Project Showcase: Lakota Emergence

PrintThe Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in South Dakota will present an innovative exhibit in early May 2015 called “Lakota Emergence.” The exhibit focuses entirely on the short Lakota emergence narrative titled “How the Lakota Came Upon the World,” published in 1917. The exhibit divides the 1,251-word narrative into 16 “passages,” and pairs each passage with an outstanding example of a practical or artistic object from the Sioux Indian Museum (one of the three Indian Arts and Crafts Board museums in the United States). The selected objects span a period of time from before the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty all the way to the early 1970s. All were created by Lakotas and were collected from within the boundaries of the 1868 Treaty, including what is now Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations, as well as the community of Rapid City.

In addition to the passages and museum objects, original artworks by distinguished and emerging contemporary Lakota artists will be featured, thereby creating what are called “vignettes.” These 16 vignettes will recount the Lakota emergence narrative in written words, museum collections, and contemporary artworks. Dr. Craig Howe, director of CAIRNS and curator of Lakota Emergence, says “the exhibit was conceived to illustrate that the emergence narrative continues to be a source of creativity, and that Wind Cave was and always will remain a landscape of special significance in Lakota cosmology.”

Developing your synthetic powers

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer.

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer

Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.

When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.

Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading

Making a pop-up museum: Dusting off the Dark Ages

Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold

Student exhibit panel. Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold

At Ohio Wesleyan University, I teach an upper-level medieval history course, “Constantine to Charlemagne.” This is an undergraduate class, with 18 students of varying backgrounds. The course addresses a time period (ca. 300-850) often slandered as barbaric and backwards, so my goal is for students to see the richness, texture, and vibrancy of the period along with the political and economic troubles that befell certain areas. Over the course of the semester, as we work to understand a period famous for both its lack of historical sources and its network of diverging and converging cultures, we work together on how to explain and re-frame this period for a public audience.

A public history project like the one my students are embarking on this semester is unusual for medieval history courses. Though some medieval history professors and graduate students do discuss and practice public engagement through K-12 classroom visits, and libraries with important medieval manuscript collections are also reaching out to schools, the relative dearth of medieval history in American public history programs does not encourage many of us to think about the practice. Also, at many small schools like Ohio Wesleyan, there are no separate courses in public history. Yet more and more of my students are interested in public history, museum studies, and archival work. This project developed as a way to introduce students to the basic issues of museum design and audience engagement and to help them imagine a space for history that extends beyond the classroom. In our case, we are dusting off the ages and making a pop-up museum.

Continue reading

Amsterdam Museum, a people’s history

(Editor’s note: This post is the first of a two-part series looking at the Amsterdam Museum.)

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

As a certified History Nerd and lover of cities, one of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city is check out the local history museum. I’m particularly fascinated by the way a city’s historical development influences its contemporary identity (and yes, I think all cities have their own unique identity). In my opinion, the way a municipality interprets and exhibits its history is a window into that collective identity. Continue reading

History without vision: A struggle over art at the City Museum of New York

Mike Alewitz's "The City at the Crossroads of History" mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it.

Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz

Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.

The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading

Adventures in crowdfunding: A museum’s perspective

A Lancaster bomber at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.  Photo credit: Doug Zwick

A Lancaster bomber at the Canada Air and Space Museum in Ottawa. Photo credit: Doug Zwick

From art museums collecting Instagram posts for mobile photography exhibits to natural history museums getting visitors to actively participate in digitizing their collections or museums using crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Causevox to raise funds for special projects and exhibits, crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly prevalent in heritage and cultural institutions. Crowdfunding, which has been defined as “asking many people for ‘microdonations’ for a specific project or cause, usually within a specific time frame and online,” differs from traditional donor campaigns in that it is equal parts marketing, audience engagement, and of course, fundraising. Continue reading

Rethinking diversity: Introduction

This is the first post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field.

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Credit: Angela Thorpe

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Photo credit: Angela Thorpe

“I’m surprised to see you here. You know this museum is for white people, right?” These words greeted me during my first days of an internship at a Greensboro, North Carolina, museum last August. This statement alarmed me for a couple of reasons. First, the speaker is an active member of one of Greensboro’s most historic black communities. I worried that if other members of the community shared his sentiment–that the museum wasn’t a space for them–the museum was not confronting diversity head-on in their exhibits, program offerings, and outreach work. Second, if our communities do not see museums as spaces where diverse faces should be employed in leadership roles, an issue is exposed that is highly complex and not easily remedied.

My name is Angela Thorpe, and I am a recent graduate of the Museum Studies MA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I first noticed a problem with diversity in public history when I canvassed public history programs across the country. As a black female, I felt it necessary to understand how my prospective programs confronted diversity. Each program director admitted their program “struggled with diversity,” but that they were “working on it.” My former program director, in comparison, was candid with me about the program’s spotty track record for attracting a diverse body. I appreciated that and was honored to eventually train in the program. Continue reading