Friday, December 28, 2012

Shop Life preview at the Tenement Museum

Shop Life tour intro, captured 12/26/2012
Sometimes I'm reminded how lucky I am to be friends with some brilliant museum professionals in New York City. Last week, Sarah Litvin, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, gave me a private, behind-the-scenes overview of the museum's new Shop Life tour on which she had worked diligently for the past few years.

To create Shop Life, the TM staff reconstructed the saloon owned by the German immigrant Schneider family in half of the basement level of the museum's historic tenement building located at 97 Orchard Street. The Schneider family had occupied the space during the 1870s, housing their saloon and a meeting room for social clubs in the front section of the apartment and housing their kitchen and living quarters in the back. The entire space is about the size of a decent 1-bedroom New York City apartment today. Like all of the TM apartments, the Schneider saloon was meticulously researched, populated by representative artifacts acquired at antique shops and built using mostly authentic building materials. Sarah told me about how the museum had worked with a professional "food fabricator" to construct delicious-looking fare including sauer kraut, sausages, and seasonal lebkuchen (a German Christmas Cookie). Caroline Schneider would have served lunch to her customers for free. (Even in the 1870s, it was the liquor that paid for the restaurant).

In addition to offering the TM's traditional immersive experience of the built environment, Shop Life incorporates artifacts in unique ways to tell the story of the evolution of the space over time. The rear end of the southern basement apartment was left close to how it appeared before the renovation/reconstruction, showing exposed brick and wood and an open tiled fireplace. In the middle of the room, an artifact case houses objects excavated from the building's back privies and fireplaces.  Emblematic of saloon life, these artifacts include a piece of a ceramic bier stein and a page from an 1870s German-language newspaper. In the front half of the southern basement apartment, the TM has undertaken a mostly successful experiment with interactive technology. Replicas of significant artifacts, when placed on a screen-covered "shop counter," trigger stories of different immigrant families who had owned businesses in the space during the 19th and 20th centuries. The technology works using RFID tags embedded in the objects and a motion-sensor to capture visitors' "touches" of certain images and text appearing on the screen.  This is the only technology that seems to occasionally experience glitches, but it can most likely be fixed by tweaking the sensitivity of the sensors. (Sarah told me that the TM staff was originally concerned that movement on the floors above the basement would trigger the sensors, but luckily this did not turn out to be the case.

The content in this section of the exhibit is rich and varied, including images, video, and oral histories. The interactive experience allows visitors to explore on their own, and then the educator in charge of the tour brings all of the separate stories together with footage of an interview with one of the area's contemporary immigrant shopkeepers.

I know that seeing the exhibit on my own is not the same as seeing it as part of a group tour, so I'll definitely want to experience it again in a different way, but it was a lot of fun to explore this new addition to the Tenement Museum's great collection of unique experiences.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Exploring the Detroit Historical Society

Three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I visited the newly renovated Detroit Historical Museum with a group of stalwart museum explorers from greater Lansing. The museum underwent an extensive renovation during the spring and summer and reopened to enthusiastic crowds over Thanksgiving weekend.

All photos provided generously by Zig Olds
When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly volunteer who told us that "all the new stuff" was on the second and third levels, but the "gem of the museum," the "Streets of Old Detroit," was on the lower level.  He recommended "saving the best for last." The museum proved to offer a multitude of different methods to exhibit local history, some stronger than others.

We began our visit with the Allesee Gallery of Culture, a showcase-in-the-round featuring a chronological survey of significant Detroit artifacts and cultural icons through the decades.  Each corner of the room contained a large vitrine with a timeline rail stretching along at waist-height. The timeline included key dates in Detroit history on one level and labels for artifacts contained in (and above) the vitrine on the other level, essentially ordering the artifacts chronologically as well.  In the center of each vitrine, a screen featured a narrative documentary, and an opportunity to view some artifacts and/or images in more detail.  Although detailed and visually impressive, I found this exhibit to be lacking in balance, narrative cohesion, and universal appeal.  Locals and others more familiar with Detroit in the 20th century than I was seemed to find certain iconic artifacts, such as the giant Tigers' Stadium sign, exciting and resonant, but I found the exhibit overall to be cluttered and lacking in context.  It also suffered from a strangely incongruent boosterism, glossing over the causes and effects of race riots, suburban sprawl, and political corruption.  The exhibit also made inefficient use of technology with videos that did not start on-demand and only a limited ability to crawl deeper into the background and significance of artifacts on display. I have to admit, I also found the narrative tone of the videos annoyingly reminiscent of comedy movie trailers. For me, the exhibit illustrated the limits of attempting to evoke feelings in visitors lacking in nostalgia for a particular place or time.

Coming through the Allesee Gallery, I wasn't expecting to be overly impressed by other parts of the museum, but the museum is truly enormous with exhibits diverse in content and design. Highlights and low-lights blended together: a fantastic reproduction of an auto assembly line "body drop" and a touchable, very early Ford model in an automotive history exhibit with a somewhat overly glowing depiction of the UAW, an informative and engaging WWII exhibit beside a "community gallery" exhibit offering little of interest to a wider audience, a "great innovators" exhibit with neatly descriptive vitrines, but in no particular order.

