Valley Forge: An American Treasure Worth Saving — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information.

By Gert Hynes

In September 2017, a hurricane evacuation from South Carolina took me to family in Pennsylvania. While there, in an attempt to use our time wisely, we visited Valley Forge National Park, which was a first for me. I was shocked and amazed at the size of this American treasure, and embarrassed that as a former “northerner” I’d never been there.  It covers nearly 3,500 acres and is a short 12 miles outside of Philadelphia.

As we explored the grounds, it was easy to understand why Washington chose this place for his headquarters.  It sits high upon a mountain overlooking the valley below – an excellent spot for surveillance of enemy maneuvers.  Approaching this amazing building, you get a sense of admiration, not only for the architectural integrity of the structure itself, but for the wisdom of the “Father of Our Country.”  Visitors are free to examine the rooms inside which include an office with a drop-leaf table where business was conducted, circa 1740, a simple but elegant bedroom for George and Martha Washington, complete with a mahogany and maple bed, circa 1770’s, and a second bedroom that served as an additional office or room for guests if needed.

Outside, visitors can wander into primitive soldier’s cabins, explore the nearly 30 miles of hiking trails or enjoy the manicured lawns.  We took advantage of a warm sunny afternoon with a picnic lunch.  Leashed pets are welcome, and my dog Henley enjoyed her time there as well.  The park has many educational opportunities in the form of an interactive walking tour with a Park Ranger, trolley tours, and tales of bravery, spies, and heroism given by professional and amateur “storytellers.”

In 1993, a monument to the “Patriots of African Descent” was erected at Valley Forge National Park in recognition for the African soldiers who fought with Washington at Valley Forge in 1777.  This “monumental” monument was sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter.

The park is also home to numerous wildlife species, including deer, foxes, Eastern cottontails, and even coyotes.  Birdwatchers have identified over 225 species of birds, including the bald eagle, osprey, and peregrine falcons.  The creeks abound with trout, bass, and catfish, and the meadows and forests attract not only butterflies, but a multitude of other insect species.

It all seems wonderful, however, nothing in this world is perfect, and amid the history and educational opportunities, problems also prevail.  In the late 1960’s a manufacturing company disposed of asbestos waste into sections of the Schuylkill River and quarries that became part of Valley Forge State Park.  After years of site clean-up, in March 2018 the National Park Service inspected the area and found it poses no risk to the ecology or humans, and tree replacement and site work was scheduled to be completed in late 2018. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/management/asbestos.htm

Bridge and road construction projects have closed several park trails, one through 2020.  Mt. Joy, a “social” trail has developed a major problem involving erosion and damage to earthworks constructed by the Continental Army. Continuous hiking and steep hills have left much of the area vegetation unable to grow and soil is being washed away. Some sections of the trail intersect re-forested areas and allow invasive plants to eliminate natural rebirth of native plants. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/planyourvisit/conditions.htm

Climate change has also put this historical site at risk.  Recent intense storms have sharpened awareness of the damage flooding, wind-broken trees, and erosion can cause. https://www.nps.gov/vafo/getinvolved/climate-change.htm

I think we should take a hard look at the past to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes with our future.  The time is now to face the truths about climate change, pollution, and development, and the effects of abuse they’ve instilled in our country.  These are sacred lands that our forefathers laid their lives on the line to protect – it’s ou turn to recognize our obligations to deal with the salvation of our heritage.

Photo information: George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge (1777-1778)

https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/upload/Washington-s-Headquarters-Book.pdf

via Valley Forge: An American Treasure Worth Saving — CCU Public History Fall 2018

Leicester and Richard III

Saturday began our last full day in England, and we caught the train to Leicester on the way back to London so I could see my favorite monarch of English/British history: Richard III. If you follow my Instagram you may have seen my epic r3 Halloween costume, and if you’re on Twitter, you’ll know fake r3chard has retweeted me like 3 times now. We’re basically best internet friends.

