Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Making History Interesting and the Role of Cultural Institutions

According to the History News Network on a web page titled Teaching Kids Who Find History Boring, "Surveys routinely rank history at the bottom of students' favorite subjects." This is troubling. Cultural illiteracy threatens our civilized memory. Decisions about the progression of society -- governments we want in power, for what purpose we want to use our money, what scientific innovations we want to support, etc. -- should come in large part from a basic understanding of man's past. Without a familiarity with the laws, momentous events, and formulative decisions of a people, one cannot continue to move society ahead in an informed way. Study of the past gives us an overall perspective, a general understanding of how and why things happen, empathy, and moral intelligence.

To initiate a conversation with people about history, it is important for cultural heritage professionals to directly relate the idea that everything has a history. No matter what your interest, there is a history to it. So, if we start with the premise that there is at least some history for everyone, we immediately can make history more relevant to our audience. Are you a science person instead of a liberal arts person? Well, science has a history. Read about Madame Curie or visit an exhibit about the invention of the telescope. Do you consider yourself a theater type person? Read about stage direction in Shakespeare's time or the evolution of the film industry.

Though cultural heritage professionals generally focus on how their individual institutions present history through collections,programs and exhibits, we must also work to improve the study of history in schools. Children cannot just pick any subject they think they like as suggested above and avoid a curriculum. Students must read about the Roman Empire or the Crusades, and Ancient Egypt. But people are people no matter the time or place. The problem with the study of history in many schools, I think, is an emphasis on dates and names instead of a shared humanity. Teachers should encourage students to put themselves in another person's shoes. What if you were a child on a ship that was crossing the Atlantic to move to the New World; would you have been able to bring your favorite doll? Would you have even owned a favorite doll? What food would you have eaten? How would you go to the bathroom? These are the types of questions that awaken young children's creativity and imagination. One can allow older students to explore the topics that interest them in relation to the assignment. What sports did members of a certain culture play? How did they cook their food? What types of clothes did they wear?

One suggestion on the History Network page is to teach children backwards. Start history with the student and relate past events to the culture mankind has created today. The writer says that this seems "counterintuitive", but it makes perfect sense to me. Everyone wants to understand how they fit in. When I attend a party and ask someone how many kids he has or what she does for a living, I expect the person with whom I am speaking to ask about me. We talk back and forth figuring out where we fit into the other person's story, to see if we are compatible. Everyone wants to talk about oneself. The study of history is like a party conversation. We want to see our relationship with the rest of the crowd. It all relates back to us.

Telling history backwards also gives us permission to put a modern perspective on events, while encouraging us to gain a better understand of how our ancestors thought. If we start with 2,000 year old history, it may seem out of touch and confusing. If we start now and work backwards, we can better decipher how we got where we are today. The people and events from the past that influence us today are given an historical thread that ties them directly to the present when we study backwards. It makes past civilizations more like us and more attune with our own reality.

On HNN, an author suggested making history more "narrative." The value of an enthusiastic, well-educated teacher was emphasized. "
History is a story, thus it is essential that the history teacher be a good story-teller." Cultural heritage institutions have a great role to play in this narrative and can make themselves useful to teachers. Use of archives and artifacts can make a story come alive. Placing an object held by a person who lived many years ago can be powerful. Touching an old photo, or a diary written by a young person from a different time has the power to transport us. Walking in a place where many walked before can open our eyes to the historical narrative, giving us a part in the human story. Original resources play a different role than textual narrative. The immediacy of an old item moves beyond storytelling to give us a direct connection to our past. Reading about the American Civil War is different than holding the letters a dying soldier wrote home to his mother. The remarkableness of historical circumstances can be hammered home by incorporating primary materials into the study of history.

Archives and artifacts boost the narrative by imbuing it with stark realism. Many teachers of history seem not to put much stock in this. Others find that the necessary resources are not easily accessible within the classroom. Cultural heritage professionals are the gatekeepers to the resources, we must collaborate with our teachers to encourage an understanding of the role collection items can play and to make our materials available to students. Projects such as American Memory aim to make original resources more accessible, but local organizations have a role to play as well, to bring original items into the classroom and not just computerized images of them.

The challenges of teaching history well and overcoming cultural illiteracy are vast. It is time for cultural heritage professionals to re-examine their role related to this issue and to pursue greater collaborative efforts to make history interesting to the general populace.

Monday, June 28, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Provenance

This curious image caught my eye at the local antique shop. Do you spot something odd about it?
Why is the girl in the front row holding a "No Hunting" sign?