The lowest light on the museum's top floor was probably the Underground Railroad exhibit. It is clear that the exhibit's designers took some risks to emphasize immersion and atmosphere over artifacts and evidence. The exhibit's lighting and materials created a dark, almost spooky environment where it was very difficult to read text. Characters were rendered in shadowy profiles on particle board, creating an oddly flat effect. Walking through the exhibit space, I found myself mostly wanting to get out as quickly as possible, with nothing specific to catch my eye or hold my attention.  I was left wondering whether there had been a larger vision to the exhibit that went unrealized, or whether the choices that were made simply did not work well.

In the end, I felt that the museum's most traditional exhibits worked best for communicating the history of the city and fostering a connection between the visitor and Detroit's past.  "Form Frontier to Factory" made great use of videos of costumed interpreters, maps, and some built spaces to describe Detroit's transitions during its first 300 years or so. The exhibit ended with a wall of vitrines that included a basic biography of a prominent merchant or inventor paired with a key artifact.  Visitors felt invited to browse among their favorites, almost like seeking out interesting flowers in a garden.  This exhibit also has a great educational counterpart online. The online version combines animated maps of the growing city with timeline events paired with historic images. Lesson plans for each key section in the city's history include lists of primary and secondary sources making it possible for any interested teacher or student to dive head-first down the rabbit hole!

The historical society's website also features a searchable collections catalog, run on the PastPerfect platform. Even in a historical museum as large as Detroit's it is impossible to feature even a fraction of the historical society's enormous collections holdings in a meaningful way. The importance of searchable collections databases with well-documented metadata is becoming increasingly clear.

As was recommended by our greeter at the museum, I have saved the "best" for last. The "Streets of Old Detroit" is an exhibit that was lovingly designed and has been lovingly maintained.  Similar to other 3/4 scale models of midwestern city streets (such as the Streets of Old Milwaukee), the Streets of Old Detroit exhibit was built in the mid-20th century, a time when Detroit's prosperity peaked, to celebrate the city's commercial, industrial, and social roots. Every shop, workshop, and office in the exhibit is based on a real place from Detroit's past, populated with a mix of original objects and period antiques and oriented to evoke a sense of purpose-- a reason for existing in a particular historical moment. Unlike the shadowy underground railroad exhibit upstairs, the Streets exhibit is truly immersive, creating a landscape attractive to the imagination. The museum's recent renovations touched this area only lightly, with the addition of portals to explore the specific history of buildings included in the streetscape, and the creation of a "discovery center" in the back for use with school-groups.

And finally, like a non-sequetur tucked off to the side from the "Streets of Old Detroit" is a whimsical model train exhibit, also lovingly maintained by a legion of docents and volunteers. After a day spent soaking in Detroit's "real" history to the best of her ability, this exhibit enables a visitor to simply kick back and remember why people enjoy history in the first place.  History (or heritage) can provide a purposeful place for play, for imagining how things might have been and adding just enough creative whimsy to enhance a world that is slightly orthogonal to our own.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

NCPH Consultants' TweetChats

Yesterday evening, the NCPH Consultants' Committee sponsored our second monthly TweetChat using the hashtag #phconchat. Since last year, the Consultants' Committee has been experimenting with our social media presence using the Twitter handle @NCPHConsultants, and attempting to engage public historians and historical consultants around the world through this medium, as well as through the Consultants' Corner on the History@Work blog.

Sounds great, right?  Overall, I think we're making some solid progress toward serving our core constituents, but I am continually struck by the necessity of getting our message out in multiple places. To serve a diverse audience, we need to maintain a presence both online and in print. Online, we need to exist on a traditional website, through Twitter, and in the more informal, but engaged, world of the Public History Commons. This begs the question, in what ways is the information environment better with all of these media, and in what ways is it more confusing or overwhelming? Do we risk redundancy, or do we risk tune-out?  I suppose that, given enough time, history will tell.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Grand Ledge Holiday Traditions Tour

After decorating our own modest home for the holidays, my husband and I ventured westward to Grand Ledge on Sunday for the annual holiday traditions home tour. The tour, sponsored by the Grand Ledge Area Historical Society, featured exhibits in the Grand Ledge Opera House and the Museum as well as tours of private homes and business decorated for the season.

The day was unseasonably balmy, so it turned out to be a great day for walking around downtown Grand Ledge, in and out of buildings. Highlights of the tour included the 1880s pharmacy, now home to Seven Island Mercantile, and the home of Gina Tamburino, a 1902 Queen Anne built by D.D. Shane, a prominent jeweler, opthamologist, and later mayor of Grand Ledge. Shane's home featured murals of the "seven islands" of Grand Ledge painted on burlap around the upstairs landing.

With no single narrative ark, the Grand Ledge historical holiday walking tour gives an impressionistic view of Grand Ledge prosperity, from its days as a resort town and furniture manufacturer, to its present as home to insurance executives and other prominent citizens of central Michigan. The ultimate sense is of a town proud of its age and depth of tradition, firmly rooted in its locality. Check out this article in the Lansing State Journal for more detail.