Mom and I got into Leicester and decided to try to find a place to leave our luggage. If anyone is looking for a lucrative business to open: start a found luggage in Leicester. We carried our giant bags all over the town with no luck. The Visitors Center couldn’t help us; the museum couldn’t store bags for insurance reasons (fair). We had already bought our tickets, I was tired and hangry, and nothing was going our way. My mom, saint that she is, decided to hole up in a café with tea and cake and babysit our bags while I went to the museum. Not ideal, but at least I got to see what there was to see.

The Richard III Visitor Center is built around the archaeological site where in 2012, archaeologists found the remains of the last Plantagenet. The archaeological story itself is fascinating, because it is not at all usual for an archaeological investigation to find exactly what it is looking for on the first try; but that’s just what happened in this case. There is a Smithsonian documentary all about the discovery available on YouTube here.

The visitor begins in a display about the history of the War of the Roses, family lines, and the reasons for the turmoil that surrounded Richard III’s reign. From there, you travel through the War of the Roses, RIII’s short reign, and his burial at Grey Friar’s Priory. Heading upstairs, visitors encounter a display that discusses the portrayals of Richard as a villain throughout popular culture, from Shakespeare to the recent Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal.

Next, the display walks the visitor through the entire story of the dig from its beginning through to the discovery and analysis of the Richard’s remains. This was great! The timeline included artifacts from the dig, video interviews with the archaeologists and others involved in the venture, and diagrams. The exhibit then represents scientists’ analysis of Richard’s bones through medical testing and forensic recreations. One controversy was that of Richard’s scoliosis; many proponents of R3 have relegated the story of the hunchback king to a tale made up by Shakespeare and other detractors to vilify and lessen the monarch in some way.  When the skeleton was uncovered, it was obvious that the scoliosis was a fact after all.

The visitor center experience ends with a visit to the site where the bones were found in the parking lot that used to house the church. The websitedescribes it as, “the site of King Richard’s burial, preserved in a quiet, respectful setting and with a contemplative atmosphere, fitting for the last resting place of a slain warrior and anointed monarch.” The room is quiet and simple, and a hologram shows where the bones were found within the unit. The volunteer in the room when I visited was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, pointing out features in the dig that helped to date the remains.

Across the courtyard from the visitor center stand Leicester Cathedral, where the remains of Richard are interred. The church also has a display about Richard and his discovery and subsequent reburial (and a giftshop, too!).

Behind the church another gem is hidden: The Guildhouse. This is a medieval timbered building dating back to 1390 in its oldest part. The architecture and features throughout are gorgeous, from the soaring timbered ceiling to the mantels to the upstairs library. The site is also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Britain, as the helpful museum employee told me as I walked through the building on my own. I managed to scare myself nearly to death when I looked into an old jail cell and saw a mannequin in the darkness.

Through hordes of football fans on their way to a match, we made our way back to the train station and headed back to London, content with our few days in Yorkshire and our day in Leciester. We were back to London for one more night, a classy McDonald’s dinner, and a trip to the Sainsbury for a literal duffel bag full of candies and presents (yet I still managed to forget a can of treacle). Mom and I made it back to South Carolina with no issues, and are already planning our next trip together!

York, UK: Harry Potter, Chocolate, and Richard III

sdfg.jpgYork and our journey there was a study in all of my favorite things: Harry Potter, train travel, that famous glorious son of York, chocolate, tea, and gorgeous architecture. We started our day with time to spare at Kings Cross so we could visit Platform 9 ¾, the start of one’s journey to Hogwarts. My mom and I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was a sophomore in high school, and we loved them and shared them throughout my time in college. Mom is a textbook Hufflepuff, while I am a stalwart Syltherin. How the two biggest hufflepuffs to ever hufflepuff created a Slytherin is anyone’s guess.  Anyway. Platform 9 ¾ was everything we hoped it would be, and the photographers in the line that day were superb and so fun. Even though they made me hold Voldy’s wand since I’m a Slytherin. Obviously we bought all 4 photos, and I got my mom some Hedwig souvenirs, because it was her birthday!

