Recently, urban planners have asked the question, “How do we preserve memories of a city after buildings or a neighborhood have been renovated or redeveloped?” In considering how we can keep ties to the past, partnerships between urban planners, or community design collaboratives, and historical societies and cultural organizations are crucial for the development of methods for preserving and interpreting memories. However, in many cases, urban planners, designers and even granting organizations may need to convince historical organizations—especially smaller historic house museums—to sign on to these partnerships.
Imagine an exhibit that interprets the history of a house and its rotation of inhabitants from when it was built to today. All modifications of the house, including its division into smaller and smaller apartments, are interpreted. Furthermore, inhabitants’ experiences living in the home and working in the city are interpreted—regardless of these inhabitants’ class, whether they were owners or renters, or their race or ethnicity. This was an actual exhibit, called Open House: If These Walls Could Talk, installed at the Minnesota History Center in 2006: a rare example of a historical organization interpreting the entire timeline of a house and including all inhabitants in the narrative of that house. This project did not have a historic preservation aspect—the house is still standing and is still inhabited by some of the people who were included in the exhibit. But what this project demonstrates is an inclusive approach to storytelling within the built environment.
Historical societies, museums and historic house museums are ideal partners for capturing the ephemeral. They collect and hold the source materials to support interpretation. They have collecting policies under which they actively gather objects and archival materials, and are likely to have materials in their holdings to support any contemporary historic preservation-related interventions. These organizations also often have staff experienced in gathering oral histories.
However, these organizations often face unique challenges. Many smaller organizations may have a small, aging staff, or they may rely heavily on volunteers. Financial resources may be limited as well. For organizations that operate in or own a building of historic significance, a large portion of the organization’s budget may go towards operating and maintaining the building, diverting resources from programming. Finally, many smaller organizations maintain the philosophy that the role of the curator is paramount when interpreting the history of a city for exhibits or other programs, at a time when larger and more progressive organizations are developing a more collaborative approach to interpretation and programming.
Recently, some very frank criticisms have been leveled against the current state of historical societies and, more specifically, historic house museums. In his lecture, “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums,” Franklin Vagnone outlines the challenges of funding and staff mentioned above, but also challenges them to be more inclusive and a bit more messy. He cites examples like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, pointing out how complex or multiple narratives are avoided in the space. He asks the staff and boards of these types of institutions to look to the future in their interpretation and to experiment with new ways visitors can interact with their spaces. Particularly in smaller towns and cities, where historical organization staff may not engage in professional meetings or trainings to keep up on the changing approaches other museums are experimenting with, this call for flexible, forward-looking practices is timely.
Taking a quick survey of the museum field, museums are experimenting with pop-up museums or exhibits outside of the walls of the building, sharing authority with visitors or communities, and re-defining their approach to collecting. In his lecture at the 2014 SEGD Experience and Exhibit Design workshop, Brad Larson, developer of the Story Kiosk, described one direction museums and the exhibit design practice is headed: towards a “pervasive museum.” The “pervasive museum” idea is linked, in many ways, to DIY or tactical urbanism: a “bottom-up” approach to urban planning in which locals test small-scale changes using inexpensive and temporary approaches, instead of city planners or leaders raising funds and leading large-scale urban redevelopment projects (an example of this approach might be turning parking spots into parklets or café seating). Larson cited examples of museums and individuals who have adopted the DIY urbanist tactic of the pop-up and have created pop-up museums in libraries, storefronts and parks. These pop-up museums or exhibits are often very short-term, lasting only a few hours to a few weeks. In many of these projects, museums are moving away from the pure curatorial authoritative voice in exhibits and other programming. Museums attempt to promote “community storytelling” in which visitors are invited to share their experiences, contribute objects, or write labels for objects.
What might this type of project look like in the context of a changing built environment and its culture? The work of the Community Museum Project in Hong Kong provides one case study. The Community Museum Project was started by an independent curatorial group to record Hong Kong’s disappearing vernacular cultures and to fight the loss of some neighborhoods through urban renewal. In many ways, the project can be seen as D.I.Y. urbanism, as local activists employ museum methods to empower local citizens to become advocates for their neighborhood. The project’s founders believed museum methods could be applied to a broader socio-cultural context and that those methods could be a tool for affecting the social dynamic in urban settings.
