Monday, December 16, 2013

Family restrooms deserve a history

Having taken two big trips so far with my husband and our baby son, I have grown highly appreciative of the "family restroom." The rest areas along the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes have lovely family restrooms, as does the Detroit International Airport. Changing a baby and managing multiple travel bags is no picnic, and I am grateful to have my husband's assistance, as I'm sure he is grateful to have mine.
My son, Leo, at the family restroom near the entrance of the McNamara Terminal at the Detroit International Airport

At the same time, it's amazing to me how something so logical can be so rare. Gender segregation remains the norm in this country, and, at least partially as a result, gender stereotypes.  In most places, if a changing table exists, it can only be found in the women's restroom. Problems are only compounded as children get older and different-gender parents or grandparents must choose whether to take children in the restroom with them or risk having them go into the other restroom without them. I can only imagine how challenging this system must be for transgender people.

It seems to me that the time is ripe for someone to write a history of public restrooms and gender segregation.  Public restrooms force individuals to confront gender questions every time they leave their homes. As public spaces, they are certainly not neutral, and they deserve to be examined with a critical eye.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Government and Business

Like most Americans, I spent the last couple weeks following the shut-down debacle with a mixture of bemusement and disappointment. It's hard to get excited about a reasonable end to an entirely avoidable crisis. Thinking about the history of government in the United States, it's hard not to wonder whether the legislative quagmire we find ourselves in today could have been avoided through systematic tweaks back in the days of the original constitutional convention. We find ourselves in a bad equilibrium state, and perhaps our founders neglected to see the ways in which voters and politicians would feed off of each other's fears and short-term desires, and the ways in which they would throw away traditions of respect in favor of procedural allowances.  That being said, this seems like the right time to post a video that was shared with me by the Online MBA organization, emphasizing the ways in which government and business do (and should) differ in how they are run. Perhaps now is the time to rethink how our government should be structured in order to allow it to solve problems. Our generation will not be able to keep kicking the can down the road.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Personal history: Annie's Ghosts and the writing of historical memoir

In the heady days immediately before and after the birth of my son, Leo, I picked up this year's Great Michigan Read, Annie's Ghosts by Detroit native Steve Luxenberg. Annie's Ghosts is billed as a "journey into a family secret," but it is also described as an exploration of early 20th century views of mental illness in the Detroit immigrant Jewish community. For that reason, it has been enthusiastically embraced by my synagogue, Congregation Kehilat Israel (KI) in Lansing, which is sponsoring a number of programs around the book in the fall. KI has also taken the book as inspiration for focusing on the theme of "personal history" for the coming year.

Reading this book, on its own merits and in the context of the birth of my son, I find myself thinking critically about the concept of personal history. Personal history, written in the form of a creative work of nonfiction or memoir is at once public history as well as private history. While the author digs into a theme of deep personal significance, there is an assumption that the resulting story will be of interest to a "greater public" as well. Luxenberg certainly makes this assumption, never shying away from analyzing his feelings about his investigation of his mother's mentally disabled sister who died in an institution, kept secret from his mother's husband and her children. In fact, Luxenberg assumes that the public will be fascinated as much by his investigative process as by the outcome of his investigation. At the same time, he assiduously avoids generalizing his research beyond the context of his family history. Luxenberg is fascinated by the personal aspects of his search (his emotional responses, questions about whether such a secret should be aired at all) and by the web of connections that enables him to find answers, a notably journalistic preoccupation.

As a historian, I am troubled by the lack of generalization in this book.  The narrative vacillates between a how-to manual of investigative journalism and a memoir that questions the meaning of familial relationships and shifting centers of control over information and story. These are interesting themes that every historian should be aware of when conducting research, but they feel hollow to me when they are not placed in a larger social context.  Without that, I often find myself asking, why should I care?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Victuals, Vehicles, and Violence at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Having a day to myself in Washington, D.C. last Friday enabled me to do something I've always wanted to do: spend an entire day at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Even with an entire day at my disposal, I didn't come close to seeing everything, or even to giving what I did see as much attention as it probably deserved. With some pleasant moments strolling along the artifact walls (yay! artifact walls!) to punctuate my day, I focused primarily on three exhibits: FOOD: The Exhibition, America on the Move, and The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. 