Otherwise, this class (supposedly graduated from a New Hampshire school) strikes me as rather ordinary. Typical hair, dress, and dark lipstick of the period in a rather ordinary New England room, with steamers that provide a clue about a celebration of some sort. The image is interesting from a provenance perspective. In fact, all images that end up at the antique shop interest me in this way. How do people's private images wind up here? Would they miss them? Would they be upset to know that I am evaluating them?

In the archives field, "provenance" is important for determining the authenticity of materials and for understanding the contextual value of items. If I were to do more research on this image, I would start with the information given to me by the antique dealer. The dealer's label reads "circa 1940s Lakemont Academy photos." As an archivist, I would not presume that this is factual from someone else's identification. If I cared to take the time for my personal collection (or were managing a collection in which this photo would serve as documentation of a community), I would try to confirm what the dealer has told me. To do this, I would need to find other similar collections. by contacting the dealer to ask from where he got this material. Then, I would contact the family, collection, etc. from where he said it originated. Or, I would contact the Lakemont Historical Society or another repository in the area and seek similar collections to compare the faces in the photo and find out more information about the Lakemont classes from the 1940s.

The first image was accompanied by a second one and the two were sold together for ten dollars. (Overpriced, I think, but I was really curious about that "no hunting sign.") The second image is of the school's basketball team. Some of the boys appear in both photos, and the basketball shirts do say "Lakemont," making me more confident about their origin. But the more information I could gather about the items the better and I would work to unravel the puzzle until I was confident about the items' origin - putting the images into context, learning more about this class, and perhaps learning how the antique dealer came by these images.

Confirming provenance gives users of archival material a context. Random photos found in an antique shop may not be interesting until we can relate them to ourselves, our community, or a personal interest. A fellow Lakemont grad or basketball team member may have found this fascinating despite their initial ordinary appearance.

Or, than again, that "no hunting" sign may have been enough to pique someone else's curiosity...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Life Stories

History is made up of life stories. Learning about and analyzing others' lives helps us define who we are and who we want to be. It helps us understand how society functions, why events happen, and how we can change situations. History helps foster compassion, allowing us to compare other life stories to our own, encouraging us to try to put ourselves in another person's circumstance. The study of individual stories helps us plan our actions with an awareness of how similar situations played out when certain procedures were followed.

Much has been written about the importance of history, but the idea of individual life stories is often given less significance. There is a focus on the role of events themselves, groups, or institutions. The individual stories collected by genealogists, oral historians, and others offer much evidence about the functions of society. These stories should be cherished by the archivist and the idea of the value of individual stories should be presented to our audiences.

Much of what people think and act upon is never recorded. Documented history is often based on what is found and this includes materials created during day-to-day activities that often exhibit surface details - who was involved, what was the event, and what was the product. Many times the information about why decisions were made, how many concepts were rejected until the solution was accepted, and how individuals dealt with conflict are not recorded. These details relate directly to individual stories that can be gathered for history through supplementary oral histories, as well as writing projects. Much is being done by institutions in the oral history department, but not so much in the journaling arena.

Diaries are a boon to the historian when they are found, but people often do not keep journals. Can and should an archivist encourage local community members to record their own personal life stories to boost the evidence we can leave for posterity? I think that encouraging journal writing (or the creation of personal recordings for those who don't like to "put pen to paper") can be an integral part of an archives program. Individual stories that are recorded when a person is comfortable can help individuals bring out information about themselves that they cannot access in other ways. Whether one likes to silently contemplate, listen to music, be among a group of other writers, sit outdoors, or in one's room, the act of sitting and recording one's thoughts can bring out ideas that are not expressed in other ways or in other circumstances.

For motivation to start your own journaling projects to promote community documentation, the following links are useful. Please add more links if you have some or comment to promote your own diary documentation projects

written on the margins: Girls’ Diary Writing as Cultural Production
National Diary Archive
Library and Archives of Canada:Behind the Diary, Introduction: Life Writing
The Online Diary History Project
Do History: Martha Ballard's Diary online

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop

"As we look at this luxuriant plantation we get the feeling of actually breathing the hot and humid atmosphere of a tropical jungle."

People once bought stereoscopes to learn about foreign lands and as a form of entertainment. The 3D images add a little touch of realism that people could not get from a book or snapshot image.

This card is from the Keystone View Company, which was once the largest company of its kind. The image on the front was accompanied by information about the scene on the back. Written poetically, the text gives the viewer a sense of adventure in an "exotic" place most would likely never see in person.

My daughter and I found a box of these cards and similar ones at the local antique shop for a dollar each. She was enamored with the donkeys and immediately intrigued by the bananas. Our stereoscope has been a great learning tool to not only glimpse foreign lands, but to also connect with the past.

