Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Exhibiting Quilts at the MSU Museum

The Seamster's Union (Local #500). The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue. 1979. From Michigan State University Museum, Michigan State University Museum Collection. Published in The Quilt Index, http://www.quiltindex.org/basicdisplay.php?kid=1E-3D-8A. Accessed: 07/25/2012







Upon entering the Patterns of Inquiry exhibit, on view at the MSU Museum now through September 23, 2012, you are faced with a choice. If you head to your left, you can learn about the history of quilts as a means of expression. If you go to your right, you can learn about quilts as artifacts, objects with a physical history and connection to a distinctive provenance. Both directions lure you with colorful offerings and seemingly traditional patterned squares. But on closer examination, the featured quilt on the left is not at all ordinary. "The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue" is a tongue-in-cheek expression of a feminist ideology, literally turning the traditional domestic pattern of "Sunbonnet Sue" on her head (or casting her out into space, or feeding her to a shark, depending upon which square you look at first). This surprising take on what might appear to be a tame medium sets the standard for the rest of the exhibition which focuses on the myriad ways in which people can learn from, and with, quilts. 
Detail, "Jaws III" from The Seamster's Union (Local #500). The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue

I've never been to an exhibit quite like this one before.  Most museum exhibits focus on a single historical narrative or on artifacts as art objects, telling aesthetic stories contextualized only by the who, where and when of their creators. Patterns of Inquiry is more about how we look at quilts than the quilts themselves. The exhibit draws on the MSU Museum's broad and deep collection of quilts ranging from the 19th century to the present. It is further bolstered by the digital collections of the Quilt Index, a joint venture with the University's MATRIX Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online.  According to the exhibit's curator, Mary Worrall, "A goal was to highlight the interdisciplinary and partnership work we have been doing with quilts. It was very difficult to make the final selection on what quilts to include." With such a diverse array of quilts to choose from, I can definitely see how this was the case. The quilts that made the cut, though, do a great job of illustrating their respective roles in research and education.

A gorgeous 19th century crazy quilt made by a father-daughter team shows off a new initiative to use visual recognition computer software to classify patterns in large collections of quilts. A quilt with a pattern of tessellations demonstrates the potential for using quilts to teach math, while a neighboring quilt with a more figurative pattern showcases ways in which quilts can be used to study history. A selection of quilts relating to people with Alzheimer's illustrates the way in which quilts have been used to promote awareness about public health issues while it individualizes the experiences of those most directly affected.

In the end, that is the persistent beauty of quilts. Like people themselves, quilts have more in common with each other than not, but it is their greater patterns of similarity, and their striking differences, that make them fascinating objects of inquiry and admiration.  If you're in East Lansing, go see this exhibit!  (Just stay away on hot days, because the galleries are not air conditioned.)


Friday, July 13, 2012

Encountering Tourism History in Northern Michigan

While Philadelphia places its colonial history front-and-center, and New York more-often-than-not embraces a spirit of change, sometimes grinding its historical markers into the pavement, northern Michigan seems to take an unusually high degree of pride in its long history as a tourist destination.

Pictured Rocks Cruises Historical Marker
On my most recent trip up north, I became aware of this acutely when I stepped onto Munising's bay-side dock and encountered a historical marker celebrating the history of "Pictured Rocks Cruises." The act of placing the marker beside the queuing place for contemporary cruises embraced and legitimized my presence as a tourist as a part of the region's economic heritage.  In critical analysis, most notably and recently put forward by my colleague, Cathy Stanton, author of The Lowell Experiment, public historians can be seen as actively facilitating changes in the labor culture of a place from the production of tangible goods to the production of services and ideas. Often, the critical questions that public historians would raise are, at least in the case of Lowell, "sequestered or enclaved so that...insights are not permitted to unsettle the positive image of the city's overall redevelopment project."

But what about a city, or a region, that has relied on tourism for decades, or even centuries? Under those circumstances, what does the fronting of the history of tourism mean for those engaged in tourism today? As a sometimes self-critical tourist, it is easy to feel comforted by these overtures of acceptance. This tourism history becomes the "heritage" of the region, inviting you, the visitor, to become a link in a long chain of (to use another buzz-word) regional sustainability. You are not a scavenger, flooding to a place that has lost its industrial identity and replaced it with voyeurism, you are a fellow-traveler on a long road of appreciation for natural beauty and a spirit of hospitality.
View of the Grand Hotel Porch on Mackinac Island

On Mackinac Island, it is easy to feel like a re-enactor simply by crossing the straits.  The citizens of Mackinac Island, supported by their burgeoning tourism industry, created their own alternative historical trajectory by banning the automobile on the island in 1896. As a result, horses abound every summer, and a carriage tour business thrives. A bastion of the Mackinac Island tourist scene is the Grand Hotel which has been in continuous operation since 1887. The hotel boasts the longest porch in American (and probably the world) and a self-consciously old fashioned sense of hospitality and resort culture that includes evening dress-codes that call upon vacationers to wear coats and ties or dresses after 6:00 pm every evening. Inside the hotel, the walls of the basement level are decked with hundreds of original historical documents, from lease-letters to newspaper articles, old photographs and old menus.  These artifacts are posted in no particular order, and are rendered somehow even more inviting as a result.  This is a kind of family album collage provided by a hotel with the kind of soul created by years of continued use.