20180905_141107-01Then we hopped on the train and headed north to Yorkshire, home of my boy Richard III. Once we got to York, we dropped off our bags and headed into the ancient town. We started with tea at Earl Grey’s in the Shambles, which was delicious and perfect. I couldn’t finish my caramel cake, but the treats were superb. We wandered around the Shambles and downtown, then headed into York’s Chocolate Story to purchase our tickets.

20180905_141728York has a great history of chocolate and candy making, which automatically puts it high up on my list of favorite places. York’s Chocolate Story is a great example of the interactive, technological, and innovative types of exhibits that money can buy. All tours are fully guided and seem to be heavily scripted, but our guide was a delight. The tour starts with a ride in the elevator to the top floor where you enter a recreated street scene from York’s past.  We had an opportunity to taste chocolate made from one of York’s earliest recipes, and it wasn’t half bad. From there, we headed into a multimedia experience to tell the story of the discovery of cacao beans in the South American rainforests (without glossing over colonialism and the horrors the invaders brought with them). Then we learned about the families of York who founded candy and chocolate making empires in Yorkshire through a multimedia presentation. The next part was the best, though…

20180905_152047On the first floor there is a recreated chocolate factory, where visitors learn the entire process of creating consumable chocolates from processing to wrapping. We tried our hand at tasting the many flavors in chocolate and learned about the science of chocolate as well. Next, we got to decorate our own chocolate lollies! Chocolatiers were also on hand to show the process of making candies and truffles from the chocolate, and of course we got to taste, as well. I’m only sad that we had just had a large tea before our tour. We exited through the gift shop, as per usual, and brought home many treats for our friends and families (and ourselves). This museum really did have it all from multimedia displays, to sensory experiences, to the best possible interactives. I highly recommend it, even though it is totally touristy. We decided to walk off our chocolate and tea for the rest of the afternoon, and we saw all the major sites such as the York Minster church, the York walls, the Norman Clifford’s Tower, and even a pub named for r3.

20180905_161838We headed to our guesthouse and I got mom settled in, and I headed back out for a pub game night with the Death and Culture Net folks at the Eagle and Child. I knew I was in the right place when I walked in and heard people asking, “Are you here for death??” I didn’t end up playing any games, but I met all kinds of people from all over the world working broadly with death; Maggie, a doula and activist from the Bay area, Ruth from York who studies sociological aspects of death and criminology, Janieke from the Netherlands who studies funereal music… and so many more. My next will be all about DacNet, so tune in next time for more!

Café In the Crypt and The Roman Dead @ Museum of London: Docklands

IMG_20180904_133032_729From the British Museum, mom and I headed back to Trafalgar Square to finally visit the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Field. I previously visited the café on my New Years trip to London and loved it. The café is located, as the name implies, in the old crypt of the church. The space and all of its associations truly deserve a blog all their own on death tourism and dark histories. Tables are located on top of grave stones and the crypt is surrounded by memento mori and memorial stones. Income from the café helps fund preservation and outreach programs at the church. When I told my students about this café, they were horrified at the thought of eating on graves and saw it as disrespectful, yet they were all about some ghost tours… as I said, lots more for another blog. All in all, the cafe made a mean scone and pot of tea, and the cakes looked to die for (lol see what I did there?).20180904_151621

We ubered on over to the East Side of London, which I was visiting for the first time, to the Museum of London: Docklands to see the Roman Dead exhibit that I had been looking forward to for months. The museum is located in the industrialized docks of the East End on Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. The landscape is an interesting mix of industrial, commercial, and new sleek business buildings along the high-tech docks.  As a huge fan of Call the Midwife, set in this area of London, it was a bit shocking to see modern Poplar compared to 1950s and 1960s Poplar of the TV show.