Interesting Related links:

New York Stereoscopic Society

3D Center of Art and Photography

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


In an article I am working on for a history journal I write, "A community is a formal or informal group with a common history. The community can be based around a geographic area or topic of interest. Communities can be represented by civic organizations, governments, informal social groups, educational institutions, causes, and the like. Cultural institutions support the collective memories of communities by retaining materials that reflect individual group member’s ideas and remembrances, documenting special events as well as day-to-day activities."

This role of co
mmunity support is one of the most important jobs of a museum or Archives. Cultural institutions help transfer the knowledge, beliefs, customs, artistic essence, memories, shared experiences and history of communities. By doing so, they aid the transference of human wisdom from one generation to the next.

Members of any
given community will belong to many other communities, producing overlapping social circles. Cultural heritage institutions help pronounce the overlap between groups, citing our similarities and promoting understanding and empathy. [Please pardon my not-so-perfect, rough drawing of overlapping communities. Members of one community may belong to some similar communities, but may differ in other memberships. All of the communities here can be broken down further. For example, "Beliefs" can include religion, political affiliation, etc.]

For those interested in how cultural heritage institutions feed communities, Robert R. Archibald's A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community explains how the individual connects with his world through his own memories and experiences, while also learning from the knowledge of others passed through time. It is a book that I return to again and again in my personal library.

Much recent writing in the field of archives in particular has focused on documenting various communities. An article in the latest issue (Spring / Summer 2010) of the American Archivist titled "Documenting the Immigrant and Ethnic Experience in American Archives" discusses the need for and challenge of documenting "ethnic" communities. It is a thought provoking look at the idea of "activist archivists" who approach their work with the idea that collections should reflect diversity. The article discusses how those collecting records must work with those in the communities creating them.

If we accept that a significant role of the cultural heritage institution is to document diverse communities and we are open to the challenge of the "activist archivist" (for lack of a better term) or the "activist curator," our challenge becomes identifying the communities one should document. There is presumably an unlimited number of communities that exist. Beginning with my outline of humanity's cultural groups, cultural heritage professionals can seek to recognize the communities that their institution should embody and consider how these groups are represented by their collections and programs.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Archives in Movies

A recent blog from a self described generation Y, non-profit marketer, museum lover has got us thinking in the Twittersphere. Can archives compete with 8 great movies with museum scenes? We are wondering how many movies include people who work in, run through, and otherwise encounter archives. Please add to this list and maybe include a short summary if you would like to help your fellow archives lovers with their summer movie wishlist. (Thanks to Shauna Hicks for the challenge! )

Two well known contemporary movies with archives include:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Gondorian archivist helps Gandolf find information about the dangerous and powerful ring in Frodo's possession.

National Treasure - Characters seek clue on back of Declaration of Independence located at the National Archives that will supposedly lead them to treasure buried by Founding Fathers of the United States. (sequel: National Treasure: Book of Secrets returns with archives themes)

Below are some links that provide more information about our fictional world:

Fictional Archivists and Curators

Thanks to Kirsten White for link to The Fictional World of Archives, Art Galleries and Museums

Looking for librarian in the movies? Check out Movie Librarians: Notable Librarians and Libraries in Films

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Want More Visitors? Don't Be Pretentious

One concept that I was taught as an undergraduate twenty years ago has stuck with me throughout my career. My museum studies professor told us about famed child psychologist Robert Coles who practiced in Boston. He took his patients to the Museum of Arts for his sessions with them. Many of these youngsters lived within walking distance of the Museum, but had never visited. They were afraid to go into the imposing building. Many of them were from underprivileged families. Their parents told them that the museum was for other people and not for them. They couldn't relate to it. The institution seemed pretentious.

Coles set out to break down barriers by bringing his patients to the museum. His visits helped raised the self-esteem of those he introduced to the institution's remarkable holdings. He sought to raise the bar for their visions of the future by allowing the young visitors to realize that these resources were meant for them too. They could appreciate aspects of the same culture that wealthier patrons enjoyed. They shouldn't feel shut out. They too could be uplifted by the creations of men and women, some of whom had backgrounds similar to their own.

Cultural institutions walk a fine line between inspirational culturing and pompousness. It is a line about which we should always be aware. We should aim to inspire and educate, but we must do so with an eye toward relating to an audience on their level. We should give patrons something to relate to with high culture peppering our efforts when appropriate.

