talking Honestly About the Past”→