DSC03390~2Our welcome at the museum was superb, and the FOH staff member we spoke with was a graduate of UNC, just a few hours from home; small world! We first went to see the Roman Dead exhibit before exploring the rest of this excellent museum. According to their website,  “Last year, a Roman sarcophagus was found near to Harper Road in Southwark. What does this unique find tells us about the ancient city that 8 million people now call home? We’ve displayed the sarcophagus alongside the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners found during archaeological excavations of ancient cemeteries. The exhibition also features over 200 objects from burials in Roman London, exploring how people dealt with death in Londinium. Many items were brought here from across the Empire, showing the extent of London’s international connections, even at this early time in its history.”DSC03401~2

The exhibit also, “uses these grave goods and the results of scientific analysis of ancient Londoners’ skeletons to explore who Roman Londoners were, and show the surprising diversity of the ancient city.”One of the coolest aspects is an online interactive display available here: “Take a closer look at the exhibition’s most fascinating objects by exploring our interactive display.”

DSC03405~2I loved this exhibit. From the warning at the beginning about he display of human remains, to the treatment and interpretation of remains and funerary objects including cremated remains, full skeletons, childrens’ remains, and even animal and pet remains.

One of the best parts was the diversity (sex , age, and race/ethnicity) of these skeletons, all found in London from the Roman periods of history.   The museum did a great job of connecting the diverse history of London to its current status as one of the most diverse cities in Europe. Additionally, the connection between people 2000 years ago to modern people was presented with ease; people cared about their pets as family members, were sometimes buried with treasured belongings, and worried about the afterlife and what comes next, in many of the same ways that people do today.

DSC03393~2Soft lighting, quiet space, and layout of the exhibit seemed respectful and somber as was fitting for a room full of human remains. The interpretation of these people and their funerary objects, as well as the context of Roman Britain was explained well through text panels and multimedia displays. While I was in the exhibit, several families with children came through, and the children all seemed very engaged by the video, and also the remains themselves.

There were interactives, multimedia, opportunities to find more information, and all the things that make a modern museum exhibit great. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I’m only sad to report that it closed in October of 2018.

DSC03411After some time spent with the dead Romans, I had some time to visit the rest of the Docklands museum to learn the history of the area and people of the East End. This museum is awesome. Not only is it housed in a historic building that shows the connection of the location to industry and the local communities, but they have some very progressive interpretation (especially on colonialism and a surprisingly critical view of the UK’s role in the slave trade) and great interactive opportunities.

20180904_155650One of my favorite parts was the hamster-wheel like recreation of a pulley system from ye olde dockland days (see the photo my mom captured here), and the recreation of a London dock street, “Sailortown” was way too much fun. There were also myriad opportunities for children to play and learn throughout the museum from dress-up corners, to a mining set-up, and interactive recreated living spaces from throughout the decades. I started to get museum fatigue towards the end of our visit, but I really plan to make it back here for another visit on my next trip to London (and the regular Museum of London, too!). From the museum, mom and I headed back to Covent Garden where we ended the night with the traditional cheeky Nandos chicken and British television.

Next: Platform 9 ¾, York, York’s Chocolate Story, and more!

British Museum 2.0

DSC03355~2I’ve often said since my first trip that I didn’t love the British Museum, much to the surprise of everyone who knows me and loves museums. I said in a previous post from 2014 that: “I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate, and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.”

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Me with my girl Sekhmet; best of the Egyptian pantheon

My second trip in September 2018 was much better. I went in this time with a goal to see the Egyptian and Greek sections, the Sutton Hoo, all the bodies I could, and enough to give my mom a good sense of the museum. My mom was an excellent sport, playing along every time I started in with, “Did you know…” as we traveled through ancient world history. We saw the Assyrian reliefs, including what we decided is probably the first recorded dog blep (good catch, mom!), Rosetta stone, a bevy of Sekhmets, a small bit of the Parthenon Marbles, one of the best papyri representing the Egyptian afterlife, and the Paulos/Saulos spoons of the Sutton Hoo. So many amazing things.