Arch Rock, Mackinac Island, Mich. (1900-1902); Detroit Public Library Publishing Company Postcard Collection, Courtesy of the New York Public Library
Arch Rock, Mackinac Island, Mich. (2012) photo by the author
For a more orderly portrayal of the history of the Grand Hotel, a visitor need walk only a few blocks to the Mackinac Island Art Museum where the special exhibition currently on display features artifacts and enlarged images from the same abundant collection on display within the hotel itself. I found myself particularly drawn to the menus and brochures from every era of the hotel's existence. I found myself comparing the 19th century menus favorably with the contemporary menus focused on local Michigan products and fresh produce and, with a "presentist" self righteousness, turning my nose up at the gelatinous dainties offered in the 1960s. The current issue of the Public Historian offers some great insights into "Food in Public History" both cautioning interpreters to focus on the cultural perceptions of the past and encouraging folks to help others connect with the "food ghosts" of a particular place. I would argue that Mackinac Island offers food ghosts as well as transportation ghosts and image ghosts. Perhaps in this one place there is more continuity than change.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Interpreting Two Centuries and Counting at Mackinac State Historic Parks

History is plentiful and comprehensive in and around Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. This will be the first of two posts that cover the historical character of the area, probably the more traditional of the two posts. (My second post will look at the more subtle history and interpretation of tourism in the area.)

View of the Straits of Mackinac from the Fort Michilimackinac Palisade Wall
To start, I have to rave about the organizational acumen of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. The Parks Commission is faced with no small task. It is in charge of two major historic forts, five historical buildings on Mackinac Island, an art museum, a lighthouse, a "discovery park" and the trails and natural features of Mackinac Island State Park. Together, these sites encompass almost three centuries of regional history and a   century and a half of administrative history. From its website to its admissions procedures, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are a model of public engagement, commitment to research, and preservation best practices.

Although this past week marked my second trip to Mackinac Island, it was my first time visiting more than just Fort Mackinac and the Mackinac Island State Park. Having driven south from Munising on Michigan's Upper Penninsula, my family and I decided to stop at the Visitors' Center under the Mackinac Bridge to learn about visiting Colonial Michilimackinac, about which we knew little. We were drawn in by the value of the triple choice combination ticket which granted us admission to both historic forts, the Mackinac Island Art Museum and the assorted buildings of historic downtown Mackinac Island for the normal price of admission to just two of the sites. Although my past experiences at Fort Mackinac were overwhelmingly positive, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the marriage of professionalism and accessibility that pervaded all of the sites we visited (we did not get to the Light House or the Discovery Park during this trip). 

View of current row-house reproduction and archeological dig at Colonial Michilimackinac
All of the Parks' historic sites are marked by a commitment to living history style interpretation.  For the sake of coherence, this necessitates an overall association with a particular time period (although museum exhibits tucked away in various corners can stretch the interpretive chronology). Colonial Michilimackinac is set in the 1760s, during British occupation and the height of the beaver fur trade which employed Chippewa and Ottawa tribesmen and French voyageurs and hivernants. The interpretive staff were incredibly friendly and informative, navigating the delicate balance between portraying a particular character and relating to the experiences of contemporary visitors.  The physical architecture of the fort is mostly reproduction, but reproductions are backed by an astonishingly comprehensive archeological program in partnership with Michigan State University and ongoing since the 1950s. The website boasts rich online exhibits about the archeological programs within the parks, and a subterranean exhibit beneath one of the traders' homes within the Michilimackinac fort showcases real excavated artifacts within multiple contexts. 

My husband, Matt, holding a reproduction musket in the Fort Michilimackinac Guardhouse
Most artifacts accessible to the public are reproductions, enabling the paradoxically authentic experience of interacting with objects from the past. 

On Mackinac Island, highlights of historical interpretation include early 19th century cooking demonstrations at the Biddle House and multi-media medical history exhibits at Fort Mackinac in addition to a band of merry, roving 1880s American soldiers who were responsible for the fort when it was briefly part of America's second national park

It's heartening to see such a healthy, thriving example of state-level historical interpretation.