This past weekend, my husband and I went to see the re-release of "Metropolis." Released in the 1920s, this German silent movie tells the story of class distinctions with a sci-fi bent. The movie is 3 hours long. After waiting in line for an hour at the Coolidge Corner Theatre to get good seats, we were "treated" to a half-hour diatribe about the film before we got to see it. For one, I just wanted to see the film. As a former art history student, I am not always put off by highfalutin lectures, but that was not why I came to the theater that day. For another, I had already read about most of what was told to me in the lecture. The movie was going to be long enough as it was. To be sure, most of the audience was made up of geeks like my husband and me. If they wanted to know more about the film, they could have researched it when they got home.

The role of a cultural institution is to present culture and help start a conversation about it. If the audience wants to evaluate the high brow merits of a film, they will find a way to do that. All you have to do is give them an outlet. It doesn't have to be an in-your-face presentation. If the audience doesn't want erudite, don't turn them off to your institution by forcing it down their throats.

Here's another example...about two years ago, I took my four-year-old to see a local ballet production of a fun fairy tale. My daughter was just starting ballet and I thought it would be fun to amend her studies with a trip to a performance. The first hour of the production included dances from Swan Lake and other famous ballets. The dance we came to see was last. Nothing in the advertising for the program told us that they were going to include anything other than the fairy tale. By the time what we came to see went on stage, my girl was wiggling and no longer interested. Did the ballet win a little fan by trying to culture us or by showing us what they were capable of doing? No. In fact, we will never go see one of their productions again.

We run the risk of driving people away when we insist on promoting high culture without thought to relating on the audience's level. More troubling to me, when we aim to show off the refinement all cultural institutions can possess, we can make many people feel excluded. A cultural institution should be about inclusion and not exclusion. If you show your visitors how your holdings and activities are about them, people are more likely to relate to you and support you. Aim to demonstrate that your institution is a reflection of humanity, showcasing items made by people like you and me -- perhaps these creators had a special talent, but they are still only human. In general, people don't like pretentiousness. We can usually spot it a mile away and if you are like me, you try to keep your distance.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Branding for Cultural Institutions

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about branding. "Branding" is how we help make sure that what we want to project to the world is how the world sees us. It seems that everyone is branding these days. College grads are even "branding" themselves for their job search. Be sure of this, the new generation is even trying to figure out your brand. Are you someone they want to stick around and listen to or are you irrelevant to their lives?

What is your brand? We want our museum / library / archive to be a vital community entity. We know cultural institutions are important because they stand as a testament to the community's sense of self, they hold useful educational materials, they allow citizens to review their past so that they can better move into the future... whatever value you perceive in yourself, branding helps you better express it to the public. Branding yourself tells onlookers in direct and simple ways what they can expect from you. Branding makes your value clear and straight forward rather than nebulous.

I like the word nebulous. It is a bit ethereal and makes me think of misty places that I can wander and find wonderful things. But I know that most people are not like me. I am told this a lot by those closest to me when I wonder why other people do not want to spend the entire day at the bookstore. I am also reminded when others do not want to do things like stop to see the marker on the side of the road that tells the history of a general whose house once stood on a nearby hill. Can you relate? If you are a wanderer, you need to clip or refocus your habits once in awhile for those who do not easily wander with you.

Give your message clearly. Express what value you have directly to your public and do not suppose that they will just see your value. Make yourself interesting in a couple of sentences. Think mission statement, bulleted key words, tag line, and logo. Having a "brand" makes you appear more focused and credible. Try to tie your brand directly to your audience -- to do so requires that you know a little about them. To which communities do your collections and programs appeal and why? How can they connect to you emotionally?

How do you motivate them to come in the door, stay and come back again? Give them a piece of your brand. Make it match their own perceived personal brand.

Though branding aims for quick, meaningful descriptions that connect with an audience, branding does not necessarily happen in one shot. Use multiple media and deliver multiple connected thoughts. Let people see you again and again with an appealing message or interesting related ideas. If you stay on track, your appropriate audience can then fit you nicely into their world, perceive your value and even help convey that value to others.

People are judging you and that can be very uncomfortable. Give them some tangible, well conceived ideas to help them form their ideas about you rather than letting them come up with vague (or nebulous) interpretations of your identity and what you represent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cultural Heritage Collaborators (1st peek & seeking reviewers)

As reviews come in for my soon to be released book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation" I want to shout "They get it!"

This is one of my "official" book descriptions:

Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation is a practical guide for communities working to identify, preserve, and leverage their historical resources to promote cultural heritage and local spirit. The book aims shows the pervasiveness of historical records within our civilization and how everyone can be a "cultural heritage collaborator" to ensure that a complete record of our society is kept for future generations.