Food: The Exhibition opened only recently, in November 2012. Although Julia Child's kitchen had long played an important role in the museum's corner devoted to post-1950s, America, this new exhibit gives it pride of place and a great deal of context. Since I am currently working on a food exhibit, Lansing Eats! for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, I visited this exhibit hoping to draw inspiration for our much smaller, but similar, endeavor. Of course, with a national audience, Food can afford to look at trends in production, distribution, and consumption of food much more broadly than we will in Lansing. Given my general knowledge of the subject, I enjoyed the way in which the NMAH tackled topics from mass production and farm labor to grocery store technological innovation, to TV dinners and the Gourmet Ghetto. I only wish that the exhibit had included some kind of introductory text that summarized food culture in America prior to 1950, just to lay the groundwork for all the change evidenced throughout the exhibit. Many of the trends shown, from convenience foods to ethnic diversification, have their roots in much earlier waves of immigration and migration across the country.  Although I found the extensive section on the US wine industry a little bit baffling (why not beer?), I really enjoyed the open table section that formed the centerpiece of the exhibit. Who knew there have been quite so many variations on the food pyramid over the years?

Living within driving distance of The Henry Ford, probably the best transportation museum in the country, I was a bit surprised by just how well-done America on the Move  was within the NMAH. Aside from enormous (and therefore fun!) artifacts with truly impressive ADA compatibility (labels with audio readers in more than one language), I thought the exhibit did a great job of highlighting particular American cities that illustrated certain national trends within US transportation history. For example, New York City got its moment in the sun during the transition from a maritime economy to one based on connections between shipping, canals, and ultimately railroads. Greater Chicago was featured in a section about suburbanization, de facto segregation, and integration, and an enormous glowing map of Los Angeles dominated the concluding section about cities shaped by automobiles. I hope that the Smithsonian can invest in a continuation of this exhibit in the next decade to look at some of the challenging questions raised by our reliance on fossil fuels and long-range shipping networks for consumer goods around the world.  I'm hopeful the curators would find an appealing yet provocative way to delve into these challenging topics as well.

If you've hung in this long, dear reader, you probably understand what I felt like when I decided to visit The Price of Freedom toward the end of my day at the NMAH. I was tired and looking to skim, not read every single item. I had my eyes peeled for provocative statements and iconic artifacts. I found myself disappointed. My impression of the Americans at War exhibit from a rather rapid walk-through was that of a bland civics textbook overview of US military history. I appreciated the inclusion of so many conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the "Wars of Expansion" that included protracted conflicts with Native American tribes across the country. From Vietnam to "New American roles", I found myself unimpressed by the exhibit's use of towers of televisions and an enormous media wall to provide evidence of the truly intensive cultural debate that led to profound changes in how the US engages in conflicts around the world today. I kept wanting, but didn't find, examples of how the definition of "freedom" changed from conflict to conflict, and how Americans defined themselves in relation to other world powers, and how citizens and soldiers interacted and intermingled. The exhibit seemed to paint a picture of an unchanging, mostly unified, American protagonist, facing active conflicts at home and around the world. I know that exhibits are created by committees, but this one felt like it had been neutered in the process, left without a strong voice.

Back home, taking the time to look at the online version of the exhibition in more detail, I am much more impressed with the presentation, inclusion of detail, and even some elements of questioning (although I think this can still be done better) in the online version. The website is truly beautiful, easy to use, and showcases some highly resonant artifacts from POW rations to slave restraints, to a uniform worn by one of the first female combat troops during Desert Storm. With a little bit more room for historical context, informative videos, and uniformity of presentation, the web version does a better job of telling a pretty complex story, while the physical exhibit overwhelms with objects that pull too hard in some directions and not hard enough in others.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Musing on the Musee des Beaux Arts and Grande Bibliotheque in Montreal

Tomorrow marks the end of a two-week long circular trek along the East Coast, from Michigan to Montreal, down through New England to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to Virginia and Washington, DC, and then back to Michigan. Although we were in Montreal primarily to visit my brother for Passover, we had a few hours to spend touring the city. Two destinations worth highlighting are the Grande Bibliotheque and the Musee des Beaux Arts.

The Grande Bibliotheque combines the convenience of a lending library with a truly vast array of research resources in social and natural sciences, math, literature, history, music, and fine arts. The library is accessible directly via the metro, for those cold, cold Montreal winter days, and on a Sunday in March, it was packed with users of all ages. People were seated in sunny alcoves reading books and magazines, using computer terminals, browsing a large collection of CDs and DVDs and wandering in and out of the shelves in search of   new and classic materials in French and English. Although the library's archives and special collections were not open when we visited, I enjoyed the way they were separated from the general collections areas only by glass walls, seemingly designed to pique visitors' curiosity. Particularly intriguing objects could be found in display cases on every level, creating a continuum from circulation to limited use to preservation that seemed logical and non-contrived.