DSC03312~2My main goal in this visit was to examine the display of human remains in the museum. Throughout the Egyptian section, the human remains of mummies and Predynastic skeletal burials abound. One section explored diet and daily life through human remains from dentition to bone structure. The typical wrapped Egyptian mummies were on full display, mummified remains out of wrappings, and skeletal remains from children and adults serve to show changes over time and by class or age or diet or a myriad of other things. Since only about 1% of the British Museum’s collection is on display, I wonder about the variety of individuals not on display. Their catalog lists the various human remains on their website: from cremated remains to hair to mummies and skeletons the variety is endless.

DSC03332~2One of the most interesting interactives that was new to me on this visit was the “autopsy table” for 5,500 year old “Gebelein Man A.” This was an interesting look inside the mummy, and the exhibit gives visitors a chance to investigate the scientific information gleaned from research on the mummy over the past few years. Signage throughout the area explained the scientific value of researching this body, and new evidence shows that Gebelein Man A has some of the oldest tattoos ever found preserved on human skin.

DSC03342~2Moving on from the Egyptian section, I found other remains in the Neolithic Britain area of the museum. A recreation of a burial from Stonehenge was on full display in the room, and around a corner I found “Lindow Man”, one of the famous bog bodies found throughout Northwest Europe. The contrast between the display of local remains in the National Museum of Ireland and those of England offer an interesting contrast. In Ireland, the bodies are displayed in small, private, quiet, and softly lift areas for each body. In England, Lindow Man was tucked around a corner, not in full view, but seemingly stuck amongst the rest of the detritus of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. I have more thoughts on this that I am still fully fleshing (lol) out.

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my “well actually” historian face

After a few hours of jetting through to see as much as possible, and buying all of the tea towels in the shop, my general thoughts on the British Museum remain, “…thrilling to see, and … a testament to colonial conquests,” but I am happy I got to revisit, and I hope to be back again soon!

Next up: more human remains at the Museum of London: Docklands Roman Dead exhibit and some death tourism at the Café in the Crypt in St. Martin’s-in-the-Field in Trafalgar.

Egypt in Edinburgh

I was so, so, so excited to visit Edinburgh while the new The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial exhibit was on. Egypt, mummies, museum, and death customs; what’s not to love?

IMG_20170513_141345816.jpgAt the time of writing this, the exhibit has closed, but luckily the National Museums of Scotland have an excellent web presence, with information, interactive, videos, and even games and learning materials.

The exhibit is described on their website as such:

The Tomb was constructed in the great city of Thebes shortly after the reign of Tutankhamun for the Chief of Police and his wife. It was looted and reused several times, leaving behind a collection of beautiful objects from various eras. These are displayed alongside objects found in nearby tombs, giving a sense of how burial in ancient Egypt changed over time.

The Tomb’s final use occurred shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt, when it was sealed intact with the remarkable burials of an entire family. The exhibition comes ahead of the new Ancient Egypt gallery, opening at the National Museum of Scotland in 2018/19.

Interactives in use!

When I visited in May 2017, the gallery was a bit crowded, especially with children.  This limited my ability to try out the interactive elements of the exhibits (get off my lawn – adults like play, too), but it was nice to see kids excited about history.

Like Jameson Distillery, the exhibit used multi-sensory engagement and technologies so visitors can learn more and connect with the past.

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Touch, see, and smell table

I also really liked the exhibit text and content, which isn’t praise I give out lightly. I’m generally easily bored or uninterested in text, but the detail and translation of ancient funerary texts was fascinating! They also include a youtube video explaining the text on their website:

Next time I visit the museum, hopefully the new Egypt gallery will be open.  I can’t wait!

Multi-Sensory Exhibit Design: Jameson Does It Up Right

In May I visited Ireland (again..they can’t keep me away…). On one of our first days in Dublin, my husband and I decided to visit the Jameson Whiskey Distillery.