Organizers saw irony in taking objects from artists or cultural groups and displaying them in a separate space, then trying to make that space inclusive. Their response was to operate without walls. In doing so, they believed they were also operating without the ideological walls that come with the building. They employed the most basic of museum methods – to collect and curate – to display ephemeral community-based materials. The resulting work has ranged from collecting and presenting objects and stories around protest movements, to recording the history of a street soon to be demolished for redevelopment, to interpreting difficult topics like the sex industry.
In one project, Street as Museum: Lee Tung Street, a street known as “Wedding Card Street” or “Printing Street,” because of its concentration of printers, was slated to be demolished for a future redevelopment project. Inspired by local inhabitants (not tourists) photographing the street to document what was soon to be lost, the group decided to create large photo-murals of both sides of the street. Two photographers worked over six months to photograph both sides of the street, then stitched the photographs together into large-scale composites. During this process, the group also recorded the oral histories of shop owners and residents. The exhibit was installed in a shopping mall in the neighborhood and a publication was printed. Residents and shop owners were invited to act as guides for the exhibition, telling emotionally charged, touching stories about the history of their business. The curators saw these tours become a platform for community members to express their views to the audience.
This project demonstrates how experts—curators and historians—can use museum practices to present ephemeral or contested history and can involve local residents in telling these stories. The acts of gathering objects and stories helped legitimize local stories, helping participants realize the wealth and importance of their own history. Furthermore, the project provides an example of bringing interpretation out into the street: by mounting exhibits in locations where people would encounter them in their daily activities, the project’s organizers were able to reach more people and foster public dialogue.
Street as Museum is a model of low-risk, high-impact approach to interpretation—a model highly relevant for historical societies. Many of the practices underlying the project, such as collecting objects, documenting historically significant buildings and neighborhoods, recording oral histories, and curating an interpreted exhibit, are common elements of historical societies’ work. While Street as Museum deals with a contemporary story, it carries important lessons for historical societies, particularly in its successes. An important part of Hong Kong’s history was documented and archived before it was lost forever. A successful exhibition was created—and, because if its location, was well-attended. Perhaps most saliently, local residents were empowered to engage with and see value in the stories embedded in their surroundings – a clear connection to historical societies’ missions of interpreting the history of places and their inhabitants and fostering engaged citizens.
It may take some convincing to attract smaller historic organizations to sign on as partners in this kind of work. As smaller historical societies and historic house museums often face greater financial difficulties than many other organizations, financial support and increased attention should be presented as incentives for collaborating and adopting more inclusive approaches. Granting organizations are the entities most likely to convince the directors and board members of historical societies how imperative it is for them to change. In looking at the missions of several prominent grantmaking organizations in this space, one can see articulations of this potential role.
The mission of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, for example, is “to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement.” In Philadelphia, the PEW Charitable Trusts seeks to fund innovative projects and will work closely with applicants to help them refine a project to meet grant criteria. An overview on PEW’s website emphasizes partnerships, stating: “Through the Philadelphia program, Pew seeks to foster a vibrant civic life in our hometown. We partner with many local institutions to encourage a thriving arts and cultural community; support the health and welfare of the region’s neediest populations; inform discussion on important issues facing the city; and, more broadly, strengthen Philadelphia’s appeal to residents and visitors alike.” A brief survey of civic historical societies and organizations suggests that this idea of civic engagement is often echoed in their missions, providing common ground upon which to build new approaches and partnerships that surface the power of local stories in changing environments.
Historical societies are ideal partners in collecting, preserving and reinterpreting ephemeral experiences. However, it is likely that many smaller organizations won’t be a willing partner. It will take a collective effort to convince directors, board members and curators that these partnerships—and the bottom-up approaches such partnerships can foster—are opportunities to re-think their organization’s approach to interpreting local stories, creating exhibits and programs, and fulfilling their missions. Through this process, historical societies can explore powerful ways to bring their storytelling outside their walls and into the lives of more people.