On the other end of the conoisseurship spectrum, the Musee des Beaux Arts, which I had visited previously a number of years ago, boasted some singular objects with virtually inscrutable labels and no greater narrative to speak of. In our visit, we stuck with the permanent or semi-permanent exhibits, opting not to visit the blockbuster Peru exhibit (about which we heard nothing glowing). In the museum's contemporary art building, angst seemed to be the order of the day with large-scale works in the conceptual art tradition. Unfortunately, we were not even given the benefit of artists' statements to point our way toward meaning. Instead, labels included only titles, the names of the artists or art-collectives (with possibly some general biographical information about the artsits) and, of course, the name of the donor/patron.

Giovanni Rufi, La Cova Sofa, 1973, on display at the Musee Des Beaux Arts
The design exhibits across the street were more to my taste, but I still found the labels and navigation supremely disappointing. I can't help but want to know more about how artistic traditions evolved in a historical context.  Why are particular materials used more at different times than others. What makes some designers break with functionality while others innovate to create objects of beauty or significance that can still serve the functions for which their inspirational objects were originally intended? Once I turned off these probing questions in my head and resolved to experience the exhibit with the only sense allowed to me, my eyes, I found a great deal to enjoy. Favorite pieces included the "Mama Chair" by an Italian designer, made to look like a large inviting lap complete with a very comforting-looking bust, and a "birds' nest" couch with some very soft-looking eggs nestled among brown fabric.
Gaetano Pesce, La Mamma Armchair and Ottoman, 1969 (examples of 1984) On view

It is a rather strange sensation to have to experience furniture entirely with your eyes. This was made even more acute to me given that this was the first museum I've visited since passing into the second trimester of my first pregnancy. Oh how inviting some of these chairs and cushions appeared to me!  Especially in a free museum that seemed to eliminate the availability of comfortable benches as a matter of course. I'm not sure if this was an intentional measure to prevent the homeless people from taking shelter within the museum's hallowed walls, but I truly felt this absence of comfort as the hours of walking and looking seemed to increase the forces of gravity exponentially.  It's useful to experience museums and other public spaces in different states of "fitness" in order to gain a clearer understanding of "the visitor experience" overall.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

History of a Company Town

One of those nifty things about growing up in New Jersey is that every era of U.S. history is represented within a few square miles. You can witness a reenactment of George Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve, and visit the homes of well-to-do 19th century academic luminaries in Princeton. Roebling, New Jersey, around a bend in the river about ten miles south of Trenton, provides a unique glimpse into the area's late 19th and early 20th century industrial heritage.

A view toward the Roebling plant's cable-looping infrastructure
John Roebling, a Prussian immigrant engineer with a knack for designing suspension bridges, brought a highly successful innovation to the United States: twisted wire cables. Roebling's new technology enabled him successfully to construct bridges over Pittsburgh's precarious gorges, and eventually landed him the commission of a lifetime: to build New York City's Brooklyn Bridge in the 1860s. Sadly, John Roebling died in 1869 of Tetanus contracted as a complication of a foot injury he sustained while surveying one of the bridge's towers. His son, Washington, with help from his wife, Emily, saw the bridge's construction to completion. Washington, along with his brothers, Ferdinand and Charles, went on to build their father's wire rope company into a thriving business.

In 1904, they opened the Kinkora Steelworks on privately owned farmland, and founded the company town of Roebling for factory workers and their families to live in. The Roebling Museum, a small gem of a museum housed in the former Kinkora gatehouse, tells the story of the Roebling family, the Kinkora Works, and the town of Roebling. The relationship among these three entities is deeply intertwined and fascinating. The museum does a stellar job of giving voice to the workers through videotaped oral history, artifacts, and images, explaining the engineering innovations that made possible many of America's most iconic bridges (including the Brooklyn Bridge, George Washington Bridge, and Golden Gate Bridge), and narrating the Roeblings' family story.

To most people familiar with labor history, the words "company town" send shivers up and down the spine. I immediately think of exploitative bosses and unfair credit systems in a company story turning free employees into indentured servants. Although planned and built with clear class delineations (basic laborers' row-houses closest to the noise of the factory, semi-detached homes a few blocks back for skilled workers, and large riverside homes for the foremen and their families), Roebling did not follow the more exploitative practices of its cousins. Although the company owned all the land and reserved the right to evict disruptive tenants from the factory and their homes in town, the workers were given access to stores, restaurants, and saloons accessible with cash, and every immigrant group was given space to build their own church and social clubs. To an immigrant used to squalid tenement apartments on the Lower East Side of New York City or similar, Roebling, with its green yards and decent-paying jobs, must have looked like a small slice of heaven. At least that's the story conveyed by the museum. Roebling's factory, which remained open for 70 years, epitomizes an industrial brand of Americana made possible by special circumstances of the 20th century.