We started our visit with a trip to the bar housed in the historic building to try a signature drink while we waited on our tour to start. As we took in our surroundings, we noticed the floors were open to show the historic structure and storage areas below the floor. As a fan of all things old, I really appreciated this touch! 

Soon our tour began, and we were taken with our group to a small exhibit of the history of the building and the story of the Jameson family, their endeavors in whiskey production, and the history of the brand. Though this is definitely a corporate tour, the information was still very interesting and the exhibit design is top notch.

Next we visited a room that incorporated primary sources, technology, historic artifacts, and second person interpretation from our guide. The technology used was very similar to what we saw at the Tenement Museum in March, and though we did not each have our own station to choose the artifacts we wanted to learn about, it was still interactive and informative.

From there we entered my favorite part of the tour; a multi sensory journey through the production of whiskey. Now, I am not generally a fan of whiskey, but this aspect of our experience was by far the coolest. In groups of 6, visitors surrounded a table that engaged all of our senses. The guide told us what to do taste or smell and when, and the flow of the interpretation, technology, and engagement was perfect. As you can see in this image, we had the opportunity to smell different types of aging casks (sherry, wine, etc), taste and feel malted grains, watch the process on the screens at the front of the room, and hear our guide talk us through the process.

The last part of the tour was teachable tasting. We compared various whiskeys to the Jameson brand and our guide helped us understand the composition of the whiskeys and the complex tastes. We exited through the gift shop, and got our daily grog!

If you find yourself in Dublin, I recommend a trip to the Jameson Distillery for a specific history of their brand, or the Irish Whiskey Museum for a more comprehensive look at whiskey and its history over time in the Emerald Isle.

New Research Projects, Travel, and… Death?

Lately I’ve contemplated where my research will take me following the publication of my manuscript on accessibility for people with special needs, the publication of a chapter on accessibility in education in The Manual for Museum Learning, 2nd Edition, and continuing my work towards truly accessible museums.

I’ve decided to take a new track based on the historiographical work I did in my dissertation on museum history and the use of human bodies and human remains in museums. My previous work focused on living humans, often billed as “freaks“, in museums and other exhibitions; now I want to focus on the corporeal remains that we still see in museums today: mummies, bog bodies, medical specimens, skeletons, relics, shrunken heads, and so much more.  What laws (aside from NAGPRA) govern the display and collection of human remains? What are the ethics involved here? How does the public react to these remains? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer as I embark on a new research plan.

I have organized a roundtable at the National Council on Public History meeting in 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada to present preliminary findings and bring together a fascinating group of women who study these questions. Our presentation, “Death and Display, Bodies and Boundaries” will explore our own work and also encourage participation from our audience. I’ve invited my former college roommate, Shelby Judge, a modern funeral director; Laura Anderson Barbata, artist and activist; Dr. Trish Biers, osteoarchaeologist at Cambridge University museums; and Kristen Semento from Winterthur Museum and Gardens.

As I planned my most recent trip abroad, I knew I would have the opportunity to visit international museums that are working with these issues. What I didn’t know was the amount of opportunities that would present themselves on my trip. My future blogs will detail some of the places I visited and some of the remains I encountered in Ireland and Scotland.

The first stop on my trip to Ireland was the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I had just arrived in Ireland, my hotel room was not ready, and my husband and I needed to get out and see the sights while we waited. The only problem was: I don’t think I have ever been as exhausted as I was on this museum visit. I was jet-lagged. I was running none hour of plane sleep. It. Was. Awesome.

Image result for living need light dead need music

You may have read my thoughts on art museums in the past; in short, I’m not their biggest fan. IMMA was in a great historic building, and there were some interesting exhibits while we were there. However, there was one exhibit in particular that spoke to me through my sleepy haze and has stuck with me. It also set the tone for my exploration into death and bodies.

