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.

Pursuing Pensacola: Final Thoughts

Wordle Map of the NCPH 2011 Conference by Cathy Stanton

In the last week I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about Pensacola….

NCPH 2011: Shared Authority, Creating a Commons–Another Day at THAT Camp
NCPH 2011: A Public History “Spring” Break (blog.preservationnation.org)
History that is Difficult to Do (NCPH Conference Blog)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 1)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 2)

…and this one is the last. As always NCPH brought with it a meeting of minds, and a reminder of why I love history so much. The commitment and passion that comes with this yearly gathering forces me to look at how I work, and how I see the past with different tools and audiences. Often, I leave with a lot of great ideas, without enough time to bring them to fruition–and I would love for this year to be different. Specifically, I am excited about the next five years and what the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this morning with shots being fired at Fort Sumter) will mean for the growth of historical discourse and memory in this country. How can we look to and learn from other commemorations to make sure that this volatile and game-changing period of America’s past is understood to  its full measure?

It’s an exciting time for public history–and I am proud and exhilarated to be a part of it.

Food. Food. Food.

What would a blog post about my travels be without a conversation about food. While I did eat at various places in the Historic Pensacola Village, there are three that I wanted to highlight

Dolce in Historic Pensacola Village: I really should only have to type out the following words–home made ice cream. With chocolate flavored with beer, or vanilla with fig each of the flavors at this store were great to eat. Especially in the lovely spring weather. The fact that it is located inside one of the Village’s restored homes makes it even better.

Five Sisters Blues Cafe: The marquee at the left may give you an idea of what the ambiance of this cafe was like. With live blues music, and perfect fried chicken and macaroni I was left in a puddle of southern home cooking goodness. I ate far too much for my own good, but would tell you that even if you eat until you can’t eat any more, you must try the mashed potatoes.

Nacho Daddies: I know the name is slightly ridiculous, but I loved the pineapple-mango salsa on my vegetarian/chicken tacos. It’s a great, independent fast food place with an excellent vibe. The sopapilla‘s were flaky and sweet and complimented the light nature of the tacos.

Everyone ate ate at least one Fried Green Tomatoes while in Florida. Yum!

Pictures!

Stepping Out in Portland

Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city. It’s not too enormous or too small in its harmonious setting between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, which are flanked (on a clear day) by the snowy peak of Mount Saint Helens reaching into a beautiful blue sky.

That’s what Saturday was like at the National Council on Public History Conference, revealing to me just what a walkable, bike-friendly city looks like. I spent one of my breaks eating at Voodoo Doughnut and at various food carts, all while meandering through street fairs and Powell’s Bookstore (their architecture and history sections are like time warps – prepare to lose four hours in a flash). All in all, a good ending to a fantastic four days.

That being said, let’s take stock on the last two days of the conference. Friday morning I moderated a panel with David Brown (the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive vice president), Ian Fawcett (deputy executive director of the Land Conservancy of British Columbia), and Liz Dunn (consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab). The session explored the work of the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) and how climate change is being thought about by their member organizations across the globe. In putting together this panel, I wanted to spread the great information from the INTO conference in Dublin this past year. You can read one attendee’s reaction here.

Following this, I boarded a bus out to Dundee Hills to visit the Sokol Blosser Winery, an organic sustainable winery that is home to the first LEED certified silver wine cellar. The owners of Sokol Blosser understand the need for sustainable farming and viticulture and have adopted it wholeheartedly, managing to convince the vineyards surrounding them to work with them to accomplish their goals. More on that in a bit.

So, what does all this have to do with preservation?

On the one hand, the story of the vineyard speaks to what historians can accomplish (the founders of the vineyard were both history majors in the 1970’s), but it also attempts to answer a question we struggled with earlier in the week – how do we reach the public and show them that sustainability is a part of our future, and more specifically that historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand within that future?

When I first started at the National Trust almost four years ago, I knew almost nothing about how the environmental movement was linked with old buildings (aside, of course, from the role of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in the creation of the National Park System). It took time reading and listening for me to understand why this is an integral part of what we do.

As a public historian/preservationist, it is important to recognize all the ways that history and the past connect with the public, even when this connection reflects highly volatile and controversial current issues like global warming and sustainability. We always throw around the fact that history is relevant in the here and now – that it is an important part of daily life and is ingrained in community character. The acknowledgement of this link between the public at the grassroots level and our role as historians/preservationists/public historians at the professional level needs to happen in sync with the work we do on policy and other legislation.

Let’s take a step back to the vineyard. The owners of Sokol Blosser knew they wanted to have a vineyard that was organic and sustainable, but they knew they couldn’t do it by themselves. So they reached out to their neighbors, trained their employees, and created a mindset within their own community about the importance of being green. Similarly, we recognize that the work we do on this issue is about more than just saving historic places; it is about preserving ecosystems and landscapes that are a part of historic view sheds, and consequently a way of life. We work within our organizations to communicate this belief and to spread the word to our memberships. We are ambassadors that are helping to usher forth an engaged, knowledgeable, and determined public.

Yes, this is a slow process, but it will continue to be advanced by gathering at conferences like the 2010 National Council on Public History/Environmental Historian Conference, where we all stepped out of our disciplinary silo’s and talked to one another.

Also cross posted on the PreservationNation.org Blog and the NCPH2010 Blog.