- Twelve model repositories
- The Who, What, and Why of Collecting Historical Records

- Collection Development and Collaboration

- The Practice of Collection Development
- Worksheets for surveying and appraising collections
- Tips for writing mission statements and policy

However, any writing about a broad topic can impact any one reader in a unique, unpredictable way. This book invites readers from very differing backgrounds -- museum professionals, librarians, and archivists, as well as non-cultural heritage professionals -- to apply very specific archives concepts to their own unique situations. It is a pleasure to me that those few who have thus far studied the manuscript have each found something worthwhile in the writing from their particular perspective and have responded positively to the idea of Cultural Heritage Collaboration.

I've pasted the reviews below and invite you to join the Collaboration. Do you bring a unique perspective? Would you care to write a review? Please contact me and we'll talk.


Melissa Mannon's book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation, begins with a surprising premise - surprising, at least, for a non-archivist. Archives, she contends, forms the foundation for our society and civilization and thus, should provide the basis for community partnerships amongst cultural organizations. To think this way is likely nothing new to those who prize the written-record as the preeminent trait of authentic culture and personal heritage, but this book goes beyond the pats-on-the-back that deeply-entrenched professionals too often engage in. Rather, she provides a spirited manifesto for how and why those in the record collecting business can reframe their centrality in the process of community-building, especially within professions that too-often remain in different camps.

In short order Mannon argues a convincing case for the centrality of archival records for the public good; offers clear, direct, and helpful community-based examples that feel more like customizable templates rather than absolute prescripts; and, uplifts both the committed professional and the dedicated amateur alike. Her definitions of the related, but distinct, concepts of collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and partnership are especially instructive and delivered in clear-cut suggestions with an eye towards moving individuals and organizations towards strategic-thinking in collections development. Whether desirous of obtaining a sense of the philosophical foundations, historical understanding, practical methods, or real-life snapshots of archives at work within communities, any professional working in the world of community-building through heritage and cultural resources could find something of value here.

- Ryan Lewis
Program Officer - Outreach and Programs
Illinois Humanities Council

This book is a practical guide not only on how to create, organize, and maintain an Archives but also-and more importantly-how to preserve our future through collaboration between local historical groups, businesses, and government agencies. Understanding that this is not a task to be taken on by a singular group, that it is an ongoing process rather than one set in stone and antiquity, and that it can be successful no matter what size group is undertaking the work, are the basic tenets of Mannon's book.

Cultural Heritage Collaborators is a must-have guide for any group working with any sort of historical documents. Whether you are familiar with best practices and institutional standards or not, this book puts things into perspective as to how documents should be managed amongst collaborative local groups. For those who aren't that knowledgeable on how to maintain our cultural heritage, or how to develop community relations to strengthen efforts of preservation, this book will definitely help get you off on the right foot.

Mannon's work is not only inspiring and informative, but it truly conveys her enthusiasm toward documenting cultural heritage and the importance of preserving our collective past. It shows us all that there are feasible steps to take in organizing and caring for historical documents for future generations to cherish and use as tools to uncover the cultural past. Whether a self-taught historian or professionally trained archivist, this book holds great value for any audience who searches to collaborate with their neighbors to document any aspect of a community.

- Erin Andrews, Master of History Museum Studies
Past president of the Sidney Historical Association, Sidney, New York

Collaboration as a concept is not new. We've seen it successfully working with groups, businesses, and people. But when it comes to protecting the archival portion of our cultural heritage, collaboration is not necessarily the first thought that comes to mind. Whether this stems from territorialism, fear of the process, or simply it never came up, collaboration in the archival arena may actually be the answer to saving these precious materials.

Cultural Heritage Collaborators has come out at a critical time in our country's history. Economic crises have forced the closure of museums and libraries and their archives, as well as businesses that also have archival materials. With an eye to the future, Ms. Mannon's manual provides clear steps that any group can follow to collaboratively collect, protect, maintain, and expand archives that are important to a community's history as well to our country's. Not merely laden with theory, Cultural Heritage Collaborators contains real examples of collaborative efforts to save archival materials that are working. While there is no "right" way to be successful in the collaborative process, the steps on why and how to start, the cautions, index, and bibliography are important elements in this easy to read manual that can insure success.

As someone who spends many hours using the materials found in archives and discovering small collections that really need proper care and maintenance, this book provides the much needed information to protect their future. Truly it will take a village of diverse individuals and groups to appreciate and undertake the protection of its archives. But future generations will understand and benefit from the effort if we use Cultural Heritage Collaboration as the foundation for demonstrating our responsibility in protecting this sometimes under valued part of a community's history.

- Donna J. Reiner, PhD
Museum Consultant