In the back of the museum, in a quiet, dark room with benches (the initial attraction, let’s be real), I encountered a film installation. The piece, titled The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music by The Propeller Group is probably the best video installation I have ever seen.  Their description reads:

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Musicis a visual and musical journey through the fantastical funeral traditions and rituals of south Vietnam. It attempts to engage in dialogue with funerary traditions that pulsate in the same vein throughout the global south. The film merges documentary footage of actual funeral processions with stunning re-enactments that bring the film into the realm of the abstract, poetic and metaphorical – a rumination on death and the lives that pay homage to it.

I encourage you to watch the video in its entirety if you can. It is so fascinating, beautiful, disturbing, scary, and amazing all at the same time. The fact that I was almost at a hallucinatory stage of tiredness only heightened by appreciation for the piece. However, it stands up even as I re-watch it today.

So that’s it! I’m on a new program of research, and I’m so excited to have already been welcomed with open arms by so many Death Historians and Death Academics. Thank you, and I can’t wait to let you all know more about my research!

Tenement Museum: Technology, History, & Contemporary Issues @ Shop Life

In March I had the opportunity to visit New York City again, and, as is usually the case, booked a space in the (arguably best neighborhood in the city) Lower East Side. There are a lot of things that make the LES the best, including food, architecture, and the relatively quiet streets, but one of the best attributes the LES can boast is the LowerEast Side Tenement Museum.

Reflections: Our wee group outside the Tenement

The Tenement Museum was a staple of my graduate education discussion groups, in part for their innovative interpretation and programs.  As I continued my education as a PhD student, the ground-breaking efforts to include people with disabilities in a (somewhat problematic) space became a focus of my research, and I’ve written about their efforts in previous blogs.

On this most recent trip, I met up with some fellow museum professionals in the city, and we booked tickets for the Shop Life tour.  This is the newest tour at the museum, and also the only tour within the actual historic building that is accessible for people with mobility issues.  The museum website describes the tour: “.. visitors explore the immigrant businesses once located at 97 Orchard Street, where communities worked, shopped, celebrated and struggled for more than a century. The exhibit features a re-created 1870’s German beer saloon once run by John and Caroline Schneider, as well as an interactive “sales counter” where visitors select audio and visual media clips to explore the stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers Israel and Goldie Lustgarten, 1930s auctioneer Max Marcus, and 1970s undergarment discounters Frances & Sidney Meda.”

Photo from the Tenement Museum website.

The tour started in the German bar set-up from the 1870s.  Our group was not a particularly lively group of tourists, but our tour guide made the most of it with interactive aspects of the tour as well as inquiry-based learning.  From the story of the Schneiders’ business, we went through the building to see rooms that are in various states of preservation or excavation.

Advertisement announcing the opening of Schneider’s Beer Garden in the LES

One of the coolest aspects of this tour, aside from the interpretation of a range of time periods and personal stories of the people who lived there, was the use of primary sources in the interpretation of the space. On my first tour of the museum in 2012 I noticed the commitment to the use of primary sources and photographs, and this tour was not an exception.  Advertisements, photographs, menus, announcements, and other sources all provided that tangible connection to the past that museums and interpreters seek to impart.

Perhaps the best part of the tour, however, was at the end, when we were able to engage in active learning and visitor choice using some pretty cool (and not distracting or problematic or difficult) technology.  Technology can be the bane of some museums and exhibits as it often needs updates, breaks, or is rife with user errors. We entered the interactive space, where each person was given space at a table with projected instructions.  We each chose an artifact from the shelves behind us that we wanted to know more about.  The artifacts told the stories of the people, businesses, neighborhood, and historical context who lived and worked in the space where we stood.  We could explore as much or as little about these artifacts and their associated stories before moving on to another item/time period/story.

Lately the Tenement Museum has been in the news for their activism (and the subsequent backlash against that activism) regarding immigration.  The stories of the Tenement Museum would not exist without immigrants.  At the end of our tour, the guide played a short film about a current immigrant business owner who lives and works in the neighborhood of the museum.  She encouraged us to visit his and other immigrant shops throughout the city.  This activism and the commitment to the community surrounding the museum is what museums should be all about.  Connecting the past to the present makes the experience more meaningful and impactful.  I hope to explore these themes and topics more in the future.

I can’t wait to go back and try another tour! Have you been to the Tenement Museum?  Which tours did you take, which would you recommend, and why?

 

 

Guest Post: Art and Museums with Charles Clary

As I’ve detailed before (here, here, and in random snarky comments throughout), I have a lot of feelings about art museums.  Luckily, I’m engaged to an artist!  I asked him to answer some questions as an artist for my understanding, and for the understanding of my readers.

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Charles Clary, Artist Extraordinaire

Learn more about artist Charles Clary on his website and see his most up-to-date work on his instagram feed!

I’m hoping to write more about art museums and interdisciplinary studies more in the future – I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Q.  Why are art museums important?

A. Art museums are a place in which the people can enjoy the labors of the individuals capturing the feeling and the mood of a society at any particular time in history. Art collections are great and to the extent that one can amass a collection – I’m all for it. But many people lock those pieces into private collections, usually away from the society to which the art was created. Museums allow for the lending of these works to museums that can show case them prominently and within a historical context so that everyone can enjoy these precious objects.
This seems like it might make an art museum more interesting!

This seems like it might make an art museum more interesting!

Q.  What is the difference between a gallery and a museum?

A. A gallery is run much like a business, in many cases for profit. Now, there are non-profit galleries as well as alternative space galleries and pop up galleries that seek to showcase the content of the work for free, but many galleries are set up as for-profit spaces. That’s not to say galleries are only concerned with making money, but it is a part of the art world and the experience. A museum is a place free from the pressure of sales, which allows the artist to delve deeper into their process and content, to go bigger, and to explore their work in a more challenging way.
Q.  What is history’s place in art museums?
A. History is forever linked to art. Art speaks to the time in which it was created; it’s a moment captured in paint, or chisled into marble. Art has the ability to become a time capsule or a snapshot of a moment in time that we would never be able to witness without the work. History influences the creation of art, either through religion or individuals. There was often a patron who bankrolled the work, which also influenced the artist. Every great society or time period – Egyptian, Roman, Greek, European Renaissance, Middle East – is defined by the art work and utilitarian devices they created.
Is it?

Is it?

Q.  What’s with the boring labels that tell me no history?

A.  Art is an experience, not a bumper sticker. If the story is all given away in the beginning or in the title, then why spend time with the work? It’s the process of discovering what the work is about through key visuals or clues within the work that forms the narrative;  it’s exciting to put two and two together. In most museum exhibitions, the entrance has a description of the artist and what might have been going on at that time in history and where the movement might have been or where it was to go. Museums also have great audio tours that attempt to quantify the work being viewed and situate it into a context that makes it make sense.
Q.  Which is your favorite art museum?
A.  I’m a big fan of the Pompidou in Paris France it’s a fantastic art museum that explores all aspects of contemporary art: design, sculpture, installation art, furniture design, painting so on and so forth. I also love the Louvre for the rich history of painting and sculpture. As far as galleries I’m a huge fan of Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn and what they do to advance contemporary art both in their man space as well as in their space called The Boiler meant for large scale sometimes interactive installations.
At Kilmainhaim Gaol

At Kilmainhaim Gaol

Q. Favorite history museum/site?

A.  I really enjoyed the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  The stories of people, their lives, and their times had a huge impact on me, and was one of my favorite parts of our first time in Ireland.  Belfast was also interesting, as a more modern historical site, and the commemorative murals there do a great job of combining memory, art, and history.
Q.  How can art and history museums work together, or history museums with artists?
A.  I think both need to realize that one is not more important than the other. History defines society, society defines History through art. The more they can work together to describe the advancements in technology and culture through the images and objects that are left behind the better for all involved.
Thanks, Charles!  Now, tell me all about Marcel Duchamp….
What do YOU think about art and art museums?  Any other artists interested in answering similar questions or engaging in a dialogue?